Doctor Faustus


Christopher Marlowe

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Doctor Faustus: Irony 4 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Famous Last Words:

Following Faustus’s introductory soliloquy, he is visited by the magicians Cornelius and Valdes, who are pleased to learn that Faustus intends to take their advice and study the necromantic arts. Eager to assure Valdes that his determination to attain riches and glory through the practice of magic is no mere passing, superficial desire, Faustus professes his commitment in an instance of dramatic irony: 

Valdes, as resolute am I in this 

As thou to live. Therefore object it not.

This quote functions as an example of dramatic irony because while the audience knows from the start that the play will end in tragedy and death (the full title of the play is The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus), Faustus himself does not. Faustus tells Cornelius and Valdes that his desire to study magic is as strong as their desire (and his own) to live. However, it is this very same desire which leads him to sign away the majority of his life in exchange for a mere 24 years, along with his eternal soul. The audience is aware that practicing magic is a surefire way to damnation, and on some level, Faustus must know, too—but he still seems unaware of just how close all three of them are to effectively losing their lives.

Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Faustus the Fearless:

Once Faustus successfully summons the devil Mephastophilis for the first time, he eagerly expresses his wish to learn more about Lucifer and hell. In an instance of situational irony, Faustus claims to have no fear of devils or Hell or Lucifer himself, even as he stands before a literal devil:

So Faustus hath 

Already done, and holds this principle: 

There is no chief but only Beelzebub, 

To whom Faustus doth dedicate himself. 

This word ‘damnation’ terrifies not him, 

For he confounds hell in Elysium. 

His ghost be with the old philosophers! 

But leaving these vain trifles of men’s souls, 

Tell me what is that Lucifer thy lord?

Accounts of audience reactions to early productions of Doctor Faustus reveal that attendees viewing the play for the first time were utterly terrified by the appearance of Mephastophilis on stage. The people of Elizabethan England absolutely believed that angels and devils were real, and the stage effects and costumes of this play brought their fears to life. The Latin Faustus recites to summon the demon generated still more terror: the question of whether the invocation might actually work in real life (because the actor was speaking real, grammatically correct Latin) ratcheted up tension in the audience. Thus, Faustus’s bold proclamation that “‘damnation’ terrifies not him” ironically subverts the audience’s expectations. His hubris in the face of an agent of evil and his assertion of immunity to the “vain trifles of men’s souls,” sets him up for a rude awakening at the end of the story. Faustus’s boasting is deeply ironic considering the blubbering mess he is reduced to in the final scene of the play as he is dragged off to hell.

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Explanation and Analysis—Virtuous Magic:

When Faustus succeeds in summoning Mephastophilis from hell, he is amazed at not only his accomplishment of the task, but also at the apparent power he holds over the devil. In this deeply ironic scene, Mephastophilis’s disappearance following Faustus’s command that he change his appearance to that of a Franciscan friar leads Faustus to believe that he actually possesses the ability to force an actual demon to follow his will:

I see there’s virtue in my heavenly words. 

Who would not be proficient in this art? 

How pliant is this Mephistopheles, 

Full of obedience and humility! 

Such is the force of magic and my spells.

This passage is ironic on two levels. First, by using magic, Faustus is committing one of the greatest possible sins and is therefore acting the opposite of virtuous—his words cannot possibly be “heavenly”! Second, in this quote, when Faustus says “virtue,” what he actually means is “power.” He falsely assumes that his Latin speech held magical sway over Mephastophilis, and that the demon has exited to change out of “pliant […] obedience and humility.” However, in reality, Mephastophilis is not beholden to Faustus’s will at all, and he even explicitly shatters Faustus’s delusion by admitting the following: “I came now hither of mine own accord.” Thus, it is Mephastophilis’s personal desire to further corrupt Faustus, lead him away from God, and acquire his soul for hell which drives his actions— not any power (virtuous or otherwise) in Faustus’s own possession.

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Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Unwilling Blood:

Faustus’s desire for magic and power leads him to offer his soul to Lucifer in exchange for attaining 24 years of Mephastophilis’s servitude. However, in a perfect example of situational irony, just as Faustus readies himself to sign his soul away to the devil, his very blood congeals in rebellion against the deed. In fact, his blood is so solidified that it takes burning coal fetched by Mephastophilis to liquify it enough for writing. Faustus marvels at the possible meaning of this phenomenon:

What might the staying of my blood portend? 

Is it unwilling I should write this bill? 

Why streams it not, that I may write afresh? 

‘Faustus gives to thee his soul’ – ah, there it stayed! 

Why shouldst thou not? Is not thy soul thine own? 

Then write again: ‘Faustus gives to thee his soul.'

Faustus’s inability to fathom why his body rebels against his will demonstrates how far removed he is from God, even at this early point in the play—for in Christian theology the body itself is a gift from God. By harming his body to sell his soul to God's mortal enemy, Faustus betrays the very core of his theological upbringing and education. The unwillingness of Faustus’s body to participate in this sacrilegious event is therefore extremely ironic, as the congealing blood represents the image of God in his body and his conscience, even as he actively tries to reject these sacred gifts. What should be the final wake-up call that Faustus is heading down the wrong path ends up being yet another missed opportunity for redemption.

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