Marlowe, Dr. Faustus

Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Christopher Marlowe
Dr. Faustus

No one seems to know when this was written. The A text (published 1604) now seems to have been partly a memorial reconstruction; the B text (1616) in some ways, but not all, closer to Marlowe but less blasphemous.

With a classical opening that cites the Muse, Chorus introduces Faustus with a brief biography (birth, schooling, degree) and reveals the nature of the tragedy: that as another Marlovian overreacher (like Tamburlaine and the Jew of Malta) Faustus rebelled against proper human limitations. Seeking to surpass the stretches of human knowledge, “He surfeits upon cursed necromancy” (Pro.25).
In the Shakespeare Authorship context, what strikes me first is the irreconcilable difference between the way sophisticated knowledge and learning are woven into the Shakespeare works intricately, and that usually one does not need to decode subtle references in order to grasp and enjoy the poetry or the dramatic events, vs. the way Marlowe shows off his schooling. Two lines into the start of this play and I’m scurrying to the explanatory notes to find out about Thrasimene and the Carthaginians. Oof.
What’s impressive is the power of the blank verse — but of course I’ve got Richard Burton’s voice in my head. And Faustus is impatient with all these fragments of human learning, too easily mastered for him, and looking for more.

Scene 1
Faustus in his study reviews and denounces his many areas of scholarship, all unsatisfying to him. Logic or philosophy seems like sophistry. Medicine? “Physic farewell!” (1.27). Law? Theology? And okay, Kit, you know Latin; we get it already. And philosophy, medicine, law, theology, and that Doris Day song. Faustus impatiently tends to cut off his Latin quotations — and significantly, such as what 1 John 1.8 would continue to say in the next lines (1.41) about confession and forgiveness: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Faustus considers a new study — necromancy, or black magic — a kind of counter-religion whose invocations will be similar in language to orthodox liturgical ones. Thus he seems for the moment able to overcome his jaded dissatisfaction with thoughts of a new enchantment and his high aspirations.

Faustus has his servant Wagner summon his friends Valdes and Cornelius. While waiting, he is visited by a Good Angel and an Evil Angel, the first urging him to “lay that damnèd book aside” (1.70), the latter urging him to “Go forward” (1.74). That good angel / bad angel trope is used a bit less literally by Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, and surely it must be medieval originally, though most of us were introduced to it in Warner Bros. cartoons, right? Faustus stays the course with pronouncements of his high international aspirations. Valdes and Cornelius, both bad influences, arrive and urge Faustus on. Marlowe copies a Chaucer pun, “grounded in astrology” (1.138), as Cornelius poses what he thinks is a rhetorical question: after they amass untold wealth, “what shall we three want?” (1.148). Faustus is determined: “This night I’ll conjure, though I die therefore” (1.166).

Scene 2
Two students speak with the irksomely jesting Wagner. They worry about Faustus keeping company with Valdes and Cornelius and therefore falling “into that damnèd art” (2.29). “Were he a stranger, and not allied to me, yet should I grieve for him” (2.31-32). They hold out a small hope to “reclaim him” (2.33, 34).

Scene 3
Faustus intones his corruptions of orthodoxy, saying for the first time to himself, “Then fear not Faustus, but be resolute” (3.14; cf. 5.6).
Another Chaucer pilgrim: “Go and return an old Franciscan friar; / That holy shape becomes a devil best.” This is more generic than the reference(s) to the Physician in the previous scenes, since it was more fashionable to make snotty comments about the church figures and corruption; but Chaucer’s influence loomed large in the late 16th century.
A recipe for Aesthetic Evil:
— chant Latin or pig Latin in low bass voices.
— serve with pea soup.
A psychological insight: Faustus refers to himself repeatedly in the third person, indicating not out-and-out schizoid disorder, but a concept of himself as distinct from his true internal self. So which does he value less, and is this why he is able to bargain some notion of “self” away? Speaking of oneself in the third person tells us something similar about Oedipus and about a number of Hollywood train-wrecks where the celebrity name seems attached to a media and public construct, vs. the person’s authentic if wobbly sense of self. Therefore the late Ms. Houston can squawk to the press, “Whitney’s not gay. Whitney’s not gay.”

A devil, perhaps in the shape of a dragon, appears, and Faustus orders it away to change form: “Thou art too ugly to attend on me; / Go and return an old Franciscan friar, / That holy shape becomes a devil best” (3.24-26). Mephastophilis appears and Faustus demands that this demon serve him, “Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere, / Or the ocean to overwhelm the world” (3.38-39). Mephastophilis is surprisingly straightforward about hell’s practices in gaining souls and about the fall of Lucifer. An odd literary phenomenon: evil doesn’t lie. As in Dante’s Divine Comedy, here in Dr. Faustus we have a deceiver, Mephastophilis, openly explaining the workings of the supernatural: demons’ weaknesses, Lucifer’s story, and — in locating hell nowhere geographically — hinting as hell being internal state. I tend to lose respect for demons who don’t even bother trying to trick me. Faustus boldly instructs him, “Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude” (3.85). Faustus’ deal is to offer his soul for 24 years of living “in all voluptuousness” (3.92) and having Mephastophilis as his servant. We hear more of Faustus’ high cosmic aspirations.

A crappy deal: 24 years? Seriously? Perhaps that seems like a long time when you’re 15 years old, but Faustus has been to grad school — okay, maybe at which point 24 years does seem like a prolonged misery….
Some high aspirations: I’ll say no more at this point about Faustus pronouncing how he will gloriously spend his time, since we already know in the end it’s a “tragedy.” But to me one of the best features of a play like this is that we ask ourselves what we would do with such assurances or with a guaranteed 24 years

Scene 4
As with Shakespeare’s plays, especially the histories, the low characters provide a kind of refraction of the main plot, here with linguistic trivializing. Wagner and a Clown character (a rustic) make such statements as “I know he would give his soul to the devil for a shoulder of mutton” (4.7-8). Although a kind of grim trivializing, it’s acknowledged among these knaves that this is a bad deal. Yet Wagner’s wasting the necromantic skills on unworthy matters does indirectly comment on the main plot. The next time, if ever, I see some indication of justice in this world, I may have to think twice before saying, “Well I’ll be damned.”

Scene 5
From the first line, Faustus already seems to be paying the psychological price and immediately bolsters his resolution by giving himself a pep-talk, again in the third person — now more disturbing. “Now Faustus, must thou needs be damned, / And canst thou not be saved. / What boots it then to think of God or heaven?” (5.1-3). Faustus already seems to lament paying a psychological price, and he must bolster himself: “Now go not backward: no, Faustus, be resolute” (5.6; cp. 3.14). After another brief encounter with the Good and Evil Angels, he does ask Mephastophilis, “What good will my soul do thy lord?” (5.39). “Enlarge his kingdom” (5.40) is the telegraphic answer, and we can assume that Faustus is satisfied with such a motive as it is convincingly based on self-interest. Faustus must sign away his soul in blood, which coagulates, worrying Faustus that his own blood may be “unwilling I should write this bill” (5.65). Some heat from burning coals has the blood running again, and Faustus reads aloud the document. He questions Mephastophilis more about hell: “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed / In one self place; for where we are is hell, / And where hell is, there must we ever be” (5.120-122). And later he shifts between first and third person, clearly tormented, and tries to pull out of it by calling on Mephastophilis: “Come, Mephastophilis, let us dispute again, / And argue of divine astrology” (5.209-210) — lovely, but clearly feeding his addiction to knowledge in order to distract himself and as a form of escapism. Faustus enthusiastically embraces damnation and marriage, but Mephastophilis cannot mess with sacraments and can supply instead only demon women. Faustus’ old addiction to books and knowledge arises again. And the shifts between first- and third-person utterances are disturbing: “I am resolved! Faustus shall ne’er repent” (5.208). For all his initial impatience with the fields of learning, he certainly resorts to law and text in an excessive way now.
And wait a minute. He’s “wanton and lascivious,” and his original deal was to be able to live in all “voluptuousness.” And he wants “a wife”???

After another Good Angel / Evil Angel moment, some extreme pronouncements about burning scriptures, slaying ministers, and pulling down churches (5.270-271) that seem to bespeak an element of hysteria in Faustus, Faustus go es overboard in vowing never to think about heaven or to name God and he’ll burn the Bible and murder priests.Peachy. But you know there’s no point system down here nor any cash reward for “Damned Soul of the Month,” right? So you’re just sounding a little hysterical, dude.
I know, let’s have another distraction!: the procession of the Seven Deadly Sins. Faustus is treated to a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Avarice, Ire, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth (not last?), and Lechery (female!). If I had an enormous 24 years to live and all the powers of the universe, I’d certainly want to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The balloon of Ronald McDonald covers about four of the sins already. But it’s weird that Lechery or Lust is last. It’s supposed to be, and almost always is, Sloth, of course. Lucifer quickly shoos them all — “Away! To hell, to hell!” (5.328) — so in the end, it seems pointless, which again is probably the point.
Love the line: “and the first letter of my name begins with Lechery.” And Lechery is female — also unusual. Lucifer finally commands the Sins away to hell. Faustus maybe thinks, “Oh. I thought we were going to party….”

Scene 6
Although there’s some question about his literacy, Robin has stolen one of Faustus’ conjuring books and promises Rafe he can get him Nan Spit the kitchen maid. Wagner serving as a Chorus mentions Faustus’ cosmic travels.

Scene 7
Mephastophilis preaches some travelogue material to Faustus:

And now, my Faustus, that thou may’st perceive
What Rome containeth to delight thee with.
Know that this city stands upon seven hills
That underprop the groundwork of the same;
Just through the midst runs flowing Tiber’s stream,
With winding banks, that cut it in two parts;
Over the which four stately bridges lean,
That makes safe passage to each part of Rome.
Upon the bridge called Ponte Angelo
Erected is a castle passing strong,
. . . .

This is the kind of collection of general factoids that we do not find when Shakespeare includes local details to places Shakspere never went in Italy.

Some editions include material involving Raymond King of Hungary and Bruno, the Emperor’s nominee for the papal throne. Otherwise we proceed immediately to the invisible pranks played to freak out the Pope: whisking away his dishes and giving him a smack in the head. (Really, Faustus?)

Scene 8

Robin and Rafe play keep-away with a goblet stolen from a Vintner. Mephastophilis is summoned and adds to the chaos with “squibs” (firecrackers). The demon is disgruntled about having to leave Constantinople just to debase himself with this lot, so apparently not all souls are equal in worth, even to devils.
Wagner delivers another Chorus passage.

Scene 9
In longer editions, Martino and Frederick speak with Benvolio about the Emperor honoring Faustus, but Benvolio thinks all the fuss over Faustus is a cheap waste of time: “Has not the Pope enough of conjuring yet?” (IV.i.33). In shorter editions, Benvolio is merely called a Knight. In both cases, Faustus plays pranks on this cynical naysayer. After an Actaeon mention (9.52f), the Knight soon appears with physical horns on his head. Faustus warns him,”sir knight, hereafter speak well of scholars” (9.81-82). The scene ends with Faustus referring to his running out of time.

Scene 10
A Horse-Courser (the Early Modern equivalent to a used car dealer) seeks “Master Fustian” (10.1), his mispronunciation of Faustus. He accepts a forty-dollar horse from Faustus, who tells him not to ride the horse into the water. After Faustus gives brief voice to his troubled mind, the Courser returns: “thinking my horse had had some rare quality that he would not have had me known of” (10.34-35), he rode into a pond and “had much ado to escape drowning” (IV.v.34-35)for the horse had turned into “a bottle [bundle] of hay” (10.38; IV.v.39). Mephastophilis will not let the man see Faustus, who is finally napping after eight weeks awake. The Courser is annoyed at the loss of forty dollars and pulls at Faustus’ leg, which seems to come off. The man runs away. Wagner reports that the Duke of Vanholt wants to see Faustus.

Scene 11
The Duke’s wife is pregnant and desires grapes, even though it is January. Faustus sends Mephastophilis for them, and the Duchess is astounded. Faustus explains that it’s summer in India and beyond.
In a fourth Chorus passage, Wagner says,

I think my master means to die shortly,
For he hath given to me all his goods!
And yet methinks, if that death were near,
He would not banquet and carouse, and swill
Amongst the students, as even now he doth….
(Chorus 4.1-5)

Scene 12
A few scholars have determined that Helen of Greece (a dubbing that makes more sense than Helen of Troy) “was the beautifulest in all the world” (12.2) and would like to see her. “Faustus’ custom is not to deny / The just requests of those that wish him well” (12.9-10). So it seems that finally Faustus has found his niche. We hear music, and “Helen” appears. The scholars are delighted.

An old man out of nowhere warns Faustus “Of thy most vile and lothesome filthiness, / The stench whereof corrupts” etc. (12.32-33). Faustus is influenced and curses himself. Mephastophilis gives him a dagger. The old man stops him. “I see an angel hovers o’er thy head” (12.44) making grace available if Faustus would call for mercy. Faustus unfortunately asks for some time to think. Mephastophilis starts threatening, and Faustus invents another contract: “with my blood again I will confirm / My former vow I made to Lucifer” (12.62-63). Faustus desperately attempts another escapist distraction: seeing Helen again.

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
. . .
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena!

Faustus’ vision devolves into fantasies of himself as Paris sacking Wittenberg. The highf-flown rhetoric clashes with the fact that Helen is an illusion, or a demon in disguise, or if the actual Helen, then a corpse.

The old man witnesses the last bit of this and ends the scene, lamenting Faustus’ foolishness and happy in the assurance that the devils can do nothing to him, “for hence I fly to God” (12.109).

Scene 13
Scholars gossip about Faustus poor health: “Belike he is grown into some sickness by being oversolitary” (13.7-8). Faustus insists his sins cannot be pardoned (the weird pride over which may be yet another sin). He publicly acknowledges the deal he made with the devil. The scholars will pray for Faustus.

The 1616 edition includes the Good and Bad Angels, but the 1604 version makes the final experiences more immediate. As the clock strikes eleven, Faustus thinks of having more time:

Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day, or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul.

Faustus does not question the judgment; he knows and accepts the deal itself. He desperately thinks of Pythagoras’ doctrine of metempsychosis (13.97). Faustus curses his parents, but then himself and Lucifer. The clock strikes twelve, and as devils enter, Faustus cries,

O soul, be changed into little water drops,
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found.
My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile!
Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books — ah, Mephastophilis!

The devils lead him off.

Longer editions belabor the ending with the penultimate comments by the scholars, but in any case Chorus provides the finale: “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight” (Epi.1). We should remain standoffish about “unlawful things” (Epi.6) and never “practice more than heavenly power permits” (Epi.8). Is this moral relevant to the experience?


Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. NY: Signet, 1969. [Essentially the B text of the play.]

Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1. 8th ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. 1023-1057. [Essentially the A text of the play.]