Christopher Marlowe's "Tragical History of Doctor Faustus," a morality play that eased the genre into tragedy, proves in its cast of characters why Marlowe's no Shakespeare: there really is no one in the play but Faustus and Mephistopheles. Both characters are virtual warm-ups for later figures Shakespeare would create; interestingly, the devil's character is more complex than the human's.
Faustus Personifies Power Seekers
A brilliant man at a crossroads, Faustus, having received every academic accolade, begins demon-summoning and astrology; readers immediately doubt his brilliance. His most obvious character trait is his hubris, god-defying pride that destroyed many a Greek protagonist. He seeks knowledge for power, "a world of profit and delight ... and omnipotence." Contemplating the possibility of hell, he rejects it -- "that's hard ... farewell divinity" -- and begins at once to mock holiness. When Mephistopheles first appears as a monster, he charges the demon to re-appear "as a Franciscan friar ... that holy shape becomes a devil best."
Fallen Faustus, a Flat Character
Having secured a satanic soul-deal, Faustus wastes his time in flirtations with Helen of Troy -- whose face "launched a thousand ships" -- and low pranks on clergy -- "take heed, lest Faustus make your shaven crowns to bleed." He degenerates into an outwardly respectable sage who is a profligate Christ-mocker, personifying the religious hypocrisy Marlowe's nature rebelled against. When Faustus faces damnation, crying "hide me from the heavy wrath of God," he is magnificently grand but unsympathetic, since this flat character undergoes no real change or repentance; he is still a "wise fool," a learned God-hater.
Mephistopheles, Round and Believable
Faustus's devil-foil Mephistopheles is more intriguing. His character is layered enough to feel pain at separation from God -- "why, this is hell, nor am I out of it" -- and his trickster's evil occasionally seems nihilistic -- "marriage is but a ceremonial toy" he says of human relations. He is philosophical as well -- "fools that laugh on earth must weep in hell" -- and when Faustus accuses him of trickery in gaining a human soul, Mephistopheles is honest: "I do confess it, Faustus, and rejoice." He is a devil, but an admirable one.
Shakespearean characters most analogous to Faustus and Mephistopheles are Othello and Iago, one possessed of blind self-importance that the other, possessed by twisted nihilism, uses to lead the fool to destruction. Faustus the fool is grandly immoral but unremarkable, sinking to depravity and brimstone; Mephistopheles, malignant without pretense, is the character we remember.
- Doctor Faustus; Christopher Marlowe
- Dartmouth University: Late Renaissance Thought and the New Universe: Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus
- City University of New York: Tragedy
- The Marlowe Studies: The Christopher Marlowe Library
- The Riverside Shakespeare: Othello
- Tufts University: Introduction to "Doctor Faustus," Sylvan Barnett
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