Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Sin, Redemption, and Damnation
Insofar as Doctor Faustus is a Christian play, it deals with the themes at the heart of Christianity’s understanding of the world. First, there is the idea of sin, which Christianity defines as acts contrary to the will of God. In making a pact with Lucifer, Faustus commits what is in a sense the ultimate sin: not only does he disobey God, but he consciously and even eagerly renounces obedience to him, choosing instead to swear allegiance to the devil. In a Christian framework, however, even the worst deed can be forgiven through the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, God’s son, who, according to Christian belief, died on the cross for humankind’s sins. Thus, however terrible Faustus’s pact with Lucifer may be, the possibility of redemption is always open to him. All that he needs to do, theoretically, is ask God for forgiveness. The play offers countless moments in which Faustus considers doing just that, urged on by the good angel on his shoulder or by the old man in scene 12—both of whom can be seen either as emissaries of God, personifications of Faustus’s conscience, or both.
Each time, Faustus decides to remain loyal to hell rather than seek heaven. In the Christian framework, this turning away from God condemns him to spend an eternity in hell. Only at the end of his life does Faustus desire to repent, and, in the final scene, he cries out to Christ to redeem him. But it is too late for him to repent. In creating this moment in which Faustus is still alive but incapable of being redeemed, Marlowe steps outside the Christian worldview in order to maximize the dramatic power of the final scene. Having inhabited a Christian world for the entire play, Faustus spends his final moments in a slightly different universe, where redemption is no longer possible and where certain sins cannot be forgiven.
The Conflict Between Medieval and Renaissance Values
Scholar R.M. Dawkins famously remarked that Doctor Faustus tells “the story of a Renaissance man who had to pay the medieval price for being one.” While slightly simplistic, this quotation does get at the heart of one of the play’s central themes: the clash between the medieval world and the world of the emerging Renaissance. The medieval world placed God at the center of existence and shunted aside man and the natural world. The Renaissance was a movement that began in Italy in the fifteenth century and soon spread throughout Europe, carrying with it a new emphasis on the individual, on classical learning, and on scientific inquiry into the nature of the world. In the medieval academy, theology was the queen of the sciences. In the Renaissance, though, secular matters took center stage.
Faustus, despite being a magician rather than a scientist (a blurred distinction in the sixteenth century), explicitly rejects the medieval model. In his opening speech in scene 1, he goes through every field of scholarship, beginning with logic and proceeding through medicine, law, and theology, quoting an ancient authority for each: Aristotle on logic, Galen on medicine, the Byzantine emperor Justinian on law, and the Bible on religion. In the medieval model, tradition and authority, not individual inquiry, were key. But in this soliloquy, Faustus considers and rejects this medieval way of thinking. He resolves, in full Renaissance spirit, to accept no limits, traditions, or authorities in his quest for knowledge, wealth, and power.
The play’s attitude toward the clash between medieval and Renaissance values is ambiguous. Marlowe seems hostile toward the ambitions of Faustus, and, as Dawkins notes, he keeps his tragic hero squarely in the medieval world, where eternal damnation is the price of human pride. Yet Marlowe himself was no pious traditionalist, and it is tempting to see in Faustus—as many readers have—a hero of the new modern world, a world free of God, religion, and the limits that these imposed on humanity. Faustus may pay a medieval price, this reading suggests, but his successors will go further than he and suffer less, as we have in modern times. On the other hand, the disappointment and mediocrity that follow Faustus’s pact with the devil, as he descends from grand ambitions to petty conjuring tricks, might suggest a contrasting interpretation. Marlowe may be suggesting that the new, modern spirit, though ambitious and glittering, will lead only to a Faustian dead end.
Power as a Corrupting Influence
Early in the play, before he agrees to the pact with Lucifer, Faustus is full of ideas for how to use the power that he seeks. He imagines piling up great wealth, but he also aspires to plumb the mysteries of the universe and to remake the map of Europe. Though they may not be entirely admirable, these plans are ambitious and inspire awe, if not sympathy. They lend a grandeur to Faustus’s schemes and make his quest for personal power seem almost heroic, a sense that is reinforced by the eloquence of his early soliloquies.
More main ideas from Doctor Faustus
Comic characters: Robin, Rafe and Vintner
Stock characters and the Elizabethan theatre
The largely comic figures in the play are further examples of how certain characters cannot really be discussed in terms of personality, development or their consistent contribution to the action or thematic material. Most of the minor characters appear only in one or two scenes and, once they have fulfilled their function, they are dismissed from the play.
In theatrical productions, both in the sixteenth century and the present day, actors would ‘double' these parts, reappearing as different characters throughout the play. Certain actors in the Elizabethan theatre would have been celebrated for their comic abilities and it was often the case that playwrights would create parts with particular actors in mind, seeking to exploit their verbal and/or physical skills. Acrobatic actors would be especially useful in the farcical scenes, while quick and witty speakers would shine in the verbal exchanges. The fact that the play includes a part called ‘Clown' (see Characterisation > Wagner) may tell us something about the kind of parts the actor usually played in the company's productions.
Robin and Rafe
The dangers of magic
As in Scene 4 (the encounter between Wagner and the Clown), the comic scenes usually parallel and parody the more serious parts of the play. Robin and Rafe, who appear in Scenes 6 and 9, demonstrate what happens when magic texts fall into the hands of those who cannot fully understand what they are meddling with. Robin's ambitions for practising magic are fairly straightforward:
‘now will I make all the maidens in our parish dance at my pleasure stark naked before me' (Scene 6, 3-4).
He tempts Rafe in a similar manner:
‘if thou hast any mind to Nan Spit, our kitchen-maid, then turn her and wind her to thy own use, as often as thou wilt, and at midnight' (Scene 6, 24-26).
In one sense, these desires are limited in their scope by the boundaries of the world that Rafe and Robin inhabit. Thus, they serve as a contrast to the much wider aspirations initially entertained by Faustus. Yet they are in essence the same as Faustus' desire for a sexual relationship with Helen of Troy, even if their sexual fantasies extend no further than the fanciable young women in their village.
Clowning and satire
Their second scene together, in which they are joined by the Vintner (inn-keeper), contains some elaborate comic business with a goblet or drinking-cup. The trick of two people passing an object to one another while the third tries to catch one of them in possession of it is very familiar and is still used by comedians and clowns on stage, television and in circuses. Here, the goblet has added religious significance, since it was associated with the chalice used in the Catholic Mass, during which the wine was believed to turn into the blood of Christ (transubstantiation). The scene thus becomes another of the ways in which the play satirises the Catholic Church.
Comedy juxtaposed with tragedy
A final aspect of Scene 9 is the appearance of Mephastophilis himself – the only time he is seen in the play without Faustus. Robin's conjuring has been powerful enough to summon him. However, Mephastophilis is angry at being called by such unworthy creatures. He refers to them as ‘villains' (scene 9, 37) and ‘damned slaves' (39) and accuses them of presumption. As well as frightening them with fireworks, he turns them into animals as a punishment. Once again, an essentially comic scene serves a serious purpose, since these punishments anticipate what Faustus will suffer when the devils come to claim his soul.
All the comic characters, however brief their appearances in the play, make some contributions towards its serious overall intentions. This use of comic situations and sub-plots that echo or intensify the central action came naturally to Elizabethan dramatists – Shakespeare was particularly inventive in this respect. Even the darkest tragedies contain some comic elements and Elizabethan audiences expected and appreciated these contrasts of tone.
The term for the (often decorated) goblet / cup from which those attending Holy Communion drink the wine (sometimes mixed with water) which symbolises Jesus' blood.
The central religious service of the Roman Catholic Church, incorporating praise, intercession and readings from scripture. The central action is the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.
The conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ which is believed by some Christians to occur in the Eucharist or Mass.
1. All Christians worldwide. 2. The Church in the West until the Reformation. 3. The Roman Catholic Church.