Critical approaches: the last hundred years

Most serious scholarly and critical work on Marlowe's plays begins in the early twentieth century and reveals a number of consistent concerns.

Textual scholarship

Textual scholarship seeks to establish the most reliable text of a literary work:

  • Doctor Faustus presents a special problem in that the published texts of 1604 (the A-text) and 1616 (the B-text) are very different
  • It is generally accepted that some parts of both texts, particularly in the more comic and farcical scenes, were written by playwrights other than Marlowe
  • Over the years, scholarly opinion has swung between these two texts:
    • Some prefer the shorter, faster and more intense A-text and argue that the B-text is straggling and less coherent and that its comic scenes are unworthy of Marlowe and clash with the serious elements in the play
    • Others argue that the longer text, with its extra scenes of comedy and trickery and the critique of the Church and political power, are an essential part of the play's purpose and truer to the mixture of styles to be found in many Elizabethan plays.

Further discussion of the texts of Doctor Faustus, including the text on which this guide is based, can be found in Structure > Structure by act and scene.

Generic and formalist criticism

This explores Marlowe's use of different theatrical styles and asks questions about the formal category to which the play belongs:

Answers to these questions may influence any choice we make between the A and B texts and, therefore, will influence our interpretation of the play.

Further discussion of these matters can be found in the sections Theatrical context and Structure

Biographical criticism

This kind of criticism relates the content and themes of the play to Marlowe's life:

  • It considers the circles in which Marlowe moved at Cambridge University and his supposed connection with ‘the School of Night' (see Author > New contacts and ‘the School of Night'), suggesting that he was an atheist and that this is reflected in Faustus' defiance of God
  • It also argues that Marlowe's satire of the Papacy and various European courts derives from knowledge gained in his work as a government agent.
  • Such approaches need to regarded with caution, since they are themselves based on what is often speculative biographical ‘knowledge'
  • Furthermore, we have to remember that theatrical characters are imaginative constructions and that they do not necessarily, if at all, reflect the beliefs of their creator
  • We should not forget that Marlowe did not invent the story of Faustus but found it in the much earlier Faustbuch (see the section Doctor Faustus > Introduction > The Faust figure in European culture)

Further information and discussion can be found in the Author section.

Contextual / new historicist criticism

This approach looks at the meanings of the play in terms of contemporary social, cultural and political concerns. It is not simply a matter of finding specific contemporary references in the text, but of understanding the general context within which the play was written, performed and received:

  • The play was written and first performed at a time of great political uncertainty in England
    • Queen Elizabeth I was ageing and there was no obvious successor to the throne
    • There was unease concerning the possibility that she might be deposed from the throne by an internal rebellion
    • At the same time, there was a fear of external invasion, particularly from Spain and other Catholic powers in Europe
    • Indeed, there was a general anxiety about a reassertion of Catholic influence, from both outside and within England – this was the context in which Marlowe worked as a government agent
  • The form and content of the play can also be related to the demands of theatrical practice
  • It was also a period of exploration and the acquisition of new knowledge about the world to which we can relate Faustus' own quest for knowledge and understanding
  • The scenes in Rome and at the Emperor's court offer a critical view of the power structures of the time at which the play was written.

Further information and discussion can be found in Social / political context; Religious / philosophical context; Theatrical context.

Religious approaches

These approaches could be regarded as a sub-section of Contextual / new historicist criticism and emphasise the play's religious and theological implications:

  • There is the historical context of the clash between Henry VIII and the Papacy and the struggle between Catholics and Protestants, reflected in the scenes in which the Pope appears
  • The play also relates to contemporary fears about witchcraft, magic and alchemy – all regarded as potentially dangerous to Christian belief and, therefore, threatening to the power wielded by the Christian Church, whether it be Protestant or Catholic
  • Some critics interpret the play in terms of Faustus' sins and whether or not Marlowe condones his actions:
    • Questions are asked about what it is that Faustus does that leads to his being damned. Mostly, he plays tricks and summons up visions and luxuries for his own pleasure – he harms no one
    • Other critics might argue that Faustus' sin lies in his defiance of God (echoing that of Lucifer) and in dabbling with forbidden knowledge. He is damned by intention rather than deed.

Further discussion of this topic can be found in the sections: Religious / philosophical context; Characterisation > Faustus and Themes.

Humanist criticism

The humanist approach often removes the play from its context and interprets Faustus' story in terms of an eternal struggle to understand the cosmos and humanity's place in it:

  • This approach lies behind the comments on the play by the Romantics, in which Faustus is idealised and seen as a hero for daring to defy the mightiest of powers in his quest for knowledge
  • Faustus then becomes a mythical figure, an archetype of the human desire to cross the boundaries that appear to set the limits of human capacity.

Two things to notice about this approach are:

  • It tends to ignore or dismiss those parts of the play inconvenient to its argument – the comic and farcical scenes
  • It works with the assumption that there is such a thing as an essential human nature that is the same at all times and in all places. This is not an assumption shared by all scholars and critics, many of whom argue that literary texts are inevitably and decisively shaped by the historical era to which they belong.

Further discussion of these matters may be found in the section Themes > Human and psychological themes.

Gender / sexual criticism

This approach considers a number of issues concerning gender and sexuality, such as what a text might reveal about the relative roles played by men and women, especially in terms of power and autonomy of action:

  • This is an approach often taken by feminist critics who would point out that Doctor Faustus contains no significant role for a woman. Such women as do appear are seen entirely as the adjuncts or possessions of men
  • This applies especially to Helen of Troy, a possession the theft of which led to a long war. She appears in the play only as a passive vision, entirely at Faustus' command.

Marlowe's plays are also read in terms of speculation about his own sexuality:

  • It is argued that Marlowe's time at school and university may have brought him into contact with homosexual circles
  • There is a remark quoted from Marlowe in a contemporary document, written by an acquaintance, that anyone who didn't love tobacco and boys was a fool. However, it should be noted that the document was designed to tarnish Marlowe's reputation
  • This issue doesn't particularly concern Doctor Faustus, but is certainly relevant to his later play Edward II, in which the king is clearly engaged in a homosexual relationship with his favourite, Piers Gaveston.

Psychoanalytic criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism reads texts in terms of how they relate to:

  • the author's experience
  • the relationship between the text and the reader / spectator
  • changing theories about individual psychology.

It is related to Biographical criticism in terms of how Marlowe's own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs might be reflected in his work:

  • It might consider Marlowe's persistent concern with power and ask questions about his relationship with various forms of authority
  • It might also see in Faustus' situation something of Marlowe's own anxieties about religion and the desire for knowledge

It is a mode of criticism that is particularly drawn to texts that dramatise perverse or transgressive situations:

  • In performance, Doctor Faustus should be in a dynamic relationship with its audience
  • In Marlowe's own time its representations of Faustus' spell-making and dealing with the devil would have seemed shocking, dangerous and even blasphemous.

In today's world, it still asks hard questions about the limits of human knowledge, our relationship to the universe and to European Christian belief systems. Marlowe wishes to entertain his audiences but he also wants them to think about what they are witnessing on the stage.

Further exploration of critical approaches

A good starting-point for further exploration of critical approaches to Marlowe's work would be the anthology The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe (Cambridge University Press, 2004), edited by Patrick Cheney. There are several general essays on Marlowe's life, religion and politics, textual issues and the literary context, as well as a good essay on Doctor Faustus.

An older anthology which is still useful is Marlowe: Doctor Faustus: a casebook edited by John D. Jump (Macmillan, 1969). This offers a generous selection of brief comments on the years up 1900 (some of which also appear earlier in this section) and a number of essays or substantial extracts from books published up to 1966.

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