Christopher Marlowe’s play, its genre an English tragedy of the sixteenth century, presents the tragic conflict of the Faustus theme in the tradition of medieval morality plays. There are two kind of conflict in the play: one between rival views of nature of evil and the other between the choice of good and the choice of evil. The first is at its sharpest in the contrast in the first acts between Faustus and Mephistopheles; the second, in the play, soliloquies. Faustus’ initial obstinacy makes him persist in a heroic view of evil and renders him incapable of moral reflection. The concepts of good and evil in these plays and their psychological implications reflect a historical background in which the church dominates the ethical and moral concepts of their time. Faustus defies society’s norms and embraces the devil with courageous desperation, fully aware of the inevitable consequences, but incapable of being satisfied with his human limitations. Faustus in his soliloquy says
“If we say that we have no sin
We deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us.
Why then, belike, we must sin,
And consequently die.
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.”
One of the most important and prominent themes in Doctor Faustus is by far the conflict between good and evil in the world and the human soul. Marlowe’s play set the precedent for religious works that were concerned with morals and suffering. In the play, Doctor Faustus is frequently accompanied by two angels, one good and one evil. Both spirits try to advise him on a course of action, with the evil one usually being more influential over his mind. These two angels embody the internal battle that is raging inside of Faustus. On one hand, he has an insatiable thirst for knowledge and supreme power; on the other hand, Faustus realizes that it is folly to relinquish heavenly pleasures for fleeting mortal happiness.
Although society is accustomed to believing that good will always prevails, evil gains the upper hand in Marlowe’s play. Innocent and often devout men are tortured at Faustus’s delight and command. He partakes in many pleasures with devils and is even shown the seven deadly sins in person. Thus, Faustus is depicted as doomed from the very beginning. Although he has moments of contrition, he quickly shoves aside thoughts of God and turns to evil. Marlowe attempted to express to his audience that while prayer and repentance are the paths to heaven, sin and mortal pleasure are very hard temptations to pass over.
Lucifer’s acquisition of Faustus’s soul is especially delightful for him because Faustus was once a good and devout soul. Even during his last moments on earth, Faustus curses himself for willingly burning the scriptures and denouncing God. In Doctor Faustus, Marlowe shows the reader that everything in the mortal world is a double-edged sword. In his never-ending quest for knowledge, Faustus exemplifies how even scholarly life can have evil undertones when studies are used for unholy purposes. Doctor Faustus’s miserable defeat against the forces of evil, within and without, enlightens the reader to beware a surfeit of anything.