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Doctor Faustus: Analysis and Plot of the Play

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As time passes, our morals and values change. This becomes apparent as we look back into human history throughout different cultures. This become apparent as we notice in our own lives that values that suited you as a child change as you become a young adult, form relationships and make your own path into the world. What made sense when you were single can turn out to contradict itself when you get married or have children. Even when you retire you probably won’t understand your values during your parenting years. Furthermore, moral beliefs and values sometimes change rapidly over time, not just within the individual, but also within the general public. Hence, nowadays morality and religion often seems to be questioned more rather than accepted into a good or bad category. Some actions can be explained as a punishment for some moral misdemeanour, such as following the wrong religion, worshipping a false god, or performing sacrificial practices the wrong way. All things considered, many themes remain the same across the years, to be sure, but not all of them do. On a larger scale based off of morality, Christopher Marlowe made it clear that in his play Dr. Faustus, sins would be considered justifiable or reasonable in different eras of society.

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Dr. Faustus takes place in 16th century Europe in multiple locations. However the most notable of these locations would be Faustus’ study in Wittenberg, Germany. This is where most of his deep thinking occurs; moreover, it makes sense for a majority of the tale to unravel itself in the private space that’s important to Faustus as the symbol of his profession. For that reason, it becomes an important part of the play considering the fact that the characters bring about important theological questions regarding the universe, predestination, salvation and sin.

Similar to many playwrights during the Elizabethan Era, much of the details of Christopher or Kit Marlowe’s life are known; however, historians have pieced together the story of the infamous playwright who influenced William Shakespeare.

His life began in Canterbury, England to John and Catherine Marlowe in 1564. Due to his early signs of brilliance, Marlowe was awarded the Archbishop Parker Scholarship to Corpus Christi College at the University of Cambridge. Later, he received a Bachelor of Arts, and under his scholarship, he was assured three years of further study if the scholar intended to take holy orders. After much controversy due to Marlowe whereabouts during his second year, he earned a Master of Arts in 1587. During his absence, Marlowe served England, and it is speculated that he was a secret agent for Sir Francis Walsingham’s intelligence service. Even though there is no evidence, the letter explaining his leave discussed Marlowe’s work for the government. To start his career, Marlowe wrote plays with other writers like Thomas Watson Thomas Kyd.

Although the London theatre scene only witnessed four of Marlowe’s works, his legacy as a playwright was cemented by the reactions of the audience to these plays. Because of Tamburlaine, Marlowe received recognition and acclaim, which was his start to fame. The rest of his plays were not published until after his death in 1593. Moreover, his most notable is The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. He had lived through and wrote the play during the English Renaissance, which explains why the play has much to say about the transition from a more medieval society to the Renaissance. The play also provides a mocking critique of normal Church customs and makes fun of Catholic rituals. This play exists in a corrupt form, for there are two distinct versions, causing controversy.

The play takes off with Dr. Faustus who is a highly skilled German scholar that holds a vast amount of knowledge. Unsatisfied with the regular everyday forms of understanding, such as law, logic, and medicine, Faustus decides to take an interest in learning necromancy. His friends, Valdes and Cornelius, begin to teach him magic, which he uses to summon a devil named Mephistophilis, who is also known as a servant of Lucifer. Faustus made a decision to offer his soul in exchange to have Mephastophilis and an unlimited supply of knowledge and power for twenty-four years. Mephistophilis had to return to Faustus with a contract for his soul, which Faustus signs in his own blood. Once Faustus signed the contract, some words were revealed on his arm, which caused him to question his choice. It spurred up thoughts into Faustus’ head about damnation from God and Heaven. Mephistophilis comforts Faustus by bestowing him gifts and spell books to read. Later into the story, Faustus starts having multiple questions about the world which Mephistophilis answers until Faustus brings up a question regarding who created universe. This brings up another instance where Faustus has doubts about his decision. To put a halt into Faustus’ contradictory thoughts, Lucifer and Mephistophilis brought in the seven deadly sins in human form to dance for Faustus. From this point Faustus made use of his new power which soon was heard of throughout the world.

Mephistophilis eventually takes Faustus on a chariot ride through the heavens and into Rome, where Faustus harasses Pope Adrian for his passing judgment on a rival pope by making himself invisible, stealing the pope’s food and then smacking him. Through this infamous behavior he gets invited to meet the German Emperor, Charles V. While at the emperor’s palace Faustus conjures up an image of Alexander the Great which immensely impresses the emperor. Next, he travels to England, where he sells an enchanted horse to a horse dealer. When the man rides his new horse over water, it turns into a bale of straw. The Duke of Vanholt soon heads about this and invites Faustus to visit him and the duchess.

As the end of his contract approaches, Faustus begins to fear his nearing death. An angel in the form of an old man encountered Faustus and attempting to persuade Faustus to repent and return to God. Faustus then sends Mephastophilis to attack the old man and make him go away. Faustus soon started to run out of time and become filled with dread. This causes him to confesses his immoral actions to a group of his colleagues, who vow to pray for him. On Faustus’ final day he becomes filled with fear and regret. Out of so much stress he asks for God’s mercy but it is too late and once midnight hits many devils come to Faustus’ room to retrieve his soul to complete the contract.

Dr. Faustus’ tragic downfall has been caused from a series of events which would be seen differently from the medieval point of view. Based on how much the Church was incorporated within the everyday lives of the people and multiple empires, Faustus would immediately be excommunicated and most likely be put to death. The medieval age within English history is seen as a very religious time, where Christianity gave a stern, direct identity and purpose in life. The concurring belief of heaven, hell, and final judgement was an everlasting aspect of daily life—as well as the recurring fear of sin and damnation from heaven.

An instance in the play where these ideas are supported is when Faustus becomes pervaded with a sense of fear and regret due to the deal. He ends up speaking in the form of a soliloquy and exclaims, “My heart is so hard‘ned I cannot repent. Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven, but fearful echoes thunder in mine ears ‘Faustus thou art damn’d!’” (Marlowe, 25) In this statement, Faustus understands that his actions are to be seen as blasphemous and unforgivable. He knew already that it was greatly uncommon and forbidden to speak against the name of the Church, however his denouncement of the faith and opposing actions created an unacceptable persona for himself. Marlowe created a wide perspective of contempt toward Catholicism to criticize established religion in general, which tests multiple frequently held views, especially regarding forgiveness and salvation.

According to Cliffs Notes, “At the time of this play, there was a conflict in many people’s minds, including Marlowe’s, as to whether or not to accept the medieval or the Renaissance view.” The values of the Renaissance portrays a transition in a handful of ways from reliance on the power of a religious form of authority to reliance on the individual. Humanist scholars during the Renaissance, recalibrate their studies on the individual rather than relying on Scriptures or the values of the church. Education flourished and society changed in order to create multiple opportunities for people to rise up, appreciate their own hard work and achieve their goals.

All things considered, Faustus’ undertakings can also be interpreted from a Renaissance perspective where his actions are conducive to him engaging into a determination to reach enlightenment. The most important desire of a person during the Renaissance can be portrayed in Dr. Faustus. He has an unmatched fetish for knowledge and power for which fuels his ambition to make use of his knowledge of necromancy. In the very beginning of the play Dr. Faustus is found considering the importance of various subjects which he may study. Faustus ends up rebelling against the values of medieval knowledge and disregards any of the known limitations through which humanity has followed. This can be supported where he states, “Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires. O what a world of profit and delight, of power, of honour, of omnipotence is promised to the studious artisan!” (Marlowe, 9) And for this, Faustus signs a contract to gain knowledge and power. From the Renaissance perspective Faustus desires to grow higher into a state of enlightenment and rise to greater achievements. Simply, Faustus already believes he is great and exceeds in normal human concepts. He is willing to lose his place in heaven in order to reach his goals.

Throughout the different perspectives shown in the play, Christopher Marlowe provides a sense of existentialism through Faustus’ conflicts. Existentialism is a philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Faustus displays various aspects of existentialism through his ideas, words, and actions, setting the mood throughout the story. Faustus expresses his confusion of his purpose in the world when he states, “Why should I die then, or basely disappear? I am resolv’d: Faustus shall ne’er repent.” Faustus’ understanding of life itself does not meet his standards due to the amount of knowledge he’s already obtained. This gives him a new outlook towards reaching a position in the world where he feels most comfortable taking no notice of the extremity of the consequences which lie ahead. Eventually, Faustus starts coming to a realization as his end is coming to a close, knowing that his misdeeds are taking a toll for what it’s worth. Faustus does become dreadful of his end, however, he acknowledges the evils of his past and purpose he was set out for.

Nowadays people tend to feel the need to justify their conduct with some form of background. Daily faith in Christ and Judgement have not diminished, but our normal understanding of it has been altered. Again, with the changing of views occurring throughout different eras of human history, Faustus could have a label regarding as to why his actions have been committed. Seeing it from this point of view, it becomes an attempt to give leeway on the seriousness of his acts. Normally people know that what they’re doing is wrong and is condemning them. However, naturally they fall into temptation, causing them to like what they’re doing and become determined to do it anyway.

Faustus can be seen having this conflict with himself whenever the Good and Evil angels appear. Hence, it would lead up to scenes where Faustus regrets the acts he has committed. Yet, Mephistophilis would appear and persuade him not to break the deal and convince him by restating how much knowledge and power he’s acquired. Clearly, in Faustus’ heart he knew the decisions he had made was wrong, however, he’s been convinced that devotion to obtaining more knowledge and power is more valuable than salvation with God.

Dr. Faustus has been considered Christopher Marlowe greatest masterpiece providing multiple different perspectives to which the book can be interpreted. Faustus deals in a most controversial way with religious conflicts and issues regarding faith during the rise of Luther’s Reformation. For this there is a connection between Dr. Faustus and religion. It gives a coexistent vision on some of the issues revolving around faith and religion that were current at the time it was written, for example, how one was to claim and receive repentance and forgiveness.

Dr. Faustus has a strong connection with the changes in thought brought about by the rise of Renaissance era humanism in the sixteenth century. Faustus is very smart and values power and individualism, bringing light to the importance of self which was vigorously highlighted throughout the Renaissance and humanism. Furthermore, they emphasized mankind over the supernatural and God. The importance of faith and religion became less serious compared to previous centuries. People had become used to seeking happiness through physical means rather than relying on looking for salvation with God. 

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