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Arkadiusz Syrokomski

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus as a medieval drama

The English theatre has its origin in medieval plays that were first important elements of the

Catholic Church liturgy. The renaissance drama is mostly associated with Shakespeare and his

works, which do not resemble medieval plays and have many elements of ancient works.

However, there are other contemporary with Shakespeare playwrights whose plays although

considered as renaissance have many features common to medieval plays. One of them is

Christopher Marlowe and his Doctor Faustus. Even brief analysis of medieval plays will

reveal their most common elements and these elements concerning the subject, main

characters and setting can be found in Doctor Faustus.

The beginning of medieval drama, as it was mentioned above, is closely connected with

Catholic Church liturgy and actually the first medieval plays were a part of it. Therefore its

liturgical activities can be consider as the source of the theatre and this fact determined the

subject of plays for centuries which was closely connected with Bible and religious beliefs.

Around the thirteenth century dramas started to be played outside churches but their subject

was still religious. These spectacles were called miracles and they were based on biblical

stories. Although they had religious character and were influenced by the clergy they were

very emotional and the audience, at that time, did not perceive them as strictly religious

experience. Then some additional scenes, which were taken from every day life, started to

appear in these plays. For example in the Second Shepherd’s Play in the Towneley cycle of

miracle plays, the adoration of Christ by the shepherds was preceded by a comic scene about

the theft of a sheep ( Bates, 1893). The next step led from religious plays to didactic morality

plays and Lee Bates says that …the Moralities were gradually developed out of the Mysteries

through the workings of a natural desire for variety, which, having first suggested the

elaboration of minor characters in the Scriptural dramas, led also, in course of time, to the

introduction of personifications…. (1893, s. 204). Morality plays presented a struggle

between the evil and the good in such a way that vices and virtues were shown as

personifications which conducted a dialogue with a main character known as Everyman, who

represented an average man.

Although there is some variety of medieval dramas they all have the same three basic

elements. First, they have a didactic character and serve to show the right way of living. The

good deeds are awarded and bad are punished. Second, they have biblical elements and they

tell about the relation of man to God. Third, the minor function of other characters and

especially women. All of those elements can be found in Doctor Faustus.

Marlowe’s play although not directly based on o Biblical story has a religious and didactic

character and there are many biblical motives in it. For example, the temptation of Faust by

evil angel and his doubts about God’s mercy, which can be often found in the Old Testament.

The idea of hell and heaven as places with hierarchy of creatures is also taken from Bible. The

connection with religious aspects of life in this play is very clear as well. There are churches,

priests and God above in heaven.

Next element of Doctor Faustus which is common for medieval drama is its didactic

character. Doctor Faustus resembles especially morality play in that respect. Morality plays

show their main characters as a figure that travel towards death and in the end only their good

deeds are important. In Marlowe’s play Faustus travels through time and space and his

destination is death as well. Besides that, Marlowe in his play used the same type of allegory

and personification as was used in morality plays. For example, in one of the earliest

Moralities called The Castell of Preservence there is a struggle for a human soul between

Malus Angelus with the Seven Deadly Sins and Bonus Angelus with the Six Divine Graces.

In Doctor Faustus there are Deadly Sins too. They are people shown to Faustus by Belzebub

who says, Faustus, we are come from hell in person to show thee some pastime. Sit down and

thou shalt behold the seven deadly Sins appear to the in their own proper shapes and

likeness.(Marlowe, 1588/2003, s. 371)

Doctor Faustus can be compared to medieval drama not only because of its religious elements

and didactic character but also because of the lack of female characters and insignificance of

other figures of the play. These elements are common for many medieval plays. A female

character, Helen, there is only a vision and characters like Dick, Robin and Wagner are not

really important to the plot. The main person of drama Faustus is the only figure on which the

play is focused. In her book British Drama. An Historical Survey From the Beginnings to the

Present Time Nicoll Allordyce writes about Marlowe’s heroes ‘…All his heroes, by their

greatness, stand alone. We have the feeling that they have no mortal force to fight against.

They are lonely figures in a world of Lilliputans.’ (1925, s. 85)

There are two additional elements, which seem to be worthy of mentioning if we are looking

for common elements between created in middle ages plays and found in Doctor Faustus.

First, the whole action of Marlowe’s play was placed in medieval reality and second he used

many Latin expressions. The action is placed in medieval cities and in medieval society, so

there is a German king, and a powerful pope. In the play, according to history, they fight

about the control of Europe. The Latin words used by the pope and Faustus refer basically to

God and catholic liturgy, for example: Homo Fuge, Meladicat Dominus or Primum Mobile.

In conclusion, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is a renaissance play which has many elements of

medieval works and therefore it can be described as an important link between mostly

anonymous and unknown medieval plays and masterpieces of renaissance drama created by

William Shakespeare.


Allardyce, N. (1925). British Drama. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company Publishers.

Bates, K.L. (1893). English Religious Drama. New York: Macmillan and Co.

Marlowe, C. (2003). Doctor Faustus. In: F. Romany and R. Lindsey (Eds.), The Complete
Plays. London: Penguin Books.

Chute, M. (1996). Shakespeare of London. New York: Book-of-the-Month-Club.