Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Magic and the Supernatural

The supernatural pervades Doctor Faustus, appearing everywhere in the story. Angels and devils flit about, magic spells are cast, dragons pull chariots (albeit offstage), and even fools like the two ostlers, Robin and Rafe, can learn enough magic to summon demons. Still, it is worth noting that nothing terribly significant is accomplished through magic. Faustus plays tricks on people, conjures up grapes, and explores the cosmos on a dragon, but he does not fundamentally reshape the world. The magic power that Mephastophilis grants him is more like a toy than an awesome, earth-shaking ability. Furthermore, the real drama of the play, despite all the supernatural frills and pyrotechnics, takes place within Faustus’s vacillating mind and soul, as he first sells his soul to Lucifer and then considers repenting. In this sense, the magic is almost incidental to the real story of Faustus’s struggle with himself, which Marlowe intended not as a fantastical battle but rather as a realistic portrait of a human being with a will divided between good and evil.

Practical Jokes

Once he gains his awesome powers, Faustus does not use them to do great deeds. Instead, he delights in playing tricks on people: he makes horns sprout from the knight’s head and sells the horse-courser an enchanted horse. Such magical practical jokes seem to be Faustus’s chief amusement, and Marlowe uses them to illustrate Faustus’s decline from a great, prideful scholar into a bored, mediocre magician with no higher ambition than to have a laugh at the expense of a collection of simpletons.

The Pursuit of Knowledge

Whether it is Faustus’s or Lucifer’s, the pursuit of knowledge is a recurring motif within the play and is the driving force behind the plot. Faustus’s pursuit of knowledge is marked by restlessness, arrogance, and, ultimately, mediocrity. The more knowledge he gains, the clearer it becomes that the universe bends toward God, whom Faustus has now forsaken. Paralleling the escalation of his desire for knowledge are opportunities to showcase his talents. In the midst of his travels, his reputation grows, but ironically it is the acquisition of everything he ever wanted—power, fame, knowledge, riches—that saps him of his earlier ambition, rendering him little more than a magician listlessly performing party tricks for heads of state.