Reading Pointers for sharper Insights

There are many versions and interpretations of the play, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, written by Christopher Marlowe in the late 1500s. The basic story, however, remains consistent throughout all the versions. The play is based on an old legend regarding Dr. Faustus, a man of knowledge and excessive pride, who sells his soul to the devil to gain power and knowledge of the universe.

Dr. Faustus is a drama, meaning that it was meant to be performed, rather than read as a novel. The following information will assist you in reading the play:

Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, is a product of the Renaissance—a time of rebirth from the Medieval period. As you read Dr. Faustus, note the following characteristics of the Renaissance that are reflected in the story:

  • explosive growth of knowledge

  • improvement in literacy across the classes

  • the rise of Renaissance Individualism, which encouraged people to better themselves and pursue personal fulfillment

  • a lessening of the power of the Catholic Church due to the Protestant Reformation, which created political changes and conflicts

  • the belief and the practice of magic despite of advances in science

Marlowe uses many allusions in the play. Note that the allusions illuminate the transitional nature of the Renaissance—the blending old beliefs with new ideas and knowledge. Look for these allusions throughout the play and consider the purpose of their usage:

  • Biblical stories

  • figures and stories in Greek mythology

  • famous writers, poets, physicians, alchemists, and magicians from antiquity

  • Spanish rule

The primary motif of the play is the conflict between good and evil. There are, however, other motifs that permeate the story of Dr. Faustus:

  • Knowledge and Power—Knowledge is powerful, especially during the Renaissance when knowledge was becoming more accessible to people, allowing them to improve their status in life. Knowledge and power can be used to help others or for personal gain. Faustus's motivation for pursuing knowledge and power, the method he uses to obtain them, and the consequences of his actions form the crux of the play.

  • Old Testament vs. New Testament—between the two, there is a difference in how God is viewed regarding the concept of sin and redemption. In the Old Testament, God punishes sinners. In the New Testament, God is forgiving. Faustus's view of sin is based on a misinterpretation of Jerome's Bible; this is a major factor in the decisions he makes.

  • Christian beliefs vs. the practice of magic—People of that time were very religious and quite superstitious. How does the lure of magic affect the various characters in the play? In particular, note how the “religious” characters respond to magic.

  • The duality of humans—There are elements of good and bad in all of us. As the play unfolds, Faustus struggles internally with this duality, and it creates doubt about the choices he's made. Each of us has personality traits that have the power to affect the balance of our nature. Faustus is not inherently evil, but his excessive pride, greed, selfishness, and weakness of character cloud his judgment, causing him to make poor decisions. As you read the play, be aware of the moments where Faustus struggles with duality.