Appearing in passing through five of his plays, Helen of Troy is as spectral a figure through Marlowe’s work as her eventual appearance at the conclusion of Faustus’s life. The purpose of this essay is to analyse that scene and to assess its contextual and autobiographical values.

Referred to in Doctor Faustus as the ‘peerless dame of Greece,[1]’ and in Dido, Queen of Carthage as the ‘ticing strumpet[2]’ who teaches ensnaring songs to Cupid (thus usurping his own absolute power over love,) it is suffice to say that Marlowe views as Helen as the paragon of lust and sexual manipulation. Her physical participation in the performance of Faustus suggests Marlowe’s desire to combat his frustration at conveying these destructive powers solely through the medium of words. She offers Faustus what he has spent his entire life as academic scholar avoiding: sexual love. As such, it is easy to see why Faustus, a ‘wanton and lascivious’ man who ‘cannot live without a wife,’ (II.i.143-3) could be attracted to such a being. Indeed, his desire for sanctuary through Helen by being made ‘immortal with a kiss,’ (V.i.91) could be seen to represent the Elizabethan struggle for stability at court through the most human of means – sexual politics. According to Blevins, ‘[m]arriage [especially…] redefined social and sexual roles […] and conferred new duties of status, authority, and dependency.[3]’ Faustus seeks to embrace her power and to ‘be Paris, and for love of thee […] shall Wittenberg be sacked,’ (V.i.96-7) in order to get what he wants – even if the results of his social advancement are a political uprising. This is similar to Edward II’s relationship with Gaveston, who Lancaster likens to Helen, the ‘Greekish strumpet[4]’. Indeed, as the cause of war, Gaveston’s destructive power doesn’t necessarily come from his homosexual relationship with Edward, but rather from his elevation ‘from base and obscure Gaveston[5]’ to an earldom, and his ‘monopolizing of the royal eyes and ears [from Edward’s…] “natural councillors”[6]’ – consequently creating a social revolution. Ironically, Helen would have certainly been contemporarily portrayed onstage by a man; once again suggesting Marlowe’s possible condoning of social advancement through homosexual favours. Like drama, love can transcend boundaries, and this is exactly how it is exploited by Faustus, Gaveston and possibly Marlowe; as a necessary tool for self-survival.

But where Faustus may represent the aspiring social climber, Helen may in fact symbolise the exact opposite – the final levels to which mortals are ultimately willing to descend in order to advance. Just like the signing away his soul in front of an audience, the visual act of kissing Helen symbolises Faustus’s rash acceptance of damnation. Like da Vinci’s patronage from the Valois, the Doctor originally utilises his academic skills to gain financial and social profit: he already has wealth and his ‘bills [are] hung up as monuments,’ (I.i.18). But magic enables him to advance even further and provides a limitless potential for change in any sense. However, Faustus, the man who desires that ‘[t]he Emperor shall not live but by my leave,’ (I.iii.112) in fact limits his magic to fit the social structure around him; he never actually rises through it, or seeks to create an entirely new one. In fact his misuse of magic only confines him to the role of “court entertainer” for Charles V and the Duke of Anholt. Finally, Helen’s summoning as merely a muted, visual delight for Faustus’s lowly peers only highlights this waste of talent; especially when considering that Faustus succumbs to her ethereal beauty instead of engaging with real women. He seeks to become a ‘mighty god’ (I.i.64), yet wastes the possibilities of magic – of human potential – and neglects its true price until it finally condemns him. Likewise, Dido (whilst initially critical of Helen) finds that by following her lust for Aeneas, she throws away her status, subjects and identity, so that ‘Carthage might be sacked,/ And I be called a second Helena.[7]’ By embracing love whilst neglecting the potential for political and social change in her own kingdom, she effectively becomes the very figure she most despises and accordingly condemns herself and her people. Perhaps the main notion that can be gained from both dramas is that procrastination and living through fantasies (whether they are created by a love-filled imagination or via magic) can only lead to tragedy if we do not act to realise their potential. Perhaps this notion was what caused Marlowe to use his skills as a playwright to ultimately become ‘the Muses’ Darling[8].’

The scene furthermore argues the case for Renaissance man’s significance in a traditionally religious world at a time when science, technology and even religious change itself were all challenging the accepted dogma. The idea of Helen possessing a power over Faustus, (‘[h]er lips suck[ing] forth my soul,’ (V.i.92)) could compliment the traditional idea of the Devil claiming a soul. But it must also be remembered that Faustus willingly relinquishes this control over to Helen; furthermore, his frustration at external delays in signing away his soul causes him to utter ‘[i]s not thy soul thine own?’ (II.i.68). Thus, both scenes create a fight for ‘supernatural independence’ in that we see ‘a man taking control of his own fate[9]’ against the traditional, “natural” authority of his soul – God. Faustus’s declaration that ‘Heaven be in [the] lips’ (V.i.94) of his creation could suggest man’s potential to make his own version of Heaven in the same way that Mephistopheles declares ‘Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed,’ (II.i.123). Thus, as creators of our own Heavens and Hells, surely we are the creators of the social boundaries around us? Could Marlowe (the son of a shoe-maker and recipient of public school and university education) be encouraging his audience to believe in the validity of the “self-made” Renaissance man in contemporary society? After all, he had secured his own wealth through writing rather than by marriage. The possible social consequences of such volatile message could easily have been dismissed by censors as part of the blasphemous mindset that ultimately condemns Faustus. This attitude could also be attributed to Tamburlaine, Marlowe’s heathen ruler, who like Faustus also seeks to become above any influence (even religious) and ‘gain a deity,’ (I.i.65). As a shepherd, both he and Faustus also come from ‘parents base of stock,’ (Prologue.11). But by conquering the traditionalist forces of the world, Tamburlaine creates a new social order with himself at its head. He tells us to believe that:–

‘Nature, […] Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:/ Our souls, […] Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest/ Until we reach the ripest fruit of all, […] The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.[10]

In other words, in a world where Tamburlaine challenges the Gods for supremacy, it is he who criticises them for giving mankind the ability to aspire in the first place. He has, as López details, ‘recreated God to his own image, with his own limitations and He is no help at all[11].’ Such flagrant defiance would have appealed to members of Marlowe’s audience who rose socially through non-traditional means like performing – men such as Shakespeare and Edward Alleyn. It would have encouraged all aspects of the population to evaluate the potential of those around them.

But perhaps what Faustus desires the most is not simply control over people – but rather their respect; their admiration. Considering Faustus’s perpetual sense of dissatisfaction, his kissing of Helen could be regarded as an attempt at claiming her own legendary qualities by becoming her sexual equal. As such, maybe we should not regard Helen as the vampiric figure in this scene. Indeed, López says that ‘[w]hat he longs for is a sick definition of fame,’ and that she is ‘a mere abstract means, whose fame will pass onto Faustus.[12]’ For Faustus, she is the embodiment of the aspects that attract audiences and playwrights to suspend their beliefs and engage in drama; she is the unattainable potential for more fame. She is his “muse” figure; the being who can inspire him to boast of ‘combat[ing] with weak Menelaus’ (V.i.98) and ‘wound[ing] Achilles,’ (V.i.100) even when close to damnation. Helen encourages him to be ‘swoll’n with […] self-conceit’ (Prologue.20) like Marlowe’s other protagonists, and to conquer the Trojans’ legendary presences with his own. But ironically, his notoriety can only reach legendary status by the time of his death – a sentiment hauntingly echoed in Marlowe’s own premature death.

Acknowledging these factors in the context of Marlowe’s career, it could be said that Faustus’s kissing of Helen of Troy outlines a manifesto for success in an Elizabethan capitalistic environment. It affirms that individuals cannot “give their souls” in genuine displays of love – after all, in a world of new wealth, love could be too valuable a commodity by which to advance; to survive. In order to succeed, we must be as soulless as Faustus and as Machiavellian as Barbaras, and use our skills to their maximum potential. But simultaneously, we must acknowledge both our desires and our surroundings – after all, ‘he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation[13].’ Where the Medieval mystery plays always gave their sinful protagonist retribution from their punishment, Faustus remains damned. Here, damnation comes to symbolise the loss of creative expression; of further wealth; of one’s reputation. The contract is the cause of this, and like Faustus’s, many artists may have felt damned by a contract to their own patron. Like a conjurer, Marlowe’s writing had the ability to create illusions and to advance him socially, but perhaps he sought to make more of his skills than to remain as simply “the court entertainer.” Perhaps his venturing into the Walsingham’s world of spies was an attempt to avoid his own artistic condemning, and although the venture resulted in his death, it did not end in his literary damnation.


[1] Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (1604 Text), V.i.14, in The Complete Plays, ed. Mark Thornton Burnett (St Ives: Everyman Paperbacks, 1999). All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in body of the essay.
[2] Christopher Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage, II.i.300, in The Complete Plays, ed. Mark Thornton Burnett (St Ives: Everyman Paperbacks, 1999).
[3] Jacob Blevins, Catullan Consciousness and the Early Modern Lyric in England: from Wyatt to Donne (Bodmin: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004), pg. 72
[4] Christopher Marlowe, Edward II, II.v.15, in The Complete Plays, ed. Mark Thornton Burnett (St Ives: Everyman Paperbacks, 1999).
[5] Christopher Marlowe, Edward II, I.i.100, in The Complete Plays, ed. Mark Thornton Burnett (St Ives: Everyman Paperbacks, 1999)
[6] Roy Martin Haines, King Edward II: Edward of Caernarfon, His Life, His Reign, and its Aftermath, 1284-1330.  (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), pg. 67.
[7] Christopher Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage, V.i.146-7, in The Complete Plays, ed. Mark Thornton Burnett (St Ives: Everyman Paperbacks, 1999).
[8] George Peele, ‘Marlowe: An Encomium,’ The Marlowe Society, (2010). Available at [accessed 9th January 2011]
[9] Artsphere Ltd., ‘The Soul’s The Thing: Dr Faustus, Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, 8 Sept – 9 Oct,’ Artsphere Creative Arts Network, (2010). Available at [accessed 10th January 2011]
[10] Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great, Part One, II.vii.18-28, in The Complete Plays, ed. Mark Thornton Burnett (St Ives: Everyman Paperbacks, 1999).
[11] Miguel Martínez López, ‘Overreaching Flesh and Soul: The Theme of Damnation in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan’ in Sederi VI, ed. Ana María Manzanas Calvo and S. G. Fernández-Corugedo (Salamanca: Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, 1996), pg. 113.
[12] Miguel Martínez López, ‘Overreaching Flesh and Soul: The Theme of Damnation in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan’ in Sederi VI, ed. Ana María Manzanas Calvo and S. G. Fernández-Corugedo (Salamanca: Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, 1996), pg. 110.
[13] Nicolò Machiavelli, ‘The Prince: CHAPTER XV – Concerning Things For Which Men, And Especially Princes, Are Praised Or Blamed,’ (2005). Available at [accessed 13th January 2011]

Image: Doctor Faustus, Columbia Pictures, 1967