Revision:Dr faustus - contextual influences

The Renaissance

Marlowe’s Faustus has been called ‘Renaissance Man’ – a personification of the spirit of the Renaissance. A man of great learning in all areas of human knowledge, he strives to achieve even greater understanding.

Renaissance, of course, means ‘rebirth’, and is the name given to the period of European history which followed the Middle Ages. Its development has been attributed to a new confidence in the potential of man. Wherever its influence spread, the Renaissance was characterised by great achievements, both culturally and in the advancement of geographical and scientific knowledge.

Renaissance Humanists revived and extended the study of Greek and Latin classics, enlarging immensely the stock of ideas, materials, literary forms and styles which could be used by Renaissance writers.

Combined with developments in science and astronomy, the new learning of the humanists represented a massive assertion of the learned person’s right to challenge accepted orthodoxy and continue to push at the boundaries of human knowledge. So the Renaissance can be characterised as a revolt against the restrictive authorities of the Middle Ages, a confidence in the potential of the human mind, and a spirit of intellectual curiosity, and a new individualism in life, thought, religion and art. Doctor Faustus: Renaissance Man?

Faustus is a man of great learning

  • He is characterised by ambition and intellectual curiosity, and also by a desire to explore.
  • He strives to push back the limits of human knowledge and power.


  • He quests for knowledge in areas forbidden by Renaissance thinkers.
  • He is distracted from intellectual curiosity by the pursuit of earthly pleasures.
  • He is ultimately punished for his ambition.

Renaissance Discoveries

During this period the world was opened up with a series of high-profile exploration voyages and discoveries. As well as bringing economic prosperity, which helped support the arts, these voyages and discoveries fired the imaginations of writers and reinforced the sense that the sense that the extent of human knowledge was being rapidly enlarged.

Social Attitudes

The Great Chain of Being

Among the most important of the continuities with the Classical period was the concept of the Great Chain of Being. Its major premise was that every existing thing in the universe had its "place" in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was pictured as a chain vertically extended. ("Hierarchical" refers to an order based on a series of higher and lower, strictly ranked gradations.) Whilst Renaissance writers seemed to support "order", the theme of "disorder" is much in evidence, suggesting that the age may have been experiencing some growing discomfort with traditional hierarchies Also, some Renaissance writers were fascinated by the thought of going beyond boundaries set by the chain of being. Faustus is one of the major examples of this. Simultaneously displaying the grand spirit of human aspiration and the more questionable hunger for superhuman powers, Faustus seems in the play to be both exalted and punished. Marlowe's drama, in fact, has often been seen as the embodiment of Renaissance ambiguity in this regard, suggesting both its fear of and its fascination with pushing beyond human limitations.


Humanism is the contradictory school of thought to the Great Chain of Being. In the terms used in the Renaissance itself, Humanism represented a shift from the "contemplative life" to the "active life." In the Middle Ages, great value had often been attached to the life of contemplation and religious devotion, away from the world (though this ideal applied to only a small number of people). In the Renaissance, the highest cultural values were usually associated with active involvement in public life. Individual achievement, breadth of knowledge, and personal aspiration (as personified by Doctor Faustus) were valued. The concept of the "Renaissance Man" refers to an individual who, in addition to participating actively in the affairs of public life, possesses knowledge of and skill in many subject areas. Overall, in consciously attempting to revive the thought and culture of classical antiquity, perhaps the most important value the Humanists extracted from their studies of classical literature, history, and moral philosophy was the social nature of humanity. Humanists also felt that human beings could be in control of their destinies and positions in society.

Influence of Social Attitudes

  • Faustus is born of ‘parents base of stock’, but despite this is respected and ‘graced with doctor’s name’.
  • However he is still unhappy with his position in society and uses Devil-given power to gain access to the upper echelons of society.
  • In the final Acts Faustus returns to associating with lowly people, and one reading of the play is that *Marlowe upholds conventional hierarchies, presenting Faustus’ gruesome fate as a punishment for reacting against God’s order.
  • However there is an undercurrent of social rebellion. The Duke and Duchess and Vanholt, for example, do not behave in a noble way, and speak in prose rather than elevated blank verse. Nobility is negatively presented in the play, and Marlowe brings scenes of low comedy to palatial/noble settings.

Religious Attitudes

The Protestant Reformation

Finally, as it developed during the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation was a movement that had profound implications, not only for the modern world in general, but specifically for literary history. Just as Renaissance Humanists rejected medieval learning, the Reformation seemed to reject the medieval form of Christianity. (It should be noted, however, that both Catholics and Protestants were Humanists, though often with different emphases.) In the early sixteenth century, the German monk Martin Luther reacted against Church corruption, the sort depicted, for example, by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. Protestantism broke up the institution that had for so long unified all Europe under the Pope (though there were also national struggles with the Papacy that had little to do with Protestantism).

The most important tenets of Protestantism:

  • The rejection of the Pope as spiritual leader.
  • A closely related Protestant doctrine was the rejection of the authority of the Church and its priests to mediate between human beings and God.
  • Protestants believed that the Church as an institution could not grant salvation; only through a direct personal relationship with God--achieved by reading the Bible--could the believer be granted such.

Many scholars argue that this emphasis on a personal, individual connection with God spawned the modern emphasis on individualism in those cultures affected by Protestantism.

Christian Morality

In the Elizabethan age there was a strictly dichotomised attitude towards right and wrong, and the framework of Christian morality was one by which most people aimed to live: religion was of much more central importance than it is now. Abandoning God and turning to the path of sin would be seen as a shocking and unforgiveable crime, as would experimenting with black magic and forbidden knowledge. Elizabethan audiences would be more familiar with the concepts of sinful distraction and the soul-poisoning influences of the Seven Deadly Sins. Elizabethan audiences firmly believed in the Christian cosmology of angels and devils

Christian vs. Classic Ideals

Despite its pantheon of gods, the classical world believed in humanity. The ancient Greeks extolled the perfection of the human body and the clarity of human thought. The medieval church held the opposite view, reason was suspect and flesh was the devil’s snare.

Anti Catholicism

Anti-Catholic literature was hugely popular in Elizabethan times. The unnecessary pomp and ceremony of Catholic institutions was satirised, as was wider corruption within the Catholic Church. The power struggles within the Church and the Catholic nations, specifically the Holy Roman Empire, were a central force for European politics.

Influence of Religious Attitudes

  • The play takes place in an explicitly Christian cosmos of angels and devils.
  • Although Faustus’ journey ends in damnation, the essential message of the play upholds the Protestant belief: that the journey to spiritual redemption is a personal one requiring no intermediary. People damn themselves through their own actions but they can repent.
  • Faustus is not a typical Elizabethan thinker because he rejects ‘good’ knowledge and yearns for knowledge ‘more than heavenly power permits’.
  • The play contains Medieval and Renaissance concepts of Hell. Hell is shown as a physical place, but there is also the interesting idea that Hell has no location and may be defined as the absence of God.
  • Faustus expresses atheistic beliefs (‘I think hell’s a fable’) and turns his back on the redemptive power of God. On the surface the play has a Christian moral, as Faustus is damned for abandoning God. However there are reasons to be suspicious, as Marlowe was widely believed to be an atheist. There is a lot of blasphemy in the play, as well as powerful sacrilege hidden in the Latin phrases.
  • Marlowe uses the scenes in Rome to satirise institutions sacred to the Catholic Church. The Pope is represented as a greedy, power-mad fool, and the power-struggle between Rome and Germany is treated as a joke by Faustus and Mephostophilis. The pomp and ceremony of the Catholic Church is also ridiculed.

Literary Influences


Another concept derived from the classical past, though it was present in the Middle Ages too, was the literary doctrine of ‘imitation’ (following predecessors).

Theoretically, then, it was the task of the writer to translate for present readers the moral vision of the past, and they were to do this by "imitating" great works, adapting them to a Christian perspective. (Writers of the Middle Ages also practiced "imitation" in this sense, but did not have as many classical models to work from.) Of course Renaissance literature reflects the idea that such "imitation" was to be neither mechanical nor complete: writers were to capture the spirit of the originals, mastering the best models, learning from them, and then using them for their own purposes.

Morality Play Tradition

While the miracle plays were still going strong, another medieval dramatic form emerged in the 14th century and flourished in the 15th-16th centuries, a form which has more direct links with Elizabethan drama. This is the morality play, which differs from the miracle play in that it does not deal with a biblical or pseudo-biblical story but with personified abstractions of virtues and vices that struggle for man's soul. Simply put, morality plays dealt with man's search for salvation .This was usually done by reminding them of their mortality, and of the dangers of hell.

Morality plays were dramatized allegories of the life of man, his temptation and sinning, his quest for salvation, and his confrontation by death. The morality play, which developed most fully in the 1 5th century, handled the subjects that were most popular among medieval preachers and drew considerably on contemporary homiletic (sermon, preaching) technique.

Morality plays held several key elements in common:

  • The hero represents Mankind or Everyman.
  • Among the other characters are personifications of virtues, vices and Death, as well as angels and demons who battle for the possession of the soul of man.
  • The psychomachia, the battle for the soul, was a common medieval theme and bound up with the whole idea of medieval allegory, and it found its way into medieval drama--and even into some Renaissance drama, as Dr. Faustus indicates.
  • A character known as the Vice often played the role of the tempter in a fashion both sinister and comic.

Certain themes found a home in the morality plays:

  • The theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, which was a commonplace of medieval art and literature;
  • The theme of Mercy and Peace pleading before God for man's soul against Truth and Righteousness.

Originally, because of their roots in religious drama and their didactic purpose, moralities were serious in tone and style, but the increasing secularization of the plays led to the incorporation of elements derived from popular farce, a process encouraged by the presentation of the Devil and his servant the Vice as boisterous mischief-makers. These characters soon became figures of amusement rather than of moral edification.

Characterization was also crude and naïve, and there was little attempt to portray psychological depth. But over time, the moralities began to show signs of increasingly sophisticated analysis of characters .From about the mid-sixteenth century, under increasing pressure from religious authorities, the popularity of the moralities began to wane, but they continued to be a major influence on mainstream drama.

Aristotelian Tragedy

The classic discussion of Greek tragedy is Aristotle's Poetics. He defines tragedy as "the imitation of an action that is serious and also as having magnitude, complete in itself." He continues, "Tragedy is a form of drama exciting the emotions of pity and fear. Its action should be single and complete, presenting a reversal of fortune, involving persons renowned and of superior attainments, and it should be written in poetry embellished with every kind of artistic expression." The writer presents "incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to interpret its catharsis of such of such emotions" (by catharsis, Aristotle means a purging or sweeping away of the pity and fear aroused by the tragic action).

The basic difference Aristotle draws between tragedy and other genres, such as comedy and the epic, is the "tragic pleasure of pity and fear" the audience feel watching a tragedy. In order for the tragic hero to arouse these feelings in the audience, he cannot be either all good or all evil but must be someone the audience can identify with; however, if he is superior in some way(s), the tragic pleasure is intensified. His disastrous end results from a mistaken action, which in turn arises from a tragic flaw or from a tragic error in judgment. Often the tragic flaw is hubris, an excessive pride that causes the hero to ignore a divine warning or to break a moral law. It has been suggested that because the tragic hero's suffering is greater than his offence, the audience feels pity; because the audience members perceive that they could behave similarly, they feel pity.

Definition of a Tragic Hero

A tragic hero has the potential for greatness but is doomed to fail. He is trapped in a situation where he cannot win. He makes some sort of tragic flaw, and this causes his fall from greatness. Even though he is a fallen hero, he still wins a moral victory, and his spirit lives on.


Commedia del Arte

Commedia del Arte was a theatrical tradition which emerged during the Italian Renaissance. It typically involved farce, low comedy and the comedy of pain, and the use of stock characters.

The character roles were divided into two major groups –

The Masters

  • Il Capitano-- a pompous braggart and coward who boasted of his great prowess in love and battle, but was usually discredited in both.
  • Pantalone-- a greedy, lustful, meddling old man who was often a merchant.
  • Il Dottore-- often a friend of Pantalone. He was a professor (or physician) who spouted inaccurate Latin. His standard dress was the academic cap and gown.

The Servants

  • There were at least two servants, one reasonably intelligent and the other less so. The less intelligent one was usually an insolent liar, thief and/or drunkard. Much (perhaps most) of the humour came through the actions of the servants.

Dramatic Conventions

An Elizabethan audience did not expect to hear plain naturalistic prose, and the theatres and other venues did not allow drama to produce an illusion of reality. Elizabethan dramatists wanted their audience, inspired by their words, to share their own thoughts and feelings in response to the characters and situations portrayed in the drama. If the communication of the play demanded it, the dramatist would present behaviour quite unlike life, and the audience was prepared to accept and respond to it. Therefore characters speak their own thoughts aloud to the audience in soliloquies and asides, they frequently speak in verse, using figurative language and other rhetorical devices; settings were often suggested or represented, often without even background scenery.

Another dramatic convention centred on the fact that Elizabethan audiences frequently featured both educated and non-educated people. Scenes of low comedy were interspersed among more serious scenes, to keep the groundlings entertained. The distinction between prose and blank verse could be used to elevate serious scenes from scenes of low comedy. This comic sub-plot was often used to parody the main plot.

Influence of Literary Conventions

  • Doctor Faustus contains references to Classical mythology, and draws parallels between the downfall of its central character and similar famous Falls (Icarus, Lucifer). It also contains sections in Latin and Greek which further reference Classical times and ideas. The story itself is an example of imitation, a dramatic retelling of the Faust legend which had developed in the Middle Ages.

  • The play can be said to be structurally based on a Morality Play. Psychomachia is a strong feature as Faustus spends the play in a state of ambiguity between repentance and despair.
  • The play has a strongly didactic element as it illuminates the dark side of the search for truth.
  • Allegorical characters such as the Good and Bad Angel are used as a dramatic device to represent the conflict of Faustus’ soul and the inner workings of Faustus’ conscience.
  • Mephostophilis is clearly reminiscent of the Vice character, taking the role of the tempter in a manner both sinister and comic.


  • Marlowe diverges from the morality tradition by ending Faustus’ journey in damnation: the warnings of allegorical characters such as the Good Angel and the Old Man are ignored.
  • The Seven Deadly Sins do feature but play a tempting role, rather than standing as a warning to the protagonist.
  • The bad angel is the more dominant figure, and Faustus is more influenced by the bad angel’s temptations.

  • Faustus is a great figure of learning who is undone by a serious error in judgement. His tragic flaw is pride, called hubris by Aristotle.
  • Faustus is arguably responsible for his own fate.
  • Faustus’ end is tragic, but just; there is no other fair outcome to his actions. The end of the play brings a process of catharsis for the audience, as our pity and fear for Faustus is released when we see justice being done.


  • Faustus is not born into nobility.
  • Faustus never realises he is the cause of his own downfall, trying to blame external forces to the very end.
  • Faustus does not face and accept death with honour, but struggles to come to terms with his own mortality.
  • There is some suggestion of the workings of fate in Faustus’ death: ‘heaven conspired his overthrow’.

In the Epilogue there is a balance between the traditions of an Aristotelian tragic hero (‘cut is the branch that might have grown full straight”) and the didactic element of a morality play (‘regard his hellish fall’).

  • The low comedy scenes focus on the interactions between stock characters which broadly fall into the categories of the Masters and the Servants (Wagner/Faustus=Masters, Robin/Dick=servants).
  • These scenes also involve bawdy humour and visual humour: low comedy.
  • However the comic sub-plot merges with the main plot and serious characters also act in a way that might be associated with low comedy.


These notes are aimed at A Level English students at A2 level.

Originally written by JosherCR on TSR Forums.