In the dawning of the renaissance light and modern spirit, new forms of drama emerged in the 16th century such as tragedy and comedy. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604) flirts with traditional moral allegory in his use of the morality play formula which undercuts structural morality. Marlowe humanizes experiences instead of personifying them into character types unlike the conventional symbolic representations of all of humanity in morality plays. According to Jonathan Dollimore, “One problem in particular has exercised critic of Dr. Faustus: its structure, inherited from the morality form, apparently negates what the play experientially affirms-the heroic aspiration of ‘Renaissance man’”. As Andrew Duxfield of Sheffield Hallam University in his ‘Resolve me of all ambiguities’: Doctor Faustus and the Failure to Unify says, “The play seems to be variously a medieval morality play and a Renaissance tragedy, and also infiltrates a patently Christian theme with abundant images of Classical mythology, placing alongside and within one another concepts and structures which are fundamentally incompatible.” The play highlights the limitations of religion and questions the boundaries within which society exists. Faustus, the protagonist, can be seen as the epitome of Renaissance aspiration in his zeal for knowledge and hedonistic pleasure. Faustus says,

“O, what a world of profit and delight,

Of power, of honor, of omnipotence”.

(Act I, Scene I)

He strives to push back the limits of human knowledge and power but he quests for knowledge in areas forbidden by Renaissance thinkers. He is distracted from intellectual curiosity by the pursuit of earthly pleasures and is ultimately punished for his ambition. John Faustus is a man who is given a medieval punishment for a Renaissance crime. According to some critics the Prologue locates its drama squarely in the Renaissance world, where humanistic values hold sway. The play depicts the struggle between religion and intellectual pursuit through an individual and thus moves from the morality play structure to the individual tragic experience. This allowed the dramatist to condemn the protagonist without making severe theological implications. Marlowe also raises the question of why a man should be punished for seeking knowledge and who or what is the figure of authority that shall deliver such punishment?

The play is compared to the Greek myth of Icarus, a boy whose father, Daedalus, gave him wings made out of feathers and beeswax. Icarus did not heed his father’s warning and flew too close the sun, causing his wings to melt and sending him plunging to his death. In the same way, the Chorus tells us, Faustus will “mount above his reach” and suffer the consequences. Many critics believe that this is a morality play in that it uses Faustus’ story and his fate to warn others of what will happen if they follow his immoral behaviours, and commit sins against God. David Bevington, in his book Medieval Drama has defined the morality play as “the dramatization of a spiritual crisis in the life of a representative mankind figure in which his spiritual struggle is portrayed as a conflict between personified abstractions representing good and evil”. These allegories dramatized a human character’s journey through life, his temptations and sins, his encounter with death, and finally his pursuit of salvation to convey a religious or moral idea. The action of the morality play centers on a hero, such as Mankind, whose inherent weaknesses are assaulted by such personified diabolic forces as the Seven Deadly Sins but who may choose redemption and enlist the aid of such figures as the Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Justice, Temperance, and Truth). The Seven Deadly Sins do appear in Doctor Faustus but seem to be telling Faustus of his own vices which he fails to realize. The Good Angel and the Bad Angel personate Faustus’ inner dilemma regarding the Christian idea of salvation. They externalize temptation and conflict and reflect Faustus’ constantly wavering mind. Faustus fails to keep faith and rejects the Scriptures. At this point Mephistophilis enters and says,

“That was the cause, but yet per accidents;

For when we hear one rack the name of God,

Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,

We fly in hope to get his glorious soul;”

(Act I, Scene III).

From this we reckon that Mephistophilis came to collect a fallen soul and it was him who had power over Faustus instead of the other way around. From time to time he steps out of his role as a tempter figure to provide warning to Faustus about the dreadfulness of hell. Here Marlowe offers the idea that hell is a state of mind instead of a place and hence cannot be escaped. Yet Faustus chooses knowledge over salvation and according to Dollimore in his essay Dr Faustus (c1589-92): Subversion Through Transgression, “In Dr Faustus sin is not the error of fallen judgment but a conscious and deliberate transgression of limit.” We see instances of extreme blasphemy in the play, for example, when he reverses the cross to call the devil (Act I, Scene III) or when he hits the Pope “a box of the ear.” (Act III, Scene II). Faustus says,

“This word “damnation” terrifies not him,”

(Act I, Scene III)

Faustus’ identity comes into question when he rejects heaven and hell both. He aspires to break free from such limiting systems of belief and challenges the world as was known. Because of this, his political identity of the era is also questionable. Faustus foolishly subordinates himself to the devils. Doctor Faustus like Tamburlaine is about human aspiration and unlimited power but also introduces the problem of self-subordination. Faustus’ identity is very unstable like Tamburlaine’s but he’s unable to assert himself and thus experiences a hellish personal conflict. Ian McAdam in Doctor Faustus: The Exorcism of God says, “Faustus’ damnation, his descent into hell, may be seen as a theatrical metaphor expressing his inability to resolve the conflict between self-assertion and self-surrender… What Faustus wants to be spared from in his final soliloquy is, I suggest, having to surrender to Christ, since that would mean a loss of self, of his own identity, a loss he cannot face. Of course by extension Faustus would also be spared having to surrender to Lucifer, for the same reason. It is the fear of disintegration that torments Faustus at the last but has also tormented him to a lesser degree all along. Yet at the same time he cannot help prayin to Christ-Lucifer since he needs him/them as a source of (displaced) identity and power.” Faustus’ tragic flaw or hamartia lies in his arrogant pride which keeps him from submitting to any one system of belief because he does not have an urge to overbear his own constant wavering. This leads to his tragic death and in this he is our tragic hero.

Directly raising the debate between heaven and hell, Doctor Faustus can be seen as a critique of Calvinism according to Alan Sinfield. Calvin tried to restore the authority of God and emphasizes on the inscrutability of God’s will. He says that the limited ability of the human race is incapable of accommodating God and cannot understand philosophical questions in human terms or through reasoning. The way that one of the thieves was damned on the cross with Jesus while the other received salvation according to the Book of Luke or the Gospel of Luke, Marlowe gives the impression that Faustus’s fall and damnation was inevitable and destined. The debate between predestination and free will is thus brought up in the play. Alan Sinfield in his essay Reading Faustus’ God says, “by denying Faustus had a choice anyway: it would regard Faustus, not as damned because he makes a pact with the devil, but as making a pact with the devil because he is already damned.” Richard Hooker believes that Faustus cannot repent and most of the play shows God denying him further chance to repent which is quite close to a predestinarian reading. Marlowe overturns the morality formula by including damnation as a possibility for Faustus. Morality plays would conventionally depict that man is master of his own fate and can gain redemption by submitting to God at any point in his life reiterating the Christian idea of salvation. However the Christian lesson of salvation is negated in the play as Faustus is damned. Also, rather than focusing on didactic moral instruction, Marlowe allows the readers to draw their own conclusions. Thus we see the play moving away from the conventional morality formula and plunging into the tragic form. The Bad Angel shifts from a tempter figure to a threatening one while the Good Angel in the end confirms Faustus’s damnation (Act V, Scene II). These two opposing figures of good and evil also depict the Manichean worldview which neatly divides the world into good and evil. The scholars too tempt Faustus but also pity him towards the end. With invoking pity and fear in the audience for an empathetic hero, Marlowe adheres to the Greek philosophy of drama and the Aristotelian model providing the audience with a catharsis. This is a classic device of a tragedy. An instance of a cathartic moment is when Faustus calls upon god but is unanswered (Act II, Scene II). “The fundamental contradiction in Christian theology is reactivated: evil is the essence of God’s creation.” says Dollimore. Thus Faustus argues that since he is a creation of God, he must sin. In Act V, Scene II we see Faustus in the light of a “morality provocatively superior to God’s” in the words of Sinfield, when he refuses the support of the Scholars anticipating the terror of his last hour.  Hegel distinguishes modern tragedy as focusing more on the conflict of values rather than on the personality enduring them, says Watson.

The sub plot underscores the stupidity of Faustus’s bargain while creating a parallel between Faustus, a great scholar and a clown. We see Faustus reduced to the level of the clown in him ultimately using his knowledge and power for playing tricks such as on the horse courser. “In exchange for his forfeited soul, Faustus receives merely some slapstick revenge, a little money, praise from the ignorant, unfulfilling fulfillments of his sexual fantasies, and a horrible spiritual emptiness.”, states Robert N. Watson in his essay A Theory of Renaissance Tragedy: Dr Faustus. According to W. W. Greg in his essay The Damnation of Faustus the ultimate sin was the indulgence in sexual act with a devil in disguise of Helen of Troy after which repentance was no longer a possibility. He says “But with Faustus’ union with Helen the nice balance between possible salvation and imminent damnation is upset. The Old Man who has witnessed the meeting recognizes the inevitable” and accepts Faustus’ demise. The character of the Old Man is a classic device of morality plays as a good counsel who comes to redeem the protagonist. Marlowe, like Shakespeare employs the use of the iambic pentameter in his plays but doesn’t switch to the conversational Blank Verse to signify the fall of a character {as Shakespeare employed in Lady Macbeth of Macbeth (1623)}. The Chorus’s introduction to the play links Doctor Faustus to the tradition of Greek tragedy, in which a chorus traditionally comments on the action. Watson says, “Doctor Faustus is a parable about spiritual loss in the modern world, a warning, not only about damnation in the conventional sense but about the fatal corruption awaiting all Renaissance aspirations.”

At the beginning of Everyman, the arrival of Death at once seals the inevitability of Everyman’s fate, and sets in motion his journey towards spiritual emancipation. Faustus’s contractual bond with Lucifer, also conducted early in the piece, provides a similar sense of inevitability, and, in an inversion of the plight of Everyman, sends him into a spiralling moral decline which terminates in damnation. There is, moreover, a consistent presence of traditional morality features in Doctor Faustus; psychomachia is provided through the interjections of the good and bad angels, and the counterbalancing forces of good and evil represented on one side by the scholars and the old man, and on the other by Mephistophilis, Valdes and Cornelius. The pageant of the seven deadly sins employs the traditional Morality tool of casting abstract concepts as physical entities, while the episodic nature of the “middle” of the play is very much in the style of the morality. Indeed, with a certain sense of finality, Nicholas Brooke, whilst paraphrasing Leo Kirschbaum, states that “we must forget what we would like the play to be (a tragedy) and concentrate on what it is, a morality”. To say that Doctor Faustus is a Morality play, however, is to oversimplify the issue. Duxtfield argues that it is worth remembering that Doctor Faustus could have been anyone, but was in fact someone; Marlowe’s play is, of course, based on the historical Johan Faustus, as he is represented in the Faustbook that was its source. Furthermore, the Morality features in the play are amply offset by its tragic elements. Duxfield states “In his arrogant pride we have hamartia, in his final rejection of divinity and embracement of worldly pleasure in the form of the succubus Helen we have peripeteia, and in the agonised final soliloquy there seems to be a clear example of anagnorisis. Even the classical unities, which at first glance seem to have been ignored in the construction of the play, can be applied, in a sense; Faustus’s diabolical contract covers a period of four and twenty years, conveniently corresponding to the number of hours in one day, the scenes involving Robin, Rafe and Wagner comprise satirical comment on the main action rather than actual subplots, and, although Faustus travels throughout Europe, if we accept Mephistopholes’s assertion that

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be(II.1.124-6)

it can also be said that all of the action occurs in one “place”… What we have, it seems, is a play that, to a large degree, can be shown to satisfy the generic criteria of both the Morality and the Tragedy forms. It is often the interpretation of Faustus’s character that leads to a preference for one form or another; it is disapproval of Faustus’s “base physical desires” that leads some critics to interpret him as an example in the Morality tradition, and admiration of his “Promethean aspiration” that leads others to interpret him as an entirely tragic figure… Faustus may not represent, as Yates suggests, “the reaction against the Renaissance”, but it does display a sceptical awareness of the incompatibility of different ideologies that co-existed in this period, an awareness reflected in the play’s ambivalent structure; it can be a medieval Morality, or it can be a Renaissance Tragedy, but it cannot be both at the same time.”

  1. Swinburne in his essay Marlowe: The Critical Heritage says, “Marlowe’s conception and expression of the agonies endured by Faustus under the immediate imminence of his doom gives the highest note of beauty… the sheer straightforwardness of speech in which his agonizing horror finds vent ever more and more terrible from the first to the last beautiful and fearful verse of that tremendous monologue which has no parallel in all range of tragedy.”