Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Plot Summary
  • 4:01 Analysis of the Major…
  • 5:12 Themes, Symbols, & Allegory
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Vineski
In this lesson, you'll learn what Marlowe's play, 'Dr. Faustus' is about, and what it means within the context of the clash between the Medieval world and the emerging Renaissance. Take a look at the summary and analysis, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Plot Summary

The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, commonly shortened to the title character's name, Doctor Faustus, is a play that was written by Christopher Marlowe and was published in 1604. In this lesson, we'll explore the plot of this play, and analyze some of the major characters, themes, and symbols.

Doctor Faustus, a respected German scholar, is bored with the traditional types of knowledge available to him. He wants more than logic, medicine, law, and religion. He wants magic. His friends, Valdes and Cornelius, begin to teach him magic, which he uses to summon a devil named Mephistophilis. Faustus tells Mephistophilis to return to his master, Lucifer, with an offer of his soul in exchange for twenty-four years of having Mephistophilis and all his knowledge of magic at his beck and call.

Mephistophilis returns to Faustus with a contract for his soul, which Faustus signs in his own blood. As soon as he signs the contract, words appear on his arm, which give him doubts about what he has just done. Mephistophilis calms Faustus' doubts by giving him valuable gifts and a book of spells to learn.

Later, Mephistophilis answers all Faustus' questions about the nature of the world, and refuses to answer only when Faustus wants to know who created the universe. This sets off yet another series of doubts in Faustus, but Mephistophilis and Lucifer quiet those doubts by bringing in the seven deadly sins in human form to dance for Faustus.

Mephistophilis then takes Faustus on a wild chariot ride through the heavens, landing in Rome, where Faustus torments Pope Adrian for his passing judgment on a rival pope by making himself invisible, stealing Pope Adrian's food and smacking his ears. He becomes famous for this and is invited to visit the German Emperor, Charles V, who is the enemy of Pope Adrian. Faustus impresses the emperor by conjuring up an image of Alexander the Great. One of the emperors' knights sneers at Faustus' magical powers and Faustus punishes him by making antlers sprout from his head.

Meanwhile, Robin, the clown of Faustus' servant, Wagner, has picked up some magic on his own and, with a stable hand named Rafe, uses his new magical skills to get free booze, and even summons Mephistophilis, who threatens to turn them both into animals. Their misadventures add to the comic relief of the play.

Faustus travels to England, where he sells an enchanted horse to a horse dealer. When the man rides his new horse over water, it turns into a bale of straw. The Duke of Vanholt hears about this and invites Faustus to visit him and his wife, the duchess. The horse dealer shows up, along with Robin and Rafe, vowing to get even. Faustus casts a spell of silence on them so they cannot speak of his wrongs, and sends them on their way, which amuses the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt.

As the end of his contract approaches, Faustus begins to dread his impending doom, and has Mephistophilis call up Helen of Troy so that he might impress a group of his colleagues. An old man urges Faustus to repent and turn back to God, but he sends Mephistophilis to torment the old man, and drive him away. Faustus then summons up Helen again so that he might immerse himself in her ancient beauty. But time grows short. Faustus, filled with dread, confesses his misdeeds to a group of his colleagues, who vow to pray for him.

On the final night of his life, Faustus is overcome by fear and remorse. He begs for mercy, but it is too late. The clock strikes midnight and a group of devils enter Faustus' study to claim his soul. The next morning, his colleagues find his body torn limb from limb, and decide to give him a proper burial.

Analysis of the Major Characters

Let's take a look at the major characters of this play.

Doctor Faustus is the protagonist and tragic hero of Marlowe's play. He is a contradictory character, capable of both profound intellectual thought and a grandiose ambition, yet prone to a blindness and a willingness to waste the powers he has gained. He imagines piling up wealth from the four corners of the globe, reshaping the map of Europe, and gaining access to every scrap of knowledge about the universe. He represents the spirit of the Renaissance, with its rejection of the medieval, God-centered universe, and its embracing of scientific inquiry and human possibility.

Mephistophilis is a character with mixed motives. He acts as an agent of Faustus' damnation, witnesses Faustus' pact with Lucifer, and steps in whenever Faustus considers repentance to convince him to stay loyal to hell. But he himself is damned and speaks freely of the horrors of hell. There is a sense that a part of Mephistophilis does not want Faustus to make the same mistakes that he made. But, of course, Faustus does so anyway, making him and Mephistophilis kindred spirits.

Themes

Themes are fundamental ideas explored in a literary work. Let's take a look at a few of the themes explored in this play.

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