Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus
There are many cases throughout history that depict characters who are overzealous with regard to their desire for knowledge or for power. One of the most important of these stories is the first tale of our hunger for unreachable power. It is that of Adam and Eve and the manner in which they disobeyed God by eating from the tree of knowledge. In the play The Tragic History of Dr. Faustus, the same battle that has consumed humans since their dawn appears to be exhibited in the character of Dr. Faustus. He fights a battle that has been fought by all: that for perfection. And yet he is never able to achieve this perfect because of his inherent human nature to never feel satisfied.
Faustus is offered salvation continually throughout the play and yet he turns it down. This piece of literature remains a classic as it displays Faustus with a great amount of knowledge placed before him and yet leaves it behind him in pursuit of something beyond. Our human nature is what causes us to work with blind faith as our guide hoping that the path right in front of us is the best one and reaching out for it in gluttony. In this play Dr. Faustus was even subject to the mortal decisions between right and wrong. But because of the fall of Adam and Eve and the original gluttony and desire for more it seems that even Dr. Faustus was condemned to live a life constantly wanted more than was given to him, which only served to leave him never content and empty.
Dr. Faustus longs for knowledge and will stop at nothing to obtain it. Yet he realizes that certain steps in his life must be completed in order to get to that knowledge. He realizes though that brutal force at the expense of everyone else is not how he can go about obtaining the things he wants. Finally Dr. Faustus is ready to learn too much. Heaven seeks to bring him down as he mounts his waxen wings and reaches for more. His final downfall was met in the same manner as Icarus in that he mounted wings and headed for Heaven only to be brought down as his wings melted. In the end this work of literary art demonstrates the idea that gluttony will only serve as a way to bring you back to the path of dissatisfaction no matter how hard you fight against it.
Blank Verse and Free Verse, Allegory and Soliloquy
The Verse! It's Blank!
The main plot of Doctor Faustus is written in blank verse, which is a lot less blank than it sounds. Blank verse is the fancy pants term for unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is the fancy pants term for… well something that's fancy in and of itself.
Iambic pentameter is a line that's made up of ten syllables in which each unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one. Each set of these two syllables is called a foot, and there are five of them in each line (making for a total of ten syllables per line).
But you know what? It's easier to understand if you can see it in action, so take a look at the start of Doctor Faustus:
Not marching now in fields of Trasimene,
Where Mars did mate the Carthaginians,
See how the unstressed and stressed syllables alternate? When you read it aloud, it sounds a little like this: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. Got it?
The dudes in tweed talk about iambic pentameter in terms of how regular it is. Do the feet all sound the same, or are there little variations here and there, like extra or out-of-order syllables? Well, lucky for you Shmoopers, the iambic pentameter in Doctor Faustus is highly regular, which makes for a nice, easy read. The words just flow.
Most of the main plot, the one featuring Faustus and Mephistopheles, is written in blank verse. But sometimes Marlowe switches it up a bit by having characters talk in free verse, which is just good old fashioned prose. All of the scenes with the town peasants are written in free verse. Hmm. We wonder why that is.
Well, blank verse is often reserved by poets and playwrights for serious stuff. Prose, on the other hand, was seen as less high falutin', and therefore it's a more fitting form for scenes involving peasants and comedy. So Marlowe's switching back and forth between the two is probably just his way of signaling to his audience the distinction between the important scenes and the comedic subplot.
Alligator… Oops We Mean Allegory
Yep, we just threw another fancy term at you. But allow us to explain: an allegory is a literary device in which abstract concepts are given concrete form as people or objects.
Still stumped? Let's take a closer look at Doctor Faustus in particular.
Doctor Faustus uses a type of allegory that was super common in medieval drama. In this type of allegory, sins and virtues are represented by actual people. And in Doctor Faustus those people are the Seven Deadly Sins, the Old Man, and the Good and Bad Angels, which personify Faustus's internal debate about whether or not he's truly damned.
Stop Talking to Yourself, Dr. F
One more thing, Shmoopers. And it's called soliloquy.
Before you say bless you and hand us a tissue, we'll give you the lowdown.
A soliloquy is just a long speech in which the character talks to himself (and the audience) about what's going on in his head. Remember Act 1, Scene 1, when Faustus goes through all the academic disciplines and explains his reasons for rejecting them? Yeah, that's a soliloquy.
What's interesting about this is that a soliloquy is totally a Renaissance convention. So in Doctor Faustus, Marlowe is combining two unique techniques from two separate time periods—all in one play. You've got the medieval allegory right next to the Renaissance soliloquy, proving that Marlowe was quite the theatrical innovator.