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Doctor Faustus


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A: Christopher Marlowe (and others) Pf:c.1588, London Pb: 1604 (‘A’ text), 1616 (‘B’ text) G: Trag. in 1 act; blank verse and prose S: Wertenberg (= Wittenberg), Germany, and other locations in Europe, early 16th c. C: 30m, 2f, extrasThe learned Doctor Faustus, dissatisfied with his academic learning, decides to devote himself to the study of magic. He summons up the evil spirit Mephistophilis, insisting that he appear in the form of a Franciscan friar. Faust offers a pact to Mephistophilis, that if the latter serve him for 24 years, the devil may have his soul when he dies. After a comic scene in which Wagner, Faust's servant, and a Clown summon two devils, Mephistophilis returns from Lucifer agreeing to the pact. This is duly signed in Faust's blood. Mephistophilis answers Faust's metaphysical and astronomical questions and gives him a book containing the secrets of the universe. Although Faust begins to have doubts about the pact and is repeatedly urged by his Good Angel to repent, he finds he cannot turn back from his impending damnation. Lucifer appears to entertain Faust with the Seven Deadly Sins. Mephistophilis takes Faust to the Pope's court in Rome, where Faust has fun stealing the Pope's food and causing general alarm. After another comic scene in which two lads meddle with magic, Faust visits the Emperor of Constantinople and fulfils his wish to see Alexander the Great and his paramour resurrected. After another comic interlude with a horse dealer, Faust entertains the Duke of Vanholt. After warnings from an Old Man, Faust now demands to see Helen of Troy, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’. At last the hour of Faust's death approaches, and, as the clock strikes, he succumbs to terror at the thought of his eternal damnation. He is dragged off to hell by Devils, and Chorus comments on the dangers of attempting ‘To practise more than heavenly power permits’.

A: Christopher Marlowe (and others) Pf:c.1588, London Pb: 1604 (‘A’ text), 1616 (‘B’ text) G: Trag. in 1 act; blank verse and prose S: Wertenberg (= Wittenberg), Germany, and other locations in Europe, early 16th c. C: 30m, 2f, extras

The 1616 B text is generally a more reliable text than the much shorter 1604 A text, but contains added scenes (which may or may not be Marlowe's), like Faustus at the Pope's court and an expansion of the horse-dealer episode. Doctor Faustus is arguably the greatest tragedy in the English language before Shakespeare, and contains some of Marlowe's finest verse. It presents an image of Renaissance man, whose desire to know everything is presented as a threat to individual salvation and to the traditional order. It is however no accident that the Faust legend sites him at Wittenberg, the birthplace of Lutheran Protestantism. Thus the implications of the piece are ambiguous: like the Evil Angel we cannot help but champion Faust's energy and commitment to explore the limits of human knowledge; but like the Good Angel we fear where this might lead. Because the same fears about the outcome of scientific probing, especially in nuclear physics and biogenetics, have become particularly acute in our own age, Marlowe's play remains intensely topical. The legend was dramatized most famously by Goethe in his monumental Faust.

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Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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