Doctor Faustus as a tragedy

Christopher Marlowe gives the concept of his tragedy through his famous drama Doctor Faustus. It is said that conflict is the kernel of tragedy and the source of this conflict may be on two levels: external and internal.

The external conflict normally arises among two opponents and the internal conflict arises between two opposing opinions, impulses, and feelings. Christopher Marlowe has used this internal conflict in a very impressive way to show the tragedy of Doctor Faustus. 

Doctor Faustus is not a Greek tragedy but an Elizabethan tragedy:

Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” is possibly one of the prominent tragedies in the history of English literature. It certainly departs from the conventional Greek tragedy as Faustus is not a noble birth like an emperor and Prince etc. Furthermore the heroes in Greek tragedies no doubt endure but by the end of the play everything is put into restoration. But Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” exhibits some divergences. That is why we cannot call “Doctor Faustus” an out and out tragedy in the traditional sense of the term but it is an Elizabethan tragedy with ingredients of religious beliefs and Renaissance spirit. 

Read More: Dr. Faustus as a renaissance man

Faustus symbolizes the Renaissance man who is torn between the christianity and the Renaissance tendency. Doctor Faustus, like the heroes of Greek tragedies, has one deadly flaw that brings about his downfall. One can say that his tragic flaw is not only his desire to obtain ‘infinite knowledge’ but also his excessive pride that is regarded as the most dangerous of all seven deadly sins. He is liable to be overly proud of his knowledge and accomplishments. Due to this tragic flaw, Faustus does commit a streak of more errors consecutively. Faustus later regrets his actions, but by then it is too late. Catharsis is a very important aspect in the Elizabethan tragedy and by Faustus’s tragic death he attains the audience’s sympathy and evokes catharsis. 

Read more: Renaissance in English Literature

Exceptional desire and audacity of Faustus:

Marlowe’s play “Doctor Faustus” revolves around its protagonist and portrays the inner spiritual conflict that causes his downfall. Because Faustus was a renaissance hero, therefore, Faustus yearned for ‘knowledge infinite’. According to Faustus, logic, medicine, law, etc. can give knowledge but cannot give power. Faustus, thereby, switches to magic and is delighted by its promises of pleasure, esteem, gain, and power.

Deep internal conflict:

Throughout the play, we can see in Faustus the battle between his conscious self and his subconscious self. This continuous struggle between doubt and faith is suggested by the advice of the Good Angel and the tempting of the Bad Angel. Mephistopheles explains to Faustus about hell, but in his blind hubris, Faustus does not pay much attention to his words and follows him blindly. Indeed, Faustus, at the end of the play, eventually endures deep spiritual conflict borne out of his logical and spiritual selves.

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An inherent fragility of Faustus:

Faustus is governed by the aspiration to obtain ‘knowledge infinite’ and by way of this to acquire magical strength and satisfy his sensuous desires of life. It is not that this weakness of Faustus came after his deal with the devil. The seeds of lust and desires were already in his character. Faustus was not able to see the consequences of his actions. This is the tragedy of Doctor Faustus. His physical gratification overrules all other desires and unsighted him to the horrible truth. The sight of Helen masks the sight of definite truth from Faustus’s mind. What is even more tragic on Faustus’s part is that he is aware of his own weakness but has no power to manage his desires. 

Read More: Aristotle’s concept of tragedy

The emotions of pity and fear:

One of the characteristics of a great tragedy is that it should create emotions like pity and fear in the audience and the audience should also feel sympathy for the hero. As a great tragedy demands, the death of Faustus also evokes pity and fear. The signing of Faustus’s treaty with the devil, his desire for Helen, and finally his downfall, all these scenes are the best scenes of Doctor Faustus in which sorrow, intensity, regret, elation, and fear are delineated with so much of firmness and conviction that give these scenes a position among the prominent scenes in Elizabethan drama.  The final monologue of Faustus is unparalleled because of its utter suffering and panic. As Faustus screams with desperation: 

“O I’ll leap up to my God, who pulls me down?

See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament,

One drop would save my soul, half a drop, ah, my Christ….” (Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe)

Although Marlowe’s play “Doctor Faustus” appears to propose a very Christian meaning – that one should keep away from allurement and evil and repent if one cannot evade allurement and evil – its ending can be seen as deviating from conservative Christian belief in order to comply with the basic form of tragedy. In a conventional tragedy, as proposed by the Greeks, a hero meets his downfall due to a sequence of mistakes and realizes his mistakes only when it is too late. According to Christian belief, until a person dies, he or she always has a chance to repent and he or she can be rescued even at the last minute. Even so Faustus in the final hour realizes his mistakes and pleads for a possibility to repent; it is too late and Faustus is dragged off to hell. So Christopher Marlowe denied the Christian belief that until a person dies, he or she always has a chance to repent. Thereby it can be said that In the last hours of Faustus, he is aware of his perdition, but still he could do nothing about that.  


In the end, we can say that Doctor Faustus is the tragedy of such an ambitious man who wanted to have infinite knowledge and power. But this desire of his causes his downfall because man, by his very nature, is limited. Marlowe conclusively conveys in “Doctor Faustus” the hopelessness of the pursuit for indefinite knowledge and the inescapable consequence of breaking up with moral integrity.

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