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Doctor Faustus

by Christopher Marlowe

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It’s entirely fitting that Christopher Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus. Just as John Faustus goes to extremes, selling his soul to the devil and tasting almost limitless power, Marlowe lived life on the edge.

Marlowe apparently overstepped all the boundaries he encountered—leading a promiscuous lifestyle, distrusting accepted theology, quarreling so often and so viciously that he was even arrested for homicide. He was formally accused of blasphemy; a witness reported that he said “Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest.” Before his 30th birthday, Marlowe was killed in a barroom brawl, apparently the result of an argument over who would pay the bill.

So the myth of Faustus would appeal to Marlowe. If there is a God Who sets limits, how tempting to ignore those limits with impunity for years and years, postponing payment until your every wish had been fulfilled! The idea clearly intrigued Marlowe, and his readers benefit. All the questions of rebellion and consequences are sketched out, rough and big, in a story that remains an archetype.

Naturally, Marlowe knows his audience well enough to treat Faustus’s story as a cautionary tale, warning against hubris. The chorus at the beginning of the play strikes a conventionally moral tone when they describe Faustus as “swollen with cunning, of a self-conceit, His waxen wings did mount above his reach . . .” Christians in the audience could nod approvingly. But Marlowe’s own feelings about Faustus are more complicated, as revealed when he lets Faustus brag, “I . . . have with concise syllogisms graveled the pastors of the German church and made the flowering pride of Wittenberg swarm to my problems . . .” Faustus is a thinking man’s hero, in Marlowe’s mind, and painted somewhat sympathetically.

All of which generates terrific discussions. If I could choose just ten books to teach to high school students, Doctor Faustus would surely make the cut. On the surface its moral seems obvious and conventional—but don’t look only at the surface! Marlowe was anything but a conventional Christian.

by Jeff Baldwin