Characterisation in Doctor Faustus

  • Created by: Jess
  • Created on: 18-04-13 14:10


  • Characterisation is often discussed in terms of 'rounded' characters (i.e realistic and detailed) and 'flat' characters (i.e. simple & undeveloped). There are two main handicaps to seeing the characters in Doctor Faustus as rounded, namely allegory and brevity.
  • Doctor Faustus contains allegorical characters (some of them even lacking proper names) who represent abstract ideas such as Virtue (the Good Angel, the Old Man) and Evil (the Evil Angel, the Seven Deadly Sins).
  • The Clown is an allegory of the concept of Ignorance, and even the devils Lucifer and Mephastophilis can be seen as allegories of the temptation to deny God.
  • Allegorical figures can tend to be so single-minded that they are flat as characters.
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  • The second handicap to full characterisation is the brevity of many of the minor characters' appearance on stage.
  • This is a play with a large number of very short parts: only Faustus and Mephastophilis spend a significant amount of time on stage, or have lengthy speeches (Faustus himself is a more rounded character, as the play shows his reactions to a realatively wide variety of situations).
  • The proliferation of minor characters gives an impression of the crowded world that Faustus inhabits, and of the wide-ranging nature of his contacts and experiences: the play cannot effectively show Faustus on his travels through the world, but it can instead show a multitude of encounters with people.
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  • The writing of Marlowe and his comic collaborator is complex, and even a short passage conveys a variety of impressions economically: every word can be made to count.
  • A play, is of course, designed to be performed, and thus the completed form of each character requrires a real person to act the part, bringing it to all the quirks of personal appearances, mannerisms and tones of voice that the actor already possesses.
  • These must be coherent with the part as written, but they also (literally) flesh it out.
  • Therefore a play text needs to be read with the added consciousness of the possibilities it provides for performance.
  • Considering each character separtely allows readers to ask themselves what they can make of each word, & what it might imply about the character's personality, tastes, values & emotions.
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  • Thus in the case of Doctor Faustus, the allegorical function does not necessarily prevent us from seeing these characters as rounded.
  • Brevity is potentially a greater handicap, but even this is not necessarily problematic.
  • After all, one of the most significant characters in the play is Helen of Troy, who has no lines at all, and very little time on stage.
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  • The Chorus is a function rather than a true character, & operates as a neutral observer rather than a judge of Faustus's actions.
  • The Chorus introduces and closes the play, and explains the passage of time between scenes.
  • In some productions that part is doubled by the actor playing Wagner, since Choruses 2 and 4 are explicitly assigned to Wagner, but the diction of the Chorus is considerably more refined and metaphoric than Wagner's style elsewhere in the play.
  • Experimentally, one might think of using a female actor in the role, which could give a greater sense of ironic detachment from the very masculine concerns of the Wittenberg Scholars, & place a question against the Prologue's opening address to "Gentlemen".
  • Originally this role, like all others on the commercial stage at the time, would have been played by a man.
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  • Faustus is dominated by two main character traits: intellect and ambition.
  • It is the intellect that creates doubt when ambition alone would simply carry him forward in his devilish contract, but it is also intellect that makes his ambition possible in the first place.
  • Within these two, evidence can be found for a series of binary oppositions: he is capable of stupidity & intelligence; courage & cowardice; cruelty & generosity.
  • In short, Faustus is filled with contradiction and so comes across as very human, especially in his ambition to better himself.
  • To this extent Faustus is a mankind figure: a representative of each one of us.
  • Faustus also tries to transcent that status, however, and this ambition to be greater than human is his downfall.
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  • Faustus feels intensely and expresses his feelings in richly evocative poetic language.
  • He also values scholarship (in spite of his dismissive monologue in Scene 1), following his punishment of the Knight in Scene 9 with the words "hereafter speak well of scholars".
  • We needs to see him as passionate, even though he believes himself to be logical: he is easily swept away by glamorous language & easily distracted by the devils' shows, which they put on each time he is about to reason his way through to the point of realising the need to repent.
  • He has trouble telling the difference between reality & imagination. In an ironic move, the play redefines practicality when it shows that Faustus's knowledge, which is about the real world, is actually impractical in comparison with an imaginative knowledge about virtue & godliness.
  • Magic purports to draw the imagination & reality together (& so makes it unnecessary for the practitioner to detect between them).
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  • Faustus's behaviour reveals a tension between solitariness & gregariousness. He is most comfortable when thinking aloud on his own in the great soliloquies (scene 1, lines 1-63 & 78-99) and he craves independence in his magic-making.
  • The scholars remind us, however, that his earliest intellectual feats took place in a community with a tradition of public, spoken dialogue: "Faustus, that was wont to make our schools ring with sic probo".
  • Oddly, Faustus's greatest pleasures are taken when he is way from his friends, so that physical luxury is associated with the Devil & solitude from the human race, while rationality & asceticism seem to go with a sense of his equal's community.
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  • Of humble origins himself, Faustus is immensely conscious of social class - though probably no more so than most people of Marlowe's period.
  • Nevertheless, his habit of resspect for nobility & dispresepct for servants directly contradicts any Christian sense of human being equals - his little trick with the out-of-season grapes is no greater for having provided them to a Duchess.
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  • Faustus's servant has a typically German name, signifying his ordinariness, not unlike calling an English character 'Carter'.
  • In the Morality Plays, comic scenes depend on the antics of a group of lower-class characters whose main interests in life were eating, drinking & making rude jokes.
  • Wagner inherits some aspects of this role: as a servant, he has a cominc function to play.
  • He is pragmatic, but also adventurous in his willingness to undertake novel tasks, not just through loyalty to Faustus but also through a kind of intellectual curiosity.
  • He images those simple folk who are led to believe that Faustus has achieved something great - who, in modern terms, would be the gullible consumers of media hype.
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  • He also emulates Faustus, showing that a great man can have a bad influence on those around him. The play is concerned with Wagner's fate, though presumanly his soul is as much in question as Faustus's.
  • Wagner is socialy intermediate: though a servant, he is also capable of occasion of dignified, rational speech, especially when he speaks as the Chorus.
  • This dignified, observing aspect of the role would be enhanced if he also delivered the speeches of the Prologue, Chorus 3 & the Epilogue, as many editions suggest he should.
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  • The ways in which the Wagner character comments on Faustus's behaviour are therefore varied: he reflects Faustus in exaggerated form, showing how foolish Faustus is; he admires Faustus's achievements, showing how corrupting Faustus's irresponsible behaviour can be for others as well as himself; and he narrates events as an obesrver whose position changes during the course of the play from admiration to puzzlement.
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Good Angel & Evil Angel

  • These always appear together as a matched pair & functions as binary opposites.
  • Most critics speak as if the characters are male, but technically angels have no sex. They could therefore be cast as men, women, or one of each, or perhaps as androgynous. The choices make a considerable difference.
  • A production might profit from obvious gender stereotypes by casting the Evil Angel as a thuggish male & the Good Angel as an innocent-looking blonde woman.
  • Reversing this, to cast a sinful woman as the Evil Angel could bring out similarities between the character, "the hot whore" and Helen of Troy, and reinforce a misogynistic trend in the play.
  • Androgynous or similarly dressed & presented characters will reject these gendered readings & stress the Good & Evil Angel's parrallel dramatic functions as equal but opposite contenders of Faustus's beliefs.
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Good Angel & Evil Angel

  • The Good Angel focuses on the anger of God, to motivate Faustus to repent and cease practising black magic, and so foreshadows the angry God Faustus sees in Scene 13 "My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!"
  • George Santayana noticed that 'the good angel, in the dialogue, seems to have so much the worst of the argument. All he has to offer is sour admonition and external warnings.'
  • The Evil Angel offers all the pleasures of the flesh in graphic terms, and goes on to contradict the Good Angel's assertion that Faustus can still be foriven.
  • On each occasion Faustus believes the angel who speaks last, and does not detect the Evil Angel's lies.
  • On stage of course, their 'names' are not public, and if there is no distinction in costume, niether Faustus nor the audience can detect immediately which one must be the liar, as readers who have the benefirt of speech headings can.
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  • Referred to several times as "German Valdes", this character is one of the two magicians who lend Faustus their books & teach him the art of conjuring.
  • He helps to persuade Faustus that magic will bring him the desired wealth & renown - one cannot help wondering, however, why Valdes & Cornelius are not themselves famous and wealthy, given their claims about magic.
  • It may be that they are little more than devilish tempters themselves. Certainly they are not very competent magicians, since they believe in the power of their book, which is clearly not essential for bringing a devil to Faustus, as Mephastophilis points out in Scene 3, and is fairly useless in the hands of Rafe & Robin in Scene 8.
  • It is Valdes who suggests that beautiful women might be obtained by necromantic means, thus initiating a theme which will run through the play.
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  • The second tutor in magicianship encourages Faustus by suggesting that his knowledge makes him flatteringly appropiate for the magic arts: "Faustus, these books, thy wit, and our experience / Shall make all nations to canonize us".
  • It is Cornelius, too, who is keen for Faustus to try out his knowlege alone, making him more vulnerable to Mephastophilis: "And then, all other ceremonies learned, / Faustus may try his cunning by himself".
  • Together Valdes & Cornelius function as tempters of Faustus, describing him the joys he might obtain, thereby taking a version of the role of the vice-crew from the Morality Plays.
  • They do not reappear, perhaps for the practical reason that the actors may be needed to double other roles in the succeeding scenes, but their absence also gives a sense of Faustus's growing isolation from human company.
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The Scholars

  • Collectively, the Wittenberg Scholars' main characteristic is loyalty & simple virtue.
  • They are largely indistinguishable from one another, except that one is always more inclined to believe in the power of prayer than the others.
  • They are intellectuals who enjoy Faustus' mental gymnastics & are imressed by his learning as much as his magic.
  • They do, however, cause him to call up Helen of Troy, whom faustus finds ultimately desirable.
  • Their function in the plot is to assist the symmetry with which the ending answers the beginning: when Faustus eventually returns to Wittenburg, they are still there for him.
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  • Mephastophilis is a terrifying devil and a tempter, and so in a sense an enemy of Faustus.
  • At one point he offers Faustus a dagger to encourage him to suicide and so damn himself, a quick way of ensuring the result that apparently still hangs in doubt at this stage of the play.
  • Mephastophilis also inspires a certain sympathy. He is the victim of a single mistake, loyalty to Lucifer, and we can almost feel him on occasion attempting to warn Faustus not to commit the same error:

Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprives of everlasting bliss!
Scene 3 lines 78-81

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  • At the same time as doing Lucifer's bidding, he also must honour the contract with Faustus to tell him the truth, and so comes across as strikingly honest.
  • There is poignancy in his situation when he explains that he is one of the "Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer, / Conspired against our God with Lucifer, / And are for ever damned with Lucifer"
  • When Faustus enquires as to whther Mephastophilis suffers any pain, he answers: "As great as have the human souls of men".
  • It is through Mephastophilis's perceptions of the nature of damnation, and of the beauty of waht it means to have a human soul, that we see just what Faustus is throwing away: "Think'st thou that heaven is such a glorious thing? / I tell thee 'tis not half so fair as thou, / Or any man that breathes on earth."
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  • Mephastophilis is an intellectual match for Faustus, comprehending the abstract proposition that hell is not so much a place as a state of mind - the condition of deprivation of God: "Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed, / In one self place; for where we are is hell, / And where hell is, must we ever be."
  • In some productions he manifestly despises Faustus's folly in disbelieving him. In others he appears as a companion/servant, taking the place in Faustus's life of the Scholars and Wagner.
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The Clown

  • The clown, a country bumpkin or yokel, is cheeky and clever but also lewd & uneducated.
  • He represents common humanity from the world outside the courts & universities.
  • He is cowardly when faced with the devils Baliol & Belcher, but also willing to earn an immoral living despite his residual Catholicism.
  • He is thus a bundle of contradictions, and this irrationality is part of the humour of scene 4.
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Baliol and Belcher

  • These are a male and a female devil, possibly naked, as the Clown is able to make an obscene comment about them.
  • Non-speaking parts, they are energetic & violent: the roles could be performed with gymnastic skill, or perhaps as modern thugs.
  • Whatever the final choice, they must be mobile & frightening.
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Lucifer and Belzebub

  • These major devils are terrifying stage presences, whose fearful appearnce is the kind of effect that one would be willing to pay extra to see.
  • In the Morlaity Plays of earlier in the sixteenth century, money was actually collected from the audience before the main devil would deign to appear. This does not happen in Doctor Faustus , but it is a helpful way of imagining how impressive the devils are supposed to be.
  • They may be performed in extraordinary ways, for example by puppets or stilt-walkers.
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The Seven Deadly Sins

  • These fully allegorised figures - Pride, Covetousness, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth and Lechery - each has a brief speech in character.
  • They may be extravagantly & grotesquely costumed in stylised or symbolic ways.
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  • This servant character is an enterprising olster (stable-boy) and thief.
  • He is ambitious to practise magic & corrupts his friend Rafe with temptation.
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  • This second stable-boy is not as clever as Robin, and has more moral objections though these are easily overturned.
  • He is tempted by the promise of sexual experiences.
  • Like the Clown, Robin & Rafe represent common humanity, but they also mirror Faustus's ambition, his persuadability & his approach to women.
  • Seeing these traits as obviously foolish in these low comedy scenes helps the audience to percieve Faustus's parrallel foolishness.
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The Pope & The Cardinal of Lorraine

  • Although mainly serving as a **** for Faustus's abusive tricks, these two characters also represent the physical self-indulgence of churchmen: the Pope is very persistent in his repeated attempts to eat and drink.
  • To some extent, Faustus's attack on them would have been seen at the time as a reasonable scourging of a priesthood grown lax, and a sixteenth-century Protestant audience would have found the humiliation of the head of the Catholic Church side-splittingly funny.
  • The latter aspect would be particularly difficult to present on the modern stage.
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  • These churchmen are obedient to the Pope's orders, and set about their business with 'good devotion', even though the curse they chant contains preposterously trivial words, sung in an impressively solemn ritual manner.
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  • We know very little about the character of the Vinter, except that he appeasrs to be an honest working man, keen to defend his rights.
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  • Holy Roman Emperor Charles V is a representative of the aristocracy, gracious but not very bright.
  • He is self important, even filled with pride about his ancestry.
  • If Faustus's magic serves to swell the Emperor's pride, and so to spread a tiny grain more of corruption in the world, then his magical display of apparitions cannot be regarded as innocent, but is instead the Devil's work.
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  • The Knight at Charles V's court is turned into a laughing stock by Faustus, but not before he has shown great insight into the emptiness of the magician's art, and considerable courage in voicing his objections publically.
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  • Literally and metaphorically out of his depth, the brash and pushy horse-trader seeks to drive an advantageous bargain.
  • He believes himself to be more articulate than he really is, getting names wrong and asking inappropiate questions.
  • His sinister tendencies to mistrust and violence are punished in turn by near-drowning and the shock of pulling Faustus's false leg off.
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