The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is a play by Christopher Marlowe, based on the Faust story, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for power and knowledge. On a deeper level, this play shows the decay of a person who chooses material gains (by commanding the devils to suit his desires) over spiritual belief and in so doing loses his soul. Doctor Faustus was first published in 1604, eleven years after Marlowe’s death and at least twelve years after the first performance of the play.

Title page to a 1620 printing of Doctor Faustus showing Faustus studying and a demon rising through a stage trap door.

Text

The two versions

Two versions of the play exist, one published in 1604 and the other in 1616. The 1616 version omits 36 lines but adds 676 new lines, making it roughly one third longer than the 1604 version. Among the lines shared by both versions, there are some small but significant changes in wording; for example, “Never too late, if Faustus can repent” in the 1604 text becomes “Never too late, if Faustus will repent” in the 1616 text, a change that offers a very different possibility for Faustus’s hope and repentance.

The relationship between the texts is uncertain and many modern editions print both. As an Elizabethan playwright, Marlowe had nothing to do with the publication and had no control over the text in performance, so it was possible for scenes to be dropped or shortened, or for new scenes to be added, so that the resulting publications may be modified versions of the original script.

The 1604 version is believed by most scholars to be closer to the play as originally performed in Marlowe’s lifetime, and the 1616 version to be a posthumous adaptation by other hands. However, some disagree, seeing the 1604 version as an abbreviation and the 1616 version as Marlowe’s original fuller version.

Comic scenes

In the past, it was assumed that the low comic scenes were additions by other writers. However, most scholars today consider the comedy an integral part of the play, as its pettiness shows the decay of Faustus’s ambitions.

Sources

Doctor Faustus is based on an older tale; it is believed to be the first dramatization of the Faust legend.

Some scholars believe that Marlowe developed the story from a popular 1592 translation, commonly called The English Faust Book[1], of an earlier, unpreserved, German edition of 1587, which itself may have been influenced by even earlier, equally unpreserved pamphlets in Latin, such as those that likely inspired Jacob Bidermann’s treatment of the damnation of the doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus (1602). Whatever the inspiration, the development of Marlowe’s play is very faithful to the Faust Book of 1592, especially in the way it mixes comedy with tragedy.

Play Structure

The play is in blank verse and prose in thirteen scenes (1604) or twenty scenes (1616). Blank verse is largely reserved for the main scenes while prose is used in the comic scenes. Modern texts divide the play into 5 acts; act 5 is the shortest. As in many Elizabethan plays, there is a chorus who does not interact with the other characters but rather provides an introduction and conclusion to the play and gives an introduction to the events that have unfolded at the beginning of some acts.

Characters

Chorus: Serve as introduction and information of events that has taken place in the play
Doctor Faustus: Main character who summons Mephistophilis the devil and makes a contract
Wagner: Faustus’s student and servant. Capable of conjuring devils like Faustus
Good Angel: Representative of the conscience of Faustus or as a Guardian Angel (Divine)
Bad Angel: Representative of the conscience of Faustus or as a Guardian Angel (Unholy)
Valdes: One of the two magicians who impart to Faustus the art of conjuration
Cornelius: The second magician of a duo who are responsible for influencing Faustus
Three scholars: Similar to Faustus, albeit less accomplished and deemed worthy friends by him
Lucifer: Prince of Devils, He is the person to whom the contract is willed to
Mephistophilis: A devil in the serving of Faustus. Also an unhappy spirit that fell with Lucifer
Robin: A clown who is largely involved in comedic scenes
Belzebub: A devil who appears with Lucifer
Pride, Covetousness, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, Lechery: Personified Sins by Lucifer
Dick: A clown, usually with Robin
Pope Adrian: A pope who is power hungry and shown as largely defiant of the emperor’s authority
Raymond: King of Hungary, part of group that watched the conjuration of Alexander by Faustus
Bruno: Rival Pope to Adrian. Rescued by Faustus and carried on a devil’s back
Two Cardinals: Involved in reading the statutes decretal for sentencing Bruno
ArchBishop: From Rheims. A guest of the Pope Adrian treated to a feast
Friars: Lower monks under Pope Adrian
Vinter: Involved in Comic scene with Dick and Robin
Martino: Gentleman at the Emperor’s Court. Part of a failed conspiracy to kill Faustus
Frederick: Gentleman at the Emperor’s Court. Part of a failed conspiracy to kill Faustus
Benvolio: Gentleman at the Emperor’s Court. Mastermind of a failed conspiracy to kill Faustus
The German Emperor: Charles the fifth. The person Faustus demonstrates his art to
Duke of Saxony: A person whom Faustus displayed his wit and art to
Two Soldiers: Involved in a failed conspiracy to kill Faustus
Horse Courser: A clown who is tricked by Faustus when he buys a horse from Faustus
Carter: A clown who is tricked by Faustus when he offers him to eat his hay
Hostess of a tavern: Dispenses drinks
Duke of Vanholt: A person whom Faustus displayed his wit and art to
Duchess of Vanholt: A pregnant lady who is treated to seasonal grapes by Faustus
Servant: Part of Duke Vanholt household
Old Man: A person who comes close to winning Faustus over to divinity

Mute Characters:

Darius: King of Persia, Defeated by Alexander in 334 BC. Conjured by Faustus
Alexander the Great: Conjured by Faustus
Alexander Paramour: Alexander’s mistress, Thais
Helen of Troy: The famous beauty that Faustus indulges in to forget his nearing end
Devils: Other devils that were in the service of Faustus
Piper: Led the personified sins on a parade for Faustus
Other misc like Cardinals, Friars, Attendants, two cupids…

Synopsis

Faustus learns necromancy

As a prologue, the Chorus tells us about the type of play Doctor Faustus is. It is not about war or courtly love, but rather about Faustus, who was born of lower class parents. It gives an introduction to his wisdom and abilities, most notably in divinity which he excels so tremendously that he is awarded a doctorate. During this opening, we also get our first clue that Faustus’s damnation is a ploy by God himself. Faustus is likened to the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with his waxen wings and as a result fell to his death when the sun melted the wax. This does indeed clue us to Faustus’s end as well as bringing our attention to the idea of hubris (excessive pride) which is represented in the Icarus story.

Faustus comments that he has reached the end of every subject he has studied, for instance, the skill of argumentative attributed to Logic. He dismisses Logic as being a tool for arguing; Medicine as being unvalued unless it allowed raising the dead and immortality; Law as being petty and below him; Divinity as useless because he feels if we all have sins, which meant it was inevitable, and thus be awarded death as a result of sin, makes Divinity as having no sense. He dismisses it as “What doctrine call you this? Que sera sera (What will be, shall be)”. However, for someone with Faustus’s intelligence as well as superiority and significant education background, he is someone who is very likely to be aware that there is more than just attaining the end of a subject.

Faustus’s statement about sin is interesting because it does help one to conclude if Faustus, who abandons divinity for the devil, was at fault to begin with. This is because it evokes the notion that in the story of Adam and Eve, if the Creator -being all knowing as well as omnipotent- knew that Adam would sin in the end, he should have made Adam resilient to it. (or rather make him of better stuff) This would lead one to think if that being so, it would be the creator’s fault as opposed to Adam simply because the creator made him this way, which is in theory, deliberately flawed. This of course brings us to the point that if this was true, would we all not be playthings for our creator? Indeed the play of Doctor Faustus addresses many interesting concepts like these.

All these conclusions are the result of self-selective interpretations and it acts as a consolation for Faustus. This is because Faustus as a renaissance man,is pressured by the environment he is in. Men who serve the community over God are acknowledged and given high esteem. On top of that, the renaissance meant the discovery of the world and man. It made it possible for a man of humble origin to carve a status of power and affluence. Faustus is influenced by the environment –an individual and its society- to carve out greater fame. Apparently, he is not rewarded accordingly or in proportion to his efforts and hence turns to the art of Magic which he says promises power and honour to the studious artisan.

He calls upon his servant Wagner to bring forth Valdes and Cornelius, two famous magicians schooled in the art of Magic. The good angel and the bad angel dispenses their own perspective of his interest in Magic. Though Faustus is momentarily dissuaded, proclaiming “How am I glutted with conceit of this?”, he is apparently won over by the possibilities Magic offers to him. Valdes declares that if Faustus devotes himself to Magic, he must vow not to study anything else and points out that great things are indeed possible with someone of Faustus’s standing.

Faustus’s absence is noted by two scholars who are less accomplished than Faustus himself. They request of Wagner, Faustus’s present location, to which Wagner haughtily replies back. We can see Wagner as a person who deems himself of significant social standing. The two scholars worry about Faustus falling deep into the art of Magic and leave to inform the head of the university about it.

Faustus summons a devil, under the presence of Lucifer and other devils although Faustus is unaware of it. With a circle and a ritual speech proclaimed, a devil named Mephistopilis appears before him, to which Faustus who is unable to tolerate the hideous looks of the devil, commands it to change its form to a Franciscan friar. It would seem Faustus is either deliberately unwilling or simply unable to see things the way they are. Faustus, in seeing the obedience of the devil (for changing form), takes pride in his skill and perhaps his inherent talent. He tries to bind the devil to his service but is unable to because Mephistophilis serves Lucifer the prince of devils. Mephistophilis also reveals that it was not Faustus’s power that summoned him but rather anyone that abjured the scriptures would result in the devil coming to get one’s soul.

Mephistophilis introduces the history of Lucifer and the other devils while indirectly cluing Faustus that hell has no circumference and is more of a state of mind as opposed to a place. Faustus’s questioning of hell leads to Mephistophilis saying: “Oh Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, which strikes a terror to my fainting soul.” Although it can be said that Mephistophilis is sympathizing or advising Faustus for the better, it seems highly unlikely because it would be inconsistent with Mephistophilis’s character in the play. Mephistophilis seems to imply that Faustus’s questioning has reminded Mephistophilis of his origins.

The pact with Lucifer

Using Mephistopheles as a messenger, Faustus strikes a deal with Lucifer: that he is to be allotted twenty-four years of life on Earth, during which time he will have Mephistophilis as his personal servant, and, at the end of which, he will give his soul over to Lucifer as payment and spend the rest of time as one of the damned in hell. This deal is supposed to be cemented in the form of Faustus’ own blood. Interestingly, at first his blood congeals, leading to second thoughts by Faustus. Mephistophilis brings coals to break the wound open again, and thus Mephistophilis begins his servitude and Faustus his oath.

Wasting his skills

Faustus begins by learning much about the sciences. He has an interesting debate with Mephistophilis regarding astronomy and the “nine spheres”. Two angels, good and bad, appear to Faustus giving him the chance to repent and rebuke his oath with Lucifer. This is the largest fault of Faustus throughout the play, that he is blind to his own salvation. Though he is told initially by Mephistophilis to “leave these frivolous demands, Which strike a terror to my fainting soul,” Faustus remains set on his soul damnation.

Lucifer brings to Faustus the personification of the seven deadly sins. Faustus recognizes these as detestable, not pleasing, but ignores the echo of his own ‘detestable’ life.

A humorous interchange occurs shortly thereafter where Faustus visits the Pope in Rome. Faustus turns invisible and steals the Pope’s food from in front of his face. Later, he impresses the Duke of Vanholt by conjuring spirits from Troy.

From this point until the end of the play, Faustus does nothing of worth, having started Mephistophilis’ servitude with the attitude that he would be able to do anything. Faustus appears to scholars, and warns them that he is damned and will not be long on the earth. He gives a speech about how he is damned and eventually seems to repent for his deeds. However, Mephistophilis comes and Faustus appears to leave willingly for his eternal damnation.

Damnation

Unlike later adaptations of the legend, notably that of Goethe, Marlowe’s Faustus pays the price of his diabolical deal and is irrevocably damned.

Quotes

Faustus includes a well-known speech addressed to the summoned shade of Helen of Troy, in Act V, scene i. The following text is from the Gutenberg project e-text of the 1616 quarto (with footnotes removed).

FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?–
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.–
[Kisses her.]
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!–
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

The speech is today best known to contemporary audiences from the audition scene in the film Shakespeare in Love. Also, the first three lines were quoted by Trelane in the Star Trek episode “The Squire of Gothos”.

Notes

  1. The History of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor Iohn Faustus by P.F. Gent. The book, if it ever existed, is often described as a chapbook from its method of sale – it was distributed by itinerant peddlers called chapmen. The similarity in storylines between Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and Jacob Bidermann’s tale of the Damnation of the Doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus – involving the demise of a man of remarkable knowledge, gift, and talent – implies a still earlier Latin source for the Faustian legend.

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