Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" has a number of complex themes that need to be undrestood for a proper and thorough appreciation of the play. Apart from various literary modes, certain significant social and political implications exist, which are quite relevant to Marlowe's time (Elizabethan/Renaissance England and Europe in general) and which students should be familiar with when approaching the text.
Main Themes in Doctor Faustus: A Brief Outline Note
It must be remembered, first of all, that Marlowe was writing at a time when there was a fierce antagonism in England, towards Roman Catholicism, following the break with Rome brought about by King Henry VIII (1553-1558) and the persecution of Protestants by the (majority) Catholics in Europe.
An anti-Catholic play would, thus, have been popular amongst Elizabethan audiences/public, even though extreme religious fanatics/puritans might have objected to plays and such entertainments in any case. Marlowe's audience would have for the most part been fully aware of the religious threat of damnation, and must have possessed a lively fear of Hell and the devils. In stressing Faustus's alliance with Lucifer and thereby ensuring his eternal damnation, Marlowe was, to an extent (despite his non-conventional and rebellious views) trying to conform to orthodox theology?yet, at the same time, this view was very much at odds with his own somewhat heretical ideas (by the standards of his day). He may have felt constrained by this attempt to conform with his time, but perhaps we may detect Marlowe's skepticism in his ability retain our sympathy for Faustus, despite his damnable alliance. It is, therefore, best to look at the issues and themes in the play, before drawing any general, overall conclusions.
1. Religious elements
Ironically, a very obvious religious tone is given to the play as a whole, by the presence of a number of devilish characters which are physically represented herein. The figure of Satan, or Lucifer (the name Marlowe gives him in the play), was one of God's lieutenants in Heaven (according to basic Christian theology), until his desire for more power and his pride led him to rebellion; for which presumption, he was ejected from Heaven and condemned, together with some other supporters, or 'fallen angels', to eternal damnation in Hell, where they also tried to pull human sinners, after them.
Faustus: And what are you that live with Lucifer?
Mephistophilis: Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,
Conspir'd against our God with Lucifer,
And are for ever damn'd with Lucifer
(I.iv, lines 69-72)
Now lodged in Hell, this devilish, as opposed to Heavenly, 'trinity' consists of Lucifer, Belzebub (both of whom appear in the play) and Demogorgon. Mephistophilis is also a fallen angel, notable for his powerful and affecting speech to Faustus concerning the ecstasy of Heaven.
Mephistophilis: Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
(I.IV, lines 78-80)
The other lesser devils whom we see are the more conventional figures, frequently portrayed in painting and carvings (particularly of the Last Judgement) as frighteningly ugly, gross animal-like creatures taking vicious enjoyment in driving the damned souls to perpetual torment in Hell. In the last moments of the play, the pit of Hell is opened up before us as Faustus's body is dragged down.
But Marlowe also creates a very firm image of Heaven by his constant references to it, in the play:
Good Angel: Sweet Faustus, think of heaven and heavenly things
(II. I, line 21)
Faustus: When I behold the heavens then I repent,
And curse thee, wicked Mephistophilis,
Because thou hast depriv'd me of those joys
(II.ii, lines 1-3)
The religious concepts of damnation and salvation are treated according to contemporary theology. The Good Angel explains the 'ladder of repentance' by which salvation might be achieved.
Faustus: Contrition, prayer, repentance, what of these?
Angel: O they are means to bring thee unto heaven
( II. I, lines 17-18)
Man achieved salvation not through his own merits, but by Christ's intervention. His sacrifices as Redeemer secured the gift of mercy for all genuinely repentant sinners.
Belief in God's forgiveness and mercy was an essential element in the soul's salvation. Despair, denial of or refusal to accept God's mercy inevitably led to damnation. The verses that Faustus quotes in his dismissal of Divinity at the beginning of the play refer to his doctrine of forgiveness. He stresses the sections of the verses that refer to judgement but ignores the concluding phrases that offer forgiveness to the repentant. Theologically speaking, Faustus's damnation can be seen as the outcome of his refusal to believe in God's forgiving mercy.
2. Doctor Faustus as a Morality Play
Popular in medieval and Tudor times and performed regularly in schools and colleges, as well as some public venues, ...
This is an outline of major/main themes in Marlowe's play, ''Doctor Faustus'', which discusses various elements that are of significance therein, and which would be helpful for students approaching the text, or already reading it.