ENGL 204 / 331: Renaissance Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus
[page numbers refer to NA 9th ed., 2013]

Background Readings:

  • From the NA Introduction to the Renaissance, "The Elizabethan Theater" (NA 555-61)
  • Headnotes for Christopher Marlowe (NA 1106-7) and for Dr. Faustus (NA 1127); 
  • Diagram of "A London Playhouse of Shakespeare's Time," NA appendix A49. 
  • Online reading: Shakespearean Verse and Prose (if necessary, consult the glossary of Literary Terminology at NA A10-A27).
  • Online reading: Tragedy
Reminder:  you are expected to PRINT OUT all online and e-reserve readings, place them in your binder, and bring them with you to class! 

Primary Readings:

  • Review selections from Everyman (handout distributed day 1)
  • Dr. Faustus (NA 1128-63). 
REMINDER:  click on the link to access the Dr. Faustus study guide, which should be printed out, placed in your binder, and brought with you to class.   Study Guides should always be consulted BEFORE reading the text.

General: Marlowe and the Theater

  • Where were the first theaters in London located? Why wasn't a more central location found? What were some of the causes for the hostility of civic and church authorities toward the theater? (see esp. NA 560). 
  • GENRE:  Consult online reading on Tragedy, paying particular attention to the difference between medieval and Renaissance notions of Tragedy. Dr. Faustus and Tamburlaine are both "heroic tragedies" in which a larger-than-life hero "over reaches," challenging the limits of human possibility; Tamburlaine does so out of a thirst for limitless power, and Faustus because he desires limitless knowledge (see NA 1107, 1127).
  • FORM: Consult online reading Shakespearean Verse and Prose (and if necessary NA A-10 through A-27).  Know definition of blank verse (also known as "Marlowe's mighty line") and when and to what effect it was typically used (see Shakespearean Verse and Prose). 
  • Familiarize yourself with the biographical details of Marlowe's life. When did he live? How and when did he die? What was his social class and educational background? What would appear to be Marlowe's attitude toward the church? Is Marlowe a typical humanist? Know what Hero and Leander was and note its classical inspiration (NA 1107-8; note that Shakespeare also wrote an "epyllion" in the "mythological-erotic mode," Venus and Adonis; see NA 1108). Why might these two playwrights have been eager to demonstrate their skill at this style of poem? 
  • When was Dr. Faustus written? Why are two dates given for Dr. Faustus in our anthology, and which one corresponds to our reading (see NA 1127, 1163)?  Know principal source of the text (see NA 1127). What humanist concerns do you find in Dr. Faustus


Dr. Faustus

Form: Note that while most of the play is written in blank verse, some passages are not. When and under what circumstances is prose used? Do any characters speak in both prose and blank verse? If so, when is each form is used? When and for what does Marlowe choose rhymed verse? What is the effect of this variation in form?

In particular, note the alternation of scenes primarily in prose and scenes primarily in blank verse; also, of prose and blank verse within individual scenes. Is there any pattern to this alternation? (e.g. "high" and "low" scenes or subject matter; "serious" and "comical" characters; interior monologues vs. dialogue with other characters.)

Themes: What is the attitude toward learning in this play? Note the various references to books and learning, e.g. in Dr. Faustus's monologue (sc. 1) as he rejects the classical disciplines in turn as unworthy of his further attention. Why does he turn to Necromancy? Note which books Cornelius directs him to use to conjure the devil. What is implied about the power and nature of scripture and of learning in general? Is the setting of the play significant? Recall that Wittenberg is the German town where Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in 1517, sparking the Reformation; it was also the site of a famous medieval university (where Shakespeare sent his Hamlet). Note that the Wittenberg setting was not invented by Marlowe (it already existed in his German source). Notice the forms of address used for Faustus (e.g., the Doctor, the conjurer, etc.) When is each used? What is implied? Note also the comments of the scholars in scs. 12 and 13. Do they change the depiction of learning in the play?

Are there parallels between Dr. Faustus and Lucifer? (There will be instructive parallels between Marlowe's Faustus and the Lucifer of Milton's Paradise Lost.)  To what extent is Marlowe's Lucifer typical of Renaissance rather than medieval world views? The Seven Deadly Sins who appear in sc. 5 confer upon Dr. Faustus a thematic link to the medieval genre known as the morality play, which also used allegorical personification to teach a lesson about the battle of good and evil in one man's soul, or the psychomachia (see Everyman study guide). The Seven Deadly Sins will reappear in Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Which sin appears first to Dr. Faustus? What is the significance of that order to the themes of the play? What is the function of the Old Man who urges Faustus to repent in sc. 12? What about the scholars in sc. 13? Why doesn't Faustus take their advice?

What is the function of the "low" comedy scenes (Wagner; the "clown"; Rafe and Robin; the Horse-Courser)? Do they provide a dramatic counterpoint to the more serious, "high" scenes of "grand aspiration"? What does the counterpoint suggest? (Note for example the allusions to hunger and appetite in scs. 4, 5, 7 and 11; to conjuring books in 5, 6, and 8; the two stolen cups in 7 and 8.) What is the comic effect? Can comedy be serious? 

Note the appearance of Helen of Troy in sc. 12. What role does she play in the drama of Faustus's damnation? What does her presence suggest about Marlowe's attitudes toward women?  Consider also the comments on wives and marriage (sc. 5) and the role of the Duchess of Vanholt (sc. 11).

Note the degradation of Dr. Faustus from scene to scene. What is his relationship with the Holy Roman Emperor and the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt? Is his behavior consistent with his earlier ambitions? What sort of interaction does he have with the horse trader? For what is he now using his magical powers? What do Faustus's various acts of magic have in common? Are his actions what one had expected when he explained his reasons for accepting Lucifer's bargain?

How is Dr. Faustus representative of the spirit of the Renaissance? (Note, in addition to the theme of books and learning, the allusions to the New World throughout the play.) For what qualities can he be admired? How are those qualities linked to his downfall? What is suggested about the link between learning and power? Between learning and pride? Consider the final comments of the scholars (scs. 12 and 13) and the Chorus. Do these speeches change somewhat the representation of learning within the play?

To what extent is Dr. Faustus a Renaissance version of a morality play (comparable with the late-medieval Everyman, which we discussed briefly the first day of class)? Consider e.g. the presence of Good and Bad Angels, Lucifer, Mephistophilis, the Seven Deadly Sins; note also the comments of Wagner and the Old Man in sc. 12. To what extent does Dr. Faustus function as an ars moriendi teaching the audience to "die well"? As a psychomachia (a battle within, and over, the human soul)? Despite the surface similarities, what is distinctly non-medieval about Dr. Faustus? (Consider e.g. performers, target audience and purpose.) For more on the medieval morality play (and specifically on the play Everyman), see Everyman Study guide.

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