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Overview of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Updated on October 19, 2011

Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (generally known as Doctor Faustus) is based on the German legend of Faust. The Faust legend is about a celebrated scholar who decides to sell his soul to the devil. The Faust of legend seeks unlimited knowledge and the pursuit of earthy desire, and is willing to go to any lengths to achieve these aims.

The Faust story has been interpreted by many notable literary figures over the years, including Goethe, Thomas Mann, and Marlowe, a lesser-known contemporary of Shakespeare. Marlowe's version of Faustus stays true to the original legend, pitting an overly ambitious student against the forces of evil. While the exact origins of the play are unclear, scholars believe it was likely first published in 1592.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is often suspected to include writing by another author.
Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is often suspected to include writing by another author.

The Long Fall of Dr. Faustus

In Scene One, Faustus asks “Is to dispute well, logic’s chiefest end?" Faustus is in search of more than simply pure scholarship. Beyond learning, he desires power, wealth, and fame, and thinks that by studying the dark arts he will get these things.

In the beginning, Faustus is not portrayed as an evil or sinful character, rather it is only his undying ambition that is tainted with sacrilege. In the first scene he has not yet committed to either a sinful or a good path. At this point, Faustus is not fated towards an evil end, as he still retains the freedom of choice.

Faustus is then compared to Icarus, a Greek mythological figure. Icarus's father fashioned him a pair of wings made of feather and wax in order to fly, but cautioned not to fly too close to the sun lest they would melt and he fall back to earth. At first Icarus listens to his father's advice, but eventually becomes reckless, and disobeys his father's orders.

Like Icarus with his wings, Faustus has been granted abilities far beyond that of his peers. Faustus's wings are fashioned superior intellect and education, but it is up to Faustus what to do with them. Faustus has done no wrong by being graced with this gift, but, like Icarus, it is his over-ambition, the desire to go only higher and farther that will be his downfall.

The myth of Dedalus and Icarus serves as a parable with Doctor Faustus.
The myth of Dedalus and Icarus serves as a parable with Doctor Faustus.

A Deal With the Devil

Faustus ultimately chooses the wrong path, using his knowledge and accomplishment to study magic, dark arts, the forbidden and the taboo for the satisfaction of his own ego. Rather than seeking knowledge to do good in a selfless manner, Faustus desires it out of pride and greed. Eventually, he literally makes a deal with the devil, a deal that he will eventually have to pay for.

After signing his pact with the devil, Faustus calls to Mephistopholes for books with which to “behold all spells and incantations....see all characters and planets of the heavens [to] know their motions and dispositions....see all plants, herbs, and trees that grow upon the earth." The fundamental problem with this type of learning, the reason that it becomes linked to sin, is because it moves beyond the knowledge that man can attain for himself, to a more omnipresent knowledge of the workings of the universe, knowledge more appropriate for God than man.

A Lesson Learned?

Faustus ultimately blames his fall from grace on his education, “O would I have never seen Wittenberg, never read book.” Yet it is not the books of Wittenburg that have proved Faustus’ undoing, it is his own greed and discontent. In the end, Faustus never learns the lesson of humility, and is unwilling to admit his mistake.


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    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 4 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for this - shedding some light on a very complex and shadowy subject! I recently saw a modern Dr Faustus here in the UK on stage - perhaps drama being the best way to express this story - and whilst the original Marlowe text was used for the majority of the play, two scenes were re-written and set in the USA, in Las Vegas to be precise, a fitting sort of town!

      The critics were not kind but I loved it. Hubris - and no regrets.

      Votes and a share.

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      It's odd, but I seem to to have read or seen every version of Faust, but I haven't read the original Dr. Faustus in its entirety. I'm only read an except in an English text.