Doctor Faustus

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Education, Knowledge, and Power Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Temptation, Sin, and Redemption Theme Icon
The Bargain Theme Icon
The Renaissance Individual Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Education, Knowledge, and Power Theme Icon
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Education, Knowledge, and Power Theme Icon

Faustus is identified as a character by his status as a doctor (that is, someone with a doctoral degree), and the backdrop of much of the play is the university environment in which Doctor Faustus lives. It is thus no surprise that issues of formal education are of great importance to the play, in which even magic spells are learned from a kind of text-book. Systems of education obviously exist to help people learn, but Marlowe also explores the associations of formal education with power and social hierarchy. Education helps people position themselves in higher social classes. It is through education that Faustus rises from his humble origins and that the play's scholars differentiate themselves from lowly clowns like Robin and Rafe. And when Wagner promises to teach a clown magic, he uses his superior knowledge as a way to gain power over the clown, getting him to agree to be his servant.

But not everything can be learned in school and from books. In his opening soliloquy, Faustus rejects traditional areas of study and, although his magic does rely on a spell-book, what he seeks from Mephastophilis is knowledge that he can't attain in traditional ways. For the ambitious Faustus, even beyond the implications of educations affect on social hierarchy, knowledge means power. He desires limitless knowledge largely because of the massive riches and power that come with it. And indeed whatever power Faustus possesses with his magic is due entirely to his knowledge of certain magic incantations. This close connection between knowledge and power can be contrasted with the idea of knowledge for its own sake, which ideally characterizes learning in universities.

Ultimately, Marlowe's play suggests that there are limits to proper knowledge and education. The desire to learn is not inherently bad, but Faustus goes too far and seeks to know too much. He himself seems to recognize this, as his last line in the play contains a promise to burn his books (XIII, 113) and thus repudiate his ambition for learning. The chorus that delivers the final lines of the play sums up the moral of Faustus' story: “Regard his hellish fall, / Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise / Only to wonder at [i.e. be amazed at but don't seek to understand] unlawful things,” (Epilogue, 4-6). But even if this moral is clear-cut, where to draw the line between appropriate subjects of study and “unlawful things” that we shouldn't seek to know is unclear. Knowledge is power, but how much is too much?

Education, Knowledge, and Power ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Education, Knowledge, and Power appears in each scene of Doctor Faustus. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Education, Knowledge, and Power Quotes in Doctor Faustus

Below you will find the important quotes in Doctor Faustus related to the theme of Education, Knowledge, and Power.
Prologue Quotes

...Till, swollen with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.
For falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted more with learning's golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy. (20-25)

Related Characters: Chorus (speaker), Doctor Faustus
Page Number: Pro.20-25
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Prologue, Chorus gives a brief introduction to Doctor Faustus, telling his history before the start of the play. Faustus, like Marlowe himself, was of low birth, and his rise to power and scholarship are an echo of the playwright's own career. He says that the play will merely contain the subject of "Faustus's fortunes, good or bad." The Chorus then details how Faustus rose as an academic and became lifted up by his excellence in divinity, until, as the quote asserts, Faustus became prideful and obsessed with learning more and more. Compared to the Greek myth of Icarus (who flew too close to the sun, which melted his wings and caused him to fall to his death), Faustus flies too high, reaching above what is natural and normal, and then he falls, committing himself to the "devilish exercise" of necromancy (black magic dealing with death).

Already we are made aware of Faustus's sinfulness: he is prideful (self-conceit) and devotes himself to the cursed, sinful arts. We see another one of the seven deadly sins in his desire for knowledge, power, and learning: gluttony. His excessive search for knowledge and books is the source of his temptation, and when he falls prey to it he "surfeits" (overindulges) on the new, dark knowledge he achieves. The Chorus tells us that Faustus will turn to magic, which is sweeter to him than his "chiefest bliss," but the Prologue does not tell us what Faustus's fate will ultimately be (though the appearance of "Tragical" in the title is a good indicator that it will not be a good one).

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Scene 1 Quotes

Why then belike we must sin,
And so consequently die.
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this? Che sara, sara
What will be, shall be! Divinity, adieu!
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly! (44-50)

Related Characters: Doctor Faustus (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.45-50
Explanation and Analysis:

Faustus has gone through many of his books of various subjects but remains unsatisfied by their content; he has achieved the peak of human academia and is bored by it. Reading Jerome's Bible, Faustus recites and translates Latin phrases. The passages immediately preceding the quote can be summarized as "If you sin, you die" and "everybody sins." Rather than giving the interpretation that his divinity training might suggest, Faustus concludes that we have to sin, and we have to die "an everlasting death." From this logic he concludes that the doctrine can be further simplified to "What will be, shall be." Everyone sins, everyone dies, and everything is predetermined. Thus Faustus decides to depart from divinity, instead focusing on magic and necromancy.

Here Faustus makes the critical inversion that results in his damnation. "Necromantic books are heavenly." He has replaced the holy book of God, the Bible, with the most unholy books he can find. Throughout the play, we will see Faustus reach the ultimate heights of the profane by substituting or perverting the sacred. For now, Faustus substitutes unholy books for a holy one, but soon he will use the holy book itself for his evil doings.

O Faustus, lay that damned book aside,
And gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soul,
And heap God's heavy wrath upon thy head. (70-72)

Related Characters: Good Angel and Evil Angel (speaker), Doctor Faustus
Related Symbols: The Good and Evil Angels
Page Number: 1.1.70-72
Explanation and Analysis:

Having decided to pursue magic, Faustus has invited magicians to help him in his quest. As he awaits their arrival, two angels appear: The Good Angel and the Evil Angel. These two figures are prototypes for the modern (and usually cartoonish) conception of a competing angel and devil on one's shoulders. Here, the Good Angel tells Faustus to resist temptation and refuse to look at the necromantic books he so desires. The angel warns that such a sin will "heap God's heavy wrath upon" his head. The Evil Angel encourages Faustus to proceed, promising power and treasure. The two angels will return throughout the play to advise and tempt Faustus respectively. As Faustus has already accepted that "What will be, shall be," and decided to pursue magic, the Good Angel's attempt to dissuade him here is unsuccessful.

How am I glutted with conceit of this!
Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please,
Resolve me of all ambiguities,
Perform what desperate enterprise I will?
I'll have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new-found world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates. (78-85)

Related Characters: Doctor Faustus (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.78-85
Explanation and Analysis:

After the Good and Evil Angels depart, Faustus makes clear his intention to proceed. In this soliloquy he acknowledges the gluttony that the Chorus described in the Prologue, but does not seem to understand or care about the consequences of this deadly sin. Faustus instead imagines what he will do when he conjures spirits: make them get things for him, make them tell him everything he wants to know, make them fetch him gold and riches and find all of the "princely delicates" of the world. While he imagines here that he will receive the fruits of education and material objects, Faustus soon reveals that his biggest desire is power. He is focused on his personal glory, and the powers he can amass as an individual, both politically and other-worldly.

Philosophy is odious and obscure,
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
Divinity is basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile.
‘Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me. (106-110)

Related Characters: Doctor Faustus (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.106-110
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Faustus is talking to the magicians he has invited, Valdes and Cornelius. Faustus explains what we saw in his opening soliloquy: the usual pursuits of knowledge have become boring to him. Philosophy, Law, and Divinity all seem stale and unworthy, even "unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vile." Faustus reveals his intentions by explaining that it is the new pursuit of magic that has "ravished him." Note that he repeats the word magic for emphasis, supporting his claim that he has been "ravished" by it. Faustus has been overtaken by his gluttonous desire for knowledge, books, wealth, and power, and now that he has decided it, he wishes to move extremely quickly. As ravish suggests, he has been carried away forcefully, even sexually taken by magic and necromancy.

Scene 3 Quotes

Go bear these tidings to great Lucifer,
Seeing Faustus hath incurred eternal death
By desperate thoughts against Jove's deity:
Say, he surrenders up to him his soul
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand,
To slay mine enemies, and aid my friends,
And always be obedient to my will. (87-89)

Related Characters: Doctor Faustus (speaker), Mephastophilis, Lucifer
Page Number: 1.3.87-97
Explanation and Analysis:

Pressed by his thirst for knowledge, Faustus has learned about hell and Lucifer's fall from Mephistophilis. Now, he instructs the devil to bring a deal proposal to Lucifer. Here Faustus speaks as though his death and damnation are secured and fated, speaking of them as a matter of fact. The bargain he offers Lucifer is that he will give up his soul if Mephistophilis will be his servant for 24 years, doing whatever he demands, even killing for him, "ever obedient to [Faustus's] will." Faustus wants power over Mephistophilis, and through him, immense necromantic power and knowledge. He is so willing to part with his soul that he proposes the terms to Lucifer, believing that the 24 years of power will be well worth the price of his eternal soul. Striking evidence that Faustus believes this bargain is a good one can be found in the quote below.

Scene 5 Quotes

Thanks, Mephastophilis, yet fain would I have a book wherein I might behold all spells and incantations, that I might raise up spirits when I please. [...] Nay, let me have one book more, and then I have done, wherein I might see all plants, herbs, and trees that grow upon the earth. (163-173)

Related Characters: Doctor Faustus (speaker), Mephastophilis
Page Number: 2.1.161-171
Explanation and Analysis:

Faustus has signed the contract and now officially has the service of Mephistophilis, who has provided a show of devils and fireworks and informed Faustus that he will have the powers of a spirit. When Faustus asks for a wife, Mephistophilis denies him, saying that marriage is a holy sacrament. Instead Mephistophilis provides a devil dressed as a woman, but when this does not please Faustus, Mephistophilis instead provides magic books. This quote shows Faustus asking for more and more texts, unsatisfied and always wanting more. Though he appears unsatisfied, is is interesting to note the way that his desire has been diverted: his desire for a woman and sexuality has been replaced with the desire for books and intellectualism. Recall that magic "ravished" Faustus; books and dark knowledge are what he desires most, and are intimately connected to lust and sexuality for him.

Why should I die then, or basely despair?
I am resolved! Faustus shall ne'er repent.
Come, Mephastophilis, let us dispute again,
And argue of divine astrology. (207-210)

Related Characters: Doctor Faustus (speaker), Mephastophilis
Page Number: 2.3.31-34
Explanation and Analysis:

Though he has just decided to repent and seek heaven, and the Good Angel has convinced him that repentance will bring God's pity and forgiveness, Faustus almost immediately decides that he "shall ne'er repent." He believes his heart too hardened to be capable of repentance, and then decides that his power is so great that he has no reason to die or despair. The same insistence on fate as opposed to free will and the implied limitation on God's forgiving love leave Faustus stuck: he won't repent because he thinks it's too late and he is predestined to go to hell. But it is only too late because he thinks it is, and he only goes to hell because of his refusal to repent. Resolved in this faulty logic, he goes back to his obsession with knowledge and begins asking Mephastophilis questions about the universe.

Scene 12 Quotes

One thing, good servant, let me crave of thee,
To glut the longing of my heart's desire:
That I might have unto my paramour
That heavenly Helen which I saw of late,
Whose sweet embracings may extinguish clean
These thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow:
And keep mine oath I made to Lucifer. (72-78)

Related Characters: Doctor Faustus (speaker), Mephastophilis, Lucifer
Page Number: 5.1.81-87
Explanation and Analysis:

Having reaffirmed his vow to Lucifer, once again in blood, Faustus now requests that Mephastophilis fulfill his usually gluttonous desire with an unusual object. Instead of asking for more books, Faustus asks Mephastophilis to produce again the Helen of Troy that he recently conjured to impress the Scholars. He reasons that Helen's "sweet embracings" will distract him from his thoughts of repentance and allow him to keep the oath he made to Lucifer. When Mephastophilis brings forth Helen, Faustus utters the play's most famous line (and possibly the best-known line that Marlowe ever wrote): "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" Faustus then delivers a famous, seemingly romantic monologue about Helen.

This famous scene, however, should not be taken at face value. Recall that this is not Helen of Troy, but is instead a devil in her shape. This fact would be easy to remember during a contemporary performance of the play, as theatrical productions had all male casts during the English Renaissance. Thus a male actor would have played a male devil dressed as Helen of Troy. And Faustus have been as aware of this strange, demonic cross-dressing as the audience. Recall that when Faustus asks for a wife, Mephastophilis produces a devil dressed as a woman, which Faustus immediately rejects with disgust. His response to Helen here can then be seen as indicative of his dramatic change from the start of the play. He is now so steeped in necromancy and sin that he no longer cares what or who the false Helen really is.

Scene 13 Quotes

Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I'll burn my books—ah, Mephastophilis! (112-113)

Related Characters: Doctor Faustus (speaker), Mephastophilis, Lucifer
Page Number: 5.2.115-116
Explanation and Analysis:

These are Faustus's final lines in the play, after which he is carried off to hell. He has cried to Lucifer, to the earth, and to God himself, but he has not repented, and thus he is damned. He now cries out to hell, begging it not to open, and asks Lucifer not to come, offering even to burn his books, the treasures for which he offered his soul in the first place. Filled with regret and fear, he seems to recognize what a terrible mistake he has made, and how foolish he was to sell his soul for any price. We also have seen some evidence that he understands that such a sale was preposterous, and that God's mercy and power could overwrite any deed, written in blood or no. But for a final time, Faustus does not take the final step. If his last lines were, "I repent!" his fate might have been different, but instead he is carried to hell to be tortured as the sinner that he is.

Epilogue Quotes

Regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things:
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits. (4-8)

Related Characters: Chorus (speaker), Doctor Faustus
Page Number: E.4-8
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines spoken by the Chorus conclude the Epilogue and the play. The Chorus warns viewers to "regard [Faustus's] hellish fall," encouraging them "only to wonder at unlawful things" but not to act upon them. This lesson is a strange one, as it suggests that it is okay to wonder and think about unlawful things like necromancy and deals with the devil, and even to consider them for yourself; it is only bad to act on base desires and to "practice more than heavenly power permits." 

This lesson also stands out because they do not emphasize Faustus's misunderstanding of God's power or crucial error of not repenting. We are left with the question, are some sins so great that they cannot be forgiven? Logic and much of the play suggest that the answer is no— even Faustus could have been forgiven if he repented—but the Epilogue still warns us to stay away from his dark practices, which made repenting for Faustus all but impossible.