Doctor Faustus is a study in ambition. Its hero is an "overreacher," a man who strives against human limitations. Faustus tries to do more than is humanly possible. He seeks to know, possess, and experience everything under the sun. There are two ways to read Doctor Faustus: (1) The play glorifies ambition. Though Faustus is finally undone, his dreams emerge larger than the forces that defeat him. (2) The play criticizes ambition. Faustus falls to great depths from lofty heights. What's more, his larger-than-life dreams are cut down to size by the pointed ironies of Mephistophilis.
- CONCEPTS OF HELL
There are three different concepts of hell in this play. Faustus claims there is no hell. Mephistophilis defines hell as the absence of God. The church says that hell is a pit of fire, and that's where Faustus goes in the end. Why are there three hells instead of just one? Perhaps Marlowe is exploring his own uncertain ideas. Or perhaps everyone finds a hell of his own.
- CHRISTIANS 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 almost the opposite view. In the eyes of the church, reason was suspect and flesh was the devil's snare. Christian and classical beliefs clash in Doctor Faustus. The classical ideals focus on beauty, which is exemplified in the play by Helen of Troy. The Christian ideals are more severe and are personified by the Old Man. Helen's beauty is not to be trusted, but the Old Man's counsel is sound, even if grim.
- FREE WILL vs. DETERMINISM
A sense of doom hangs over Doctor Faustus, a sense that Faustus' damnation is inevitable and has been decided in advance. Faustus struggles to repent, but he is browbeaten by devils and barred from salvation by all the forces of hell. Nonetheless, it is of his own volition that Faustus takes the first step toward evil. He makes a pact with the devil to satisfy his lust for power. And in that sense, Faustus chooses his fate.
- AN ATHEIST OR A CHRISTIAN PLAY?
On the surface, Doctor Faustus has a Christian moral. Faustus commits a mortal sin and goes to hell for it. He denies God and is therefore denied God's mercy. Faustus is a scoffer who gets a scoffer's comeuppance. No fire-and-brimstone preacher could have put it better than Marlowe. If the surface moral is the true moral of the play....
There are reasons to be suspicious. Marlowe was known to be an atheist. Moreover, he included a lot of blasphemy in the play. He seems to have taken an unholy glee in anti-religious ceremony. There is some powerful sacrilege in Doctor Faustus, half buried in the Latin.
Was Marlowe trying to slip a subversive message past the censors? Or was he honestly coming to grips with doubts about his own atheistic beliefs? If Marlowe knew the truth, it died with him.
Hell has a lot of interesting gimmicks to keep Faustus from thinking about death and damnation. Devils provide distracting shows, fireworks, and pageants for his entertainment. Soon Faustus catches on to the idea. He learns to preoccupy his own mind by feasting, drinking, and playing pranks. All these diversions keep Faustus from turning his attention to God and to the salvation of his soul. But is Faustus so different from the rest of us? Perhaps Marlowe is saying that diversions are not only the pastimes of hell. They are also the everyday business of life itself.
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