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Characterisation in Doctor Faustus » Characters: individual and representative

The dramatic representation of character

In the case of most plays, we discuss characters as if they were real individuals and talk about elements of their personality as revealed by:

These approaches and methods are used in Doctor Faustus, but the most effective dialogue takes place mostly between Faustus and Mephastophilis, and, apart from the Chorus (a rather special case: see Structure > The Role of the Chorus), all the monologues are delivered by Faustus.

In the case of Faustus, and to a lesser extent Mephastophilis, these methods certainly reveal some distinctive traits of personality, which:

Character in medieval and Elizabethan drama

To describe and explain the mode of representation of characters in the play other than Faustus and Mephistophilis, we must consider the location of Doctor Faustus in the development of English drama.

Doctor Faustus as a transitional play

Doctor Faustus is, in many respects, a transitional play that stands historically on the cusp of medieval and Elizabethan drama. In dramatic terms, this means that it draws its inspiration from:

Doctor Faustus, therefore, presents its characters in more than one way, moving along the spectrum between the fully individualised to the symbolic, and beyond this to include supernatural figures.

Representative and symbolic characters

The techniques for representing character discussed at the beginning of this section are only partly applicable to Doctor Faustus. Faustus himself comes closest to being a fully realised individual, but most of the other characters are present in the play to fulfil either a representative or symbolic role. They, therefore, display only a limited number of attitudes or responses to events.

Representative characters

Representative / symbolic characters

Symbolic characters

Supernatural characters and spirits

Scepticism and belief

Doctor Faustus includes a number of supernatural characters. Many of today's spectators and readers may regard the appearance of the Devil and his representatives with some scepticism, as demonstrating outdated beliefs. But at the time the play was first produced, most people will have believed in the reality of the Devil. They accepted that he might be manifested in bodily form, especially if summoned by those who meddled with forbidden knowledge. This was a period when suspected witches were tried and often executed, many of them accused of sexual relations with Satan.

Devils on stage

For Elizabethan audiences, figures such as Mephastophilis, Lucifer and Beelzebub would be met with a response rather different from that they might receive in the early twenty-first century. This response might be a mixture of shock, fear and excitement. The stage business that accompanied the entry of the creatures from Hell was calculated to incite those emotions.

It is worth remembering that some of the earliest surviving comments on the play specifically mention the devils who accompany Mephastophilis carrying fireworks. There were contemporary anecdotes suggesting that the representation of devils on stage, regarded by some as blasphemous, caused real devils to appear, much to the horror of both audience and actors (see Critical approaches > Contemporary critical reception).

Ghosts and spirits

Appearances by ghosts and spirits were quite common in Elizabethan drama, fulfilling a variety of functions:

In Doctor Faustus spirits play a different role:

Drama, belief and the market-place

It is not possible to say with any certainty whether Marlowe himself actually believed in the reality of the Devil or of ghosts and spirits. As a working dramatist, he is much more concerned with how such figures could contribute to the overall effect of the play he was writing.

Also, as a dramatist working in close association with a theatre and a company of actors, he would be very well aware of the attraction to audiences of plays that promised spectacular scenes of supernatural events – just as cinema trailers today emphasise the most vivid and emotionally powerful part of the action. The promise of devils with fireworks in their mouths and attached to their tails, not to speak of appearances by Alexander the Great and Helen of Troy, would add considerably to the appeal of the play.

In religious terms, something which cannot be understood by most people, but has to be revealed to the understanding of believers.
An event evoking wonder, believed to be the result of supernatural intervention.
Medieval plays in which the forces of Good and Evil battled for the souls of individuals.
The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.
Renaissance is literally 're-birth'. The term describes the movement, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries originating from Italy, where new areas of art, poetry, scholarship and architecture emerged.
Christians whose faith and practice stems from the Reformation movement in the sixteenth century which resulted in new churches being created as an alternative to the Roman Catholic Church.
1. A student of human affairs, or of human nature. 2. In the Renaissance a student of language, literature, and material culture of Rome, and Greece. 3. Someone who believes that it is possible to lead a good life without dependence on religious be
Also known as Satan or Lucifer, the Bible depicts him as the chief of the fallen angels and demons, the arch enemy of God who mounts a significant, but ultimately futile, challenge to God's authority.
The devil; the term 'Satan' actually means 'Enemy' and is often used to refer to the force of evil in the world.
Name used as a synonym for the Devil or Satan.
Used in the New Testament of Satan or the prince of demons.
Jesus describes hell as the place where Satan and his demons reside and the realm where unrepentant souls will go after the Last Judgement.
Showing disrespect towards God or sacred things.