Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play Doctor Faustus is a quintessential Elizabethan tragedy. Although William Shakespeare is the playwright who most often comes to readers’ minds when the subject of Elizabethan drama comes up, while Marlowe was alive, he was actually the more popular of the two dramatists. Today, his works are generally cited with Shakespeare’s as some of the greatest in British literary history.
The genre of Elizabethan tragedy is characterized by a few key factors: the central, tragic hero, a desperate struggle between good and evil, extreme inner conflict, and the injection of comedic moments to ease tension. Doctor Faustus fulfills each of these components. Faustus is the ultimate tragic hero; his struggle to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, is vividly rendered on stage, and despite knowing how the story will end, the audience roots for Faustus’s salvation right until the final fall of the curtain.
It would be remiss not to mention that Doctor Faustus may also be read as an attempt by Marlowe to adapt the genre of the morality play to better suit the sensibilities of the English Renaissance. Certain elements of the play, such as the procession of the Seven Deadly Sins and the bickering between the Good and Evil Angels, are easily recognizable as components of the morality play. Marlowe complicates the black-and-white predictability of the traditional morality play by introducing the question of whether Faustus has the free will to determine his fate. In the end, Marlowe refuses to confirm whether or not Faustus achieves redemption, inviting nuance rather than didactically presenting one single answer to the audience.