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The major theme of Doctor Faustus is pride, which goes before a fall. Faustus’ real sin is not his conjuring, but his denial of God’s power and majesty. It is pride that damns him completely. All his other sins are different aspects of this cardinal sin. Even his despair, at the end of the play, is another aspect of the same thing. Pride refuses to acknowledge God’s power in the same way in which despair denies God’s mercy.
The theme of pride is seen in Mephistophilis’ discussion with Faustus on the subject of hell. Mephistophilis replies honestly to all Faustus’ questions about hell. However, Faustus, out of pride in his own “resolution,” refuses to accept the truth. When asked how Lucifer fell from grace, Mephistophilis says, “by aspiring pride and insolence/ For which God threw him from the face of heaven.”
The theme of pride recurs throughout the play. Like Lucifer, Faustus rebels against God. However, he realizes that the freedom he hoped for is only another form of slavery. It is true that at the end of the play, Faustus is no longer proud, but he is afraid to turn to God and despairs of receiving His mercy.
The theme of the quest for power in Doctor Faustus is connected with the theme of the quest for knowledge. Knowledge bestows power on the knower. The kind of knowledge pursued by Faustus is practical knowledge, bestowing upon him practical powers.
However, Faustus’ quest for power transforms him into a magician. With the help of Mephistophilis, he demonstrates his powers in the papal court and in the palace of the Duke and the Duchess of Vanholt. His power reduces him to the position of a mere court entertainer.
Faustus’ quest for power does not take into account the need for acquiring spiritual power. Faustus’ magic is magic divorced from spirituality. Hence, it is shown to be dangerous. Instead of leading to his salvation, his quest for power results in his damnation.
The Quest for Knowledge:
Marlowe’s Faustus embodies the Renaissance aspiration for infinite knowledge. In the first scene of the play, Faustus reviews all the existing branches of knowledge. He rejects them all and opts for the study of the black arts, since they will bestow upon him “a world of profit and delight/ Of power, of honor, of omnipotence.”
Faustus’ pursuit of knowledge involves every aspect of his complex being: spiritual, intellectual and physical. Faustus’ choice of magic make more sense if the audience imagines him in the modern world rejecting theoretical studies and choosing technology. He commits himself to the world of experience. This appeals to his creative instinct, but in the process it leads to his destruction.
Faustus’ knowledge gives him power. He exhibits his magical power to emperors and dukes. He descends to the level of a court entertainer by invoking the spirits of Alexander and his paramour and of Helen of Troy. He is reduced to the role of producing grapes out of season for a pregnant duchess. All this is far removed from his initial assertion: “A sound magician is a demi-god.” The knowledge of magic and its powers makes a buffoon of him. In this way, Faustus’ quest for knowledge is shown to be inadequate, unsatisfying and incomplete.