Although Doctor Faustus was written by a British playwright, the play itself is set primarily in Germany sometime during the 16th century. The plot of the story plays out over three key locations: Faustus’s study at his home in Wittenberg, Germany (also known at the time as the Holy Roman Empire); the pope's court in Rome, Italy; and the court of Germany’s emperor, Charles V (i.e. the Holy Roman Emperor). This was a period rife with rising tensions on all fronts; across Europe, issues of politics, religion, scholarship, and class were each coming to a boiling point. The rise of humanism during the Renaissance led to a major reform of educational models, reviving interest in the classical world and pushing for people to pursue their own individual ambitions.
Marlowe’s Faustus is a clear model of the evolving Renaissance man: Faustus is highly educated and exhibits an in-depth knowledge of the classical world through his frequent allusions to figures and places that appear in Greek mythology (such as Helen of Troy, Penelope, and Elysium), and his selfish desire to study magic represents the extreme end of the individualism idealized by the Humanist movement. At the same time, the rift between Catholicism and Protestantism was also growing. It is no coincidence that Faustus’s hometown is Wittenberg—it’s the very same location where Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses in 1517, thereby starting the Protestant Reformation. Audiences in Protestant, Elizabethan England would no doubt have recognized the context of Marlowe’s decision to set Doctor Faustus at the site of such a critical location.