For the most part, Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus is written in blank verse iambic pentameter. The term “blank verse” refers to poetry written in rhythmic, unrhymed lines. In fact, Marlowe is thought to be the first English playwright to thoroughly explore the vast possibilities afforded by the use of blank verse in drama, crafting lively and poignant dialogue that brims with intensity and emotional depth. The use of blank verse lends an elevated, lofty quality to the dialogue of the play, generating additional solemnity, as when Faustus admires the conjured Helen of Troy in the quote below:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss
Marlowe’s naming of Helen as “the face that launched a thousand ships” is one of the most famous lines from any of his works, if not all of English literature. The figurative language Marlowe employs here and throughout the play vividly encapsulates the emotional turmoil that wreaks havoc on Faustus’s soul, crafting a deeply flawed yet sympathetic tragic hero.
Of course, careful reading of the play reveals that although Faustus and Mephastophilis (among others) speak in blank verse, comedic characters, characters who belong to the lower class, and those who otherwise serve a negative role in the play speak only in prose. This difference in their speech patterns is obvious to both the reader and the listener, since Marlowe’s prose does not follow any specific meter. Additionally, lower characters speak more plainly, with more crude and blunt discussions that mirror and poke fun at the same topics that Faustus and Mephastophilis take up. There is a specific dramatic purpose to Marlowe’s separation of his characters through their speech, as the level of each character’s dialogue signals their status—by simply listening, the audience can ascertain the function of each character!