Story Spotlight Post: Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”

My beautiful friends!

How art thou?

How goest thou October?

I have been having a rather enjoyable time of things myself, albeit an exhausting, mind-bending, altogether insane one (what with the mess of school and all).

But, in other news, I got bangs, so that made me happy:

Still not sure if I’ll do it again – I feel a bit like Clara Oswald, which also makes me quite happy.

Look at her lil face.

She’s such a queeeeeen.


I also miss my forehead and the little pimples popping up in retaliation to the hair on my brow is kind of annoying.

*sighs* the woes of womanhood.


On to today’s post!

I am an English major (literature emphasis), and the subject matter of my recent classes has been quite exhilarating (except for critical theory, which I loathe).

We have been going through Renaissance literature in one of my classes, and this last week we read through Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Not only did we read through it, but we watched an adaptation of it as performed in 2012 at The Globe Theatre in London.

The production was amazing, and I would highly recommend it. It was lewd at certain moments, sexually suggestive in others, and the sexual suggestions were quite explicit, I should mention. But, I felt that those moments were kind of necessary since in the play Mephistopheles uses things like pleasure and sex to tempt Faustus. I just looked away a few times, since my professor didn’t really believe in the fast-forward feature hahaha. 😉

But nevertheless, it was brilliant – the acting was superb, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Anyway, going back to Doctor Faustus: this was an amazing play about redemption, damnation, how-far-is-too-far-gone, and the forgiveness of God.

Here’s a really brief summary of Doctor Faustus that I found on YouTube – just so you guys can watch it and get familiar with the overall storyline itself before I discuss the play:

So begins another spotlight post! I haven’t done one of these in a while, but here we go! Here’s the top three things I found interesting about Doctor Faustus, and why I now consider it one of my favorite plays from the Renaissance period (and one that is unjustly underrated).

*This post does contain images from Google – I don’t own any of these pictures 😉 .

#1 – Oxymoronic Literary Devices

In this play, I found so many instances where words, exclamations, and ideas would contradict each other. I’m not in any way saying that Marlowe’s text is self-contradictory; that’s not what I mean at all.

What I mean is there are tons of statements from the hero (Dr. Faustus) that contradict themselves. Faustus is believing a lie, and a plethora of his statements are self-contradictory. And the irony is that he doesn’t realize it until he is about to be dragged off to hell by an army of demons.

I didn’t discuss this in class with my fellow students, but I really wanted to. Or to talk about it with my professor, but it slipped my mind.

Here are a few instances where oxymorons kind of slip through the narrative if you are not careful to spot them:

“These metaphysics of magicians / And necromantic books are heavenly” (1.49-50)!

“[Enter a devil] / I charge thee to return and change thy shape, / Thou art too ugly to attend on me; / Go and return an old Franciscan friar, / That holy shape becomes a devil best” (3.22-26).

Misericordia pro nobis! What shall I do? Good devil, forgive / me now, and I’ll never rob thy library more” (8.30-31).

“Sweet Mephistopheles, entreat thy lord / To pardon my unjust presumption” (12.60-61).

These are only four examples of the oxymoronic statements within the play, but I think this will help you realize just how incompatible some of these statements are.

Necromantic books and witchcraft cannot be heavenly.

A devil is an ugly being, so ordering it to change into a Franciscan friar to transform it into a holy shape is is in itself an oxymoronic action, because to do so is to disguise a truth and make it into a lie.

The phrase “good devil” is impossible. A devil is bad. There is no such thing as a good devil. Nevertheless, this statement is made within the text.

These subtle oxymoronic statements communicate so much about a main theme within the play: mistaking what is evil for what is good comes with devastating consequences. It reminds me of the verse in Isaiah which says:

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Isaiah 5:20

Faustus seems to have taken this exact route, finding Mephistopheles and an alliance with Lucifer good and better than allegiance to God and the “Divinity” that he bids “adieu” to in the first scene of the play when he is introduced.

And woe to him, for just as the scripture says, Faustus is dragged off to hell at the end of the play.

#2 – Mephistopheles

Let me just say that it was one of the weirdest things seeing my little baby angel Rory Williams playing an evil, conniving demon from literal hell in the Globe’s 2011 production of Faustus. A couple of classmates and I were laughing with one another when he first showed up (which was quite anticlimactic) and asking each other “what the heck is Rory doing here?”

I mean really…does this not look weird to any other fellow Whovians in the audience?

Oh my baby Rory, how far you’ve come.

Someone help my son. He’s lost it.

But seriously: this character. This demon. Mephistopheles.

He is officially one of my favorite characters in the entire play (perhaps in all of Renaissance dramas), and I feel the audience is so inclined to like him and to agree with him – until of course he hauls Faustus off to hell in the final scene.

And I honestly don’t think it’s because Arthur Darvill had the role. 😆

Even before watching the production, I found myself actually liking Mephistopheles. I found myself agreeing with him. He has more truth to be said than Faustus himself! He speaks more truth than the hero of the story, who is a sixteenth-century Renaissance man who has studied Divinity, Philosophy, Physics, and the Law.

Something is terribly wrong here if we find ourselves liking and agreeing with a demon from literal hell in a play about necromancy and damnation. Yet another oxymoronic device, eh?

What makes Mephistopheles such a great character?

By reading the below passage, I think you’ll see what I mean:

Faustus: First will I question thee about hell:
Tell me, where is the place that men call hell?

Mephistopheles: Under the heavens.

Faustus: Ay, but whereabouts?

Mephistopheles: Within the bowels of these elements,
Where we are tortured and remain for ever.
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.
And to conclude, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that is not heaven.

Faustus: Come, I think hell’s a fable.

Mephistopheles: Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind….

I find myself agreeing with Mephistopheles in this passage and finding myself annoyed with Faustus more and more. Mephistopheles, a demon from hell, begins to give a really interesting (and fairly accurate) Biblical theology of hell, and Faustus dismisses the idea of hell as a fable.

I actually laughed out loud when Mephistopheles remarks “Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind…” Yeah, I’m sure it will, Mephistopheles!! When you drag me to hell in twenty-four years then I’ll definitely know that hell is real.

Mephistopheles is a demon who has the truth in a drama where the protagonist is a human intent on believing a lie. As a Christian, I actually agree with Mephistopheles and see his truth claims (almost exhortations) as valid. I want Faustus to believe him, because if Faustus believes the demon, he would most likely repent and turn to God.

Look at this lil demon bean. I’m still dead inside.

So that made Mephistopheles such a wonderful character for me. He was a truthful demon, which is again an oxymoron (demons have liar in their job description). Albeit malicious (and eventually the one claiming Faustus’s soul for the devil), he was the only one who actually has it right – and he’s a demon.

And that just fascinates me.

#3 – The Final Scene

This is the best part of the play. Without argument. Faustus delivers a heart-wrenching soliloquy as he realizes how he really is damned, and he is carried off to hell at the strike of midnight.

I think anyone who reads Doctor Faustus can actually feel the agony, the despair, the pain, and the panic of this moment: the moment when Faustus realizes that he is, in fact, damned. He has realized it before, but every time he thinks about repenting, Mephistopheles comes to entertain Faustus with pleasures to distract his mind from his impending doom.

But this time Mephistopheles is not here; and when he arrives, he’s ready to take Faustus into the torments of hell.

The description of hell is actually quite riveting, and it honestly made me shiver a bit. (The following is from “Act V, Scene II” because this was not included in the text I read. This is from the alternate text, but I found it harrowing).

Evil Angel: Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare

[Hell is discovered]

Into that vast perpetual torture-house:

There are the Furies tossing damned souls

On burning forks; there bodies boil in lead;

There are live quarters broiling on the coals,

That ne’er can die; this ever-burning chair

Is for o’er-tortur’d souls to rest them in;

These that are fed with sops of flaming fire,

Were gluttons, and lov’d only delicates,

And laugh’d to see the poor starve at their gates:

But yet all these are nothing; thou shalt see

Ten thousand tortures that more horrid be.

And then Faustus exclaims: “O, I have seen enough to torment me!”

But the devil exclaims that now he must feel them and not just see them.

He has realized it before, but I feel like in the moment of the final soliloquy Faustus believes himself to be beyond the action of repentance. He has sold his soul to the devil, and he cannot possibly expect God to forgive him.

But the fact of the matter is, he never actually asks.

And I think this is the great irony of Doctor Faustus…another oxymoron. As a Christian myself, I understand the unending grace of God, and I’m sure did many Christians during the Renaissance.

The entire audience implores Faustus to repent, because they know that if he does, the play will have a happy ending and our protagonist will have ascended to heavenly glory.

But that isn’t what happens. Faustus already believes that God hates him, and without even attempting to cry out for forgiveness, the doctor is hauled off to hell.

He even asks for the earth to swallow him up and for the mountains to fall on him, that they might hide him from both the hosts of hell and from the wrath of God, and it instantly reminded me of the verses in Luke 23 and Revelation 6 when the people in the end times beg for the same fate.

From Doctor Faustus at the Globe 2012

But he dies, and he is damned, and the play’s chorus confirms that Faustus is still in hell and still damned.

*and then Matt Smith comes with a baby named Amelia Pond to pick up Mephistopheles, and he flies away with them in a blue police box (I’m kidding that’s just a fandom crossover) WHY RORY???


What a play.

I had never read The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus until last week, and I’m so glad I did. It is officially one of my favorite plays. Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare, but he honestly does not get enough recognition. At least not in high school literature classes, that is.

I heartily recommend it to any Medieval/Renaissance history buffs or theology buffs or anybody! Maribeth, I thought of you in particular: I think you would find the theology of this play particularly interesting, especially since we share quite a few of the same ideas about early Christian writers, theology, and literature.

Anyways, I hope you all enjoyed this post, and I hope I’ve inspired some of you to read Doctor Faustus. It’s a marvelous play. I truly hope some of you will take the time to read it. And be sure to let me know if you do!

I’ll be posting soon! Love you all 🙂


4 thoughts on “Story Spotlight Post: Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”

    1. Morbid is a perfect description. Doctor Faustus truly is that. And yes, there are two versions of the text. Literary scholars aren’t sure if they were both written by Marlowe or if one was tampered with by someone after Marlowe died (as there are references to later historical figures in the alternate text who were born after Marlowe died). Either way, they still get the main story across. The description of hell I quoted in this post is actually from “Text B” as many scholars call it.

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