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Doctor Faustus | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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

Doctor Faustus | Symbols



Books scattered throughout the play represent various avenues of learning as well as Faustus's attitude toward the knowledge and wisdom each offers. In Act 1 he peruses books representing traditional subjects of study during the Renaissance: logic, medicine, law, and theology. These books represent the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the medieval past. Tossing the books aside, Faustus rejects their subject matter and dismisses their value. What they offer is old-fashioned, too limited in scope, or something he has already mastered.

Faustus, hungry for new knowledge, picks up a book on necromancy, a branch of magic in which someone makes the dead appear in the form of spirits in order to manipulate the present or predict the future. This promise of hidden knowledge appeals to Faustus. Once he signs his pact with Lucifer, Mephastophilis gives him a better book, filled with spells and incantations, as well as the secrets of astronomy. astrology, and the natural sciences. However, neither book contains wisdom. As a result they represent Faustus's foolish entry into forbidden realms of study, where he is showered with knowledge while losing his soul. In a final act of despair, Faustus vows to burn his books, signaling that he means to give up necromancy. The wisdom of rejecting magic in favor of salvation does not come from a book but from the hard reality that magic has brought him to the doorstep of hell.


As symbols, the Good Angel and the Evil Angel personify the conflict between the opposing values of good and evil and represent the spiritual battle taking place for Faustus's heart and soul. The angels also symbolize Faustus's inner turmoil as he wrestles with his pride and ambition on the one hand and his conscience and fear of damnation on the other. The angels stand for the two warring aspects of his mind and as such engage in a perpetual debate. In Act 2, Scene 1 the Good Angel urges Faustus to "think of heaven and heavenly things" while the Bad Angel counters with "think of honor and wealth." Later, in Act 2, Scene 3, the Evil Angel is convinced that it is "too late" for Faustus to repent. The Good Angel retorts, "Never too late, if Faustus can repent." In a broader sense the two angels illustrate the dividedness of human nature, the internal tug-of-war between a human's noble and moral aspirations and that same human's ignoble and immoral passions.


In general blood is a symbol of life and life's connection to God—the divine source that animates the body. In Doctor Faustus it represents the doctor's soul, and thus his link to the devil, but also the only path to Faustus's salvation. In Act 2 Mephastophilis insists that the deed to Faustus's soul be drawn up in the doctor's blood, underscoring the blood's supernatural nature. It is blood that secures the link between Faustus and Lucifer as the doctor literally hands over the physical and spiritual essence of his divine nature to the devil. This causes Faustus's soul to be bound to hell. Yet while blood still courses through Faustus's veins, he lives and may therefore repent.

In his blood oath to Lucifer, Faustus says, "I cut mine arm, and with my proper blood / Assure my soul to be great Lucifer's." But his own blood acts independently of him. Midway through the writing of his pact with Lucifer, Faustus's blood congeals to the point where he cannot get enough to continue writing. The doctor has time to wonder what this portends and to ask, "Is [my blood] unwilling I should write this bill?" Then Mephastophilis provides hot coals that liquefy the blood once more. As the blood represents Faustus's soul, it appears that his soul is not yet damned but is fighting for survival. Something within Faustus is righteous enough to resist what the doctor is about to do by signing the pact. Throughout the play he must be convinced to keep his bargain. In Act 5 when Mephastophilis fears that Faustus may repent, he frightens Faustus into renewing his blood oath to Lucifer.

The sacred significance of blood appears at the end of the play and represents atonement through Christ. The old man pleads with Faustus to shed one drop of blood to mingle with tears of repentance, to save his soul. Later Faustus despairingly wishes he could "gush forth blood, instead of tears." As his death draws near he sees "where Christ's blood streams in the firmament." This alludes to the blood Jesus Christ shed on the cross to wash away the sins of the world. In other words Faustus is not yet beyond mercy and deliverance. All that is required is repentance and a blood oath to God.

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