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Literary Techniques in "Doctor Faustus"

by Michael Stratford

"Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it," says Mephistopheles, the satanic servant to Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus." His balanced sentence is emblematic of the play itself. "Faustus" is a piece of remarkable unity, not the least because of its literary techniques, all enclosed in some of the best syntactical poetic structure found in Elizabeth tragedy.

Iambic and Unrhymed, with Techniques

Marlowe's combines his "mighty line" of iambic pentameter -- five beats to a line of unstressed/stressed syllables -- and blank (rhythm but no rhyme) verse with literary techniques. His most famous "Faustus" line -- "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" -- is not only exemplary blank verse in iambic pentameter, but also carries the ironic imagery of Helen's beauty launching Trojan destruction. It is also an example of metonymy, where a part represents a whole; Helen's face is her entirety, a woman who carries sensuality and death together.

Mythological and Satanic Allusions

Helen is only one of the mythological allusions that Marlowe employs; his literary technique of combining ancient "over-reachers" with his protagonist deepens the meanings behind Faustus' doomed impulses. Faustus identifies himself with Icarus, the son of Daedalus who flew with waxen wings too near the sun; with Oedipus, who plucked out his eyes when he discovered his real self; with Prometheus, who brought light to mankind but suffered Zeus' wrath. Faustus sees himself as greater than all; Marlowe's irony is that Faustus also alludes to the biggest over-reacher of all, the Jehovah-defying Satan.

Irony, Paradox and Damnation

Marlowe uses the techniques of irony and paradox to explicate both his theme of mankind's fall and deepen the meaning of his protagonist's diction. Faustus says he will "be resolute" and "fix'd" as he bargains with Satan; ironically, when his end comes in his last, splendid soliloquy, he begs the heavens to dissolve him into elements of air, water, earth -- he avoids mentioning fire -- before remembering his soul "must live still to be plagued in hell." Paradoxically, Faustus wishes to be solid and liquid, whole and dissolved, to escape the permanence of damnation.

Figuratives Galore

Figurative literary techniques abound in "Faustus," almost all used ironically. Helen is "clad in the beauty of a thousand stars," an extended metaphor to make the hellish woman heavenly. Faustus calls "lente currite noctis equi," begging time -- the horses of night -- to stop moving, a figure that combines apostrophe and personification; ironically, time moves on. Even the final lines personify Faustus' lost wisdom ironically: "burned is Apollo's laurel bough."

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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