The Tragic History of the Life & Death of Dr. Faustus: Characters & Themes

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You probably recognize his name, but you might not know who the infamous Dr. Faustus really is. Keep reading to encounter the key characters and themes in Christopher Marlowe's most notable work!

Characters in The Tragical History of the Life & Death of Doctor Faustus

Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480-1541), German alchemist whose life forms the basis for this tragedy
Portrait of Johann Faust

Dr. John Faustus: Have you ever had to make a 'deal with the Devil,' maybe for the answers to a test, or to keep your parents from discovering your indiscretions? These 'Faustian pacts' as they're called are typically for immoral reasons and always have unintended consequences (i.e. permanent lunch line privileges). It's no wonder, then, that such a bargain was named for Marlowe's protagonist in the play most often referred to simply by his name: Dr. Faustus.

Having earned the title of 'doctor' in a time long before online Ph.D.'s, John Faustus was a respected and eminent scholar of Wittenberg, Germany. Caught up in his own pride, however, Faustus decides that the studies of law, science, philosophy, and even theology aren't worthy of his genius. In his arrogance, he then seeks to control the elements and to have spirits at his command, leading to his fateful contract with Lucifer himself. Faustus is a man entirely possessed and driven by his craving for absolute power in the world; but, when it comes to holding up his end of the bargain, it's apparent just how pitifully human he still is as he cowers before his own (self-appointed) fate.

Mephistophilis is, for all intents and purposes, the representation of Lucifer in Dr. Faustus. Although the Prince of Darkness himself makes occasional appearances, Mephistophilis makes it clear that he is to be taken as the Devil's proxy in his absence on more urgent business. Following the contract with Lucifer, Mephistophilis remains with Faustus as his servant and go-between with Hell. Though devoted to his masters, Mephistophilis displays the sort of impish rebellion we might expect from a devil. Despite their agreement, Mephistophilis refuses to indulge Faustus on some points of inquiry (i.e. maker of the Universe), and doesn't mind letting the doctor know when he's overstepped his bounds.

Good/Evil Angels have become a staple of creatively exploring ethical dilemmas. Whenever characters (especially in cartoons) are wrestling with a point of morality, this debate is often depicted in the form of good and bad angels perched on their shoulders, whispering their opinions on the matter. Marlowe himself inherited these metaphorical representations of Faustus' conscience from the tradition of morality plays. These works like Dr. Faustus are allegorical dramatizations of generally Christian ethical principles and involve some of the earliest depictions of human conscience via good and evil angels.

Though the concept of good and bad angels existed long before Marlowe, their use in Dr. Faustus is primarily responsible for their prevalence in media today!
Shoulder angel cartoon

Themes in Dr. Faustus

Hubris is often associated with pride and arrogance, particularly when directed toward the divine. However, it originally had a much broader meaning, as the Greeks used it to refer to 'insolence,' or any rude or disrespectful behavior. As the predominant theme in Dr. Faustus, the term takes on all of these meanings. Faustus' hubris is a product not only of his arrogant claim as deserving of the omnipotence he seeks, but also of his many and frequent indiscretions (i.e. disdaining the institution of marriage) that could be interpreted as a challenge to God's authority.

Servitude is a theme that shows up in many different ways throughout Dr. Faustus. Of course, there are those who are subservient to the doctor, such as Mephistophilis or Faustus' servant and inept student, Wagner. In two different comedic interludes, Marlowe also presents scenarios in which characters unsuccessfully attempt to use black magic to enslave another. Using the comic relief this way, the playwright demonstrates how laughable one's dominion over the forces of darkness (even Faustus') truly is. What this reveals, then, is that the real source of servitude in this tragedy is Faustus' own slavery to his carnal desires, which compel him to continue in his work despite all warnings to the contrary.

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