Literary Devices in Doctor Faustus
Marlowe uses the tension between comedy and drama to underscore the themes of the play. The beginning of the play consists of highly dramatic moments between Faustus, Mephistophilis, and the devil Lucifer as Faustus tries to decide whether or not he will sell his soul. However, as soon as he sells his soul the play becomes comedic. Faustus plays practical jokes on knights and the pope, and comedic low characters Robin and Ralph are introduced in order to parody the Faustian bargain. As the play comes to a close, the high drama of the beginning returns: Faustus falls ill and begins to regret his decisions. In this way, the majority of the play deals with how Faustus distracts himself from his inevitable damnation.
The dramatic scenes represent the main action of the play while the comedic scenes serve to help Faustus, and his audience, forget his inevitable damnation. The tension within the play comes from delaying the main conflict and building anticipation for the moment Faustus is dragged away to hell. Devices such as the use of psychomachia, or externalized struggle between one’s “good” and “bad” angels, add to this tension.
Literary Devices Examples in Doctor Faustus:
Chorus 1 1
"plaud..." See in text (Chorus 1)
"Plaud" means applause. The characters and famous stories mentioned at the beginning of the prologue are now juxtaposed with "Faustus' fortunes," the subject of Marlowe's play. With this structure, Marlowe both elevates his story to the status of one of these "applause worthy" well-known stories, and distinguishes Faustus as different; his story is not an archetype or a trope, it's something new.
Scene 1 4
"ravished me...." See in text (Scene 1)
By ravished Faustus means "transported in spirit with strong emotion; captivated. However, this word also means carried or dragged away by force, raped, and violated. The double meaning of this word is interesting because it highlights the tension between Faustus's expectations and the reality of his involvement with magic: he believes that he is being enriched and livened with the practice of necromancy, when in fact these actions will cause him to be forcibly dragged to hell.
"GOOD..." See in text (Scene 1)
The Good Angel and the Bad Angel appear to Faustus throughout this play and represent a literary trope called psychomachia. Psychomachia is the embodiment of the battle over one's soul: generally a "Good Angel" that represents Christianity battles a "Bad Angel" that represents Paganism. Generally the angels stand on opposing sides of the character experiencing the crisis and offer the character arguments to resolve his crisis.
"necromantic..." See in text (Scene 1)
After dismissing all legitimate forms of study and profession, Faustus picks up necromancy books and decides that they are "heavenly." Faustus rhetorically replaces theology and church practices with dark magic.
"Stipendium peccati mors est...." See in text (Scene 1)
This Latin phase means "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Notice that in Faustus's interpretation of the lines he only focuses on the first half of the phrase rather than the heart of the line—that piety will reward itself in everlasting life.
Scene 2 3
"the Rector..." See in text (Scene 2)
The rector was the head of the university and a spiritual guide to students. This scene demonstrates that Faustus cannot be recovered by any earthly powers.
"corpus naturale..." See in text (Scene 2)
"Corpus naturale et mobile" (matter that is natural and movable) was the scholastic definition of matter at this time. Wagner is making fun of both scholars by parodying academic language. He essentially states that the question of where Faustus is is silly because he is by nature moveable. This joke sets Wagner up to be the play's clown and comic relief.
"Go to..." See in text (Scene 2)
"Go to" was a colloquial way of saying get on with it, or modern day "come on." The First Scholar is angry with Wagner because he believes that he is paying a practical joke on him; however, ironically Wagner is telling the truth. Faustus's actions are so outrageous that the truth sounds like a ridiculous prank.
Scene 3 7
"Which strike a terror to my fainting soul...." See in text (Scene 3)
Mephistophilis presents Hell as a place that even demons fear, a place where even Lucifer its king suffers. He is so tormented and terrified of Hell that he cannot even answer Faustus's questions about the place. This should be a warning to Faustus about the price he will pay for the magic and power he desires.
"Where are you damned?..." See in text (Scene 3)
The description of Hell and damnation that Mephistophilis presents here radically contradicts Faustus's vision of Elysium. This exchange can be seen as the point at which Faustus gradually beings to realize that his expectations do not line up with reality and that he cannot undo his decision.
"Elysium;..." See in text (Scene 3)
In the pagan tradition, Elysium was a conception of the afterlife that was separate from Hades. Elysium is where mortals related to the gods, heroes, great philosophers, and other figures chosen by the gods. It was a blessed and happy place of indulgence and enjoyment. Faustus imagines Hell as Elysium, where he will be rewarded for his actions rather than punished and tormented as in Christian Hell.
"Quin regis Mephistophilis fratris imagine!..." See in text (Scene 3)
This Latin phrase is a command that means "Return Mephistophilis, in the shape of a friar." Faustus has already given this command once. His repetition in Latin demonstrates not only his arrogance, but his desire to boast his power.
"Franciscan friar;..." See in text (Scene 3)
Franciscan friars were a mendicant order in the Catholic Church. The mendicant orders were Christian religious groups of priests that adopted a life of poverty to travel to different urban centers in order to preach and baptize people, especially the poor. They adopted many of the habits of monks, but abandoned the removed lifestyle of remaining and working in a monastery. Instead, they relied on the goodwill of the people they preached to in order to survive. Faustus asks Mephistophilis to return dressed as a Friar to both visual depict the demon as dependent on him and to mock Christianity's most pious practitioners.
"Demogorgon,..." See in text (Scene 3)
Demogorgon is a pagan demon that came from the underworld. It was envisioned as beast so powerful it's very name was dangerous to say. Notice that in his incantation, Faustus conflates mythology from all of the religions, not just Christianity.
"Sint ..." See in text (Scene 3)
This Latin incantation translates to: May the gods of the lower regions favor me! Farewell to the Trinity! Hail, spirits of fire, air , water, and earth! Prince of the East, Belzelbub, monarch of burning hell, and Demogorgon, we pray to you that Mephistophilis may appear and raise. What are you waiting for? By Jehovah, Gehenna, and the holy water that I now sprinkle, and the sign of the cross that I now make, and by our vows, may Mephistophilis himself now rise to serve us." Notice the tone of this incantation is arrogant and impatient. Faustus does not seem to realize the implications of his actions.
Scene 4 3
"bind..." See in text (Scene 4)
This scene between Wagner and the Clown is a parallel binding scene to the scene between Faustus and Mephistophilis. Much like the bond made between Faustus and Mephistophilis, Wagner promises the Clown a period of time that ends with him being torn apart. Parallel plots were used to explore the action of the main plot in a humorous way and provide comic relief for the audience.
"stavesacre..." See in text (Scene 4)
"Stavesacre" is the preparation of the seed used to kill vermin in Marlowe's time. Wagner uses this sarcastic statement to mock the Clown and establish himself as smarter than the Clown. Notice, however, that the Clown uses wordplay to turn this insult around and mock Wagner.
"Qui mihi discipulus?..." See in text (Scene 4)
This Latin phrase means "You who are my pupil." It was the first line in Lily's Latin Grammar, the standard grammar textbook in English schools after it was published in 1509. Wagner uses this line to demonstrates his learned social class and tell the Clown to behave like a proper slave.
Scene 5 15
"Tut..." See in text (Scene 5)
"Tut" is a verbal ejaculation to express impatience or dissatisfaction with a statement or notion. Faustus is still speaking of delight and feeding his soul rather than focusing on the suffering he will endure. As Mephistophilis claimed Lucifer wanted souls because misery loves company, Lucifer's displeasure at Faustus's delight can be seen as frustration that Faustus does not yet fear hell.
"mutton..." See in text (Scene 5)
"Mutton" in this context is a bawdy slang term for the penis. Lechery poses herself against Gluttony saying that she would rather have an inch of "mutton" than an ell, forty-five inches, of fried fish. Notice how food and sex are conflated here to imply the sinfulness of any indulgence in the body.
"chimney sweeper and an oyster-wife..." See in text (Scene 5)
This parentage places Envy in the position of common people. It suggests a classed understanding of the Seven Deadly Sins: those who are poor are more likely to experience envy and sin.
"you shall be my father..." See in text (Scene 5)
Notice the parallel made between Wrath's "father," the lion, and man's actions that bring wrath to life. A man who acts with rage becomes like Wrath's father, a beast; anger turns men into animals.
"pastime..." See in text (Scene 5)
When he is dedicated to the devil, Faustus has nothing other than distraction from damnation. Notice how many times Mephistophilis and Lucifer offer him pastime, derision, or pleasure.
"Christ cannot save thy soul, for he is just; There's none but I have interest in the same. ..." See in text (Scene 5)
Lucifer's statement here can be read as a sign of Faustus's predestined damnation: not even repentance or Christ can save him because he has been made for hell. However, this could also be read as a trick played on Faustus by the devil. Just as he is about to ask forgiveness and turn to God, Faustus is told that he cannot do so by the devil.
"spirit..." See in text (Scene 5)
Spirit in this context means demon or devil. The Evil Angel's remark means that Faustus is irrevocably damned. This either suggests that there are actions one can take that cannot be redeemed by prayer, or it means that Faustus was damned from birth and never had another choice.
"behold..." See in text (Scene 5)
Notice how the motif of reading changes throughout this play. At the beginning of the play Faustus claims that he cannot learn anything from the books that he has and must turn to black magic to acquire the knowledge that he desires. He ignores testimony from Mephistophilis about hell, yet readily accepts the information that he reads about the heavens in this book.
"delight his mind...." See in text (Scene 5)
When Faustus beings to contemplate his inevitable damnation, Mephistophilis distracts him with "delight." This foreshadows the nature of the pact that Faustus has just signed: it will not bring him the power that he imagined but rather simply distract him from his damned reality.
"Consummatum est:..." See in text (Scene 5)
This Latin phrase means, "it is finished." This is a direct allusion to Jesus's final words on the cross cited in John 19:30: "When Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished.” And bowing His head, He yielded up His spirit." Faustus thus seals his bond to the devil with blasphemy.
"great as Lucifer..." See in text (Scene 5)
This statement is ironic given everything Mephistophilis has told Faustus and the audience about hell and Lucifer. Lucifer is not "great" but rather trapped and tortured in hell. Being as "great as Lucifer" ironically means being as imprisoned and powerless as Lucifer.
"Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris...." See in text (Scene 5)
This phase translates into "misery loves company." Mephistophilis claims that the devil does not tempt man in order to have more power in hell or because he is evil but because he wants others to suffer as he suffers. This paints hell not only as a place of torment but also shows the extreme limits to the powerful beings that Faustus has dedicated his soul: they themselves have no power over their fate, they are trapped in hell just like the souls they own.
"Veni, veni, Mephistophile!..." See in text (Scene 5)
With this Latin phrase, Faustus repeats what he just said in English, "Come, come Mephistophilis." Notice how increasingly desperate Faustus becomes. He recognizes that he has no power without this demon then repeats his call until Mephistophilis appears.
"When Mephistophilis shall stand by me,..." See in text (Scene 5)
Notice how Faustus's conception of his own power has shifted. He no longer believes that he will make the mountains move and rulers will fear him, but rather that nothing can touch him when he is with Mephistophilis. Faustus has no power of his own; he is completely dependent on the demon who owns his soul.
"He loves thee not..." See in text (Scene 5)
This statement seems baseless as it was Faustus who decided to turn to black magic and claimed theology was beneath him. However, if Faustus is predestined to damnation, then this statement is a recognition that he was never in God's favor.
Scene 6 2
"I shall see more than e'er..." See in text (Scene 6)
Robin and Ralph are low characters that underscore the main action of the story. Like Faustus, Robin wishes to "see" and know more. But unlike Faustus, Robin's ambitions are very basic and physical: he wants to see naked women. Using this twin plot, Marlowe implicitly ridicules Faustus's quest for knowledge that he should not have. It is just as ridiculous as Robin's quest to see all of the town women naked.
" she's born to bear..." See in text (Scene 6)
Robin uses this statement to mock his masters. He will give his master's forehead horns when he teaches his mistress to "bear" his weight or bear him a child. This sexual innuendo suggests that Robin wants to use magic to cuckhold his boss; he wants to engage in earthly power and pleasure. This ridiculous sentiment underscores the equally ridiculous reasoning behind Faustus's decision.
Chorus 2 2
"Peter's feast,..." See in text (Chorus 2)
Saint Peter's feast is June 29th. It is a Catholic ceremonial day that honors Saint Peter and Saint Paul, who were both martyred for preaching the word of Christ. Notice how Faustus's story is still positioned within the Christian calendar and defined by Christian events.
"Olympus' top..." See in text (Chorus 2)
Olympus is the home of the gods in Greek mythology. Faustus has reached the pinnacle of power and divine wisdom. However, it is the pinnacle of ancient pagan power, sacrilegious power.
Scene 7 5
"Et omnes sancti!..." See in text (Scene 7)
This means "And all the saints also curse him." This list of curses seems extreme against the spirit. This can be read as a subtle criticism or mockery of the Catholic Church. Rather than greeting the "spirit" with love and forgiveness, they greet him with curses.
"Maledicat Dominus..." See in text (Scene 7)
This Latin phrase means "May the Lord curse him." A "dirge," which the Pope asked these Friars to perform, is a requiem mass that honors the dead and lays them to rest. However, the friars instead launch into this deluge of curses against the spirit.
"summum bonum..." See in text (Scene 7)
"Summum bonum" means the greatest good. This is usually a religious saying that refers to the grace or presence of God. However, here Mephistophilis manipulates the words to refer to "belly-cheer," or indulgence in food and feasting. Mephistophilis mocks religion by using it's pious terms to refer to bodily pleasures.
"I swear..." See in text (Scene 7)
Notice that Faustus is now swearing by the underworld and the places ruled by the Devil rather than God or paradigms of Christianity. Faustus has undergone a change between this scene and the last time we saw him: he obeyed the Devil and thinks only of him.
"Maine fall into Rhine..." See in text (Scene 7)
The Maine River is one of the largest tributaries of the Rhine, Germany's largest river in Germany. It was the boundary of the Roman Empire and a convenient, vital trade route. for both the Romans and the Germans. Faustus is using this list of what he did in order to show that he has seen the wonders of the world.
Scene 8 5
"damned slaves...." See in text (Scene 8)
Notice that Mephistophilis does not consider Robin and Ralph "glorious souls" that are worth buying for the Devil. This could be a classed understanding of the afterlife, that low souls are not worth collecting. Or it could be another exploration of predestination. Perhaps Mephistophilis cannot collect these two souls because they are not predestined to damnation. Thus their involvement with magic is only a waste of his time.
"begone..." See in text (Scene 8)
It is unclear from the stage directions whether or not Mephistophilis actually turns Robin into an ape and Ralph into a dog. This could be just a threat, or it could be a punishment that the two clowns do not treat as a punishment.
"Misericordia pro nobis!..." See in text (Scene 8)
This Latin phrase means "Have mercy on us!" Notice that as soon as Ralph actually encounters Mephistophilis and the magic he seeks, he immediately retreats to a Christian context. He immediately revokes his dark magic, unlike Faustus who refused to repent every time he was given an opportunity.
"Sanctobulorum Periphrasticon..." See in text (Scene 8)
Robin attempts to read from Faustus's magic book. However, what he produces is dog-Latin, nonsense Latin words like abracadabra. Robin's imitation of scholarly Latin would have been obvious and funny to even the uneducated members of Marlowe's audience.
"Ecce, signum..." See in text (Scene 8)
"Ecce, signum" is Latin for behold the proof. Robin's "proof" that he can conjure magic is a silver goblet that he has stolen from a Vintner, or wine merchant. This is a parody of the stolen knowledge that Faustus has acquired; Robin has merely stolen a cup and blamed it on his magic book.
Scene 9 1
"when Actaeon died, he left the horns..." See in text (Scene 9)
"Horns" here refers to both the horns Actaeon wore as a stag and the metaphorical horns a man wears when he is cuckolded according to Greek legend. In this retort Faustus threatens the Knight in two ways. First, he threatens the Knight's life, as wearing the horns of Actaeon means being torn apart. Second, he threatens the Knight's livelihood since being cuckolded in this context would mean being replaced in the Emperor's favor.
Scene 10 3
"[Pulls Faustus by the leg, and pulls it away.]..." See in text (Scene 10)
Trying to wake Faustus, the Horse-courser shakes Faustus's leg and is then horrified when the entire leg comes off. This can be read as a cruel joke on the Horse-courser or as a symbol of Faustus's decay. He is not sleeping, and now his body is falling apart. Faustus's damnation now manifests itself in his physical being.
"vanished away..." See in text (Scene 10)
Faustus's horse was conjured out of hay and returned to hay when he entered water. While this scene was intended to be humorous, it also demonstrates the ephemeral nature of Faustus's power. Just like the shiny and impressive horse, Faustus's power lacks real substance.
"fatal time ..." See in text (Scene 10)
Faustus contemplates his eternal damnation with an air of seriousness—he seems worried about what will happen to him. Generally in Renaissance plays comedic scenes break up the tension between dramatic scenes. But here comedy and drama exist within the same scene suggesting that there is no respite from the damnation Faustus will suffer.
Scene 11 1
Scene 12 5
"paramour..." See in text (Scene 12)
Notice that Faustus references tragic, ill fated love stories to describe his relationship with this paramour. He twists these stories and conveys them falsely. This creates a melancholic tone to this speech to a lover: his relationship with Helen is just as false, empty, and tragic as the stories he tells.
"Arethusa's..." See in text (Scene 12)
Arethusa is a nymph from Greek mythology. When Alpheus, the river god, saw her bathing naked, he became infatuated with her and began to pursue her all over the world. Arethusa, desiring to remain chaste, prayed to Artemis, the goddess of chastity, to save her. Artemis turned Arethusa into a stream to save her from the lecherous god. Notice again that Faustus gets this story wrong. He calls chaste Arethusa "wonton," suggesting that he does not know the story or he intentionally mistakes it.
"return to Helen for a kiss..." See in text (Scene 12)
Faustus gets this part of the story wrong as Paris never returns to Helen. He is killed in battle, and with his death Helen is either returned to Menelaus or in some accounts ascends to Olympus. This suggests that Faustus either does not know the story, which is unlikely, or that he is intentionally rewriting the story to fit his means.
"extinguish clean These thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow..." See in text (Scene 12)
Notice how Faustus twists language at the end of this scene. To "clean" his thoughts should be to repent his sins. However, he uses "clean" to signify his desire to purge all thoughts of repentance.
"To guide thy steps..." See in text (Scene 12)
The Old Man is a memento mori, a Renaissance and Medieval literary trope, in which a ghost, skeleton, or person close to death would appear to remind the main character (and by extension the audience) of the need to repent in the face of inevitable death.
Scene 13 5
"Heaven..." See in text (Scene 13)
Faustus's imagination about the elements and nature are all deeply rooted in Paganism and mythology rather than Christian influences. He is looking for ways to save himself from damnation, yet never turns to God.
"let this hour be but A year, a month, a week, a natural day, That Faustus may repent and save his soul..." See in text (Scene 13)
Notice that Faustus spends his last hour wishing there were more time to repent instead of using that hour to actually repent.
"serpent that tempted Eve..." See in text (Scene 13)
Faustus alludes to Genesis from the Bible in order to dramatize his inevitable and irreversible damnation. In the Bible, Eve, the first woman, is tempted to eat from the forbidden tree of knowledge by Satan who is disguised as a serpent. Faustus here says that Satan would sooner be pardoned than he would.
"infinite..." See in text (Scene 13)
Notice that the scholars do not realize that Faustus has sold his soul when they make this suggestion. This implies that Faustus might actually be unable to repent.
"solitary...." See in text (Scene 13)
Notice that the scholars cannot see Mephistophilis because they are not damned. They believe Faustus has performed all of the magic on his own.