An introduction to Doctor Faustus: ambiguity and duality

An introduction to Doctor Faustus: morality and sin

Eric Rasmussen and Ian DeJong explore the ambiguities and dualities of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.

Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, one of the most popular dramas of the Elizabethan age, has puzzled audiences for centuries. Does the play present a straightforward, moralistic condemnation of sin? Or is it a perverse exploration of the value of sensual pleasure and instant gratification?

Marlowe’s play is fascinated by duality, twinning and binaries. Consider the two angels who attempt to influence Faustus – the first calling on him to repent, the second insisting on his damnation. These angels mimic tropes in medieval morality drama, in which the conflict within a central character’s soul was often played out in competing arguments made by personifications of good and evil.

Everyman, a morality play

Everyman, a morality play

In this medieval morality play Everyman represents all mankind. The play dramatizes his encounter with death before the final judgement.

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Comedy and tragedy

This duality extends beyond paired characters, into the realm of style, with the play's genre fluctuating widely from scene to scene. The curtain rises on Faustus's famous turn toward the occult (‘A sound magician is a mighty god!’ 1.1.64). This is a tragic scene – it establishes Faustus's powerful status and foreshadows his self-inflicted fall. Viewers of this opening might expect the tragedy to continue, but it does not. Instead, the play's second scene features witty verbal jousting between Faustus's servant Wagner and two scholars. The scene contains all the hallmarks of a comedy: the clever servant mocking characters of higher standing, and subtle, if ultimately innocuous, social satire. The play then shifts from comedy back to tragedy in Scene 3, with further transitions to come. Anyone who attends a production of Doctor Faustus or reads the script of the play must cope with this curious alternation between the serious and the wacky.

To make matters worse, even the play’s fluctuation is unreliable, depending on the version of the play being read or performed. The earliest surviving printed copy, from 1604, alternates between tragic and comic scenes with rhythmic regularity. The later version, first printed in 1616, expands the play’s comic interludes. Overall, the later version – the B-text – contains more humorous episodes. Does this make for a more light-hearted, accessible reading or playgoing experience? Or does it render Faustus’s gruesome end all the more shocking, coming immediately as it does after so much broad comedy? Readers and audiences must be aware of the significant differences between the two versions – and how those differences can affect attitudes toward the play.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 1631

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 1631

This later version of the play has more comic episodes, but it also emphasises Faustus’s suffering in Hell.

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Interpreting Helen of Troy

Modern scholars have pointed to Marlowe's seeming inability to write female characters (of which there are very few in his plays). Helen of Troy, conjured by Faustus late in Doctor Faustus, is the highest-profile female character in the play and yet she has no lines! Her action is restricted to an entrance, two kisses with Faustus, and an exit; while she's onstage, Faustus relentlessly objectifies her. And yet, like so much else in the play, this can be read two ways: if the conjured Helen is real, Faustus's treatment of her is selfishly arrogant; if, by contrast, ‘Helen’ is actually a devil in human shape, then Faustus's lust is the pathetic result of supernatural manipulation. Early audiences would have responded very differently to these two possibilities. If Faustus does actually conjurethe real Helen, viewers might have been impressed by his conquest; but if the Helen that Faustus kisses is a devil, those same viewers might have been horrified by the unnatural union.

Photographs of RSC production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 2016

Photographs of RSC production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 2016

In this production, the director inserted a long dance sequence between Faustus and a young Helen of Troy. It poignantly suggested the innocence Faustus had lost by pursuing his dark desires.

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This particular issue reveals more clearly the stakes of Doctor Faustus's ambiguous duality: for every pair of available interpretations, one toes the line of cultural acceptability, while the other leaps far over that line. A charitable interpretation means that the play is doing what audiences expect, and indeed what audiences will accept. A sceptical interpretation, on the other hand, means that the play may be mocking or even condemning the audiences' deeply held beliefs.

John Dee's De Heptarchia Mystica, a guide to summoning angels, 1582

John Dee's De Heptarchia Mystica, a guide to summoning angels, 1582

Some years before Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus, the scholar John Dee was summoning angels with his medium Edward Kelley. Dee insisted he had holy aims, but was accused of conjuring devils.

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Moral fable or celebration of sin?

Perhaps, though, the play's most significant duality appears in its ambiguous attitude towards religion, morality and evil. The question once again is whether Doctor Faustus supports or undermines dominant cultural ideals. At first, Marlowe seems to present us with a conventional moral fable, as did his source text. The drama begins with Faustus reciting his impressive earthly achievements but resolving to turn to sorcery by selling his soul. Throughout the play, however, Faustus vacillates between delight in his magical abilities and fear of the hell to which he has damned himself. By the play’s end, Faustus is wailing ‘I’ll burn my books!’ (5.2.115) as demons arrive to drag him away. In this interpretation, Doctor Faustus provides a clear-cut message: the cost of sin is always higher than its potential benefits, and the salvation of one’s soul matters more than the ability to fly, to taunt the Pope or to conjure up Helen of Troy.

The English Faustbuch, 1592

The English Faustbuch, 1592

This sensational collection of semi-mythical tales was the source for Marlowe’s drama. Its title page suggests that Faustus’s death was a ‘deserved’ moral punishment for his ‘damnable’ deeds.

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Alternatively, the play might be read as suggesting that the gratification of desire by sinful means is ultimately attractive, and perhaps worth the cost. Indeed, all of Marlowe’s plays feature protagonists who defy traditional morality in order to achieve their ambitions. When such characters previously appeared on the English stage, they were invariably punished in the course of the dramatic action, and, even more important, condemned by the play’s moral centeres. But Marlowe subverts this tradition. Tamburlaine commits many atrocities, including the murder of an embassy of innocent young women, and yet he doesn’t come across as a war criminal. In effect, he is redeemed in the audience’s eyes by his magnetism and success. The same could be said of Barabas, the protagonist of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, and of Faustus himself.

When Faustus assaults the papal court – boxing the Pope’s ears, beating the friars, and flinging fireworks among them – Marlowe may be parodying extreme Puritan criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. Many Puritans felt strongly about the religious, and especially political, control exercised by Roman Catholicism. Their reactions to that control range from measured argument to radical, angry polemic. Faustus's extreme, immature assault on literal representatives of Church authority may be a way for Marlowe to ridicule his more theologically extreme contemporaries. On the other hand, an audience of staunch English Protestants might have cheered Faustus’s attack on an Italian pope as a pro-English move, simply because of its opposition to Catholicism.

Luther's anti-papist pamphlet, Passional Christi und Antichristi, 1521

Luther's anti-papist pamphlet, Passional Christi und Antichristi, 1521

English Protestants were influenced by the German reformer, Martin Luther, who saw the Pope as the anti-Christ. In this woodcut, the Pope descends to Hell surrounded by monstrous creatures.

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The play concludes with a final bit of equivocation, a sense of two contradictory voices. After the devils have seized Faustus and carried him off to hell, the chorus reflects on his fate and issues a simple message: those who seek learning should take care not to copy Faustus’s bad example. The tone, however, is mournful, seemingly at odds with its moralising thrust. The chorus praises Faustus’s potential, regrets his ‘fiendful fortune,’ and places some of the responsibility for his fall on the seductive ‘deepness’ of ‘unlawful things' (Epilogue, ll. 5-7). Even in the expression of its moral, the play demonstrates its unstable, contradictory nature.

The remarkable life of Dr. Faustus

The remarkable life of Dr. Faustus [page: fold-out frontispiece and title page]

The devil confronts Faustus to collect his side of the bargain. This short sensational version of the Faustus story was printed in 1838.

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Marlowe the double agent

The risks taken by Doctor Faustus may be seen to mirror those taken by its author. While he was still a student at Cambridge in the 1580s, Marlowe probably gathered intelligence for Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster. Apparently, Marlowe specialised in infiltrating Catholic conspiracies. This espionage work endangered Marlowe from both sides: the Catholics he sought to entrap would retaliate if they discovered his double-dealings, and ill-informed Protestant zealots might arrest Marlowe if he played his part too well. Marlowe thus has some of the doubleness of Doctor Faustus: either safely legitimate or dangerously radical.

Marlowe himself was killed on the evening of 30 May, 1593. A leisurely day spent with a number of agents who worked for Walsingham concluded, after dinner, with one of them stabbing Marlowe in the eye. Queen Elizabeth’s government had prescribed that playwrights produce patriotic dramas about English history, wholesome Protestant morality plays written in rhymed couplets. But Marlowe wrote in blank verse about foreign infidels and blasphemers. Were Marlowe’s plays considered to be so subversive by the authorities as to warrant his murder?

Accusations against Christopher Marlowe by Richard Baines and others

Accusations against Christopher Marlowe by Richard Baines and others

In this note, the double agent Richard Baines suggests that Marlowe’s ‘dangerous’ mouth should ‘be stopped’. A few days later, the playwright was fatally stabbed at Mrs Bull’s lodging house in Deptford.

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It’s worth noting that Marlowe and William Shakespeare were exact contemporaries. Both were born in 1564, but by the late 1580s Marlowe had written several masterpieces, all of them massive commercial successes, whereas Shakespeare had produced only a handful of history plays. As such, there is a widespread tendency to stereotype the two dramatists – as does the film Shakespeare in Love – celebrating Marlowe as a gifted superstar while dismissing Shakespeare as a slow-to-learn fledgling. But recent scholarship has suggested that the two may have collaborated on the Henry VI plays. So we are left to ponder, along with all of the other mysteries of Marlowe’s life, another moment of twinning: how did Marlowe and Shakespeare interact as co-authors? Which of them was Faustus, and which Mephistopheles?

Photographs of RSC production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 2016

Photographs of RSC production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 2016

In this production, two actors shared the roles of Faustus and his demon, Mephistopheles. At the start of each performance, Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan struck a match to decide who would play which part.

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  • Eric Rasmussen
  • Eric Rasmussen, Foundation Professor and Chair of English at the University of Nevada, is co-editor of the award-winning Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of William Shakespeare: The Complete Works andWilliam Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays

  • Ian DeJong
  • Ian DeJong is a doctoral student at the University of Nevada. His scholarship centers around the cultural construction of Shakespeare. His work has appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly.

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