Discuss the character of Doctor Faustus.

Christopher Marlowe

Answer: Dr. Faustus, the main character of the story, is a professor of divinity at Wittenberg, as well as a renowned physician and scholar. Not satisfied with the limitations of human knowledge and power, he begins to practice necromancy. He eventually makes a deal with Lucifer (commonly referred to as the “Faustian bargain”), whereby he exchanges his soul for twenty-four years of the devil’s service to him. In the next twenty-four years, Faustus obtains all kinds of knowledge and power through his devil-servant, Mephistophilis. They travel all over the world, playing practical jokes on peasants and even the Pope, displaying magical powers to the emperor and the nobility; Faustus wishes and whims are played out in his various adventures. At times Faustus experiences doubt and despair over having sold his soul to the devil.

He comes close to repenting at several crucial points in the story, but never follows through. Even to the end, Faustus refuses to fully repent, and he is eventually taken by the devils to hell. The character of Faustus comes from a well-known legend of a German physician who reported sold his soul to the devil in exchange for magical powers. In Marlowe’s rendition, he is portrayed as a tragic hero in that his unbridled ambitions lead him to an unfortunate end. But at a deeper level, the tragedy is twofold. First, there is a clear development of his character, from a confident, ambitious scholar, to a self-satisfied, low-level practical joker.

Although he makes a name for himself as an expert magician, Faustus never accomplishes the lofty goals he initially sets for himself. Second, there are times when Faustus despairs over his decision and comes close to repenting, only to back away at the last moment. On the other hand, Faustus can be seen as a hero in that he rejects God’s authority and determines his own course of life.

This format doesn’t allow for a complete discussion of Doctor Faustus’ character traits, but I can explain the two most important and competing ones, that of arrogance and that of despair. In the beginning of the tragedy, the Chorus makes it clear that Faustus is highly gifted, intelligent and talented. He excels in his studies and quickly earns his doctoral degree in theology. Not stopping there, he continues to study–and master–other fields like medicine and law and logic. In fact, there is nothing left for him to study and he is satiated with it all. As a result, in his growing arrogance and conceit at his own powers and accomplishments, he turns to the one unmastered and most enticing field–necromancy, or magic.

These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
A sound magician is a mighty god:
Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.

He arrogantly dreams of being the supreme magician, able to command even the wind and oceans. Thus he calls on the devil Mephistophilis. In his arrogance, he believes he can command Mephistophilis and have from him anything he wants. This is the first painful lesson his arrogance and conceit bring him to: Mephistophilis takes orders from Lucifer, and Lucifer won’t tell everything he knows. For example, after asking for knowledge of the cosmos, Lucifer offers him an entertainment by the Seven Deadly Sins and a book about how to change his shape. This adequately sketches and explains Faustus’ character trait of arrogance.

In meantime take this book; peruse it throughly,
And thou shalt turn thyself into what shape thou wilt.
[…]    Farewell, Faustus, and think on the devil.

The contrasting and competing trait of despair enters most strongly into Faustus’ characterization in Act IV when his days are dwindling, although his despair begins to effect him after his revealing encounter with Lucifer. As Faustus feels his designated years coming to an end and the time when he will serve Mephistophilis in hell for eternity fast approaching, his yearnings for repentance and redemption begin to overwhelm him. He is visited by an Old Man who tries to teach him how to repent and accept redemption, then by his friends the Scholars who are aghast at Faustus’ misfortune and importune with him to seek Christ’s mercy and seek to have his soul yet saved.

Yet, Faustus, look up to heaven; remember God’s
mercies are infinite.
Yet, Faustus, call on God.

It is this despair that Faustus feels–coupled with an ironic new-found awareness of ignorance–that prevents him from acting and seeking redemptive forgiveness. His despair, which competes with and overcomes his arrogance, leads him to his ultimate doom, doom stemming from the one point on which he is ignorant and doom hemmed in by crippling despair. This adequately sketches and explains Faustus’ character trait of despair.

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.
O, I’ll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?—

Faustus is the paragon of the Renaissance Man—turning away from the religious strictures of the Medieval Age (God-centeredness) in favor of the enlightened age of reason and human achievement (man-centeredness).