Engaging with the text

Working with a literary text, whether it be a play, novel or poem, requires more than simply reading it and knowing ‘what happens' or what it is ‘about'. If you are to write good essays and be successful in examinations, it is important that you should engage with the text – in this case Doctor Faustus – as deeply as possible.

Reading and working with Doctor Faustus

  • Remember the kind of play that Doctor Faustus represents – that it tells a story involving both human and other-worldly characters, concerns spiritual and theological matters and choices about salvation and damnation
  • Allow yourself time to become accustomed to the language. The play was written over four hundred years ago and linguistic forms have inevitably changed, so don't worry if you read slowly at first
  • Set aside time for reading: identify blocks of time when you can read without interruption
  • Make notes as you read. This is the best way of keeping your reading alert and active. You can record the events in each scene and keep a record of especially important speeches, themes and images
  • Make links with other books, films or TV programmes with similar plots and themes – about the search for knowledge and the dangers of crossing forbidden boundaries.

Get to know the text

  • Read Doctor Faustus at least twice. This is essential if you are to develop a well-informed response to the play
  • Follow up advice on reading given by your teacher or in study guides
  • BUT don't rely on plot summaries:
    • They tell you nothing about language and style
    • They don't identify themes and motifs in the text
    • However detailed, they are intended as reminders not substitutes
  • Read the text in different ways. Once you have a firm grasp of the overall narrative, you may wish to:
    • Re-read a particular section, such as the first meeting of Faustus and Mephastophilis;
    • Concentrate on a theme or motif, such as flight or falling, or the ways in which the imagery of blood is used in the play;
    • Trace the appearances of particular characters such as the Good and Evil Angels.

Know the complete text

This requires a separate section because examiners often report that students know the beginning of a play very well, but are less familiar with the later parts of the text. Classroom study often emphasises the beginning of a book or play, where the author introduces characters, themes and imagery, and is then less detailed about the remainder of the text. So:

  • Do not ignore the impact of significant scenes in the later part of Doctor Faustus
  • Remember that themes, motifs and images may be developed and modified as the play goes on
  • Remember that characters change and develop and that the reader / spectator's attitude towards them may also change.

Keep a record of your reading

  • Make notes under headings, with page references to particularly useful passages
  • For major topics, you may find it helpful to have separate pages or index cards: one for each character, say, or for a particular theme or image:
    • However, don't let your notes become too separate and take care to comment on links and relationships;
    • Use specimen essay questions to give you ideas for headings for your notes.
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