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Doctor Faustus | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the motifs in Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus.

Doctor Faustus | Motifs



Supporting the theme of pride and ambition, the motif of aspiration draws attention to Faustus's failed goals as a master of magic. Before his study begins, the doctor muses over the "world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence" that will be his. He fantasizes that "a sound magician is a mighty god," and he will command spirits to gather for him all the treasures and secret knowledge in the world. He will be its emperor. Even the land and sea will obey his command when he joins the continent of Africa to Spain.

Once the pact with Lucifer is made, Faustus eagerly accepts an all-embracing book of knowledge from Mephastophilis. However, Faustus never even approaches fulfilling his lofty goals. Soon his search for knowledge is overshadowed by his misuse of power. His intellectual aspirations give way to baser desires for wealth, fame, and sensual pleasure. Mephastophilis makes quick use of these low impulses to keep Faustus enthralled and his soul shackled.

Power without Conscience

This motif supports the themes of knowledge over wisdom and good versus evil. Power wielded without conscience can be dangerous. The promise of wielding power free of conscience can corrupt the human heart. Faustus is a master of divinity, but he demonstrates early on that he lacks the goodness and wisdom necessary to handle power well. At the beginning of Act 2, before signing over his soul to Lucifer, Faustus briefly wonders if he is taking the right path. Should he "think of God and heaven" or "trust in Belzebub"? In a flash of self-awareness, he realizes that his "appetite" aligns more with serving Belzebub than with serving God. Without a twinge of conscience, he says that for the sake of gaining knowledge of the dark art of magic, he will "build an altar and a church [to Belzebub] / And offer lukewarm blood of new-born babes."

After signing away his soul, Faustus is granted the power he desires but is not instinctively driven by conscience to use the power wisely or for good. He neither improves himself nor the world with this gift but wantonly gathers fame and riches by performing magic tricks. He uses his power to humiliate anyone he pleases. With a glaring lack of conscience, he declares that for the love of Helen, he would see his own city of Wertenberg plundered. Faustus once imagined the dominion of magic stretching as far as his mind could conceive. The corrupting influence of power without conscience quickly reduces that grand vision to a repertoire of pointless magic stunts.


Representing damnation, despair, and the fall from God's grace, hell is a dominant motif in Doctor Faustus. In Christian terms the existence of hell is a result of humankind's original fall from grace through sin. It is a place of final judgment for the wicked. For Lucifer, hell is his domain, and as Mephastophilis explains, he gathers souls to "enlarge his kingdom" (Act 2, Scene 1). For the damned, it is a place of eternal death. Mephastophilis describes hell as a physical place "under the heavens" and "within the bowels of these elements / Where we are tortured and remain forever." He also describes a psychological or spiritual hell—a state of permanent separation from God and therefore from the "eternal joys of heaven" and "everlasting bliss." Though a doctor of divinity, Faustus insolently states, "I think hell's a fable," yet the idea of hell persistently intrudes on his dark pursuits and troubles his mind. Ultimately Christopher Marlowe allows the true nature of hell to remain ambiguous, but its reality is undeniable as Faustus cries out in the end, "Ugly hell, gape not!" before being dragged off by devils.

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