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Dr.Faustus. Major Themes. Talk and Action.

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talk and action
Talk and Action
  • Faustus is, with no exceptions, beautiful when he speaks and contemptible when he acts. His opening speeches about the uses to which he'll put his power are exhilarating, but once he gains near-omnipotence he squanders twenty-four years in debauchery and petty tricks. This gap between high talk and low action seems related to the fault of valuing knowledge over wisdom.

While Faustus has learned much of the Greek world's learning, he has not really understood what he's been reading. He can talk about potential and plans in terms of a Greek worldview, but he lacks the internal strength to follow through on his purported goals.

doctor faustus summary
Doctor Faustus (Summary)
  • Doctor Faustus, a talented German scholar at Wittenburg, rails against the limits of human knowledge. He has learned everything he can learn, or so he thinks, from the conventional academic disciplines. All of these things have left him unsatisfied, so now he turns to magic. A Good Angle and an Evil Angel arrive, representing Faustus' choice between Christian conscience and the path to damnation. The former advises him to leave

off this pursuit of magic, and the latter tempts him. From two fellow scholars, Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus learns the fundamentals of the black arts. He thrills at the power he will have, and the great feats he'll perform. He summons the devil Mephostophilis. They flesh out the terms of their agreement, with Mephostophilis representing Lucifer. Faustus will sell his soul, in exchange for twenty-four years of power, with Mephostophilis as servant to his every whim.


In a comic relief scene, we learn that Faustus' servant Wagner has gleaned some magic learning. He uses it to convince Robin the Clown to be his servant.


Before the time comes to sign the contract, Faustus has misgivings, but he puts them aside. Mephostophilis returns, and Faustus signs away his soul, writing with his own blood. The words "Homo fuge" ("Fly, man) appear on his arm, and Faustus is seized by fear. Mephostophilis distracts him with a dance of devils. Faustus requests a wife, a demand Mephostophilis denies, but he does give Faustus books full of knowledge.


Some time has passed. Faustus curses Mephostophilis for depriving him of heaven, although he has seen many wonders. He manages to torment Mephostophilis, he can't stomach mention of God, and the devil flees. The Good Angel and Evil Angel arrive again. The Good Angel tells him to repent, and the Evil Angel tells him to stick to his wicked ways. Lucifer, Belzebub, and Mephostophilis return, to intimidate Faustus.


He is cowed by them, and agrees to speak and think no more of God. They delight him with a pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins, and then Lucifer promises to show Faustus hell. Meanwhile, Robin the Clown has gotten one of Faustus' magic books.


Faustus has explored the heavens and the earth from a chariot drawn by dragons, and is now flying to Rome, where the feast honoring St. Peter is about to be celebrated. Mephostophilis and Faustus wait for the Pope, depicted as an arrogant, decidedly unholy man. They play a series of tricks, by using magic to disguise themselves and make themselves invisible, before leaving.


The Chorus returns to tell us that Faustus returns home, where his vast knowledge of astronomy and his abilities earn him wide renown. Meanwhile, Robin the Clown has also learned magic, and uses it to impress his friend Rafe and summon Mephostophilis, who doesn't seem too happy to be called.


At the court of Charles V, Faustus performs illusions that delight the Emperor. He also humiliates a knight named Benvolio. When Benvolio and his friends try to avenge the humiliation, Faustus has his devils hurt them and cruelly transform them, so that horns grow on their heads.


Faustus swindles a Horse-courser, and when the Horse-courser returns, Faustus plays a frightening trick on him. Faustus then goes off to serve the Duke of Vanholt. Robin the Clown, his friend Dick, the Horse-courser, and a Carter all meet. They all have been swindled or hurt by Faustus' magic. They go off to the court of the Duke to settle scores with Faustus.


Faustus entertains the Duke and Duchess with petty illusions, before Robin the Clown and his band of ruffians arrives. Faustus toys with them, besting them with magic, to the delight of the Duke and Duchess


Faustus' twenty-four years are running out. Wagner tells the audience that he thinks Faustus prepares for death. He has made his will, leaving all to Wagner. But even as death approaches, Faustus spends his days feasting and drinking with the other students. For the delight of his fellow scholars, Faustus summons a spirit to take the shape of Helen of Troy.


Later, an Old Man enters, warning Faustus to repent. Faustus opts for pleasure instead, and asks Mephostophilis to bring Helen of Troy to him, to be his love and comfort during these last days. Mephostophilis readily agrees.


Later, Faustus tells his scholar friends that he is damned, and that his power came at the price of his soul. Concerned, the Scholars exit, leaving Faustus to meet his fate.


As the hour approaches, Mephostophilis taunts Faustus. Faustus blames Mephostophilis for his damnation, and the devil proudly takes credit for it. The Good and Evil Angel arrive, and the Good Angel abandons Faustus. The gates of Hell open. The Evil Angel taunts Faustus, naming the horrible tortures seen there.


The Clock strikes eleven. Faustus gives a final, frenzied monologue, regretting his choices. At midnight the devils enter. As Faustus begs God and the devil for mercy, the devils drag him away. Later, the Scholar friends find Faustus' body, torn to pieces.

  • The Chorus emphasizes that Faustus is gone, his once-great potential wasted. The Chorus warns the audience to remember his fall, and the lessons it offers.
  • In Greek, ‘Allegoria’ means to imply something else. Allegory is just a form of art presenting a second meaning beneath the surface meaning. It may be taken as an extended metaphor in which the characters, action or ideas stand for some others. The meaning is always implied not expressively stated. Hence, the reader of an allegory is expected to get not only the apparent or surface meaning of the story but also the second meaning or the hidden truth lurking behind it.

Very often allegories are simple stories conveying metaphorically some spiritual or ethical ideas with a didactic purpose. All Morality plays in English literature are more or less allegorical. We also get allegories in the form of prose, poetry or drama. Spenser’s FairieQueene, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Swift’s Tale of a Tub are outstanding works in this form of art.

  • Symbolism in general means the presentation of objects, moods and ideas through the medium of emblems or symbols. It is a conscious and deliberate technique of the use of symbols in art and literature. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word ‘symbol’ means “thing regarded by general consent as naturally typifying or representing or recalling something by possession of analogous qualities or by association in fact or thought.” Thus lion symbolises courage, the moon symbolises a lovely face and the cross symbolisesChristanity. So symbols are words that mean much more than their simple literal meaning.
moral allegory in the play
Moral Allegory in the Play
  • A close and critical study of Doctor Faustus enables us to go deeper and get the hidden truth or moral allegory of the play that relates “the form of Faustus’s fortunes good or bad.”
  • This engrossing tale of a proud and an inordinately ambitious medieval magician who sold his soul to the Devil is undoubtedly allegorical. It has a moral allegory of universal significance. In spite of Marlowe’s agnosticism and atheistical inclinations his “Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” turns out to be a religious, rather Christian, moral sermon, and the sermon is that whoever shuns the path of virtue, denounces God and His laws, and aligns himself with the forces of the evil to gain limitless power and position is doomed to despair and eternal damnation. So Hudson has rightly said: “No finer sermon than Marlowe’s Faustus even came from the pulpit. What more fearsome exposure was ever offered of the punishment man brings upon himself by giving way to temptations of his grosser appetites?” And the mournful monody of the Chorus makes the moral allegory of the play crystal clear:

“Faustus is gone; regard his hellish fall,

  • Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
  • Only to wonder at unlawful things,
  • Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
  • To practise more than heavenly power permits.”

Then the introduction of the stock devices of the Miracle and Morality plays, such as the Good and Bad Angels, the Devils, the Old Man, The Seven Deadly Sins etc., clearly points out the moral and allegorical aspect of the play. All the above characters or apparitions deserve symbolical or allegorical interpretation. We may take them up one after another for such interpretation.

significance of the good and the evil angel
Significance of the Good and the Evil Angel
  • Two Angels and Tragic Conflict
  • It should be noted that there is hardly any external action in the play. We find that the real action presented in the play is the spiritual conflict within the soul of the hero—a conflict, we may be sure, between law and desire, religion and scepticism, or between curiosity and conscience. Hence, Ellis Fermor rightly remarks that “the scene is set in no spot upon the physical earth but in the limitless regions of the mind and the battle is fought, not for kingdoms or crowns, but upon the question of man’s ultimate fate. Before him lies the possibility of escape to spiritual freedom or a doom of slavery to demoniac powers.

Thus, and in such terms is staged the greatest conflict that drama has ever undertaken to present.” And in the light of this remark Faustus may stand as the symbol of man in general with the strange admixture of virtue and vice in his soul. And then the Good and Evil Angels also appear in the play with their own symbolic significance personifying the two aspects of Faustus’s character. The former stands for order, virtue or goodness and the latter represents the baser spirit of Faustus, his indomitable passions and desires. One stands for his conscience and the other, his curiosity for ‘unlawful things.’ Hence, Harold Osborne has rightly observed:


“The Good and Evil Angels are really externalisations of the two aspects of Faustus’s own character on the one hand, conscience, and on the other, that aspiration to the novel and romantic that led to his downfall.” It may be noted that Marlowe is quite original in the use of his angels and they differ a lot from those abstract figures in the Morality plays.

significance of helen and the old man
Significance of Helen and the Old Man
  • As Faustus’s fascination for Helen, the ‘only paragon of excellence’ reveals the Renaissance characteristic of love and adoration of classical art and beauty, Helen epitomises the charms of classical art, learning and beauty. And her shade or apparition may also be the symbol of sensual pleasures of life which are but transitory, and lead to despair and damnation.

If it is so, the Old Man represents Christian faith with its obedience to laws of God and its need for prayer and penitence that can assure eternal joy and bliss. The Old Man also represents another moral aspect; that is one who has firm faith in God can boldly face the temptations and tortures presented by the forces of Evil and ‘can ascend to heaven while the fiends sink back into hell.’

significance of the show of the seven deadly sins
Significance of the Show of the Seven Deadly Sins
  • We have this pageant of Seven Deadly Sins in the sixth scene or second scene of Act II. This spectacle also shows that Marlowe in his Doctor Faustus adopted some of the conventions of the old Miracle and Morality plays. So the Seven Deadly Sins—Pride, Covetousness, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth and Lechery—of good old Morality plays are also very much here in this play in a grand spectacle to cheer up the wavering and dejected soul of Doctor Faustus.

But Marlowe is quite original in his treatment of the scene. In the ‘Faustbuch’, or ‘Faust Book’ it is a masque of the seven animal forms representing the seven principal Devils. We get this pageant of Seven Deadly Sins also in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and this also might have been a source for Marlowe.


Some critics are of the view that the show is meant for comic relief for the audience. But this is hard to accept. In fact the show is not meant for any comic relief but is really meant for bringing back Faustus to the path of hell when he was much irritated by Mephistophilis for not giving right answers to some of his questions related to the creation of this universe. And we find Lucifer, BelzebubalongwithMephistophilis appearing on the stage, the moment, Faustus, to a great extent disillusioned, utters the name of Christ with a fervent appeal to save his soul:


Ah, Christ, my saviour,

  • Seek to save distressed Faustus’ Soul!”
  • They put up the show to cheer up his drooping mind and lure him back to the path of hell; and they succeed mightily when Faustus in rapture expresses his delight after the show:
  • “Oh, this feeds my soul!”

Symbolically it means Faustus’s abject surrender to these deadly sins who lead to the path of hell. In fact the sins are already there in his soul and the show of the sins simply symbolises or externalises them. Another point to note is that Pride leads the procession. In fact Pride deserves this, as Pride is the worst vice that brings about the downfall. And our Faustus was puffed up with pride to fly too near the Sun with ‘waxen wings’ to bring about his own ultimate doom and damnation.

significance of the character of mephistophilis
Significance of The Character of Mephistophilis
  • If in Doctor Faustus there is any other character other than Faustus that deserves some consideration, it is Mephistophilis. He is with Faustus from the very beginning of his proud career till his tragic downfall. He is considered to be one of the seven spirits of second rank. He is also called Lucifer’s vice-regent. But the Mephistophilis of Doctor Faustus with his ‘signs of remorse and passion’ is Marlowe’s unique creation.

Of course we may treat Mephistophilis as the villain of the play as it is he who seems to lure away Faustus to the path of hell. But a closer study reveals that Faustus himself with his extreme pride and inordinate ambition is the root cause of his own damnation. The point is made clear when Mephistophilis in the very third scene of the Act I tells Faustus in response to his query:


“For, when we hear one rack the name of God,

  • Abjure the scriptures and his Saviour Christ,
  • We fly in hope to get his soul;
  • Nor will we come, unless he uses such means
  • Whereby he is in danger to be damn’d.”

So it was Faustus who first racked the name of God and abjured ‘the scripture and his Saviour Christ’ and only then Mephistophilis, the Devil, flew ‘in hope to get his soul.’ And this leads to the symbolic significance of the character of Mephistophilis. The evil is actually in his own soul and Mephistophilis is the symbolic representation of it. He is nothing but a projection of the self of Faustus. We may also say with a critic that ‘he symbolises power without conscience, the danger of which is the motif of the play.’


And this power without conscience ultimately brings about the downfall and eternal damnation of Doctor Faustus. If Mephistophilis sometimes warns him against the evils of practising the black art of magic, that is, the brighter aspect of Faustus’s mind, an acute struggle between the good and the evil rages in his soul. So Mephistophilis may also be said to be externalising the split conscience of Doctor Faustus.


Then again, we may also treat Mephistophilis as the symbol of dramatic irony in the play. Having bitter experiences of hell as a fallen angel, Mephistophilis warns Faustus of the evils of necromancy and the suffering in hell. But Faustus with his pride and ambition turns a deaf ear to all this, shuns the path of virtue and dreams of becoming ‘as great as Lucifer’ or to be as powerful ‘as Jove in the sky’ and ‘Lord and Commander of these elements.’ And thus Mephistophilis is made the symbol of dramatic irony that intensifies the tragic appeal of this great drama.

  • Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), English poet and playwright, was the first great dramatist of the English theatre and the most important writer of tragedy plays before William Shakespeare. He is best known for the play Tamburlaine
early years of christopher marlowe
Early Years of Christopher Marlowe
  • Marlowe was the son of a shoemaker in the city of Canterbury and attended the King's School there. At 17 he went to Cambridge University on a scholarship. He graduated after three years and then stayed on to study for a higher degree. This was nearly refused because he was away too much, but the university relented when an official letter arrived saying he was on government business.
marlowe the playwright and poet
Marlowe the Playwright and Poet
  • Marlowe first began to write plays and poems at university. It is not known exactly when his tragic plays were written. Both two parts of his greatest tragedy, Tamburlaine the Great, had been performed by the time he was 23. The first part of Tamburlaine the Great was a great success at the London Theatre. The second part met with equal success performed in the same year. Before his death, Marlowe spent time writing his narrative poem Hero and Leander, (1598), along with his poetic masterpiece "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love."

His plays often reflect on the aspirations of characters whose outright defiance of social, political and religious morality equally invites admiration and condemnation.

marlowe s own tragic life
Marlowe's Own Tragic Life
  • Historians believe he was abroad working as a spy, and alleged that while still at the university, Marlowe became an agent of Francis Walsingham. The detail of any mission he undertook in the secret service of Queen Elizabeth I's great scheme is not known but an intelligent speculation leading to his early death.

In London, Marlowe made important friends, including the famed English writer, poet and explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, who started the first colony in Virginia. At the age of 25, Marlowe was imprisoned after a brawl in which a man was killed. He was involved in other street fights in between years, until in 1593, at 29, he was murdered in a dockside tavern. The official story released was that he had been stabbed in the eye during an argument over a bill, but a week earlier a warrant had been issued for Marlowe's arrest, and his former roommate, Tomas Hyd, had been tortured to make him give information about Marlowe.


Many people think that Marlowe was deliberately silenced to stop him exposing secrets about powerful people. His personal life, as a free-thinker and being indiscreet, added to his infamous reputation.


A study of Marlowe’s great tragedies cannot but convince us that Marlowe possessed the power in its fullest degree of projecting himself into his chief characters. In fact one of the most remarkable elements in all his dramatic works is this subjective or autobiographical note. Herein also lies the great difference between Shakespeare and Marlowe as dramatists. There is a complete effacement of Shakespeare’s personality in his plays.


We can never assert that this play or that passage of Shakespeare reveals his mind or personality. But Marlowe could not but project his personality into the chief characters of his plays, especially in his four great tragedies: Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Edward II.

marlowe s life and the spirit of renaissance
Marlowe’s Life and the Spirit of Renaissance
  • Before taking up this note of subjectivity in Marlowe’s dramatic works we should have a fair idea of Marlowe’s life, career, the influence of the spirit of Renaissance on him and his ambitions and aspirations. Marlowe came of ‘parents base of stock’—he was the son of shoe-maker. But he was fortunate enough to have school education, had a chance to go to Cambridge to specialise in theology and got Doctorate in Divinity. As an Archbishop Parker’s scholar he was intended for a Church career. But he abandoned the holy order and joined the theatrical companies in London to become a dramatist. In Cambridge, he also studied classics and various other subjects and became an erudite scholar.

But here also he had the bitter experience of finding his young companions belonging to a wealthier class with much better status and a greater scope for enjoying pleasures of life, although they were much inferior to him in other respects. Probably, in his later life this was the main cause of his rebellion against the established order. He also imbibed his sceptical attitude to the established religion and religious authority and was reputed as an atheist by rejecting Christian dogma.


Marlowe also developed a dual personality—especially during his life in London. He was a poet, a dramatist as well as an agent of secret service. In London he freely mixed with many a reputed nobleman as well as shady characters of the under-world. He was to a great extent violent in temperament and Bohemian in character.


Then we are to remember that Marlowe was a man of the Renaissance and an embodiment of the spirit of his age. He was saturated with the spirit of Renaissance with its great yearning for knowledge and learning, with its hankering after sensual pleasure of life and with its inordinate ambition and supreme lust for power and pelf. He was also profoundly influenced by Machiavelli, the famous Italian social and political writer, who disregarded all conventional moral principles to achieve the end by any means, noble or ignoble, fair or foul.

reflection of marlowe s personality in his tragic heroes
Reflection of Marlowe’s Personality in His Tragic Heroes
  • A close and critical study of works of Marlowe convinces us that all his tragic heroes clearly reveal the chief characteristics and temperament of the great dramatist. His great tragic heroes, Tamburlaine, Faustus, Jew of Malta, and Edward II—all are absolutely dominated by some uncontrollable passion for gaining some ideal or finding the fulfilment of some inordinate ambition. To achieve their end they throw overboard all established moral scruples or religious sanctions and never scruple to adopt even the most cruel and horrible means. His cruel, tyrannic Tamburlaine with his craze for limitless power defies all authorities on earth as well as in heaven

His stone-hearted Barabas is dominated by a senseless craze for gold and does not shirk from committing the worst type of crimes to achieve his end. He seems to be an embodiment of Machiavellianism. To gain super human powers through knowledge, his Doctor Faustus, with his over-weening ambition takes to the study of the black art of necromancy and even sells his soul to the Devil to gain his end.


And Edward II and Mortimer pay the heaviest price—the former for his passion for is base minions and the latter for his craze for power. Influenced by the spirit of Renaissance, Marlowe developed a deep sense of egotism. All his great creations are also deeply egotistical having the highest regard for their own power and personality. Hence, we find his Tamburlaine speaking thus:


I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains.

  • And with my hand turns fortune’s wheel about.”
  • His heroes have also scant regard for religion or godliness. His spirit of the atheist is clearly revealed in the following line from the “Prologue to the Jew of Malta”:
  • “I count religion but a childish toy”

Another relevant point to note is that just like Marlowe all his great tragic heroes, excepting Edward II, are born of ‘parents base of stock’ with a great sense of superiority. Thus, proclaims Tamburlaine:

  • “I am a lord, for so my deeds will prove,

And yet a shephered by my Parentage.”

  • And Baldock, the clerk, in Edward II proudly asserts:
  • “My name is Baldock, and my gentry

I fetch from Oxford, not from Heraldry.”


Another significant point is that almost all the tragic heroes of Marlowe are poets and convey their feelings and emotions to the audience in the superb poetical language. And Marlowe himself was a great poet of passion. Hence, this lyrical quality of his great heroes reveal their creator’s moods and passions.

marlowe and doctor faustus striking parallelism
Marlowe and Doctor Faustus—Striking Parallelism
  • Of all Marlowe’s tragic heroes Doctor Faustus bears out the most striking reflection of Marlowe’s own self. After a close study of the play we are struck by the close similarity between the life and career of Marlowe and that of Doctor Faustus. We know that Marlowe was the second child of a Canterbury shoe-maker and in the very beginning of the play Doctor Faustus, the Chorus tells us of Faustus’s parentage:
  • “Now is he born, his parents base of stock.”
  • Harold Osborne has briefly pointed it out thus:

“Marlowe himself, like Faustus, came of parents of ‘base stock’ and was destined for the church but turned elsewhere; he was undoubtedly keenly interested in secular knowledge; was reputed as scoffer of religion and incurred the charge of blasphemy.”

  • We should not press the analogies too far. But we cannot ignore them as the parallelism is so very obvious.
personal tragedy spiritual suffering
Personal Tragedy: Spiritual Suffering
  • Doctor Faustus expresses very powerfully Marlowe’s innermost thoughts and authentic experiences. So it can be regarded as the spiritual history of Marlowe himself. Marlowe’s inordinate ambition led him to revolt against religion and society, to defy the laws of man and laws of God. And such defiance is bound to bring about acute mental conflict resulting in deep despair and certain defeat. So, both Marlowe and his creation Doctor Faustus experience terrible mental pangs and agonies. Osborne has rightly said:

“The descriptions of Faustus’s repentance, despair and mental anguish are among the most vivid and poignant parts of the play. It is, of course, possible to suppose that Marlowe had passed through a stage of youthful scepticism in religion and that with a sounder and deeper faith he had come to the knowledge of repentance. Nor indeed is he ever the pure scoffer. It is certain that the author of “Faustus” must himself have walked some way along the path of religious doubts and gropings and must have known the sufferings attendant upon that journey.”


Hence, in Doctor Faustus we get a faithful portrait of an agonised condition of mind wavering between its ‘Good and Evil Angels, between God and the Devil.’ And it very much seems that Faustus is for Marlowe when he gives vent to his deep anguish of his soul before his scholar friends: “But Faustus’s offence can never be pardoned: the serpent that tempted Eve may be saved, but not Faustus....O, Would I have never seen Wittenberg, never read book and what wonders I have done, all Germany can witness, yea, all the world; for which Faustus hath lost both Germany and the world, yea, heaven itself………..”


The end of the play reveals the influence of Reformation on Marlowe. It seems in spite of all his great achievements, Marlowe, like Faustus, ultimately realised that they did not in any way helped to fortify his soul but to lose it as it was cut off from the rich natural resources of inspiration and faith.

hankering after power knowledge and sensuality
Hankering after Power, Knowledge and Sensuality
  • As regards passion for knowledge and craving for sensual pleasure of the world there is remarkable affinity between Faustus and Marlowe. It is true that Marlowe lived a Bohemian, profligate and boisterous life. Marlowe who was to go for the Holy Orders gave up divinity for the career of a poet and a playwright. Faustus seeks knowledge just for the power it gives and to have opportunities for the gratification of sensual pleasures.

If Ellis is correct regarding the circumstances of Marlowe’s tragic death, then Faustus’s doting over the lips of Helen shortly before his death bears a very close resemblance with those of Marlowe’s death over ‘bought kisses.’

poetic spirit
Poetic Spirit
  • All the tragic heroes of Marlowe are undoubtedly poets. But of all of them his Faustus is poet par-excellence just like Marlowe himself. The superb oft-quoted apostrophe to Helen beginning with the lines:—
  • “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
  • And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
  • reveals his wonderful poetic temperament. Wynne is perfectly correct in saying: “This passage has probably never been surpassed in its magic idealisation of that which is essentially base and carnal.”
  • Even in their short span of life and in their tragic death there is real affinity between Marlowe and his creation, Doctor Faustus. After living twenty-four years a life of sensual pleasures and superhuman achievements, Faustus had to surrender his soul to the Devil for eternal damnation. Marlowe’s boisterous and Bohemain life also came to a tragic and premature end in a tavern brawl at the hands of a shady character of the London underworld at the age of twenty-nine. And there is really something occult in the mournful melody of the Chorus in the closing line of this tragedy:
  • “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
  • And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough,
  • That sometimes grew within this learned man.”

It is given only to Shakespeare to write dozens of plays without projecting his personality into them in any detectable manner. He has so lost himself in his works and yet so skilfully kept himself away from them that it is almost impossible to say with any stress of certainty that a particular play or even isolated passage reveals his mind and personality. Marlowe does not share this unique privilege of Shakespeare. He is there in every play of his, and especially in his four great tragedies—Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II.


These plays give us not a shadowy idea but an intimate glimpse of the quivering personality of Marlowe and the intense thoughts that were his at the time of writing them. It is therefore neither desirable nor possible to separate Marlowe the poet and dramatist from Marlowe the man. His subjectivity, however, is not as obvious and insistent as that of Shelley, for instance. It is the subjectivity of the type that Milton gives us in his Comus, Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes.


Doctor Faustus is strewn with unmistakable autobiographical suggestions. Reading the play we cannot refrain from concluding that it is the spontaneous expression of its writer’s innermost thoughts and authentic experiences. The storm of doubt and despair, of suffering and sin, that sweeps through the serious scenes of the play, does not seem to be the work of a mere imaginative artist who conjures it forth from the confines of his own mind, but of one who must have stood up to the chin in such experience.


There is no doubt that the writer of Doctor Faustus appears to be one who has experienced a great spiritual tragedy, one whose sense of harmony between his mind and the universal forces around him is shaken, one who is heavy with a feeling of loss. What his sufferings and losses are, the dramatist does not make clear. Caught in a chaotic maze of conflicting emotions, he is busy searching for the meaning of the calamity that has overtaken him.


Part of it he seems to discover in blind servitude to barren learning. Marlowe, like Faustus, seems to have realised that all he had learnt and known, all he had attempted and achieved with the help of his intellectual equipment, helped not to strengthen his soul but to lose it, by being cut off from the rich natural resources of inspiration and of faith.

shakespeare vs marlowe
Shakespeare vs. Marlowe
  • These two men supposedly:

Lived in the same town: London

  • At the same time
  • Worked at the same occupation: writing plays
  • At the same places: the few theatres of London
  • Worked with the same people
  • Each occupied the same prestigious position as foremost poet and playwright in all of England.
and yet the contrasts are almost unbelievable
And yet the contrasts are almost unbelievable.
  • In spite of such narratives as the movie “Shakespeare In Love” and writings by Marlowe biographers (which tell in glowing detail how Shakespeare and Marlowe might have met), there is absolutely no record of the two of them meeting, or working together, or even crossing paths.
  • Park Honen writes in his highly regarded biography of Marlowe, “Christopher Marlowe, Poet and Spy,” discussing the two of them: “Did they meet? Or become intimate. Plainly, no record of their talk together survives. No obscure diary tell us of the meetings, though shreds of the truth can be discovered if we are willing to be patient, indirect, or somewhat roundabout in assessing Marlowe’s friendship with his prime contemporary.”

The question arises: if the two greatest writers in England at that time ever met, wouldn’t there be some reference to it somewhere?


All the suppositions in the world regarding what might have occurred if Shakespeare and Marlowe met in no way indicate that they did. As a matter of fact, the very fact that there no existing references that England’s two major writers even cross paths, seems to be indicative that there never was such a meeting.

  • One must ask: why? The two most famous and highly regarded playwrights in England … never met?
comparing the two men
Comparing The Two Men
  • With so much in common, it’s amazing that the lives of these two men were so different. As stated above, they worked in the same profession, in the same town, at the same time, with the same people and in the same places (London theatres).
  • How could they not have met? Examining their differences may offer a clue.

Educationally they were a great contrast. Shakespeare had had little schooling, quitting school when he was fifteen years old. Marlowe, by comparison, had two degrees including a master’s from Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University.


Shakespeare had had no opportunity to learn foreign languages though Marlowe was fluent in many. Marlowe had translated Ovid’s “Amores” while in college and later had done the first translation of Cervantes’s massive classic Don Quixote from Spanish to English. Many of the plays attributed to Shakespeare have reference to foreign cities and foreign languages


In a similar manner, Shakespeare had had no opportunity to learn protocol of military life, legal matters or court manners, things in which Marlowe was proficient -- things that were frequently a part of many of the Shakespearean plays.

  • Marlowe had traveled to many countries. According to records, Shakespeare had never left England.
their only similarity
  • There is one area in which the two men share many traits. Their writings.
  • This is the primary impetus for the conspiracy theory that Marlowe may have written the works attributed to Shakespeare.
  • There are more than a hundred duplicate lines in the works of Shakespeare taken from previous writings of Marlowe. And more so, there are numerous references to Marlowe’s works in Shakespeare’s writings.

Some historians have pieced together these facts:

  • There is no record that the two greatest writers of the time ever met.
  • Marlowe’s death seems fabricated at best.
  • Shakespeare seems to be missing all the traits and experiences required to write such magnificent plays.
  • Maybe Marlowe did not die and continued to write under the name of William Shakespeare.
counter arguments
  • Some historians have argued that Shakespeare’s lack of education, travel experiences, and military knowledge do not preclude his having written the works attributed to him.
  • But others have disputing these factors, when coupled with all the other peculiarities connected with Shakespeare’s life.

There are questions concerning if Shakespeare was literate. There are no copies of anything handwritten by him. His signature appears only once in a legal document and that one has raised some suspicions.

  • There are a multitude of questions concerning other issues: why there were no tributes to Shakespeare when he died … why did his plays kept appearing (fourteen in all) after his death … and why did his will list every pot and pan but no books, no quartos of his plays, and no willing to anyone of any present plays on which he was working when he died.

Two different men, with two contrasting lives: presenting more questions than solutions.

  • That is how conspiracy theories begin.
  • “Marlowe is the greatest discoverer, the most daring pioneer, in all our poetic literature. Before Marlowe there was no genuine blank verse and genuine tragedy in our language. After his arrival the way was prepared, the path made straight for Shakespeare. Marlowe differs from the other poets of his time not in degree, but in kind; not as an eagle differs from wrens and tit-mice, but as an eagle differs from frogs and tadpoles . . . he first, and he alone, gave wings to English poetry; he first brought into its serene and radiant atmosphere the new strange element of sublimity . . . Among all English poets he was the first full-grown man. Only young and immature by comparison with‘such disciples and successors as Shakespeare and Milton; but the first born among us of their kind."

Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1914


Shakespeare, I suggest, only became Shakespeare because of the death of Marlowe. And he remained peculiarly haunted by that death."

Jonathan Bate, 1997


Allusions to Marlowe's work are prevalent in Shakespeare's plays. Here Shakespeare quotes directly a line from Marlowe's Hero and Leander (176): "Whoever lov'd that lov'd not at first sight?" (As You Like It, 3.5.81). It is argued that Shakespeare alludes to Marlowe's murder in As You Like It, 3.3.11-12: "it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room", and apostrophizes his dead friend in A Midsummer Night's Dream:


The lunatic, the lover and the poet

  • Are of imagination all compact:
  • One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
  • That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
  • Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

  • Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
  • And as imagination bodies forth
  • The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
  • Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
  • A local habitation and a name.

Now, for those with lots of imagination: theory has it that, because he was about to be tried for heresy, Marlowe staged his death and fled to Italy. From there, Marlowe is supposed to have penned all the works attributed to Shakespeare and had them smuggled back to England.


Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed In one self place, for where we are is hell, And where hell is there must we ever be.

Christopher Marlowe