Doctor Faustus | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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

Doctor Faustus | Themes


The themes of Doctor Faustus comment upon each other to help readers explore the nature of the inner conflict the play's title character experiences. Each theme incorporates the others to create a portrait of a brilliant, power-hungry man who sells his soul to Lucifer and then struggles to decide whether he can still save his soul.

Knowledge over Wisdom

There is an important distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is the accumulation of facts, information, and skills through education and experience. It is only a tool and offers no insights into the meaning of life. Wisdom comes from the useful synthesis of facts, information, and skills into a deeper and more truthful understanding of life and relationships.

In the true spirit of the Renaissance, Doctor Faustus thirsts for knowledge. In his unbridled pursuit of it, he rejects what may be learned from even the wisest men of the past, specifically the brilliant Greek philosophers Aristotle and Galen and the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who rewrote Roman law. Though he is a doctor of divinity, he also dismisses what theology and the Bible have to teach. Impatient and dissatisfied with the past's accumulated knowledge, he craves to know more. This quest leads to his downfall primarily because Faustus has not acquired—and does not search for—wisdom.

As Faustus demonstrates, knowledge without the moral guidance of wisdom can be used for good or evil. He looks to the forbidden knowledge of necromancy, the practice of speaking to the spirits of dead people, to fulfill his desire to know more than traditional sources of knowledge can teach him. He is further seduced by the power and wealth magic promises. His desire to push the boundaries of human knowledge is without guiding wisdom. Nor does he acquire wisdom along the way. His grand boasts of all he will do with his newly acquired dark knowledge of magic fizzle into mean-spirited pranks and self-serving tricks to gain fame and money. He discovers no universally applicable truth. He is never wise enough to heed the council of the Good Angel, the old man, or even Mephastophilis. When devils at last cart him off to his doom, he has a head full of facts and information. Too late he acquires the insight that might have saved him: hell is real, and he has damned himself to it.

Pride and Ambition

The theme of pride and ambition is linked to the theme of knowledge over wisdom. The synthesis of these two themes has an intoxicating effect on Faustus. His intellectual pride, or arrogance, makes him impatient with even the most revered authorities of the past, such as Aristotle, a philosopher, Galen, a philosopher and physician, and Justinian, a specialist in law. Faustus's ambition is to know more than all their accumulated knowledge and wisdom can teach him. For this reason, he turns to the study of magic. He fantasizes that by mastering this field of study, he could become a god and command a vast realm, limited only by his imagination. He never considers using his knowledge for any kind of greater good.

In his pride and ambition, Faustus has a kindred spirit in Lucifer, whose history mirrors his own. In the beginning Lucifer, the highest ranking angel in heaven, was full of wisdom and perfect in his beauty. But he became filled with pride and desired to be God, instead of a servant to God. For his pride and insolent ambition, God threw Lucifer and his followers out of heaven. Lucifer went on to establish his own kingdom: hell. Like Lucifer, Faustus's first great sin is pride. It leads to his rejection of God, his pact with the devil, the many additional sins he commits, and his final damnation.

Like Lucifer's, Faustus's pride-driven ambitions are never realized. Worse, they are reduced to something trivial and low. Lucifer uses his power to corrupt and add souls to his hellish kingdom. Faustus uses his power to play pranks, con simple folk, and gain fame by entertaining royalty with magic. He never uses his power to better himself or the world, nor does he fulfill his initial desire to rule Earth. In fact, his conjuring tricks are, at best, impressive versions of those pulled off by Wagner, Rafe, and Robin.

Damnation versus Salvation

Throughout the play, Faustus finds himself at the crossroads of eternal death and eternal life: damnation and salvation. Damnation is eternal separation from God. Salvation is a merciful gift of God to one who repents and asks forgiveness. Sin, an immoral act that violates divine law, is the defining factor that leads to one state or the other, depending on the relationship of the sinner to their sin. If a person shows repentance—appropriate remorse and sorrow for their sins—salvation is still possible. If not, damnation is inevitable.

In Act 1 Faustus's failure to consider both sides of this equation initiates the path to his doom. Based on an incomplete reading of a Bible verse from the book of Romans (6:23), he falsely reasons that sinful humans are destined for eternal death. Therefore, his only escape may be through pursuit of magic, as "a sound magician is a mighty god." Faustus overlooks the second half of the verse, which emphasizes salvation and God's offered gift of eternal life. The doctor concentrates on the half that justifies the path to damnation he yearns to pursue. As a consequence he will struggle with ideas of repentance and salvation throughout the rest of the play.

Mephastophilis makes it clear in his descriptions of hell's torments that defying God is the road to eternal suffering. However, the Good Angel and the old man make it equally clear that Faustus can save himself if he will repent and accept God's mercy. As he tries to decide between damnation (sticking to his deal with the devil) or accepting the "gift ... of eternal life" (by showing proper repentance to God), Faustus is forced to question his character and motivations, often at the expense of his lust for power and his fantasy of his own superiority. Yet once he has sealed the deal with Lucifer, Faustus audaciously continues down the path to his damnation. He seems committed to his doom, ultimately unwilling or unable to alter his chosen course.

Destiny versus Free Will

The theme of destiny versus free will is related to that of damnation versus salvation. Faustus appears unable to repent. Even in moments of greatest despair, when he teeters on the brink of repentance, he ultimately pulls back and renews his allegiance to Lucifer, assuring his doom. Too late he renounces pursuit of magic in the last line of the play with a final, desperate cry, "I'll burn my books." Playwright Christopher Marlowe uses Faustus's apparent helplessness to explore the idea of predestination posed by French-born Protestant theologian John Calvin. Calvin reasoned that God, being omniscient, knows from the outset who will be saved and who will not. Therefore, human action and choice are not the keys to salvation. That end is predetermined. Whatever action or choice a human makes has been set up in advance by God. This suggests that no matter how free Faustus seems in his choice to pursue magic or reject redemption, he is simply playing out a script already written. His natural defiance and rebellion guide him to fulfill his destiny.

On the other hand Marlowe also suggests that Faustus may have a choice. On numerous occasions in the play, he considers the possibility of asking God to forgive his sins, allowing him to change his spiritual path from damnation to one of salvation. The Good Angel, the Bad Angel, Mephastophilis, the old man, and other characters chime in to encourage him to save himself or give in and go to hell. Faustus himself goes back and forth, until it is too late. The question remains: is Faustus helplessly driven by destiny or doomed by his own poorly exercised free will? Marlowe provides no definitive answer but weaves the two possibilities into his play. However, to believe that Faustus has no choice denies the more pitiable aspects of his character. The doctor's intelligence, skepticism, and deeply human desire for knowledge incite choices and actions that anger heaven and fate him to be destroyed.

Good versus Evil

The push-and-pull conflict between good and evil is a motivating force throughout Doctor Faustus. Faustus personally embodies the concepts of good and evil. As a theologian, he represents the good or spiritually uplifting study of divinity. However, he abandons theology to pursue forbidden knowledge, falling prey to sin. His noble intentions for acquiring power through magic soon give way to fancy tricks bought with his soul. Whenever he wavers in his commitment to evil, Mephastophilis finds it easy to tempt him back from the good of repentance by appealing to his baser nature. Whether it's a book of hidden knowledge or the beautiful Helen of Troy, Mephastophilis knows just what to give Faustus to hold on to his soul. Lucifer, too, knows how to beguile Faustus and quiet his conscience. He invokes visions of the Seven Deadly Sins, to which Faustus exclaims, "Oh, this feeds my soul."

Every prick of conscience expressed by Faustus signals a new skirmish. Faustus is mentally and spiritually torn by desire and fear: desire for salvation and desire for unholy knowledge; fear of damnation and fear that it is too late to repent. This conflict is embodied by the Good Angel and the Evil Angel. They appear at times when Faustus seems close to renouncing magic and asking God's forgiveness for his defiance and heresy. The two angels act as counselors, offering advice, warnings, and arguments intended to persuade the doctor toward salvation or damnation.

Other characters echo Faustus's inner struggle as well. In Act 5 three scholars beg Faustus to conjure the spirit of Helen, the world's most beautiful woman. He complies, and they enjoy it. Soon after, the same men shift gears instantly when he admits to them how he has sold his soul to Lucifer. Now they offer to pray for Faustus,"that God may have mercy upon [him]," but it is too late. Mephastophilis is perhaps the most surprising representation of this theme. While as Lucifer's minion he is clearly a servant of evil, he is a demon with feelings and the occasional impulse for good. He devotedly serves Lucifer, but he is tormented by his separation from God. He scouts for souls to add to hell's population, but in Act 1 he warns Faustus to "leave these frivolous demands, / Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!" With this unexpected mix of good and evil, Mephastophilis breaks the mold of the traditional fiendish villain.

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