The Modernisation of the Medieval Staging of Soul in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

Karol Cooper


For a play whose dramatic interest centers entirely on the fate of a man’s soul, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is curiously devoid of an attempt to reify its most central aspect, which is the soul itself. Unlike the medieval drama, which used a combination of linguistic, bodily and material devices to emblematize soul, in Doctor Faustus, the flow of meaning is reversed, and soul—having already been inculcated by centuries of religious teaching as the defining feature of humanity, to the point that no one in the play needs to ask, “what is the thing men call soul?”—is now used by Marlowe as the signature figure of poetical discourse on the seeming immutability of personal identity in the age of reformed theology. In Faustus, soul stands for one’s susceptibility to or potential for identity mutation, contrary to reigning systems of reward and punishment. The play foregrounds the way metaphorical language is used by a subject to articulate a dialectical relation between soul as a stage for the free play of the phenomenological events of an apperceptive mind, and soul as an anxiously situated, culturally conditioned identity.


Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, soul, personal identity, Christianity, medieval drama

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