Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Somehow, I managed to make it all the way through my years studying English Literature without ever studying Doctor Faustus. In fact, until the year before last, I hadn’t studied any Marlowe at all. The Complete Plays of Marlowe has been sat on my bookshelf ever since I finished my essay on Tamburlaine the Great, so recently I decided that it was time to get to grips with Doctor Faustus, if only to better understand its cultural significance.

I was already familiar with the broad plot of Doctor Faustus, despite never studying the text itself. It follows the story of an academic who feels he isn’t valued to the extent he should be; he does not want to simply be valued as earthly kings and wise men, but on the level of a god. He gets his opportunity to do this through dark magic, as he summons the spirit Mephistopheles to help him achieve his goal. The catch? He has to sell his soul to Lucifer in order to have the spirit’s help. The play is a typical Morality play, with the epilogue warning the audience not to ‘practise more than heavenly power permits’ (Epilogue, line 8) and indicating that Faustus’ downfall was that he was trying to be God. Given that it is generally accepted that Marlowe was in fact an atheist, this is an interesting message for the narrative to end with and I’m sure it is one which academics have discussed in much more detail than I could.

Marlowe builds the tension strongly throughout the play, as Faustus travels the world and receives all the renown he desired at the beginning. The audience is aware that the Faustus is heading towards destruction, since this is a famous Tragedy, so for much of the play the audience is anticipating how it is all going to go wrong. There have been critics who have cited this middle section as aimless and full of lost momentum; I would mostly disagree with this, since I found this to be the more intriguing part of the narrative. As the audience sees Faustus receiving everything he desired, Marlowe also allows glimpses of the dissatisfaction that comes with this. The discourse between Faustus and the angels reveals the cracks underneath the façade of success which Faustus presents to the rest of the world.

That being said, I have to say that I am not the biggest Marlowe fan; I find his writing style fairly disjointed and difficult to follow. The same holds true with Doctor Faustus. Whilst the middle section builds tension effectively as far as Faustus’ character development is concerned, the side plots bear very little relation to the overall narrative as a whole. Faustus’ friends, the scholars, have little to do other than make comment on the already apparent change in Faustus, and the plot with Robin and Rafe is completely isolated from the rest of the narrative.

I also found that there was a disappointing lack of female characters, with no speaking female parts throughout the play. Whilst it could be argued that this is because the play is a product of its time, when the majority of actors were male, it is hard not to contrast the number of female characters in Doctor Faustus with the greater number present in other plays of the time, Shakespeare being the obvious notable example. I had a similar concern with Tamburlaine the Great, in which I felt the female characters were poorly represented and developed in such a male-dominated narrative.  

Overall, this is one of those texts which I was glad to have read simply for better understanding the relevant cultural references. However, as is always the case with drama, I wonder whether I would enjoy Doctor Faustus more if I saw a production of it rather than just reading the script. It is harder to imagine Marlowe being performed than Shakespeare, since the stage directions are sparser, but perhaps part of this play’s popularity has to do with the freedom for directors to adapt the text in different ways. In my opinion, Doctor Faustus is definitely worth a read: it is not particularly lengthy, and, despite its flaws, has long held an important position in the ‘canon’ of Western literature.

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