Does Doctor Faustus confront the gap between human aspiration for life and the reality of actual living?

‘These texts confront the gap between human aspiration for life and the reality of actual living.’ Discuss the applicability of this assertion to any one of the texts studied.

Text chosen: Doctor Faustus (1604) by Christopher Marlowe, (1564-93.)

Paul Catherall

At first glance, the issue of contemporary social reality seems remote from the central concerns of Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. Faustus transgresses Christian teaching by surrendering his soul to Lucifer for personal power, thereby rejecting God’s commandments and Christ’s promise of eternal life. However, this apparently simple morality play, in which the offender is unalterably damned, does conceal a deeper moral debate, which is at the heart of Marlowe’s concerns.
The Faust legend had been widely publicised over Europe in pamphlet form, and English theatre-goers would be familiar with the Faustus story as a morality tale following the translation into English by P. F. Gent of the anonymous German Faustbuch in 1592. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus does live up to the orthodox criteria of the Faustbuch as a basic morality play, but on deeper analysis, we begin to see a work which is both problematic and unconvincing as a mediaeval morality tale.

Faustus is presented as a scholar and an ascetic, one whose academic concerns have been dominated by theology and the Christian interpretation of Aristotelian philosophy. Both Faustus and his environment are bound by the strict moral and religious code of the Middle Ages, with their emphasis on the Deadly Sins, and the Gospel of St. Paul, all of which insist upon the corrupt nature of the corporeal world. This traditional conception of redemption insisted that original sin can only be redeemed in man through abstention of worldly pleasures, and that the only alternative to the suppression of man’s internal drives is eternal damnation.
Faustus’ restless ambition is responsible for his discontentment with the lot of traditional scholarism, he seeks to reject the demands of orthodox social and moral order in order to fulfil his desires for discovery, self-expression and fulfilment. The restless spirit of the Renaissance is reflected in the acts Faustus performs, such as flying on a dragon to Heaven and Hell, and in flouting the religious orthodoxy of the Pope by entering the intrigues of the Vatican incognito. Faustus’ amazing feats are however, only a distraction from the final doom that awaits him, and their burlesque nature serves mainly to parody his imaginative but defined and limited psyche. Rather than perform altruistic works, Faustus descends into megalomania, his experience may be a warning to those who wield power to use it wisely:

‘Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere,
or the oceans to overwhelm the world…’
(Doctor Faustus, Scene 3, Lines 35-36.)

For Faustus, there can be only contentment within the pyramidal social order of which he is part, described by E. M. W. Tillyard, in his book ‘The Elizabethan World Picture,’ as ‘the chain of being.’ Expansion of personal limits within orthodox society is impossible without defying the fundamental fabric of this cosmic social order. To fulfil his desires and answer the questions he has debated, Faustus must perform the radical and sacrilegious, he must make a pact with Lucifer and incur divine retribution. E. M. W. Tillyard identifies this orthodox religious outlook in the Elizabethan age as an all-encompassing belief system, in which the only alternative was exclusion, much in the tradition of excommunication within the powerful Catholic papacy:

‘We should never let ourselves forget that the orthodox scheme of salvation was pervasive in the Elizabethan age. you could revolt against it but you could not ignore it. Atheism not agnosticism was the rule.’ (1.)

It is interesting that Marlowe chose to write what is essentially a morality play, particularly when considering Marlowe’s own ambiguous religious outlook.
Marlowe’s period was that of the Renaissance, when in Britain, the new religious and epistemological toleration that had accompanied the Reformation gave rise to some of the greatest humanist and empiricist thinkers in Europe, including the naturalist and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Erasmus (1466-1536.) Not only were theoretical outlooks changing, but society was becoming more mobile, and less dependant on the traditional landed supremacy. Elizabethan Britain was characterised by the rise of a powerful middle-class, and the supplanting of the old aristocratic order by a new, more meritocratic ‘Noblesse du’ robe.’ The England of Elizabeth I, could claim, for its times to be both a tolerant and meritocratic nation:

‘…a period in which religious enthusiasm was sufficiently dormant to allow the new humanism to shape our literature… the voyages of discovery, and the brilliant externals of Elizabethan life.’ E. M. W. Tillyard (9.)

The question then presents itself: why did Marlowe stage a mediaeval morality play, concerning human transgression and sin in such an optimistic and adventurous climate as Elizabethan England?
To begin with, Faustus is not presented simply as a sinner, one who has chosen an evil path through his own will, thus incurring divine retribution. Marlowe insists that his is the tale of an ordinary individual who attempts to attain the unobtainable, that which is forbidden to ordinary men. The aspect of Faustus as an ‘Everyman,’ is evident throughout the play. The domesticity of Faustus as an inhabitant of our everyday world is seen in Marlowe’s rejection of artistic metaphor in ‘Heroic’ verse, and of high tragic literature:

‘Not marching now in fields of Thrasimeme,
Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens,
Nor sporting in the dalliance of love
In courts of kings where state is overturned…’ (Doctor Faustus, Prologue, lines 1-4.)

Marlowe’s tone is unbiased, he begs his audience to be objective in passing moral judgement on Faustus. Faustus is presented as a fairly lowly academic, whose portrayal encompasses both psychological depth and empathy for the spectator. We are informed how Faustus, born into a poor family has been driven by ambition, and through his desire to succeed, has attained excellence in the understanding of philosophy:

‘Only this gentlemen: we must perform
the form of Faustus’ fortunes, good or bad.
To patient judgements we appeal our plaud.’
(Doctor Faustus, Prologue, lines 7-9)

The tale of Faustus is one of extreme circumstances, set in the less tolerant moral climate of the Middle Ages, and Faustus is himself a product of this moral and spiritual culture. For Faustus, the knowledge that he will trespass into forbidden lore, and transgress the maxims of Christian doctrine is mainly a subjective awareness. Faustus tells himself that the subject of his desires is amoral, he will resolve his inner yearnings for self-fulfilment through necromancy and deception of his fellow men. This resolution to study the black arts has been reached only after much internal conflict. Faustus’ conscience and the doctrines of the Church have held him back, but his innate human desire to explore and strive for greater heights have triumphed, virtually forcing him to act on that which he knows is morally wrong:

‘Settle thy studies Faustus, and begin
To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess.
Having commence’d be a divine in show,
Yet level at the end of every art…’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 1-4.)

Faust’s decision to sin seems illogical, considering the penalty of eternal damnation he will incur if he turns his back on Christ, but the process of Faustus’ descent into damnation serves two central purposes for Marlowe; firstly, Faustus stands as an example for prospective sinners. This message, or moral is the surface tale of Doctor Faustus, a man who is self conceited, and refuses to acknowledge the laws of Christ, but who discovers, to his cost that Hell does indeed exist for the unwary sinner. On the other hand, we can see Marlowe working at an altogether different level if we interpret the play as a critique, rather than an endorsement of orthodox religion, culture and social order.
We must remember that Elizabethan England was not entirely free of the Mediaeval aesthetic and religious outlook. Despite enjoying moderate religious toleration under Elizabeth’s Settlement Act (1558,) and a hitherto unseen patronage of the arts and sciences, the country’s religious and moral conscience still owed much to the mediaeval outlook on original sin, and to the theocentric tradition. Marlowe himself had been something of a rebel against the tradition amongst the lower orders, of sending educated sons to become priests or teachers. Marlowe virtually fled to London, intent on a literary career rather than become a cleric. The parallels between the ambitious Marlowe and his creation ‘Faustus’ are obvious:

‘Coming to the world picture itself, one can say dogmatically that it was still solidly theocentric, and that it was a simplified version of a much more complicated picture… ‘ E. M. W. Tillyard (3.)

The mixed outlook of the Renaissance period, when the old religious orthodoxies were being challenged, by philosophers and scientists, partly on religious and partly on epistemological grounds, is described by E. M. W. Tillyard in ‘The Elizabethan World Picture.’ Tillyard describes how Renaissance culture possessed a double outlook on man and his environment, in which the world of discovery and that of traditional teachings were constantly in conflict. It is this new world of exploration within the restrictions of traditional orthodoxy that Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus, and it is the older, less tolerant world of Mediaeval Europe which Marlowe uses as the setting for his play, emphasising the limited environs of the scholar, who is bound to the study of the defined theological systems which yet persisted in Elizabethan England:

‘Those who know most about the Middle Ages now assure us that humanism and a belief in the present life were powerful by the twelfth century, and that exhortations to condemn the world were themselves powerful at that time for that very reason. The two contradictory principles coexisted in a state of high tension.’ E. M. W. Tillyard (4.)

Faustus, although bound by the theocratic institutions about him, is also a humanist and a progressive thinker. Like Marlowe, Faustus is aware of early empirical methods of logic, and there are times when Faustus seems to stand for modern empirical reasoning against revealed Christian teachings and assumption:

‘Bene disserere est finis logices.
Is to dispute well logic’s chiefest end?
Affords this art no greater miracle?’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 7-9)

Faustus questions the cosmic binary nature of good and evil by asking the exact nature of the devil:

‘Tell me, what is that Lucifer, thy Lord?’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, line 63)

The dramatic irony, is that Faustus occupies a similar station as Lucifer, and is imbued with the same inner desire for self fulfilment, in opposition to the tenets of orthodox Christian law. Like Lucifer, Faustus has chosen to reject God’s Commandments and their accompanying limitations. Mephostophilis replies:

‘O by aspiring pride and insolence, For which God threw him form the face of Heaven.’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, line 61)

The scholarly tradition is made fun of, both through the antics of Faustus, and through his questioning of orthodox theology. Faustus rejects the traditional hierarchical structure of human society as a microcosm of the divine macrocosm, Similarly, Faustus rejects the combined Biblical and Aristotelian approach to logic and natural order as defined by St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-74:)

‘This study fits a mercenary drudge
Who aims at nothing but external trash,
Too servile and illiberal for me.
When all is done, divinity is best…’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 34-37)

Faustus’ rejection of mainstream scholasticism, which emphasised the limits of human knowledge within untouchable, divine knowledge suggests a rejection of the limitations of the individual within God’s divine scheme. Faustus suggests that he will be with the old philosophers, espousing rationalism above dogma and theology; no matter what path he chooses, however, the price of sin will be retribution within the social and spiritual order:

‘This word damnation terrifies him not,
For he confounds hell in Elysium.
His ghost will be with the old philosophers.
(Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 3, lines 57-59)

The fall of Faustus can therefore be seen to illustrate the residual presence of the scholastic tradition, and to provide a critique of contemporary social order. By the late sixteenth century, the scholastic tradition, with its emphasis on religion and with its main form of expression in the sermon, had given way to the creative literature of dramatists and writers such as Ben Johnson (1574-1637,) Michael Drayton (1563-1631,) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616.) The limitations of the Pre-Renaissance, almost entirely Latin literary culture, is seen in the confined religion-orientated world of Faustus:

‘Humanistic studies declined somewhat in the second half of the sixteenth century. We can explain the decline by the very advance of creative literature for which they had opened the way…’ Harry Levin (5.)

The dispute between the good and evil angels reflects the internal conscience struggle of Faustus, and illustrates the innate restrictions that Christian morality exerts upon the Renaissance consciousness, in opposition to the empirical and rationalist drives to discover and improve existing systems. the angels add to the plays’ moral sense, but on a deeper, metaphorical level, they reflect the dual outlook of the Renaissance, optimistic of the future, but bound by the conventions of the past. The material, or substance of Faustus’ transgression is knowledge; on the level of the morality play this represents the forbidden power and wealth which ordinary men are forbidden to attain, but on the metaphorical and allegorical level, the book represents the knowledge of the new sciences, and debate on existing ethical and epistemological systems. It is knowledge and understanding of truth, in the empirical tradition of Bacon and later, Descartes and Newton, rather than traditional revealed wisdom of the scriptures that Faustus seeks:

‘O Faustus, lay that damned book aside,
And gaze not on it lest it tempt thy soul,
And heap God’s heavy wrath upon thy head.
Read, read the scriptures: that is blasphemy.’
(Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 70-74.)

On the level of the mortality play, it could be argued that Faustus’ fall is attributable to the breaking of God’s law, and that Faustus is damned through his own sinful transgression of that law. To the mediaeval mind, this plot would seem simple in structure and purpose enough. But if we view Faustus’ fall from the point of view of an educated, middle-class Elizabethan spectator, we might consider the plot of Doctor Faustus will a touch of scepticism. Tillyard concludes that whilst still a superstitious society, the Elizabethans did not believe in absolute predestination, but believed, in the tradition of Boethius, that human actions were contributory to human fate:

‘But however pessimistic orthodoxy could be about the heaviness of the punishment inflicted through fortune on man for his fall, it always fought the superstition that man was the slave as well as the victim of chance… E. M. W. Tillyard (6.)

We have to admit that Marlowe could not seriously have written his play with moral improvement as his main focus, this is apparent when we consider that he probably attended secret atheist societies, and was several times imprisoned for his outspoken opposition to religion:
‘Though they could hardly have called him a communist they called him other things. they called him an atheist, a Miachiavellian, an Epicurean.’ Harry Levin (7)

Faustus discusses forbidden subjects whose dominion is reserved only to the mystery of religion; these include Faustus’ question to Mephostophilis, ‘Who made the world?’ Faustus is withheld this information – he may transgress the laws of God, but the mysteries of heaven and earth cannot be his, because he cannot escape the bounds of divine moral order or retribution.

Faustus is a true empiricist, who will not believe a phenomenon unless he can feel or see it for himself, he uses empirical and rationalist argument against the mimetical and dogmatic canons of established religion. As a result of this modern outlook, Faustus is unable to take seriously the superstitions of Fire and Brimstone; he flatly denies the existence of the soul, of Heaven or Hell, until he is carried there by devils. Faustus is, in short a common-sense individual who, despite initial scepticism, is gradually conditioned to accept the maxims and laws of orthodox religion and divine moral order. As mentioned previously, Faustus accepts the fact that he is about to commit sin, and believes that the only retribution that can affect him is one which is inevitable, regardless of earthly conduct, i.e.: eternal death:

‘If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and there
is no truth in us.
Why then, belike,
We must sin, and so consequently die.
Aye, we must die an everlasting death.’
(Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 42-46).

By the standards of the Mediaeval world, Faustus is a fool to misinterpret the scriptures on so basic a point as the applicability of salvation to the sinner, but to the Renaissance mind, this reflection may encompass a deliberate inverted, or double meaning, since read literally, Faustus’ interpretation suggests that we all die without hope of resurrection, and our conduct on earth makes no difference whatsoever to a post-death state. To the modern spectator therefore, this apparently ridiculous assertion may have had more significance than appears on the surface.

Marlowe’s most obvious emphasis, is in my opinion, Faustus’ tendency for self-condemnation. Faustus is a metaphor for Renaissance man, he exhibits the doctrinal dependency of modern man on outmoded belief systems, and exposes the political and social purpose of those systems as a conditioning force on a dynamic and restless society. Faustus is essentially modern man bearing the self destructive mark of original sin as described by Blake in his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Faustus always acknowledges his sin, the concept of sin as a material, human condition is never explicitly challenged, but it is questioned implicitly in the ambiguous nature of Faustus’ unalterable and predestined damnation. Faustus is integral to the world of orthodox transgression, as if he is predestined to a lowly birth, reckless ambition and resulting retribution by a repressive establishment. Mephostophilis says that hell is the human reality on earth – perhaps a suggestion by Marlowe of the moribund state of contemporary human affairs, and the need to improve on the physical, rather than spiritual life. Hell is:

‘Within the bowels of these elements.’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, Line 117.)

Mephostophilis says that hell is also based on consciousness and state of mind – Faustus is doomed by is own attitudes, suggesting a critique anticipating Blake, on the self-induced misery of ethical man:

‘Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
in one self place, but where we are is hell,
and where hell is there must we ever be.’
(Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, Line 124.)

Despite the promise of salvation, Faustus does not believe he can be saved, reflecting the older Mediaeval views on transgression and sin; this may be a device used by Marlowe to emphasise the inevitable condemnation of self expression by the exploratory man:

‘My god, My god, look not so fierce on me.’
(Doctor Faustus, Act 5, Scene 3, Line 187.)

Faustus is a powerful and tragic figure, representing on one level the fall of a gifted individual to a personal hubris or fatal flaw – in this case a combination of ambition and greed; but on another level, if read from the rationalist or empirical perspective, Faustus is the pitiful product of a moribund society, unable to provide adequate means of expression for the genius like Faustus. Instead, like Leonardo da Vinci and Copernicus, great men must live in the shadow of a limited, oppressive orthodoxy:

‘His reasons for opening negotiations with Lucifer are far from simple, and his fault of selling his soul may be seen today as that of a bored genius, rather than that of a wicked blasphemer.’ William Tydeman (8.)

Therefore, it seems that Doctor Faustus was indeed written as a metaphorical work, and not intended to be understood literally. The presence of devils such as Mephostophilis and Lucifer are implausible, and demand the spectator’s interpretation of the play as an allegory of sin and redemption only at the most basic level. Marlowe intended the work to question the belief systems and scholarly attitudes of the contemporary academia, but only in a covert and suggestive form.
The text does, therefore confront the gap between the reality of human society in Elizabethan Britain and the aspirations of men like Faustus, who are doomed ultimately to conform in some measure to the fundamental belief systems that characterise the Christian faith.
The play is not, as it first appears, an endorsement of traditional Christian doctrine, but a subversive challenge to the limited belief systems of an age, and a grim reminder of the reality of Renaissance man’s retribution-entrenched psyche. Marlowe’s presentation of the Faustus story is ultimately of a man whose sin is to enact his internal human desires, and whose retribution is the product of an effacing and narrow institutional establishment, which uses Christian morality as a means of self-preservation. The play does address the gap between human aspiration and social reality, in this case Marlowe exposes to some extent the fallacy of the Renaissance dream, through the apparent destruction of a dreamer who aspires too high, and comes too close to challenging heaven itself. There is really no resolution in Doctor Faustus, only Marlowe’s subversive and covert rendering of the paradoxical nature of Renaissance society, aspiring toward progress and exploration, yet intrinsically bound to the narrow morality of the middle ages:
‘What art thou Faustus, but a man condemned to die?
Thy fatal time draws to a final end.
Despair doth drive distrust into thy thoughts;
Confound these passions with a quiet sleep.’
(Doctor Faustus, Act 4, Scene 4 Lines 22-25.)


Primary Text

Christopher Marlowe, Complete Plays and Poems, ed. E. D. Pendry (Great Britain: Everyman, 1997)

Secondary Reading

D. S. Kastan and P. Stallybrass, Staging the Renaissance, (London: Routledge, 1991)
E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972)
Harry Levin, Christopher Marlowe: The Overreacher, (London: Faber, 1967)
J. P. Brockbank, Marlowe, (London: Edward Arnold, 1971)
Millar MacLure (Ed.,) Marlowe, The Critical Heritage, (Great Britain: 1971)
William Tydeman, Doctor Faustus, (London: Macmillan, 1984)


(1.) E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972) p.26.
(2.) Harry Levin, Christopher Marlowe: The Overreacher, (London: Faber, 1967) p19
(3.) E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972) p.12.
(4.) E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972) p.28
(5.) Harry Levin, Christopher Marlowe: The Overreacher, (London: Faber, 1967) p.22
(6.) E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972) p.50
(7.) William Tydeman, Doctor Faustus, (London: Macmillan, 1984) p.22
(8.) William Tydeman, Doctor Faustus, (London: Macmillan, 1984) p.128
(9.) E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972) p.1