Symbolism in Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Seven Deadly Sins: Doctor Faustus features a rather famous allegory of the Seven Deadly Sins, which appear as actual figures that Mephistopheles and his companions conjure up. Each of these sins – Pride, Greed, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lust – become embodied on the stage, explaining their origins as a metaphor for how they take over the soul. This allegory had historical precedent even in the early modern era; it was common Medieval practice to personify the seven deadly sins on stage, and Renaissance audiences would have likely recognized these figures as soon as they appeared. Furthermore, Faustus's reaction to the Sins – he simply laughs them off – suggests that he does not take them seriously as threats, aligning his character with the Devil rather than God.

Good and Bad Angels: In another example of allegory, the Good and Bad angels appear throughout the play, typically in moments when Faustus has to make a difficult decision. These angels represent the two paths that Faustus can take, with the Good Angel signifying Faustus's desire for redemption from God and the Bad Angel signifying Faustus's attraction to sin. A modern recapitulation of this allegory often appears as two figures – one usually red, one usually white – on the shoulders of a character facing a difficult choice.

Old Man: The Old Man is another allegorical figure in the play. His words to Faustus are significant because they address concepts like mercy, grace, kindness, and redemption; the Old Man encourages Faustus to repent and assures him that he sees an angel hovering above Faustus's head. These attributes of the Old Man's character likely make him an allegory for Christ – the central figure of mercy in the Christian Bible – or faith in God more generally.

Blood: Blood is an important symbol in the play. When Faustus signs his contract with the Devil, for example, he signs in blood, symbolizing the permanence of the agreement. However, the fact that his blood immediately congeals on the face suggests that his choice was the wrong one, and that even his body is rejecting the deal he has made. Blood is also a symbol of sacrifice, appearing most clearly in relation to Jesus Christ – whose blood Faustus claims to see across the sky on his last night – who gave his life for humanity's sins.

Rejection of Authority: Early on in the play, Faustus lists the authority figures associated with major fields of human knowledge – logic, medicine, law, and theology – and rejects them all in favor of magic. This rejection symbolizes his abandonment of traditional modes of knowledge usually found in antiquity or the Christian Bible. Instead, Faustus adopts a freer and more modern notion of inquiry, breaking with the traditions of the Medieval world. In many ways, Faustus's choice represents the dilemma of modernity, which strove to find new ways of thinking while simultaneously remaining faithful to God.

Study Guide
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