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The Supernatural in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus Essay

The Renaissance marked a turning point in history. In this period, Humanism motivated the study of subjects related to man and society, since man, as an individual, had become the centre of interest, leaving theology and religious devotion relatively aside. Therefore, as scholars recognized man’s worth and value, some people started to seek further satisfaction in Earth and -partially- stopped longing for Heaven. The highest aspirations were truth and knowledge. The spirit of the time was one of intellectual freedom and defiance; men no longer feared death and even tried to establish direct contact with the afterlife in order to achieve wisdom and power.

This thirst for knowledge brought about an inner struggle between the traditional way of thinking imposed by the Church and man’s desire to explore the world and discover the truth on his own. The individual was now facing a dilemma: how to live up to the new mindset without completely dismissing old divine concepts. This dichotomy is clearly seen in Marlowe’s play _Doctor Faustus_, where the protagonist resorts to the supernatural in order to achieve power and knowledge but at the expense of continuous distress by his contradictory feelings of fascination and fear.

This paper aims to prove that Marlowe’s_Doctor Faustus_ reflects the spirit of the Renaissance and the struggle of man between the quest for scientific knowledge and the rejection of religious dogmas and contemplative life. The first section starts with a synopsis of the play. The following section provides a historical background of the Renaissance, with a short description of the concepts and beliefs of the time that are related to Marlowe’s play. The last and most extensive section focuses on the analysis of the supernatural elements in _Dr. Faustus_ and their connection with the ambiguities and contradictory ideals of the period.

_Doctor Faustus_ is a non-traditional morality play, whose main character is not Everyman (the typical protagonist of this type of plays) but a single man -John Faustus-, who is a doctor in theology and has a raging thirst for knowledge. He wants to find the answers to all the human wonders, whatever the cost. For that reason, two fellow scholars, Valdes and Cornelius, teach Faustus the fundamentals of the black arts and so he summons dark spirits. Mephostophillis, a servant to Lucifer, warns him that dealing with the devil is a serious matter and there is no turning back. A Good Angel advises him to repent, but an Evil Angel persuades him into going ahead with the deal.

Blinded by his desire of wisdom and power, Faustus sells his soul to the devil and, therefore, he loses the eternal joy and felicity of Heaven. He seals the twenty-four year pact with his own blood and Mephostophillis, in the shape of a friar, becomes Faustus’ servant. He teaches Faustus how to do spells and incantations to rise up spirits. He also answers Doctor Faustus’s questions about Astronomy but Faustus realizes that Mephostophillis knows as much as he does; after all, the deal was not that good if he is not going to benefit much from it. The Good Angel tells him that it is not too late to renounce this magic and God would forgive him. But the Evil Angel warned him that if he repented, devils would tear him in pieces. At this point, Lucifer appears and shows Faustus the Seven Deadly Sins. He is delighted by this and continues to be loyal to him.

In order to prove his new powers and magic, Faustus and Mephostophillis go to Saint Peter’s Feast and, while invisible, play jokes on the Pope. In desperation, the Pope crosses himself three times and Faustus hits him. Seeing this, the friars ask the Lord to curse them so Faustus and Mephostophillis beat them and run away. Faustus soon becomes popular for his great skills and he is admired among his subjects. Charles V is one of them. He asks him to bring Alexander the Great and his wife back to life but Faustus can only summon their spirits. When they enter the room, horns appear on Charles V’s knight because he had had doubts about Faustus’ powers. Then, by order of Charles V, Faustus releases him from the horns.

When Faustus and Mephostophillis are on their way back home, a horse-courser offers Faustus forty pounds for his horse. Faustus accepts but, as the horse is a product of magic, he warns him not to ride on water or else it would vanish. The horse-courser wants to know the unrevealed qualities of his new horse and rides in deep water. The horse vanishes and he almost drowns. Filled with anger, the horse-courser goes to Faustus’ house to have his forty pounds back. He hits Faustus while he is sleeping and, in order not to be punished, the horse-courser says he would give forty pounds more.

After some time, Faustus feels that he needs a woman next to him and the perfect one is Helen of Greece. So Faustus summons a spirit to take the shape of her. An old man appears to Faustus and tells him to repent. Lucifer wants to hurt him but his faith is so great that he cannot touch his soul. As the twenty-four year deal is about to finish, this means that Faustus life is coming to an end. He repents and reveals the source of his knowledge to some scholars but they could do nothing except for praying. As Faustus begs God and the devil for mercy, the devils drag him away. At the end, the Scholar friends’ find Faustus’s body, torn to pieces.

The play by Marlowe is one of the many versions of the story based on a real man -Johannes Faustus, a German astrologer of bad reputation who lived in the early sixteenth century. However, Marlowe’s_Dr. Faustus_ is the first version that became famous, and this is not a coincidence. The cause of the great reception of Marlowe’s version can be found in the context of publication. At the time the play was published (the very beginning of the seventeenth century), the Renaissance was at its peak in most parts of Western Europe, and some of the most important characteristics of this movement can be easily identified in this play.

First of all, in spite of the fact that Renaissance thinkers tried to disassociate themselves from the medieval values, there were some that prevailed. One of them was the belief in the theory of the Great Chain of Being. This theory sustained that every existing thing was organized in a hierarchical order depending on its content. Entities containing more matter than spirit would be at a lower level in the chain, and the ones made out of more spirit than matter would be at a higher level. Then, from bottom to top, there were inanimate objects, plants, animals, humankind, angels and, finally, God at the top.

This theory also established that, for there to be harmony, there was a proper behaviour of things and beings depending on their place in the chain. Although Renaissance thinkers were usually in favour of keeping order, there is some evidence that the hierarchical traditions were starting to be questioned. Such is the case of Faustus, whose greatest desire is to defy the limits of his nature by obtaining divine powers, which implied intruding in a higher level of the chain.

Another characteristic of the Renaissance that can be found in the character of Faustus is the fact that, at the time, knowledge and personal achievements were greatly valued and individual realization was highly estimated. In fact, as it was also the time of Humanism, man, as an individual, became the centre of attention -previously, scholars had mainly focused on the study of theology, but now the Humanists preferred to study subjects related to humanity, such as politics or history. This can also be related to the moment at the beginning of the play, when Faustus decides he no longer wants to study theology, and says “Divinity, adieu!”.

Furthermore, the Renaissance man led an active life -was involved in politics, military action or public life. He was learned and skilled in many subjects. In the Middle Ages, on the other hand, the contemplative life was considered the highest way of living. It was a quiet existence, contemplating nature and seeking to know and to love God. Therefore, it is indisputable that Faustus is highly related to the new ideals of the period. His life was indubitably active and his separation from God as a means to achieve great things in order to obtain individual fulfillment represents the new values of the Renaissance and of Humanism. All these concepts are summarized by Harry Levin, when he states that:

The unholy trinity of Marlowe’s heresies, violating taboos of medieval orthodoxy, was an affirmation of the strongest drives that animated the Renaissance and have shaped our modern outlook. In the stricter categories of theology, his Epicureanism might have been _libido sentiendi,_ the appetite for sensation; his Machiavellianism might have been _libido dominandi,_ the will to power; and his Atheism _libido sciendi,_ the zeal for knowledge. (Levin, p. 46)

Therefore, it is not surprising that, if a simple statement could explain the tragedy of _Dr. Faustus_, it would be the universally acknowledged truth “knowledge is power”. It is precisely this statement which illustrates some of man’s ideals during the Renaissance. New knowledge helps to improve men’s lives and brings about positive changes; but just as there is good, there is evil, and everything that cannot be achieved willingly is attempted through deception, which -somehow or other- is attributed to the devil’s ways. At the beginning of Act I, Scene I, Faustus expresses his wish to find cure to diseases, make men live eternally or raise the dead back to life, all of which seem impossible to attain through common studies. He recognizes human limitations -especially his own-, but all the same is tempted by the idea of magic:

How am I glutted with conceit of this!

Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please?

Resolve me of all ambiguities?

Perform what desperate enterprise I will?

…I’ll have them read me strange philosophy

And tell the secrets of all foreign kings;

… I’ll have them fill the public schools with silk

Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad. (Marlowe, p. 27)

In the Middle Ages, magic was condemned by the Church, and the fact that witches were hunted and burned on the stake was proof of it. Since this period represents a dark era as regards knowledge, science was considered to be on the borderline between good and evil, with a marked inclination towards the devil’s side. This is what happens with Faustus; he seeks knowledge and, by rejecting God and embracing magic, resorts to the evil spirits to achieve his goal:

“These metaphysics of magicians

And negromantic books are heavenly;

Lines, circles, letters, characters –

Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.

O, what a world of profit and delight,

Of power, of honor, and omnipotence

Is promised to the studious artisan!” (Marlowe, p. 26)

As Harry Levin explains in _Christopher Marlowe: The Overreacher_ (Levin, p. 137), when Faustus invokes the devil, the devil does not appear as the devil’s plenipotentiary; instead, he appears as a dragon and a friar as a consequence of the conjuration. These apparitions represent the first of Faustus’s many disillusions, for he was expecting to see something different. Nevertheless, Faustus is comforted by the fact that Mephostophilis will become his servant and do his every bidding in exchange for his soul. While they are talking, Faustus starts questioning him about Lucifer and how he has come to be the prince of devils; the answer he gets is quite revealing in itself: “by aspiring pride and insolence, for which God threw him from the face of heaven” (Marlowe, p. 34).

At the end of the play, it is Faustus’s pride and insolence that has him condemned and burnt in hell, just like the angels had been expelled from heaven. And, furthermore, he realizes how easily deceived he was, for selling his soul in order to resolve some of the world’s ambiguities and mysteries was not worth the risk at all: “His quest for knowledge leads him to taste the fruit of the tree that shaded Adam and Eve, to savour the distinction between good and evil” (Levin, p. 140).


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