Where It All Goes Down
Medieval Wittenberg, Germany; Papal palace in Rome; Court and kingdom of Carolus, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor
Marlowe's plays were famous in their day for their exotic, far-flung settings, and Doctor Faustus is no exception. Dr. F does some major globetrotting. He travels to Rome and the court of Carolus in Acts 3 and 4, then he circumnavigates the globe, and then—get this—he explores the stars. Here's hoping he starts a tour company soon.
But despite all this roaming around, what most of us would consider the most important part of the play—Faustus's decision to serve Lucifer, and the ensuing battle over his soul—happens in Wittenberg, Germany. So let's head there…
In the middle ages, Wittenberg was a college town. By the time Marlowe was writing, during the English Renaissance, it had become known as the center of the Protestant Reformation. That's because it was the stomping grounds of Martin Luther—the guy who tacked ninety-five theses on the door of a Catholic church, forever marking the split between Catholics and Protestants.
Because of that, Wittenberg was known not only for scholarship, but also for radical scholarship—the kind that bucks tradition and conventional thinking. So it seems pretty fitting to us that a guy like Faustus—a scholar who rejects some of the most traditional areas of study as boring, useless, or ineffectual—would come out of a place like Wittenberg.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. A lot of the play, and all of the battle for Faustus's soul, takes place in his study, of all places. You'll forgive us for being a little underwhelmed. And a Renaissance audience would be underwhelmed, too.
That's because Renaissance folks would be used to tragedies about grand ol' things like the rise and fall of kings and princes. So they'd be expecting settings like royal courts or battlefields instead—public spaces where decisions and actions affecting whole kingdoms were made.
Ah, but that's just it: Doctor Faustus isn't that kind of tragedy. Instead, it's the story of the soul of a single, politically insignificant individual. He's just one dude. It makes sense, then, that the tale largely unfolds in the private space that's important to Faustus as the symbol of his profession—his study. The damnation of Faustus's soul isn't going to shake the world to its core. But it will shake that study, especially when all that limb-ripping gets started.
A study is also (hopefully) a place where deep thinking happens. For that reason, it's the perfect setting for a play whose characters consider important theological questions about predestination, sin, and salvation.