Elizabeth I came to the throne of England during a time of intense religious turmoil and political uncertainty. By the end of her reign, England stood as the first officially Protestant nation in Europe; however, tensions between Protestants and the repressed Catholic minority continued to plague the nation. Much of the literature produced during the time of her reign reflected sensitivities to religion and resulting political intrigues. In his play Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe places the title character in a power struggle similar in form to those conflicts dominating Elizabethan life. Yet rather than a battle among courtiers for royal favor, the battle in Doctor Faustus pits god against the devil in a struggle for the possession of a man’s soul. Reflecting the cultural and religious context of the sixteenth century, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus comments on prideful ambition, which leads to a loss of salvation for human pawns in the cosmic power-struggle for souls.
In a conflict similar to that existing between English Protestants and Catholics, Faustus must choose between God and the Devil, risking his eternal life in anticipating which will be the winning side. When Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and established the monarch as the head of a new English Protestant Church, he made religion largely dependent on politics. In reference to Marlowe’s treatment of religion in Dr. Faustus, John Cox writes, “Marlowe’s implicit reduction of the Reformation to a struggle for power is an acute response to the secularization introduced by the Tudors. . . . Protestants made religion a matter of crown policy, and thus comparatively a matter of mere power” (114). When Ma...
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...he struggle for power between God and Lucifer reflects the religiously-based political struggles under the reign of Elizabeth I. The horrors of the struggle for a man’s soul in which the need for power outweigh the gifts of God’s grace reflect on the consequences of a secularized state in which religious devotion is largely reduced to a matter of political supremacy.
Bowman, Glen. “Elizabethan Catholics and Romans 13: A Chapter in the History of Political Polemic.” Journal of Church and State 47.3 (2005): 531-44.
Cox, John D. “The devils of ‘Doctor Faustus.’” The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350-1642. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 107-126.
Marlowe, Christopher. “Doctor Faustus.” Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1B. Edited by M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton and Co. 2000. 991-1023.
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