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Christopher Marlowes Faustus The Tragic Genre English Literature Essay

Dr Faustus was written by Christopher Marlowe and was first published in 1604. Marlowe was known for his blank verse, his overreaching protagonists, and his mysterious death in 1593. As with other writers of the period, little is known about Marlowe. This has not stopped writers of both fiction and non-fiction from speculating about his activities and character. Marlowe has often been described as a spy, a brawler, a heretic and a homosexual. The evidence for most of these claims is slight. The bare facts of Marlowe's life have been embellished by many writers into colourful, and often fanciful, narratives of the Elizabethan underworld. Marlowe is said to have inspired Shakespeare with his writing style, leading to perhaps far-fetched speculation surrounding the idea that Marlowe is in fact Shakespeare. To understand whether or not Faustus conforms to the genre of tragedy. We have to look at the beginning of tragedy. Tragedy as a genre started off in Ancient Greece thanks to playwrights such as Sophocles and Aristotle. Dr. Faustus has been subject to criticism regarding its ambiguous nature most notably from Andrew Duxfield whom through close analysis of the text, cited numerous instances from Faustus which indeed meant that Dr Faustus would be considered a tragedy[1]. Dr Faustus does in fact conform to the tragic genre because of the hubristic nature of Dr Faustus and his conformity to the stereotype of a tragic hero if viewed by a post renaissance audience.

To define whether or not Faustus can be considered a tragedy, we need to consider what constitutes a tragedy. Aristotle described tragedy as ‘an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete (composed of an introduction, a middle part and an ending), and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.’[2]

Marlowe himself called the play ‘The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus’ signifying either that Marlowe did want Faustus to be viewed as a tragic play, or perhaps that he wanted his audience to question why Dr Faustus is noted as a tragedy. For a tragedy to be noted as such, it has to have a tragic hero, a protagonist. A tragic hero is defined as ‘a literary character who makes an error of judgment or has a fatal flaw that, combined with fate and external forces, brings on a tragedy.’[3] We have to judge Faustus by his nature as a character. The play begins with the chorus telling us the prologue in which we learn about Faustus who was born to lower-class parents, this was a deviation from earlier medieval plays as it wasn’t telling us a story of courtly love or of a rich nobleman. The prologue gives us an introduction into Faustus’ wisdom and academia. Something so great that he is awarded a doctorate. During this opening, we also get our first clue to the source of Faustus' downfall. Faustus' tale is likened to that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death when the sun melted his waxen wings. ‘His waxen wings did mount above his reach, And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.’[4] This is indeed a hint to Faustus' end as well as bringing our attention to the idea of hubris which is represented in the Icarus story. The likening to the story of Icarus enables us to see Faustus somewhat as a tragedy because Icarus was a tragedy therefore, we get the impression that Dr Faustus is in fact a tragic play. Faustus can be considered a tragic hero as to a post renaissance audience, he is easily liked as we know that he has already cured people of the plague therefore setting his status as a hero. At the beginning of scene one, we see immediately what Faustus’ Hubris is.

During Faustus’ soliloquy, Faustus is deciding what to study, he describes the necromantic books as ‘Heavenly’[4] which introduces an ironic application of religious language which will continue throughout the play. Upon deciding on what to study, he says that he appreciates Logic as being a tool for arguing; Medicine as being unvalued unless it allowed raising the dead and immortality; Law as being upstanding and above him; Divinity as useless because he feels that all humans commit sin, and thus to have sins punishable by death complicates the logic of Divinity. He dismisses it as "What doctrine call you this? Que sera, sera (What will be, shall be)"[4]. This instantly shows us his overconfidence because he has misinterpreted the bible because he hasn’t read on and discovered that we can redeem our sins. He believes the bible to be a syllogism. This also shows that Faustus apparently believes that he is damned to hell anyway and that he can’t be redeemed because it’s fate. This links us to the idea of Calvinism and how we can consider Faustus a tragic hero. Faustus is a character who has worked for his status, he has cured men and women of the plague, he’s intelligent and he is likeable. If Faustus is fated, then he is a tragic hero because a tragic hero is defined as a literary character with a fatal flaw, which, combined with fate, leads to a tragic ending.

The main aim of tragedy is catharsis. Faustus could be considered a tragedy because of the use of comical scenes within the play in order to aid catharsis. Examples of humour in the play are most notably the Robin and Rafe scenes. In act two, scene two for instance, we see Robin entering with a book in his hand which he says he’s stolen from Faustus. There’s a heavy use of sexual innuendo in this scene as well such as ’the gentleman that would have his things rubbed and made clean; he keeps such a chafing with my mistress about it…’[4] The use of this sexual innuendo, despite the appearance of sexual connotations throughout the play suggest an almost humorous attitude. One of the few logical reasons for these scenes even being in the play are not so much as to continue the story, but, so that it can lighten the mood of such a dark and serious play along with the aid of catharsis. If the play was not a tragedy, there would be no need for these comical scenes because the audience wouldn’t require something to distract and help to release tension. Dr Faustus follows the classic trajectory of tragedy because it starts out with the protagonist at the pinnacle of achievement and it ends with our protagonist after fault of his own becoming damned and with no chance of redemption at all. The comedic scenes help the play to return to ’real-time.’ These comical scenes also mirror the action of the play. For example, Wagner mocks Faustus trying to decide what he should study. “Wagner tries to imitate Faustus and the pattern repeats itself when Robin tries to imitate Wagner.”[5] Interestingly, the comical scenes of the play are open to speculation, it’s been suggested that Marlowe didn’t actually write these comical scenes.

In act 2 scene 3, there’s a very interesting use of the word ‘can.’ The Good Angel says ‘Never too late, if Faustus can repent.’ The word ‘can’ in this instance implies that repentance is beyond the control of Faustus showing that Faustus is damned no matter what he does furthering the idea that Dr Faustus is a tragedy[4]. Interestingly, the B text of the play used ‘will’ in place of ‘can’ in order to soothe the audience’s idea that if Faustus wants to repent, then he will. [6] The most curious thing to consider is that, throughout the play, Faustus is never presented to us as neither wholly good nor wholly bad leading us to like the character of Faustus a bit more furthering the idea that Faustus is in fact a tragic hero. Marlowe’s skilful writing throughout the play, most notably in the soliloquy gives us access to Faustus’ inner thoughts, his complex, his nature and his views meaning that, when Faustus does fall, we have a greater emotional response to this through Marlowe’s writing suggesting that it’s right to call Dr Faustus a tragedy.

To successfully define Faustus, we need to consider that it could fall into other genres of plays. The most prominent genre bar the evident tragedy is that Faustus could fall in to the category of a morality play. A morality play is defined as ‘A drama in the 15th and 16th centuries using allegorical characters to portray the soul's struggle to achieve salvation.’[7] Morality plays involved the personification of moral attributes in order to influence the protagonist. There are a number of instances of this throughout the play. For example, the Good and Evil Angels who try to influence Faustus into either a) trying to find redemption in order to save himself from eternal damnation, or b) trying to ensure that Faustus doesn’t achieve redemption and does in fact sell his soul to the Devil. Considering Mephistopheles’ to also be an example albeit not a very clear one. This is because Mephistopheles can be influencing to Faustus at times despite the evident attempts to appear neutral. However, Mephistopheles’ influence changes repeatedly through giving hints to Faustus about the fact that he may have misinterpreted the bible wrong, or at certain times, almost rushing him to sign the deal with the devil. Notably, in the B text of the play, the Evil Angel is referred to as the Bad Angel suggesting that there is no evil and that Faustus can redeem himself if he so chooses. It would appear as though Faustus is trying to teach its audience about the spiritual and moral dangers of arrogance and ambition. A very prominent example of this is the fact that at the end of the play, Faustus is damned to hell for his hubristic nature. The idea that Dr Faustus is a morality play is deepened in act 2 scene 3 when we see the appearance of Lucifer and the Seven Deadly Sins personified. Throughout the different performances of Dr Faustus, the way in which the Seven Deadly Sins have been shown on stage have differed immensely. For example, in one production, the Seven Deadly Sins were puppets in order to show Faustus’ detrimental state of mind. In other plays, they’ve been shown as real people suggesting that whether or not Faustus is viewed as a tragedy or a morality play is completely subjective to how it’s staged implying that, the genre it falls under during production is that of which the director feels it should fall in to based on their interpretation of Dr Faustus. When trying to define Faustus, something to remember is that the most prominent theme within Dr Faustus is the conflict of Good and Evil. The conflicting moralities were a big part of Medieval morality plays suggesting that Marlowe was influenced to create a morality play that would teach the audience to delve deeper into their subconscious and learn that overconfidence and arrogance will inevitably lead to a downfall for mankind. Morality plays also have no need for the use of catharsis which Faustus has prominent examples of because it isn’t an intense play, it’s simply a play with a moral. A morality play implies that the characters can in fact seek redemption if they so wish it. In the case of the A text of Dr Faustus, there is no hope for Faustus to be redeemed, he is damned from the beginning.

Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, albeit debatably does in fact fall into the genre of tragedy. The fact that Faustus is a tragic hero and such a tragic hero cannot be the hero of a morality play. In spite of the very obvious links towards the medieval morality plays, it can never be wholly a morality play. Dr Faustus is one of the most ambiguous plays before Shakespeare’s time and with one of the greatest heroic tragedies before Shakespeare. The enormous emphasis that Marlowe places on characterisation and inner conflict of the soul, combined with the in depth knowledge of Faustus’ complex and the great emotional attachment to when Faustus is truly damned to hell shows that it conforms to Aristotle’s version of tragedy. However, I do believe that what genre Dr Faustus falls into is very much subjective to the performance of the play and how the scene with the Seven Deadly Sins is staged.

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