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What Forms Does the Concept of Personal Identity Take in Doctor Faustus?

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ENGL 701

Shakespeare and the Renaissance

What forms does the concept of personal identity take in Doctor Faustus?[pic 1]

Eshna Madaan


We are introduced to Doctor Faustus, as an eminently gifted Renaissance scholar, with vast knowledge in various discipline, having learnt logic from Aristotle, medicine from Galen, law form Justinian and divinity from Jerome’s Bible. His ignorance to accept his human limitations, his arrogance with the exceptional knowledge of Scriptures led him to misinterpretation of Divinity that he mastered. This can also be called a simplified version of Faustus’s downfall.

 The personal identity refers to the various aspects in the person’s life, shaping the characteristics of the individual. Some aspects of a person’s life can have a deeper influence than the others and some may not have any influence at all. For instance, family and culture may influence a person’s sense of responsibilities, ethics and morals, tastes in music, humour and sports, and many other aspects of life. A person’s interest is what sets individuals apart from one another. In literature, this concept overviews the growth of the character from what he/she was at the beginning to what he/she had become. The actions that a character goes through, add elements to his/her identity. However, it is the same person showing different identity statements at different points.

To explain the concept of Personal Identity and how it evolves over time with regards to Dr Faustus, we shall examine the following points:

  1. The Rise: Dr Faustus rose from poverty to become a respected scholar.

Faustus study was financed by his uncle as his father couldn’t afford his eduction. His talents to acquire knowledge became his most prized possession and also the reason of his arrogance (and ultimately his tragedy). He was satiated once he acquired his masters in numerous fields but soon turned towards the enchanting field of magic.  


These metaphysics of magicians,

And necromantic books are heavenly;


A sound magician is a mighty god:

Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.  

  1. He was tempted by the prospects of power that were beyond human grasps (Black magic/ Necromancy)

Faustus finds himself trapped between two versions of the predestined human identity of Good or Bad. Unsure of the path that he truly desires, Faustus resolves upon damnation. The appearance of angel and the devil in act 1 represents Faustus’s internal conflict to choose his soul or his knowledge, God and the devil, and magic versus science. Ironically, being one of the greatest minds of his time, Faustus also portrayed the ignorance that comes with power.

  1. In exchange for the servitude of a supernatural being and all his heart’s desire, Faustus signed his soul to the devil - Lucifer.

Not satisfied with the limitations of the Human knowledge and power, Faustus begins practising necromancy and eventually makes a deal with the devil. He exchanges his soul for twenty-four years of devil’s service to him. Here, Faustus showed a unique flaw of being gullible enough to accept the twisted words of Lucifer and his demons and also highlighted his ignorance towards the fact that Lucifer wouldn't share his knowledge of the cosmos and creations with anyone, so Faustus was offered him entertainment- the seven deadly sins instead of the knowledge.


In meantime take this book; peruse it throughly,

And thou shalt turn thyself into what shape thou wilt.

[…]    Farewell, Faustus, and think on the devil. 

  1. On several occasions, he was presented with the choice to repent and redeem, but he continued down the path of his destruction.

It was up to Faustus to choose his own destiny. there are times when Faustus despairs over his decision and comes close to repenting, only to back away at the last moment- constant religious sentiments pulling him away from his choice, words of caution from other scholars and the old man.


Yet, Faustus, look up to heaven; remember God’s

mercies are infinite.


Yet, Faustus, call on God.

Despite numerous opportunities to turn back and seek redemption, Dr. Faustus is consumed by his desire to know and learn more than the boundaries of human knowledge permit. Each decision to move forward in the fulfilment of the dark pact pushes Dr. Faustus further away from the possibility of redemption.

  1. Towards the end, Faustus remains unsatisfied with himself and regrets the years he wasted to be torn to shreds by the every demons that served him.

Marlowe portrayed Faustus as a tragic hero. He lost his very essence (soul) of being to the devil for knowledge he never attained.

Knowledge = Power.



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