Irony and the Tragic Dilemma in ‘Doctor Faustus’ by Marlowe

May 6


Olivia Hunt

Olivia Hunt

  • Share this article on Facebook
  • Share this article on Twitter
  • Share this article on Linkedin

Marlowe presents in Doctor Faustus two distinct structures of irony. One based on the theological concepts of Sin and damnation, and the other on the self limiting structures of human possibilities.


He fuses them in a manner that one heightens the other. The basic irony of Faustus’ aspirations is one of misplacement. He misplaces human learning in the realm of religion and the power of religion in the realm of human learning and achievement. Faustus is refusing to consider his “being” in God,Irony and the Tragic Dilemma in ‘Doctor Faustus’ by Marlowe Articles but by disposing of the question along with the answer, he is betraying the humanist goal of seeking the truth of “being” outside of religious systems. The irony does not end here. Lucifer and Mephistopheles, whom Faustus courts, share the ironic predicament of Faustus – Rejecting the God but cherishing Him. The greater is the revolt of Faustus against God, greater still is his divine awareness. The devil does not redeem Faustus from his divine awareness but rather intensifies it and generates deep despair.

The pact signed to gain absolute power on earth only leads to Faustus’ mental disintegration, for what he gets through the pact is only an increased despair in God as well as the human condition. Further, the fascinating devil providing allurements turns out to be a tormenter threatening the punishment as Faustus attempts to seek divine grace which amounts to disobedience to the devil. Imagery builds up the irony of Faustus’ predicament. Faustus comes to full repentance at the end of the play. Ironically, the realization comes at a time when the devil is around to torture him to death, and if only doom could be postponed, he would gain the divine forgiveness.

The play displays the medieval morality form of medieval Christianity, the rhetoric of renaissance aspirations and skepticism, the division between the religious providentialism of the Elizabethan church and the emerging secular culture, and the schisms between the catholic and protestant positions. There is a fusion of drama and poetry in the play. The play lacks structure and is poorly organized presenting itself as a jumble of scenes rather than coherent drama. The critics allege reckless fluctuation from high thoughtfulness to sheer frivolity, and magnificent poetry to insipid dialogue.

The poetry in the play is in the form of blank verse. It uses a variation of trochee, iambic and spondee within the decasyllabic line, giving it a melody. This variation for achieving a variety of rhythms was characteristic of Marlowe’s dramatic verse. Pause is an important element in the blank verse, providing a variety of rhythm. Marlowe dispensed with the line as a unit of thought, and made the sense run on from one line to the next, making in the process the paragraph rather than single lines as unit of ideas. This strategy, called run-on lines, is typically Marlovian. Marlowe varies the whole pattern of regulated metrical verse. For him, whatever was the metrical pattern, it had to follow the overflowing idea and that is hardly any splitting of the idea for metrical regularity. This makes for a very compact and forceful expression of ideas. In relatively few words, Marlowe has written, perhaps, the most magnificent apostrophe to Helen. In barely 54 lanes in the last soliloquy, Marlow presents Faustus’ arrival as a visionary after having gone through, in the course of the play, ambition, pride, insolence, impulse, passion and frivolity besides the nagging doubts divine mercy and wrath. But Marlowe is criticized for not maintaining politic rhapsody for sustained effect, and for alternating magnificent lines with only pedestrian ones and splendid monologues with labored verses.

Doctor Faustus was one of the greatest plays of all times. It has been produced many times since then, and it has still a very profound effect on its audience. Marlowe wrote this play in a very unconventional form, but its impact is still very powerful.