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Doctor Faustus | Prologue | Summary

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Summary

Introducing the play, the chorus announces that no tale of warfare, romance in a king's court, or heroic deeds will be presented. Instead the audience will witness the story of Faustus, a common man of low birth from a town called Rhodes, in Germany. Coming of age, Faustus went to live with relatives in Wertenberg, attended the university, and studied theology. He excelled in his studies and soon earned his degree along with the title of "doctor." Then pride and ambition led him down the path of black magic. Like mythological Icarus who soared too near the hot sun on wings of wax and feathers, Faustus went too far in his pursuit of limitless knowledge.

This man, the chorus concludes, feeds upon and craves what magic has to offer. He now sits in his study.

Analysis

Christopher Marlowe's use of a chorus to introduce the play reflects the Renaissance era's deep interest in classical Greek drama. In that tradition, the chorus is a group of actors that, with singing, dancing, and choral odes, describe and comment on the play's unfolding plot. They also serve as the voice of the everyday citizen passing judgment on the tragedy playing out before them. As in Doctor Faustus, this tragedy would likely spring from the protagonist's defiance of the gods and the limitations their divine laws impose on humankind.

Over time the role of the chorus decreased in Greek drama. The group provided less commentary and was less important to the plot. Eventually, the choral interludes became a pleasant diversion for playgoers to enjoy between acts. During the Renaissance the dramatic role of the chorus was revived, but its participants were reduced to a single person, as in Doctor Faustus.

Marlowe's chorus introduces Doctor Faustus, sketches out his personal history, and states that he is doomed by pride and ambition. Again, Marlowe—through the chorus—draws on the tradition of Greek mythology, comparing Faustus's downfall to that of the boy Icarus. The boy's father, Daedalus, makes him a pair of wings from feathers and wax. He warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, as the heat will melt the wax. Forgetting his father's wise warning, Icarus recklessly flies higher and higher. The wax melts, the feathers scatter, and Icarus falls to his death. Similarly, Faustus will fly too high and be destroyed for it.

Besides looking back to antiquity, the prologue spotlights the humanistic values of the Renaissance that the play will explore. In contrast to the Middle Age's God-centered view of existence, the Renaissance placed the human at the center of importance. Humanists stressed the individual's potential for self-direction, goodness, and rational existence without divine oversight. The chorus states that Faustus, in his self-conceit, will turn away from "heavenly matters of theology" to focus upon "cursèd necromancy." This pursuit involves speaking with the dead in order to predict the future. As the chorus states, he prefers this to "his chiefest bliss," meaning his hope of salvation—the deliverance from sin. And so the stage is set for a confrontation between a Renaissance man who rejects God's authority and the Middle Ages belief that God's laws govern all and must be obeyed.

This Renaissance emphasis on the individual inspires another break with medieval tradition, whose literature celebrated historic, saintly, or heroic figures. In Doctor Faustus the chorus makes it clear that the audience will be watching a play not about great or legendary figures, but about an ordinary man. This idea resonated with a Renaissance audience that believed in the potential and value of the everyday human.

In the later B-Text version of the play, the university where Faustus studies is called Wittenberg.

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