Dr. Faustus

 Doctor Faustus

-  Christopher Marlowe

Dr. Faustus: A Tragedy of Renaissance Man

Discuss Doctor Faustus as a typical Renaissance Man.


"Dr. faustus is a tragedy of the renaissance and reformation ". Comment.


Discuss Doctor Faustus as a morality play.


 Discuss Doctor Faustus as a tragedy.


Elaborate summary of doctor faustus.


What is the main theme of Dr. Faustus?


What causes the tragic downfall of Doctor Faustus?


What is the meaning and significance of the words on Dr. Faustus' arm, "homo fuge; fly, O man!"?


What is the moral lesson that Marlowe tries to convey with Doctor Faustus? 


Usually the period after the Middle Age, or so called Dark Age, is known as Renaissance (rebirth); the period is regarded as transitional period; that is to say, a new worldview predominated in England. Reformation, explorations and new scientific developments highly influenced the mind of the English people. With the rise of Protestantism, for instance, faith and salvation was deemed to be a matter of individual’s direct transaction with God without the church’s intrusion. As a result, Protestantism is regarded to be an “extreme manifestation of Renaissance individualism”. However, humanism can be the most influential force in transforming the worldview of the Renaissance man.

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is a prominent Renaissance writer who received a Classical education in grammar schools and got his MA degree from the University of Cambridge. His Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus was a great success. One of the sources of his play is Faustian motif, implying a situation in which an ambitious person sells his soul (or surrender his moral basis) in order to achieve infinite knowledge and power for a limit life span. This tragedy shows the life-story of Dr. Faustus, a man of humble origin who has reach to the summit of all classical fields of study. Dissatisfied with limitations of all of these fields – including theology – he commits himself to evil and to the art of necromancy in exchange of his soul for twenty-four years to achieve infinite knowledge of the world and infinite power (especially for his country). Accordingly, Faustus abjures God ,in the hope of becoming something more than a man. At first, he has noble goals: he wants to gain more knowledge about the working of the world, its Cause, and he wishes to make his country the most powerful country in the world. As the time passes, instead of clinging to his noble power, he commit himself to some practical jokes and to the entertainment of aristocrats. What is at stake is that in his inner conflict between repentance and worldly desires, he always perceive the door to the salvation closed to himself, and consequently engrosses himself in the pleasures of the world. He sees himself damned and beyond God’s forgiveness. After twenty-four years, incapable of repentance Faustus finds himself exposed to eternal pain and Lucifer claims his soul. Considering this brief introduction, the objective of this study is to address Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus as the tragedy of the Renaissance man.

The play begins with the prologue announcing that this tragedy is not about an aristocrat or a man of high position but about Faustus, a man of humble origin and a scholar. He quickly received his doctoral degree. However, because of his self-conceit, of his Icarusian ambition for infinite knowledge, he “surfeits upon cursed necromancy” .

 Here, we can detect Faustus exemplifying a Renaissance man. He is a typical Renaissance individual who rises from nothing to power, but as the allusion Icarus’s myth and sin of gluttony – overconsumption of knowledge and power – foreshadows that the excessive ambition and hubris of the individual will lead to his downfall.

The first scene shows Faustus examining every field of knowledge. He has mastered all fields of study from philosophy to medicine. Even Theology has no answer for his insatiable desire for knowledge: he reads the Bible and reasons that all men are sinner. Therefore, disgusted with this logic, he turns to practice of magic. 

Faustus is very learned and confident in his intelligent, yet paradoxically his dismissal of all ordinary areas of learning is contingent upon his logic. In his blindness, he neglects what follows after the part he reads from the Bible: ‘the gift of God is eternal life’. This blindness to God’s grace and his inference that sin and hell are inevitable foreshadows his future inability to avoid sin and repentance. 

 Faustus seems to be a self-reliant individual in his abilities, yet ironically he still relies on the help of the others, Valdes and Cornelius. Faustus feels the limitation of human knowledge and its futility. That is why he turns to magic to discover power and knowledge. For Faustus, “necromantic books are heavenly”.

 Now that, Faustus is determined to increase his knowledge and power he summons Mephistopheles, Lucifer’s servant, to give him supreme power and knowledge in exchange of twenty-four years. After this span, Lucifer can claim his soul. The first appearance of Mephistopheles and Lucifer, and the terms of the deal are significant and ironical. Mephistopheles and Lucifer are symbols of excessive pride and of forbidden knowledge. When Mephistopheles appears to Faustus, he is ugly. It firstly implies that hell is a place of damnation and of horror and anything there is ugly. This should be a warning to Faustus. Faustus takes his first step towards his damnation as he renounces the Trinity and God, and appeals to the power of hell. What is significant here is that even hell has its own hierarchy as Mephistopheles says “I am a servant to great Lucifer”. Moreover, Faustus thinks it is his power of magic that made Mephistopheles obedient to him. 

Faustus’s first concern is to expand his knowledge about hell. Mephistopheles’s speech about Lucifer displays that his falls due to arrogance and pride and sin without the possibility of redemption. This foreshadows the fall of arrogant Faustus. Mephistopheles says that “threw [Lucifer] from the face of heaven”. It shows that Lucifer is less powerful than God. It shows transcendence beyond his position through the knowledge which Lucifer provides him is an allusion. In Renaissance World view, the universe is governed by the principles of law and order. Faustus has the illusion that he can cancel out this order of things and becomes a powerful god.  

 In different situations, Faustus considers turning to God and to repent, but ultimately he rejects the idea. For instance, in face of Good Angel and Bad Angel, he rejects the offerings of heaven and pursues honor and wealth which are offered by Bad Angel. Therefore, he leaves spiritual and moral issues and follows material desires of own, and the fact that he signs the document with his own blood stands for Faustus’s total commitment to aspire to earthly power to the exclusion of otherworldly matters. Therefore, we can consider Faustus a tragic hero whose hamartia is his blindness to the illusion of total power and knowledge. 

 After the deal with Lucifer is legalized Faustus’s first question is about heaven, hell and God. For Mephistopheles, everywhere that God is absent is Hell. On the other hand, Faustus rejects hell as being a fable. This shows Faustus’s skepticism and the fallacy of his logic. He has lost his senses; he does not understand that Mephistopheles is the obvious example of hell. Moreover, Faustus is blind to the fact that his noble requests are not fulfilled according to the terms of the pact: neither his desire for supreme knowledge, nor his other desires are fulfilled completely. 

In this final scene, Faustus is very close to repentance, yet Lucifer and Mephistopheles chastise him for this. To dissuade himself, he commands Mephistopheles to bring him “that heavenly Helen … whose sweet embracing may extinguish” the thoughts of repentance. He request Helen to make him immortal with a kiss. At the moment of death he desires transcendence through physical affair. It contrasts with his first wish to achieve transcendence through magic and power and knowledge. Faustus describes Helen the epitome of beauty and thinks that she can give him a soul, eternal life and salvation. It is ironic that Faustus thinks the Classical beauty can make him immortal through a kiss. He thinks with her he is in paradise. However, as Helen is an illusion, so Faustus’s desire is an illusion. This may be a criticism of the learning of humanists and Renaissance which decenter God from the worldly affair and sought transcendence from their position in the chain of being through classical education. By decentering God, by destabilizing the divinity, they decentered and destabilized the self too. This fact is shown by the attitude of the scholars who hear Faustus’s pact with the devil. They urge Faustus to repent because “God’s mercies are infinite’. To scholars knowledge is valuable but not at the cost of abandoning and rejecting God. 

The ending of the play is very crucial to this argument:

“My God, My god, look not so fierce on me!

Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!

Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer!

I’ll burn my books!—Ah, Mephistopheles!

At the moment of death Faustus is willing to burn his books. It symbolizes his willingness to abandon his desire for knowledge to be saved. However, it is late. The fact that Faustus is ready to burn his books shows the clash between Renaissance and medieval values. Thirsts for infinite knowledge (a Renaissance virtue) is incompatible with Christianity. Knowledge can Christian with fetters. Thus, Faustus admits the Christian view. He condemns the knowledge which he sought for. The chorus urges that one should set limits to the desire for knowledge. This means that one shouldn’t goes beyond the normal order of the things and the limitations of humanity. Therefore, Faustus’s downfall is due to his own ambition.


 Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus recounts the tragedy of Renaissance man. Dr. Faustus becomes the epitome of a Renaissance man who is disgusted with the medieval view of: a man who is passive in the world, a sinner man beyond redemption, a man without power who is under the control of his fate. However, transcending one’s position without gaining self-understanding and the knowledge of the world is impossible. Neither his desire for power is fulfilled, nor does the knowledge he seek is the solution. Faustus is disillusioned through the final moment epiphany (abandoning his books) when it is too late. This shows the Renaissance Fallacy: elevating man’s position by disregarding morality and decentering God and focusing on man’s abilities has a huge cost: the tragic downfall of Renaissance man to a place much worse than the position of the medieval man. Moreover, if this study addresses the origin of the reasons of the catastrophes of twentieth century, World Wars, to this fallacy: excessive reliance on man’s capacity.