Friday, 8 August 2014

Review: Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is one of those plays that you love at first, but then get bored of the more you read it. We see Faustus shunning human knowledge (medicine, law, physics etc.) and praising supernatural and other-worldy powers instead. The play is riddled with blasphemy, such as when Faustus claims that a sound magician is a mighty God and this later becomes quite ironic as Marlowe sheds more layers of Faustus' character for us.

As we delve further in to Faustus' troubled world, we see him making a blood deed with a devil (Mephistopheles - my favourite character in the play, but I will get on to that later) in which he sells his soul to Lucifer for 24 years and in return asks that he be in spirit form and have unimaginable supernatural powers. This plot is interesting, yes, but it's predictable. We already know that there is no possible way that this can end well.

I always liken Faustus to historical figures like Icarus and Prometheus, who are widely renowned for having actively pursued that which is beyond human bounds. Icarus constructed waxen wings, flew too close to the sun and then they melted. Prometheus, in Greek mythology, stole fire from the Gods and then gave it to the humans - clearly signifying a rebellion against higher powers. This is exactly Faustus. Marlowe crafts a character who is greedy for more than what he has and will never be satisfied with his human abilities. He rejects God, welcomes evil and is too ignorant to understand the full extent of the consequences that his actions will reap. His ignorance is, in my opinion, his main downfall. It's not completely ridiculous or terrible that Faustus wanted more power or that he questioned God, because I think that these are two very natural reactions to having a higher power above you. It's the fact that he made the decision to act on it without ever fully considering the aftermath.

Now this is where the play gets interesting. After making the deed, we see a structural return to several points in Faustus' psychological struggle. This takes the form of a cycle of doubt, persuasion, resolve and then gain. Throughout this cycle, we see that Faustus does in fact, consider the consequences of his actions. He has help from various manifestations of his conscience, such as the two angels in the play. However, he is too easily persuaded by the allure of evil; notably in the form of Mephistopheles, who is very skilled in the art of persuasion. This is Faustus' second notable downfall, which after a while, I just found annoying.

In the final act, Faustus finally comes to realise what he's done. But obviously, with Marlowe keeping the play in close line with it's moral undertones, it's already too late and Faustus must be damned to hell. There we go. Brought to a predictable end.

Now on to Mephistopheles...

Mephistopheles is the most interesting character in the play. Why? Because he is a devil, who does not want to be a devil! For me, that is interesting. He's a tormented soul, exiled to hell and with no other choice but to serve Lucifer. Marlowe crafts a character who actually wants redemption. It's not just that he's unhappy with where he is, he wants to be in heaven. How do I know this? Very simple, language. He speaks of the 'eternal joys' of heaven and the 'unhappy spirits' in hell. Somebody who didn't recognise the blissful nature of heaven would not describe it using the words 'eternal' and 'joys'. In addition, on to some very brief micro-analysis here, Mephistopheles says 'joys' not joy. He uses the plural, indicating that he feels that there are multiple rewards in heaven, not just one. He seems to know the specifics of what he's missing out on, which further emphasises my point that he would prefer to be in heaven.

Despite the predictable plot, I think what made the play for me was definitely the characters. Lucifer's terrifying stance was evident in Faustus' reaction to him. We saw the seven deadly sins, we met two angels, there were various devils, a scene that was intended to evoke humour from the audience with the Pope and many others. Character development and construction was really good and overall I did enjoy the play. I would just wait a few years before I picked it back up and started reading it again.


I've given this a 3 tick rating because although Marlowe writes well, it is difficult to understand at times. The language used is very outdated and for a contemporary reader such as myself, it can be tricky to get your head around. Of course, I understand that the play was a product of it's time and I am not in any way criticising Marlowe for the way he wrote the play. I am just making a point on how audiences now may receive the play. The structure of the writing was really well thought out, as I've mentioned there were cycles of doubt, persuasion, resolve and gain and we also saw evil being introduced to signify temptation at particular points of doubt in order to move the story towards Faustus' stages of persuasion and resolve. The stage directions were also used well, particularly in terms of creating comedy.

Reviewed by: Tanya Marie

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