The Influence of the Morality Play on Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1. Morality play as a literary genre

2. The role of the allegorical figures in Dr. Faustus

3. Faustus: a representative hero of an individual?

4. The moral in Dr. Faustus

5. The purpose of the morality play structure


Works cited


Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus was published in 1592 and appears to be an example of a Renaissance tragedy. However, many critics argue that Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus owes a lot to the medieval dramatic tradition, to be precise, to the morality play tradition. Describing different types of the medieval plays, Philip Tilling claims that “the morality play as a kind of medieval religious play arose alongside the mystery play and was to continue, in modified form, throughout the Elizabethan period, culminating in Marlowe’s Faustus.”[1] So, Tilling considers Dr. Faustus to be “a morality play in a modified form“. In my paper I see Dr. Faustus as a Renaissance tragedy which was to a certain degree influenced by the medieval dramatic tradition and has some characteristic features of the morality play. Proceeding on this assumption, I am going to concentrate on the play, pursuing three following issues: - to describe the characteristic features of the morality play in Dr. Faustus - to point out the features which lead me to interpret it as a Renaissance tragedy - to describe the purpose of the morality play structure in Dr. Faustus. Pursuing these objectives, I am, first of all, going to summarise the main characteristics of the morality play in order to see, how to apply them to Marlowe’s play. Then I will concentrate on the differences and similarities between Dr. Faustus and the morality play on structural and thematic levels. In the last chapter of the paper I will focus on the issue of the function of the morality play structure in Dr. Faustus. In conclusion I will summarize my arguments which support the thesis that the play should rather be seen as tragedy than as a morality play.

1. Morality play as a literary genre

Firstly, we have to define the term “morality play”. According to Morner ”morality play is a type of allegory in dramatic form, popular in the later middle ages and early Renaissance. The hero, who represents all humankind, is surrounded by personifications of virtues, vices, angels, demons, and death – all the forces of good and evil, who battle for possession for the hero’s soul.”[2] This definition seems to describe the genre in its most characteristic way. However, it requires some additional explanations.

The main hero of the morality play is not an individual character. He usually has a name which just distinguishes him from the other characters in the play, like Everyman or Mankind. But it is not a personal name. The reader usually knows nothing about his origin or social background, about his habits or character. The only thing is obvious: the hero represents all Christians. The main hero must confront different forces which are represented by allegorical figures. The allegorical figures stand for different moral issues. They struggle for the hero’s soul. The battle for the possession of the man’s soul can be seen as the main theme of the morality play.

Typically, the main hero lives in innocence and is led into temptation by some evil forces, while some forces of good try to turn him to the godly path. This struggle leads to the fall of the hero. The repentance of the hero is an important aspect of the morality play. The scene, where the hero shows that he is sorry for his wrong behaviour, is an essential part of the action. Typically the hero is redeemed and forgiven by God or other forces of good.

Another important aspect of the morality plot is the presence of comic elements in the plot. “By the sixteenth century some of the morality plays had admitted so much realistic and farcical material that they began to establish a tradition of English comedy.”[3] The functions of the comic scenes in plays which treated serious religious and moral issues can be taken to mean in different ways. Possibly they were supposed to foreshadow events to come or cover passages of time. They also could be imagined to be a parody of the main plot.

The morality play was supposed to have a moral conclusion, related to the accepted rules of good and bad behaviour of that time. The aim of the play was to teach some kind of a moral lesson (e.g. religious obedience) for masses.

2. The role of the allegorical figures in Dr. Faustus

Marlowe follows the typical pattern of the morality play most noticeably in the characters he uses: many of them are personified allegorical figures. For example Good and Bad Angels can be seen as morality play characters. They clearly represent the force of good, which try to turn Faustus to repentance, and the force of evil, which lead them into damnation.

However, if we have a closer look at the text, we will see that Good and Bad Angels usually appear for a relatively short period of time, often as interruption of Faustus’ speech. The function of Good and Bad Angels is restricted to uttering a short pro – contra argument. Then they disappear again. This suggests that they are not necessarily real characters from another world, but rather the embodiment of Faustus’s thoughts and doubts. There are no precise arguments in favour of this view in the text. However, the fact that the Angels always enter in the moments, when Faustus is doubting his decision, could support the idea that they are not real characters but rather means of externalization of Faustus’s inner world.


[1] Tilling, Philip. The Literature of the pre-Renaissance England, in: Introducing Literary Studies, ed. by Richard Brandford, Wheatsheaf: Prentice Hall/Harvester, 1996, p.75

[2] Morner, K., Rausch, R,. NTS’s Dictionary of Literary Terms. Lincolnwood: Textbook Company, 1991, p. 139

[3] Harmor, W., Holman, H., A Handbook to Literature, New Jersey: Upper Saddle River, 9th ed., 2003, 1st ed., 1936

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Influence of the Morality Play on Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus"
University of Hannover
Christopher Marlowe "Doctor Faustus"
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ISBN (Book)
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Influence, Morality, Play, Marlowe, Doctor, Faustus, Christopher, Marlowe, Doctor, Faustus
Quote paper
MA Anna Fedorova (Author), 2004, The Influence of the Morality Play on Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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