Doctor Faustus is a significant and masterful play written by Christopher Marlowe. It is a unique play that was written during the beginnings of the Renaissance period and is therefore neither solely Renaissance nor Medieval in style.
It is a great story of a man torn between the outgoing Medieval Period and the incoming Renaissance, told in a brilliant style composed of two distinct schools of thought. The brilliance of this play is that it can be viewed from both a Medieval and Renaissance perspective. If Dr. Faustus is interpreted from a Medieval perspective, it goes along with the same principals and morals that the majority of medieval literature tried to instill – that is, the righteousness of God and the Roman Catholic Church. Marlow chooses to have Faustus deal with the essence of evil, Lucifer, the banished angel who betrayed God, in order to make this story more effective. In a classic satirical form, the play shows Faustus’ downfall after straying from God’s plan and enlisting the help of the devil to become greater than what God had planned for him.
Faustus seems to want to stray from God and dominate mankind, as well as to supercede and overrule God’s wishes to an even further extent. In Scene 3, Lines 110-111, we read: The emperor shall not live but by my leave, Nor any potentate of Germany.” In these lines, Faustus expresses his desire to hold control over all, even the Holy Roman Emperor, who shall fall to the power of his black magic.
Although the use of magic and the character of the devil seems more like a parable to modern-day readers, to the people of the time, this was a very plausible story of a man who shunned godliness and let greed and evil get the best of him. The existence of supernatural entities, namely devil-influenced beings such as witches and sorcerers, was very possible if not probable. Without the answers of science, the unexplained was often chalked up to the powers of the supernatural. From a Renaissance point of view, Dr. Faustus is a heroic tragedy. The Renaissance movement emphasized the power of the individual and the fulfillment of life.
It brought forth a desire for conquest, achievement, and surmounting all obstacles. In the play Faustus, he is not satisfied with his abilities, or as he saw them, limitations, as a human being. He did what he had to do to further advance his accomplishments, striving to achieve his goals by any means necessary. In Scene 1, Lines 49-54, we read: These metaphysics of magicians, and necromantic books are heavenly! Lines, circles, schemes, letters, and characters! Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires. O what a world of profit and delight, of power, of honor, of omnipotence.”
In this passage, Faustus reveals his desire for the powers that will bring him knowledge, but most importantly, fortune and fame. This further illustrates the Renaissance belief in taking control of your own life and determining your own destiny. The tragedy of this story occurs when, despite Faustus’ attempts to gain knowledge and power beyond his reach, he fails. He fails because his illusions of grandeur clouded the choices he made.
Faustus is a man caught between traditions. He is trapped between the religious Middle Ages and the man-centered Renaissance. This internal conflict is transformed to external by the use of the Good and Evil Angels. The Good Angel represents the God-fearing Medieval Period that believes in doing as God wishes, while the Evil Angel presents the views of a changing society where the potential of self is explored, in this case, at whatever cost. This is the type of conflict and transition that took place during this time. Although the major literary periods are usually denoted with dates, it is impossible for one period to abruptly end and the other begin.
Instead, it is a gradual change that takes place as a result or in spite of literary works such as this one.