Dr. Faustus

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Dr. Faustus

by Christopher Marlowe


A play set in Germany in the early sixteenth century; written c. 1589-93; first recorded performance in 1594; published in London in 1604.


A German sorcerer sells his soul to the devil in exchange, he thinks, for knowledge and magical power.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is often called the most influential English dramatist before Shakespeare. The son of a modestly successful shoemaker, Marlowe was born and raised in Canterbury, England. He was educated there and at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he received his B.A. degree in 1584 and his M.A. degree in 1587. Because very little is known about his life, the order in which he wrote his plays is uncertain. Possibly while still at Cambridge he collaborated with a younger friend, Thomas Nashe, in writing Dido, Queen of Carthage. Scholars believe that Marlowe wrote two other plays while still at Cambridge: Tamburlaine the Great and its sequel, Tamburlaine, Part II, both of which opened to extraordinary success in London before the end of 1587. For the next six years, Marlowe lived in London and enjoyed unprecedented popularity with theatergoers. In 1593, when he was only 29 years old, he was killed in a tavern brawl. Aside from Dr. Faustus, his plays include The Massacre at Paris, Edward II, and The Jew of Malta. He also wrote poems, the best known of which are “Hero and Leander” and “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” Generally reckoned Marlowe’s greatest play, Dr. Faustus is often discussed in relation to his other major tragedies, Tamburlaine the Great and The Jew of Malta. All three plays focus on characters who overreach the norms of human ambition in various fields of endeavor: the Mongol conqueror Tamburlaine in earthly power, the Jew of Malta in riches, and Faustus (a historical figure reputed to be a magician) in knowledge and magical power.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

Medieval and Renaissance approaches to knowledge

By the early sixteenth century, the Renaissance had reached northern Europe from its origins in fourteenth-century Italy. While the impulses that gave rise to the Renaissance are complex, most historians agree that the movement brought a new emphasis on human capabilities and particularly on the potential of the individual. Speaking broadly, medieval thought, by contrast, had stressed the acceptance of received authority, particularly that of the Catholic Church, and had demanded conformity to the Church’s traditional beliefs. These beliefs set precise limits to humankind’s place in nature and to the knowledge about nature that it was deemed appropriate for humans to possess. Any attempt to transcend these limits risked becoming the sin of pride.

Aside from the obvious model of Adam and Eve, who had been expelled from Eden for tasting the forbidden fruit of knowledge, there was a risk of sin in seeking knowledge. Knowledge was regarded as something certain and finite, a body of concepts that had been handed down either from God or from authorities approved by the Church. People regarded knowledge as a legacy, something to be preserved and maintained, not increased. Maintaining it, in part, meant interpreting it properly. Thus, the major intellectual movement of medieval Europe, scholasticism, was primarily concerned with interpreting the authorities by examining the appropriate texts and by discussing their meaning. There were highly developed techniques for doing both of these things: close reading (lectio) was followed by formal debate (disputatio), in which students argued both sides of a question. Most often, the disputatio centered on how to interpret a passage of scripture or theology, or focused on some precise theological point (a notorious topic being how many angels could fit on the head of a pin). Scholastic techniques themselves were based largely on one of the greatest authorities outside the Church, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (fourth century b.c.e.). In works such as the Analytics, Aristotle had formulated the rules of reasoning, known as logic, that were used in the disputatio.

Renaissance intellectuals chafed at what they saw as the narrow confines of these scholastic techniques for approaching knowledge. As Marlowe’s play opens, Faustus, a scholar, is dissatisfied with the Analytics and the disputatio, expressing boredom with the Church-approved texts of Aristotle (such as the Analytics), whose rediscovery in the twelfth century had helped found scholasticism. As a man of the Renaissance, Faustus is more interested in semi-legendary characters from the heroic past, such as Helen of Troy or Alexander the Great. It was precisely this sort of human interest in the ancient world—a literary, historical, and aesthetic interest—that began during the Renaissance to supplant the largely theological concerns of medieval scholasticism.

Science and occultism in Renaissance thought

Along with their impatience at scholastic techniques, thinkers during the Renaissance also began to question the old conception of knowledge as certain and finite. Like the explorers who were pushing the boundaries of their known world during this same period, scientific pioneers devoted themselves to seeking new frontiers of knowledge rather than simply mastering old territory. Yet there was a psychological penalty for giving up the certainty that came with dealing with only received authorities. Occult belief systems seemed to offer a shortcut to understanding and, more importantly, controlling a world not only of broader horizons but also of less certain convictions.

The appeal of the occult was bolstered by the fact that it too had its ancient authorities, often the same ones that humanists were using for literary or scientific purposes. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras (sixth century b.c.e.), for example, invested numbers with mystical powers. Similarly, the ideas of Plato were immensely influential not just in philosophy but in mysticism as well; rediscovered and reinterpreted by the Florentine humanist Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), they found their way into the mainstream of occult studies. Ficino’s works, for example, stressed Plato’s doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and emphasized contemplation as a way of bringing the soul to the divine, and the exercise of a music-based magic and medicine. A century later Ficino’s magical neoplatonism would influence German students of the occult such as Cornelius Agrippa, whose career became entwined in legend with that of the historical Faust. Spells and incantations (which Marlowe shows Faustus reading from old books) were another way magicians could utilize ancient authority. A common way of using such verbal formulas was in attempting magically to raise the spirits of the dead, just as Marlowe’s Faustus conjures the ghosts of Helen and Alexander.

Neither medieval nor Renaissance thinkers drew clear distinctions between science and magic, and people often attributed magical powers to those who those who had acquired scientific or other learning. For example, medieval sages such as the scientist and philosopher Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292) and the physician and alchemist Pietro d’Abano (c. 1250-1316), both mentioned in Marlowe’s play, were by the time of the Renaissance popularly considered to have been magicians. In both eras, astrology was studied alongside astronomy, for example, and alchemy (which attempted to transform common elements into rare ones, usually gold) alongside the physical sciences. During the Renaissance, as interest in science grew, fascination with the occult grew with it.

At the same time, religious leaders often opposed both occult and scientific knowledge. They viewed the former as overstepping the knowledge that God permitted humans to possess, thus inviting the sin of pride; but they also realized that the new science was challenging Church-approved doctrines. Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe, for example, was opposed by both Catholic and Protestant leaders because it overturned the traditional geocentric system of Ptolemy and Aristotle, which the Church had incorporated into its doctrine centuries earlier.

The Faust legend and the Protestant Reformation

By the lifetime of the mysterious figure known variously as George or Johann Faust (Faustus in Latin), occultism had come to constitute a significant strand of Renaissance humanism. Little is known about the historical Faust, but he is thought to have been an astrologer and alchemist who lived in Germany and died sometime around 1540. He had a reputation as an evil man who had declared that the devil was his Schwager, or comrade. After his death legends arose of how he had made a contract with the devil, exchanging his immortal soul for knowledge and magical power.

Yet the historical Faust also seems to have won the respect of such illustrious contemporaries as the religious reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, two major leaders of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. It was in Wittenberg, where the fictional Faustus (and perhaps the historical Faust) studied theology at the famous university, that Martin Luther initiated the Protestant split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1517. While conflicts between Protestants and Catholics would continue throughout Europe for centuries, Protestantism rapidly won wide support in Germany. Overt hostility to Catholicism in the popular German Faust tales can be seen, for example, when Faust uses magic to make a fool of the pope. Most Protestants differed from Catholic doctrine in their belief that faith alone (and not good works) was necessary for salvation; even so, Protestants maintained, salvation came from the independent grace of God, who had foreordained which souls would be saved. The age’s preoccupation with such issues is reflected in the tales that arose around the historical Faust, in which Faust’s deliberate denial of faith and consequent damnation seem both freely chosen and yet also inescapably predestined.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

As first published in 1604, Dr. Faustus contains 13 scenes with no act divisions; a prologue and an epilogue are delivered by the Chorus. Most of the speeches of Faustus and other characters of high status are in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter); the speeches of lowly characters like the servant Wagner are in regular prose. In the prologue the Chorus explains that the play will not be about war, love, or bold deeds, but about the fortunes, good and bad, of Faustus. He was born of humble parents in Roda, Germany, and brought up by relatives in Wittenberg. There he attended the university, where he studied theology and attained the degree of Doctor of Divinity. He excelled everyone in disputation on matters of theology until he became swollen with pride and, like Icarus of classical mythology, flew too high and fell to his ruin. (Using wings of feathers and wax crafted by his father, the boy Icarus flew too close to the sun, whereupon the wax melted and he fell into the sea and drowned.) Glutted with learning, Faustus fed his appetite for knowledge by turning to necromancy or magic, which became the sweetest thing in the world to him.

As Scene One opens, Faustus sits in his study


The career of the German humanist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) illustrates the connections between magic and other aspects of Renaissance humanism. A contemporary of the historical Faust, Agrippa studied science, medicine, and philosophy as well as such diverse occult traditions as the Jewish Kabbala, neoplatonic mysticism, Pythagorean numerology, alchemy, and magic. In his book On the Occult Philosophy (1531), he followed other Renaissance humanists, notably Italy’s Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), in proclaiming kabbalistic and magic practices as a way of reaching true knowledge of God and nature. Yet shortly afterward he repudiated both science and the occult, attacking them in a work translated into English in 1569 as Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences. After his death, Agrippa’s reputed feats of magic blended with tales of the historical Faust; Marlowe has his fictional Faustus mention Agrippa as a model whose knowledge he hopes to emulate.

and considers what he has learned. Having mastered Aristotle and the disputatio, he longs for “a greater subject” to fit his genius (Marlowe, Dr. Faustus, 1.11). He knows philosophy and the works of Galen (the ancient Greek medical authority used by medieval physicians); in fact, his medical skills have saved whole cities from the plague. Yet he is still a man and cannot make other men immortal, which would be a medical feat worth something. As for the field of law, it is fit only for “a mercenary drudge” and is “too servile and illiberal for me” (Dr. Faustus, 1.35-36). “Divinitie is best” he proclaims, but quotes two passages from scripture that suggest that all men are sinful and must eventually die (Dr. Faustus, 1.37). No, he decides, what he most desires is to study the secret books of magicians:

O what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence
Is promised to the studious Artizan?

A sound Magician is a mighty god:
Heere Faustus trie thy braines to gaine a deitie.
     (Dr. Faustus,1.52-63)

Faustus tells his servant Wagner to summon his friends Valdes and Cornelius, who can help him. Wagner exits, and as Faustus waits he is visited by a Good Angel and an Evil Angel. The Good Angel warns him to lay his study of secret books aside and concentrate on the scriptures, before his soul is tempted and he incurs the wrath of God. The Evil Angel urges him, “Go forward Faustus in that famous arte, / Wherein all nature’s treasury is containd” (Dr. Faustus, 1.74-75). The angels exit, and Faustus fantasizes about the material and intellectual rewards that magic will bring him. “Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, / Resolve me of all ambiguities, / Performe what desperate enterprise I will?” he wonders (Dr. Faustus, 1.79-81). He will get gold from India, pearls from the oceans, delicious foods from the newly discovered Americas; he will have spirits read him books of exotic philosophy and divulge to him the secrets of foreign kings. He will also win political might, becoming sole monarch of the land and commanding the spirits to invent powerful new weapons of war for him.

Valdes and Cornelius enter, and Faustus tells them that they have finally won him over to magic. Once again he rejects philosophy, law, medicine, and divinity: “Tis Magicke, Magicke that hath ravisht mee,” he declares (Dr. Faustus, 1.110). He will be as great a magician as Agrippa, whose skill in conjuring the spirits of the dead brought him honor throughout Europe. Valdes assures him that the combination of the magic books, Faustus’s genius, and his own and Cornelius’s experience will soon put the whole world under their power. Cornelius claims that the basic principles of magic are not so difficult to learn, and they will bring Faustus great falne and wealth. They exit to eat dinner, after which they will begin to conjure spirits.

In the second scene two scholars arrive and ask Wagner where his master is. Wagner comically avoids answering the question directly, instead using nonsensical scholastic reasoning to argue that the two are “dunces” for asking it in the first place (Dr. Faustus, 2.18). The scholars are afraid that Faustus has “falne into that damned art” of magic, for which Valdes and Cornelius are known; they plan to inform the rector of the university, who may be able to “reclaime” Faustus (Dr. Faustus, 2.32-33, 36).

In the next scene Faustus begins conjuring. He utters a Latin incantation rejecting the Holy Trinity and hailing an infernal trinity of Lucifer and the devils Beelzebub and Demigorgon, and then summons the devil Mephastophilis. Mephastophilis appears but is so ugly that Faustus sends him back, commanding him to reappear in the form of a friar. When Mephastophilis does so, Faustus assumes that the devil has come to do his bidding. Mephastophilis instead says that he follows only Lucifer’s commands: it was not Faustus’s summons that brought him so much as the abjuration of the Holy Trinity, which is “the shortest cut for conjuring” and always brings devils hoping to capture the abjurer’s soul (Dr. Faustus, 3.52). Faustus asks about Lucifer, the prince of devils. Mephastophilis tells him that Lucifer was once God’s most dearly loved angel, until his “aspiring pride and insolence” caused God to throw him “from the face of heaven” (Dr. Faustus, 3.67, 68). Mephastophilis and other devils are those who conspired against God with Lucifer and were thus cast out with him. Where were they cast? Faustus asks. To hell, Mephastophilis answers. Faustus persists: then why is Mephastophilis now out of hell? Hell is not so much a place, the devil replies, as it is the absence of heaven. Faustus scorns Mephastophilis’s passionate longing for the “joyes of heaven” and advises him to learn some of Faustus’s own “manly fortitude” (Dr. Faustus, 3.84-85). He then sends Mephastophilis back to Lucifer with an offer: if Lucifer will grant whatever Faustus asks for 24 years, Faustus will afterward surrender his soul to Lucifer in exchange. He tells the devil to meet him in his study at midnight with an answer. Mephastophilis leaves and Faustus imagines all the power that his bargain with Lucifer will bring him.

In Scene Four, as in the play’s other comedic scenes, Wagner and a clown (a rustic simpleton) offer a comic parallel to the action in the preceding scene. Thus, Wagner comments that the unemployed clown is so desperate that he would probably sell his soul to the devil for a shoulder of mutton. He then asks the clown to be his servant, or else Wagner will turn all of the lice on him into familiars (spirit allies in animal form) and have them tear the clown apart. Wagner then summons two devils, Baliol and Belcher, who come and terrify the clown. The clown agrees to serve Wagner if Wagner will teach him how to conjure the devils, whom he hopes can turn him into a flea so that he can tickle a pretty girl.

In his study in Scene Five, Faustus wavers, wondering if it is too late for him to be saved. The Good Angel and the Evil Angel return: the Good Angel warns Faustus to leave magic behind and think of heaven, while the Evil Angel lures him again with honor and wealth. His head filled with thoughts of riches, Faustus summons Mephastophilis, who arrives with the news that Lucifer has agreed to the deal that Faustus proposed—but Faustus must sign a contract with his own blood. As Faustus signs the contract, the Latin words Homo fuge (Man, flee!) appear on his arm. Declaring that he does not believe in hell or in any kind of suffering after death, Faustus says that he feels “wanton and lascivious” and commands Mephastophilis to find him a wife (Dr. Faustus, 5.144). Mephastophilis declares that marriage is meaningless and offers to bring Faustus a paramour rather than a wife. Faustus instead demands three books: one of spells and incantations for conjuring spirits, one to tell him the motions of the stars and planets, and one with knowledge of every kind of plant.

Faustus then begins to repent at having foresworn the joys of heaven, but Mephastophilis assures him that heaven is not “such a glorious thing” after all (Dr. Faustus, 5.188). The Good and Evil Angels again reappear: the Good Angel urges Faustus to repent, but the Evil Angel tells him that God can never pity him now. After the angels exit, Faustus contemplates killing himself. He again asks for information about the heavens, but Mephastophilis’s answers fail to satisfy him. When Faustus asks who made the world, Mephastophilis refuses to tell him, saying that the answer goes “against our kingdom”: instead of pondering such questions, Mephastophilis tells him, he should “Think on hell, Faustus, for thou art damned” (Dr. Faustus, 5.255, 56). Again the two angels reappear, and again the Good Angel says that it is not too late for Faustus to repent. When Faustus calls on Christ to save his soul, Lucifer appears and warns Faustus that by thinking of Christ he is breaking his promise. Lucifer distracts Faustus by showing him the seven deadly sins (pride, covetousness, wrath, envy, gluttony, sloth, and lechery), who enter and parade across the stage. In a brief comic scene, Robin, an ostler (the attendant at an inn who cares for horses), steals one of Faustus’s magic books; with his friend Rafe, he plans to use the book to magically control women and to conjure in the devil’s name.

In several subsequent scenes, Faustus is shown exercising his magical powers through Mephastophilis, who does his bidding obediently. In one scene, Faustus and Mephastophilis have traveled through the Alps to Rome, where Faustus becomes invisible. He proceeds to play tricks on the pope and a group of friars, snatching away the delicacies on which the pope is feasting, and smacking the pope on the ear. A brief comic scene then shows Robin and Rafe accidentally conjuring Mephastophilis, who frightens them by lighting fireworks on their backs. In a scene set at the court of the German Emperor Charles V, Faustus impresses the emperor by conjuring the shades of Alexander the Great and his paramour. When a knight at the court makes fun of him, Faustus punishes him by making a pair of horns appear on his head. In a later scene at the court of a duke and duchess, Faustus asks the duchess if there is any delicacy she desires. When she tells him she would love some ripe grapes even though they are out of season, Faustus sends Mephastophilis on a lightning journey to India for the fruit, which she declares are the best grapes she has ever tasted.

Such scenes take place over the 24 years that remain to Faustus under his contract with Lucifer. Finally, following a speech by Wagner, who says that he believes his master is preparing for death, Faustus conjures the shade of Helen of Troy for some scholars who wonder what this legendary Greek beauty looked like. After she parades across the stage and the grateful scholars leave, an old man enters and warns Faustus to repent, to seek mercy instead of falling prey to the sin of despair. Just as Faustus begins to do so, Mephastophilis appears and threatens him with torture. Faustus asks Lucifer’s pardon and entreats Mephastophilis to bring back Helen of Troy to be his paramour, so that she can distract him from thoughts of repentance. Referring to the Trojan War that was fought over Helen’s kidnapping, Faustus declares that she will be all the heaven he needs:

Was this the face that lancht a thousand shippes,
And burnt the toplesse Towres of Ilium?
SweeteHelen,make me immortall with a kisse:

Here wil I dwel, for heaven be in the se lips.
     (Dr. Faustus,12.81-86)

As devils enter to torment the old man, he curses Faustus, but the old man’s faith remains firm that he himself will end up with God in heaven.

In the play’s final scene, Faustus enters again with the scholars, telling them of his despair and dismissing their suggestions that it is not too late for him to repent. He advises them to leave for their own sakes as the moment of his damnation approaches. They do so, and the clock strikes eleven: Faustus has “but one bare hower [hour] to live” (Dr. Faustus, 14.62). In a long final speech, he beseeches time to stand still and then, as the clock strikes eleven-thirty, he asks God to put some end to his suffering, even if he has to endure a hundred thousand years of damnation. The clock strikes twelve and Faustus pleads, “My God, my God, looke not so fierce on me” as Mephastophilis appears and takes him off to hell. In the brief epilogue, the Chorus admonishes the audience to avoid Faustus’s fate, warning them not to inquire into “unlawful things, / whose deepness doth intise such forward wits, / To practice more than heavenly power permits” (Dr. Faustus, Epilogue, 6-8).

An appetite for certainty

As the audience learns in the opening scene, Faustus’s main reason for wanting magical powers is intellectual curiosity. He expresses this motivation as a desire for certainty: magic, he imagines, will “resolve me of all ambiguities” (Dr. Faustus, 1.80). Yet when he asks about the motions of the planets, for example, the few certain answers that Mephastophilis gives him are uninformative and superficial. Faustus quickly loses interest in asking deep questions and for the rest of the play he seems more interested in performing tricks than probing the mysteries of the universe.

Faustus’s disappointment at the unforeseen limitations he encounters finds a historical parallel in the career of Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), the German magician, philosopher, and scientist that Faustus claims as a role model in Scene One. Like Faustus, in his book On the Occult Philosophy Agrippa professes ambivalent and even contradictory rationales for learning magic. On the one hand he praises it as a noble path to truth, while on the other he openly extols the uses of charms and spells for achieving worldly or self-serving ends such as wealth, political power, revenge, or love. In another book, however, Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, Agrippa bitterly rejects both science and the occult, describing himself and other magicians as fraudulent hucksters who have preyed on people’s gullibility in order to advance their own interests. Science is no better, Agrippa asserts: occult and scientific knowledge are alike in their vanity and uselessness.

“Agrippa’s life and works,” writes scholar John S. Mebane, remind us “that those who long most intensely for certain knowledge are often those who ultimately despair of attaining truth through systematic inquiry” (Mebane, p. 70). This normal intellectual hunger for certainty, Mebane continues, was exacerbated by the circumstances in which sixteenth-century intellectuals found themselves:

In the sixteenth century, the reaction against the new learning and against occult philosophy came not solely from those who were consistently conservatives or reactionaries, but from scholars who previously had taken pride in their command of the arts and sciences.… The conflicts of Agrippa’s life are in many ways those

of the Renaissance itself.… Agrippa’s career suggests to us that works such as Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus … are no more incoherent than the very lives of those individuals whose intellectual and spiritual turmoil such works of art are designed to reflect.

(Mebane, pp. 71-72)

While religious certainty had been shaken by movements such as humanism and the Reformation, scientific knowledge had not yet developed to the point that it was able to offer sure answers on its own. In this light, Agrippa’s (and Faustus’s) disillusionment with intellectual endeavor can be seen as a form of anxiety that arose from the collapse of one system of knowledge before another developed sufficiently to take its place.

Sources and literary context

Marlowe drew extensively on only one literary source for Dr. Faustus, a prose narrative commonly called the English Faust-book, or E.F.B. Published under the title The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr. John Faustus, this book was a free and sometimes inaccurate translation of an anonymous German volume called The History of Dr. Johann Faust. The German original, also known as the Faustbuch, was published in 1587; the earliest surviving edition of the English version is dated 1592, but it is believed that Marlowe used an earlier edition published perhaps in 1588 or 1589. The author of the Faustbuch collected a number of popular medieval folktales and recast them with Faust as the central character. Marlowe followed the English Faust-book closely, drawing on it for the play’s overall structure as well as for many of its details, including the depiction of Mephostophiles (as the name is spelled in the E.F.B.), Faustus’s questions about astronomy, his magical tricks on the pope, and the procuring of grapes for the duchess. A more general literary source was the medieval tradition of Christian morality plays, simple dramatizations of religious themes performed in church settings. The appearance of the Good and Evil Angels, a common device in morality plays, is Marlowe’s most conspicuous borrowing from this popular tradition.

In the early 1590s, a number of other plays about magicians were successfully produced for the London stage. Scholars who favor an early date for Dr. Faustus (1588 or 1589) see it as originating, rather than following, this trend. More significantly, the play is seen as one of the earliest English tragedies, and the first to revive the sense of a grand struggle between tragic fate and free will that characterized ancient Greek tragedy. Marlowe thus adapted the Protestant preoccupation with faith and predestination to the tragic stage: critics also describe the play as the first Christian tragedy, insofar as the conflict is over a human soul rather than a social or political issue (as in Greek tragedy).

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

The Reformation and the rise of Elizabethan theater

Protestantism was introduced to England in 1534 by the decision of Henry VIII to remove the English Church from papal control. At first, morality plays continued to be staged in churches much as before, but soon the English Church began repressing them as reminders of Catholicism. By the early decades of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603), theater in England was undergoing rapid change, forced out into the secular world where its appeal soon reached wider audiences. By the 1580s, when Marlowe began writing his dramas, professional actors had replaced the clerics and other amateurs who traditionally performed the stage productions of the medieval world. At the same time, however, Protestant authorities in the city of London were hostile to these professionals and to the new playhouses, which they viewed as sinful places on a par with gambling houses and brothels.

In the face of opposition by zealous Protestant reformers, the theater companies often sought the patronage and protection of wealthy and powerful men. One of the earliest was the company with which Christopher Marlowe was professionally associated, the Admiral’s Men, formed in 1576 under the protection of Lord (later Admiral) Charles Howard. As Marlowe and others recognized, despite the reformers’ opposition, the playhouses’ rapidly growing audiences offered immense opportunities for talented actors and writers. A compromise with the reformers was reached by the late 1580s, when Queen Elizabeth authorized the Master of the Revels, the official in charge of court entertainments, to act as a censor of theatrical manuscripts. Owing to its religiously sensitive subject matter, Dr. Faustus seems to have been particularly heavily censored. This has created severe problems for those attempting to determine the play’s original text.

Publication and impact

It is unclear whether Marlowe actually wrote the play down as we have it, or whether the text was written down from the memories of actors or audience members. The play’s first recorded performance, by the Admiral’s Men, took place on September 30, 1594, but most scholars believe it had been produced before that. The earliest printed version dates from a decade later, in 1604, when Thomas Bushell published it as The Tragicall Historie of D. Faustus. Scholars call this version the “A” text, to distinguish it from a very different version, the “B” text, published by John Wright in 1616 with significant additions and changes. While some disagreement remains, and there are discrepancies and clear gaps in the text, most scholars accept the A text (on which this entry is based) as the more authoritative.

Both the German and English Faust-books reflected the popular appeal of the Faust legend, but it would be Marlowe’s play that transformed the story of the man who sold his soul for knowledge into an enduring modern myth. Translated into German, simple versions of Marlowe’s play became a staple of puppet shows in Germany for 200 years. The story has since been treated by other writers, notably by the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), but also by other poets and by prose writers, including Thomas Mann and Heinrich Heine. It has also inspired composers such as Hector Berlioz and Charles François Gounod, as well as artists ranging from the French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix to German Expressionist Max Beckmann.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Bloom, Harold. Christopher Marlowe. Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Bloom, Harold. Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Empson, William. Faustus and the Censor: The English Faust-book and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Gatti, Hilary. The Renaissance Drama of Knowledge: Giordano Bruno in England. London: Routledge, 1989.

Healy, Thomas. Christopher Marlowe. Plymouth, England: Northcote, 1994.

Marlowe, Christopher. The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe: Volume II: Dr. Faustus. Ed. Roma Gill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Mebane, John S. Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Thomas, Vivien, and William Tydeman. Christopher Marlowe: The Plays and Their Sources. London: Routledge, 1994.

Traister, Barbara Howard. Heavenly Necromancers: The Magician in English Renaissance Drama. Colombia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.