Doctor Faustus is probably Christopher Marlowe’s greatest achievement. The work features some of his greatest poetry. The play presents a fascinating exploration of religious observance–without any easy answers. Should we consider Dr. Faustus an exemplary figure who challenges the heavens? Or is the play a cautionary tale about the loneliness of a man who cuts himself off from his God? Powerful and epic–as well as providing more than a little knock-around to delight the groundlings–Marlowe wrote a fantastic drama in Doctor Faustus, which began a legend.
The play begins with Faustus along in his study. He is a man of much learning, but one who has come to the end of his thirst for knowledge (he no longer believes in any of the human science). He turns, instead, to necromancy, and summons the devil–who comes to him in the form of Lucifer’s messenger, Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles offers Faustus a deal: unimaginable magical power in return for his soul.However, the devil cautions Faustus against taking the deal. He tells him of the horrors of hell, nonetheless the tragic exile of no longer being in God’s grace. Faustus ignores Mephistopheles advice and takes the deal (although he considers repentance before signing his name in blood, he lust for power gets the better of him).The next section of the play goes on a number of journeys. He flies into the skies and sees the heavens. However, the audience soon realizes that, despite the enormous powers Faustus has been given, he doesn’t use them to any good end. He travels to Rome and plays a trick on the Pope (a dig at the Catholics within England who, at the time of writing, were being oppressed). He then plays a number of tricks to impress the Duke of Vanholt, who showers him with praises.
Finally, the day comes when Faustus must give up his soul to Lucifer. He summons the legendary beauty, Helen of Troy to be his concubine, but she comes in the form of a horrible demon. Then the clock begins to chime midnight, and Faustus–horrified by what awaits him–determines to repent. However, it is too late. God’s grace cannot save him. Devils arrive on stage and carry him off to the underworld, leaving only his dead body behind.Written in a time when religion was all-powerful, Faustus can be seen as both an affront to the notion of God, or a Christian tragedy. Marlowe seems to be very much sympathetic towards the figure of Faustus–who many think was based on Marlowe himself. He paints him as an Icarus-like figure who flies to high towards the sun of human attainment and who is tragically dashed to the ground. Faustus is a brilliant man who cannot be content with a man’s limitations.However, at the same time, the middle section of the play seems to suggest that ultimate power cannot be wielded with any kind of certainty. The great man that Faustus was, becomes eaten up by performing simple magic tricks and entertaining lesser men than himself. Finally, in the few moments before his death, Faustus regains some of the grandeur that made him a great man, and determines to repent. However, despite Christian doctrine, this repent seems to mean nothing, for God’s forgiveness does not come.
As well as being a great story (the story seems to have been re-written for every generation–for example by Goethe and Thomas Mann), it also has some of the most exquisite poetry in the English language. It is from this play that the famous description of Helen of Troy as “the face that launched a thousand ships” originates.What’s more, it deals with its central character with grandeur and pathos which perfectly matches the elevated themes. The exchanges between Faustus and Mephistopheles, as well as being brilliantly written, are also both touching and powerful. We truly see a man who is stepping over the precipice into tragedy and the sadness of his reluctant tempter who leads him down to hell.Brilliant, powerful and affecting, Doctor Faustus is a feast for the ear. When performed on stage, the play is a spectacle not to be missed. It is one of the greatest plays of the Elizabethan (or any other) era.