Characters: individual and representative

The dramatic representation of character

In the case of most plays, we discuss characters as if they were real individuals and talk about elements of their personality as revealed by:

  • Their interaction with other characters
  • Monologues, either addressed to the audience or used as representations of inner reflections
  • Contradictions, dilemmas and other kinds of response that convince us of their reality as human beings
  • The register(s), content and idiosyncrasies of their speech, which also contribute to the audience's sense of a character's reality.

These approaches and methods are used in Doctor Faustus, but the most effective dialogue takes place mostly between Faustus and Mephastophilis, and, apart from the Chorus (a rather special case: see Structure > The Role of the Chorus), all the monologues are delivered by Faustus.

In the case of Faustus, and to a lesser extent Mephastophilis, these methods certainly reveal some distinctive traits of personality, which:

  • Are conveyed partly though imagery and allusion
  • Motivate their behaviour
  • Relate to the play's thematic content.

Character in medieval and Elizabethan drama

To describe and explain the mode of representation of characters in the play other than Faustus and Mephistophilis, we must consider the location of Doctor Faustus in the development of English drama.

Doctor Faustus as a transitional play

Doctor Faustus is, in many respects, a transitional play that stands historically on the cusp of medieval and Elizabethan drama. In dramatic terms, this means that it draws its inspiration from:

  • Earlier English Mystery, Miracle and Morality plays, which featured either well-known figures from the Bible (in whose historical reality the audience will have believed) or characters representing certain human or divine qualities
  • The classical plays of the Greeks and Romans, rediscovered during the Renaissance, which also draw on familiar figures from history and mythology (often regarded as the same thing)
  • The emphasis on the individual to be found both in the development of Protestant ideas and the humanist scholarship of the Renaissance.

Doctor Faustus, therefore, presents its characters in more than one way, moving along the spectrum between the fully individualised to the symbolic, and beyond this to include supernatural figures.

Representative and symbolic characters

The techniques for representing character discussed at the beginning of this section are only partly applicable to Doctor Faustus. Faustus himself comes closest to being a fully realised individual, but most of the other characters are present in the play to fulfil either a representative or symbolic role. They, therefore, display only a limited number of attitudes or responses to events.

Representative characters

  • The Pope and the Emperor bear some relationship to a real Pope and a real Emperor, but largely fulfil the function of representing religious and political power (not necessarily separate categories)
  • The friars, priests, noblemen and women and other courtiers who occupy the papal and imperial courts exemplify the operations of power
  • All these characters also exist so that Faustus may show off his magical powers and his mischievousness.

Representative / symbolic characters

  • The Three Scholars belong to the world of legitimate learning that Faustus rejects
  • Cornelius and Valdes tempt Faustus with their account of the potential of magic.

Symbolic characters

  • The Good and Evil Angels act as externalisations of Faustus' inner struggle
  • The Old Man symbolises what Faustus might have become if he had not made a pact with the devil
  • The Seven Deadly Sins.

Supernatural characters and spirits

Scepticism and belief

Doctor Faustus includes a number of supernatural characters. Many of today's spectators and readers may regard the appearance of the Devil and his representatives with some scepticism, as demonstrating outdated beliefs. But at the time the play was first produced, most people will have believed in the reality of the Devil. They accepted that he might be manifested in bodily form, especially if summoned by those who meddled with forbidden knowledge. This was a period when suspected witches were tried and often executed, many of them accused of sexual relations with Satan.

Devils on stage

For Elizabethan audiences, figures such as Mephastophilis, Lucifer and Beelzebub would be met with a response rather different from that they might receive in the early twenty-first century. This response might be a mixture of shock, fear and excitement. The stage business that accompanied the entry of the creatures from Hell was calculated to incite those emotions.

It is worth remembering that some of the earliest surviving comments on the play specifically mention the devils who accompany Mephastophilis carrying fireworks. There were contemporary anecdotes suggesting that the representation of devils on stage, regarded by some as blasphemous, caused real devils to appear, much to the horror of both audience and actors (see Critical approaches > Contemporary critical reception).

Ghosts and spirits

Appearances by ghosts and spirits were quite common in Elizabethan drama, fulfilling a variety of functions:

  • Warning characters against a course of action
  • Urging them to revenge
  • Showing them ‘what really happened'
  • Reminding them of their guilt for past wrong-doing.

In Doctor Faustus spirits play a different role:

  • As proof of his powers, in Scene 10 Faustus conjures up for the Emperor the ghosts of Alexander the Great and his lover. This feeds the Emperor's inflated pride in the achievements of his family and is part of the play's satire of the whims of the powerful
  • In Scene 12, he conjures up Helen of Troy as his own lover. She is a means of distracting Faustus from his fear and desperation as his end approaches and tells us something about his deepest desires.

Drama, belief and the market-place

It is not possible to say with any certainty whether Marlowe himself actually believed in the reality of the Devil or of ghosts and spirits. As a working dramatist, he is much more concerned with how such figures could contribute to the overall effect of the play he was writing.

Also, as a dramatist working in close association with a theatre and a company of actors, he would be very well aware of the attraction to audiences of plays that promised spectacular scenes of supernatural events – just as cinema trailers today emphasise the most vivid and emotionally powerful part of the action. The promise of devils with fireworks in their mouths and attached to their tails, not to speak of appearances by Alexander the Great and Helen of Troy, would add considerably to the appeal of the play.

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