Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
Elizabeth I came to the throne of England during a time of intense religious turmoil and political uncertainty. By the end of her reign, England stood as the first officially Protestant nation in Europe; however, tensions between Protestants and the repressed Catholic minority continued to plague the nation. Much of the literature produced during the time of her reign reflected sensitivities to religion and resulting political intrigues. In his play Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe places the title character in a power struggle similar in form to those conflicts dominating Elizabethan life. Yet rather than a battle among courtiers for royal favor, the battle in Doctor Faustus pits god against the devil in a struggle for the possession of a man’s soul. Reflecting the cultural and religious context of the sixteenth century, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus comments on prideful ambition, which leads to a loss of salvation for human pawns in the cosmic power-struggle for souls.
In a conflict similar to that existing between English Protestants and Catholics, Faustus must choose between God and the Devil, risking his eternal life in anticipating which will be the winning side. When Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and established the monarch as the head of a new English Protestant Church, he made religion largely dependent on politics. In reference to Marlowe’s treatment of religion in Dr. Faustus, John Cox writes, “Marlowe’s implicit reduction of the Reformation to a struggle for power is an acute response to the secularization introduced by the Tudors. . . . Protestants made religion a matter of crown policy, and thus comparatively a matter of mere power” (114). When Mary ruled the nation following Edward’s death, Catholicism stood as the accepted religion, with government persecution and executions for rebellious Protestants. In the same respect, Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne created royal pressure on Catholics. Some Catholics fled the country, while others plotted from within to overthrow her Protestant reign and reinstate Catholicism. Religion had become an issue of royal decree and the source of political intrigue, linked inexorably to the power struggles and political threats of Elizabeth’s reign. Political success rested not necessarily with religious devotion but with choosing the right side under the label of religious conviction. Just as religion became a matter of superior political power, so does the battle between God and the devil for Doctor Faustus’ soul become an issue of power.
Faustus’ ambitious desire for power drives him to turn away from God in his pursuit of necromantic arts. In choosing between the righteous course that God presents and the damning course offered by the devil, he most carefully considers which will offer him the most power. In the opening scene, Faustus examines the merits of logic, medicine, law, and divinity, studies...