If you are interested in the world of the occult, you'll like this play. Doctor Faustus
is a drama about a famous scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for
magical powers. It is a play which has come down to us over the centuries in two
different versions (see the beginning of the section on The Story). Events found in the
1616 text, but missing from the 1604, are marked here with an asterisk (*).
In Doctor Faustus, as in many Elizabethan plays, the main plot centers on the tragic
hero, while a subplot offers comic relief.
Dr. John Faustus, the renowned scholar of Wittenberg, has closeted himself in his
study to decide his future career. Law, medicine, theology- he has mastered them
all. And he finds them all dissatisfying.
Faustus wants a career to match the scope of his ambition, a subject to challenge
his enormous intellect. So he turns to necromancy, or black magic, which seems to
offer him godlike powers. He knows, however, that it involves forbidden traffic with
Faustus summons Valdes and Cornelius, two accomplished magicians, to instruct him
in the art of conjuring. That night, in the midst of a crashing thunderstorm, Faustus
raises up the demon spirit, Mephistophilis. Faustus proposes a bargain. He will give
his immortal soul to the devil in exchange for twenty-four years of magic and merry-making.
Mephistophilis procrastinates. Reconsider, he advises Faustus. You really don't know
what you are getting into. Besides, Mephistophilis does not have the power to conclude
such an agreement. He is only a servant to Lucifer, the prince of hell. Faustus
orders him to speak with Lucifer, so Mephistophilis quickly flies off to the nether
While waiting for the spirit to return, Faustus has second thoughts. Is it too late
to pull back from the abyss? Never too late, counsels the Good Angel, who suddenly
appears before Faustus' eyes. Too late, whispers the Evil Angel, who advises Faustus
to think of fame and wealth. Wealth! The very word makes Faustus catch fire. Hesitation
flies out the window as Mephistophilis flies in with Lucifer's reply.
The prince of hell will grant Faustus' wish, provided that Faustus sign over his soul
in a deed of gift. Lucifer wants a contract to make sure he isn't cheated. The contract
must be written in Faustus' own blood.
In compliance with Lucifer's demand, Faustus stabs his arm, only to find that his
blood has mysteriously frozen in his veins. Mephistophilis comes running with hot
coals to warm Faustus' blood, and it starts flowing again. The contract is completed,
and the moment of crisis past. Mephistophilis provides a show to divert Faustus' thoughts.
He calls for devils who enter with a crown and royal robes. They dance around Faustus,
delighting him with the thought that he can summon such spirits at any time.
Now that the bargain is sealed, Faustus is eager to satisfy his passionate curiosity
and appetites. He wants answers to questions that surge in his brain about the stars
and the heavenly spheres. He also wants a wife to share his bed.
Faustus' demands are met in typically hellish fashion. Mephistophilis' revelations
about the stars turn out to be no more than elementary assumptions of medieval astronomy.
And the wife provided Faustus by the spirit is a female demon who bursts onto the
stage in a hot spray of fireworks.
Faustus becomes wary. He suspects he has sold his soul for a cheap bag of tricks.
The disillusioned scholar falls into bitterness and despair. He curses Mephistophilis
and ponders suicide.
Faustus makes a futile stab at repentance. He prays desperately to God, only to have
Lucifer appear before him. As a confirmation of Faustus' bondage to hell, they watch
a parade of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride leads Avarice, Gluttony, and the rest, as
each brandishes his own special weakness of the soul or flesh.
Casting aside all further thoughts of repentance, Faustus gives himself up to the
distractions that Mephistophilis puts in his way. Through travel and visits to foreign
courts, Faustus seeks to enjoy himself in the time he has left on earth.
Mephistophilis takes Faustus to Rome and to the private chambers of the Pope. The
two become invisible and play practical jokes until a planned papal banquet breaks
up in disarray. Then it's on to the German Emperor's court, where they entertain
his majesty by raising the ghost of Alexander the Great.
* At the Emperor's court, a skeptical knight voices his doubts about Faustus' magic
powers. The magician takes revenge by making a pair of stag horns grow on the knight's
head. Faustus follows this prank with another. He sells a crafty horse-dealer a
demon horse which vanishes when it is ridden into water.
In the meantime, Faustus' experiments with magic are being imitated by his household
staff. Faustus' servant, Wagner, tries his own hand at conjuring by summoning two
comic devils who force the clown, Robin, into Wagner's service.
Not to be outdone, Robin steals one of Faustus' conjuring books. In his dimwitted
way, he tries to puzzle out the spells. The real magic is that Robin's spell works!
A weary Mephistophilis, summoned from Constantinople, rises up before the startled
clown. In anger, the spirit turns Robin into an ape and his sidekick, Dick, into a dog.
* The transformed clowns and the horse-dealer meet in a nearby tavern, where they
swap stories about the injuries they have suffered at Faustus' hand. Tipsy with ale,
they descend on the castle of Vanholt, where Faustus is busy entertaining the Duke
and Duchess with his fabulous magic tricks. The magician produces for the pregnant Duchess
an out-of-season delicacy she craves- wintertime grapes.
* Faustus wins an easy victory over the rowdy crew from the tavern, striking each
of them dumb in turn. He then returns to Wittenberg, in a more sober frame of mind,
to keep his rendezvous with fate.
Faustus' mind has turned toward death. He has made a will, leaving his estate to Wagner.
Yet he still holds feverishly onto life. He drinks and feasts far into the night
with the dissolute scholars of Wittenberg. And, in a last magnificent conjuring
trick, he raises the shade (spirit) of the most beautiful woman in history, Helen of Troy.
At the end of his career, poised between life and death, Faustus undergoes a last
crisis of conscience. An Old Man appears to plead with Faustus to give up his magic
art. God is merciful, the Old Man promises. He will yet pardon Faustus and fill
his heart with grace.
The magician hesitates, visibly moved by the Old Man's chastening words. But Mephistophilis
is too quick for him. The spirit threatens Faustus with torture, if he reneges on
his contract with Lucifer. At the same time, Mephistophilis promises to reward Faustus with Helen of Troy, if he keeps faith with hell. Faustus collapses under the
pressure. He orders Mephistophilis to torture the Old Man. (Anyone, anyone but himself.)
And he takes the insubstantial shade of Helen for his lover. In doing so, he is lost.
The final hour approaches. As the minutes tick away, Faustus tries frantically to
stop the clock. Give him one more month, one more week, one more day to repent, he
cries. But the hours chime away. Midnight strikes. The devil arrives through billowing
smoke and fire, and Faustus is led away to hell.
* In the morning, the scholars of Wittenberg find Faustus' body. They deplore his
evil fate, but honor him for his learning. For the black magician who might have
been a light unto the world, they plan a stately funeral.
[Doctor Faustus Contents]
It is no accident that Faustus compares himself to a colossus (IV, VII). Marlowe's
hero looms out of the play like some huge, jagged statue. There is far too much of
him to take in at a glance.
Make any simple statement about Faustus, and you'll find you are only talking about
part of the man. Faustus lends himself less than most characters to easy generalization.
Say, for instance, that Faustus is a scholar. Books are his trade, philosophy his
strength. Yet what an unscholarly scholar he is! At times during the play, he kicks
up his heels and romps about the stage just like a comedian who has never heard of
philosophy in his life.
Or say that Faustus is an atheist. He scoffs at religion and denies the existence
of God. But, at one of the play's most dramatic moments, you see Faustus fall to
his knees in a fervent prayer of contrition to Christ.
Perhaps we should take our cue from such contradictory behavior and seek the key to
Faustus in contradiction. Clearly he's a man of many inner conflicts. Here are three
for you to think about:
- Some people sense an age-old conflict in Faustus between his body and his mind.
To these readers, Faustus is a noble intellect, destroyed by his grosser appetites.
In this interpretation, Faustus' tragedy is that he exchanges the worthwhile pursuit
of knowledge for wine, women, and song. Faustus not only burns in hell for his carnal
ways, he pays a stiffer price: loss of his tragic dignity.
- Other readers see Faustus' conflict in historical terms. Faustus lives in a time
of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance. These were two very different
historical eras with quite different values, and Faustus is caught in the grip of
changing times. On the one hand, he is very aware of the admonitions of the medieval church-
don't seek to know too much, learn contempt for this world, and put your energy
into saving your soul. On the other hand, Faustus hears Renaissance voices which
tell him just the opposite. Extend the boundaries of human knowledge. Seek wealth and power.
Live this life to the full because tomorrow you'll be dead. (This theme of "eat,
drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die" is known as carpe diem or seize the day.
It was a popular theme in the Renaissance.)
- Still other readers see Faustus torn between superhuman aspirations and very human
limitations. Faustus dreams that magic will make him a god. In his early dealing
with Mephistophilis, he talks about himself as if he were a king. He gives commands,
dictates terms, and fancies himself on a par with Lucifer, the dreaded regent of hell.
Faustus is willing to sign a contract which will free him from human restraints for
twenty-four years. During that time, he will have a spirit's body that can soar free
of the earth, a body immune from the ravages of old age and time. Yet, even as he signs
the contract, Faustus somehow knows that he is only human. His body warns him to
flee and addresses him, in no uncertain terms, as "man."
The contrast between Faustus' hopes and his realities is very great indeed. The man
who was to have been a king grovels like a slave before Lucifer. The "god" who was
to have escaped from time watches powerless as the last hour of his life ticks away.
Because of the great distance between Faustus' dreams and achievements, he strikes some
readers as a wretch, an immature egotist who cries like a child when the universe
won't let him have his way.
Indeed, all three interpretations of Faustus present you with a challenge and a question.
Which emerges most strongly from the play: Faustus' noble mind, his soaring Renaissance
aspirations, his superhuman dreams? Or Faustus' gross appetites, his sins against God, his very human terrors? Somewhere between the super-hero and the lowly
wretch, you will find your own truth about Faustus.
There are two sides to Mephistophilis. One of these spirits is an evil, malevolent
tempter. He wants Faustus' soul and stops at nothing to get it. This Mephistophilis
lies to Faustus, manipulates him with threats of torture, and jeers at him when
his final hour has come:
What, weepst thou? 'tis too late: despair. Farewell.
Fools that will laugh on earth must weep in hell.
The second spirit has a sweeter nature. He's a reluctant demon who would spare Faustus
if he could. This Mephistophilis offers no enticements. He watches, in quiet distress,
while Faustus damns himself. When summoned during the night by Faustus' blasphemous conjurings, the spirit does not seize the soul that is offered to him. Instead,
he urges Faustus away from his contemplated deal with hell:
O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.
Which is the real Mephistophilis? It isn't easy to say. You can put your trust in
Mephistophilis' better nature and see him as a kind of guardian spirit. You'll find
evidence in the play that Mephistophilis cares for Faustus and feels a strong attraction
to the man. He calls his charge "My Faustus," and flies to his side with eagerness.
He is a companion in Faustus' adventures and is also Faustus' comforter. The spirit
sympathizes when Faustus is sick with longing for heaven. And he goes out of his
way to console the scholar with the thought that heaven isn't such a great loss after all.
Mephistophilis understands Faustus in ways that suggest they are two of a kind. He's
been called Faustus' alter ego. And you get the feeling that he sees himself in Faustus
as he was eons before- a proud young angel who marched with Lucifer against God,
only to see his hopes of glory dashed when Lucifer's rebellion failed.
It's possible that, when Mephistophilis threatens Faustus, he is merely doing his
job. The spirit isn't free to do what he likes. He is Lucifer's man. Mephistophilis
has counseled Faustus against making a deal with hell. But once that deal is made,
the spirit has no choice but to hold Faustus to it.
On the other hand, you may feel that Mephistophilis shows more enthusiasm than the
job requires. In that case, you can see the spirit as Faustus' evil genius. And Mephistophilis'
understanding of Faustus becomes a potent weapon in his hands.
The spirit, for instance, knows just what cleverly worded promises to make to get
Faustus' signature on the dotted line. He tells Faustus, "I will... wait on thee,
and give thee more than thou has wit to ask." That promise turns out to be true,
but not in the way that Faustus has reason to expect. What Mephistophilis gives Faustus is an
eternity of torment, not the limitless power that Faustus imagines.
Mephistophilis is a trickster. When Faustus asks for a wife, the spirit provides one-
a demon too hot to touch. When Faustus asks for information about the stars, Mephistophilis
gives him facts which the scholar already knows. In his own hellish fashion, Mephistophilis abides by the letter, not the spirit, of the contract. He obeys Faustus'
commands without fulfilling his wishes. The spirit makes sure that Faustus pays
full price for relatively shoddy goods.
Is Mephistophilis a brilliant schemer who plots the damning of Faustus? Or is he
a reluctant actor in the tragedy? It's up to you to decide.
Wagner is not happy in his role as a servant. He's sufficiently educated to regard
himself as a scholar, and he's eager to prove his prowess in logical dispute. If
you read between the lines, you begin to suspect that Wagner has a secret yen to
wear a professor's robes and sit as king of the roost in Faustus' study.
Yet there is a more faithful side to Wagner. He serves his master loyally. He shields
his master from the prying eyes of tattle-tale clerics. And he takes the trouble
to track Faustus down on the road with an invitation to the castle of Vanholt. (Wagner
knows very well that his master likes to preen in front of the nobility.) What's more,
Wagner is Faustus' heir. Faustus probably wouldn't leave his money to Wagner except
as a "thank you" for years of good service.
Some readers think Wagner is foolish. But there's every indication he's really rather
clever. He dabbles in magic and conjures demons without going to hell. Wagner watches
carefully as his master gets snared by the devil. He manages to skirt by the same
trap without getting caught.
- VALDES AND CORNELIUS
Valdes and Cornelius usher in the era of wizardry at Wittenberg. By introducing magic
to the university, they, play a minor role in tempting Faustus. Valdes seems the
bolder of the pair. He dreams of a glorious association with Faustus and has himself
overcome the scruples of conscience that await the would-be magician. Cornelius is more
timid, content to dabble in magic rather than practice it in earnest. "The spirits
tell me they can dry the sea," Cornelius says, never having ventured to try the experiment.
With his stirrings of ambition and his hapless attempts at conjuring, Robin, the clown,
is a sort of minor Wagner. He's yet another servant who follows his master into
devilry. Like most of the characters in the play, Robin is an upstart. He regards
himself as destined for higher things than service in an innyard. In particular, magic
turns his head. Intoxicated with the thought of commanding demons, Robin turns impudent.
He gets drunk on the job and boasts of seducing his master's wife.
- THE OLD MAN
The Old Man is a true believer in God and is the one human being in the play with
a profound religious faith. He walks across the stage with his eyes fixed on heaven,
which is why he sees angels visible to no one else. With his singleness of purpose,
the Old Man is an abstraction, rather than a flesh-and-blood character. (Appropriately,
he has no name.) His role is to serve as a foil for Faustus. His saintly path is
the road not taken by Marlowe's hero.
There's something compelling about the prince of hell, a fallen angel who once dared
to revolt against God. Formerly bright as sunlight, Lucifer's now a dark lord who
holds sway over a mighty kingdom. Yet there's something coarse about him, too. Lucifer's regal image is tarnished by association with creatures like the Seven Deadly Sins
and that jokester, Belzebub. The grandeur of ambition, the grossness of sin- these
two aspects of Lucifer are reflected in his servants.
A courtier, Benvolio takes the world with a blase yawn and a skeptical sneer. You
can't fool him, but he can outwit himself. He does so by rashly challenging the powers
of hell on two occasions.
- THE HORSE COURSER
Horse coursers or traders were the Elizabethan equivalents of our used-car salesmen.
That is, they were known for being cheats. Marlowe's horse courser is no exception.
A sharp bargainer, he beats down the price of Faustus' horse. And when the horse
proves to be a spirit, he demands his money back. This hardy peasant is a survivor. -
- THE POPE
The Pope is the most worldly of priests, luxury-loving and power-hungry. The character
seems tailored to the Elizabethan image of the churchmen of Rome, and his defeat
at Faustus' hands was undoubtedly the occasion for roars of approval from a Catholic-hating crowd.
[Doctor Faustus Contents]
Doctor Faustus stands on the threshold of two eras- the Renaissance and the Middle
Some aspects of the setting are distinctly medieval. The world of Doctor Faustus,
for example, includes heaven and hell, as did the religious dramas of the medieval
period. The play is lined with supernatural beings, angels and demons, who might
have stepped onstage right out of a cathedral. Some of the background characters in Doctor
Faustus are in fervent pursuit of salvation, to which the Middle Ages gave top priority.
But the setting of Doctor Faustus is also a Renaissance setting. The time of the play
is the Age of Discovery, when word has just reached Europe of the existence of exotic
places in the New World. The atmosphere of Doctor Faustus is speculative. People
are asking questions never dreamed of in the Middle Ages, questions like, "Is there a
hell?" Faustus himself is seized by worldly, rather than otherworldly ambitions.
He's far more concerned with luxurious silk gowns and powerful war-machines than
with saving his soul.
It's easy for us to talk as if there were a neat dividing line between the Middle
Ages and the Renaissance. But of course there isn't. People lived through a long
period of transition in which old and new ways of thinking existed side by side.
Transition is a key to the setting in Doctor Faustus. Specifically, the scene is
Wittenberg, a German university town in the grip of change. For almost a century
before Faustus' time, Wittenberg was a bastion of the Protestant faith. But now,
religious certainties are being challenged by new ideas. The students are more interested in Homer
than in the Bible. The younger men press forward toward forbidden knowledge, while
the old men shake their heads in dismay.
The tensions of the university are reflected in Faustus' study, where much of the
play takes place. The study is an uneasy room. At its center, on a great stand,
lies the Bible. It is there to remind Faustus of God. But the bookshelves contain
works of ancient Greek writers which suggest a more practical approach to life (Galen's guide
to medicine, for example). The study also contains maps which show Faustus exotic
lands with their promise of new sensations. And the scholar has recently added occult
books, with their short cut to Nature's secrets.
The room gives off conflicting signals about a man on the verge of a great decision.
Theology? Science? A life of unabashed pleasure? Which shall it be? In this uncertain
atmosphere, Faustus struggles and fails to find his way. Even as he entertains bright Renaissance dreams, he gets caught in the door that history is closing on the medieval
age of faith.
The following are major themes of Doctor Faustus.
Doctor Faustus is a study in ambition. Its hero is an "overreacher," a man who strives
against human limitations. Faustus tries to do more than is humanly possible. He
seeks to know, possess, and experience everything under the sun. There are two ways
to read Doctor Faustus: (1) The play glorifies ambition. Though Faustus is finally
undone, his dreams emerge larger than the forces that defeat him. (2) The play criticizes
ambition. Faustus falls to great depths from lofty heights. What's more, his larger-than-life dreams are cut down to size by the pointed ironies of Mephistophilis.
- CONCEPTS OF HELL
There are three different concepts of hell in this play. Faustus claims there is no
hell. Mephistophilis defines hell as the absence of God. The church says that hell
is a pit of fire, and that's where Faustus goes in the end. Why are there three hells
instead of just one? Perhaps Marlowe is exploring his own uncertain ideas. Or perhaps
everyone finds a hell of his own.
- CHRISTIANS vs. CLASSIC IDEALS
Despite its pantheon of gods, the classical world believed in humanity. The ancient
Greeks extolled the perfection of the human body and the clarity of human thought.
The medieval church held almost the opposite view. In the eyes of the church, reason
was suspect and flesh was the devil's snare. Christian and classical beliefs clash in
Doctor Faustus. The classical ideals focus on beauty, which is exemplified in the
play by Helen of Troy. The Christian ideals are more severe and are personified by
the Old Man. Helen's beauty is not to be trusted, but the Old Man's counsel is sound, even
- FREE WILL vs. DETERMINISM
A sense of doom hangs over Doctor Faustus, a sense that Faustus' damnation is inevitable
and has been decided in advance. Faustus struggles to repent, but he is browbeaten
by devils and barred from salvation by all the forces of hell. Nonetheless, it is
of his own volition that Faustus takes the first step toward evil. He makes a pact
with the devil to satisfy his lust for power. And in that sense, Faustus chooses
- AN ATHEIST OR A CHRISTIAN PLAY?
On the surface, Doctor Faustus has a Christian moral. Faustus commits a mortal sin
and goes to hell for it. He denies God and is therefore denied God's mercy. Faustus
is a scoffer who gets a scoffer's comeuppance. No fire-and-brimstone preacher could
have put it better than Marlowe. If the surface moral is the true moral of the play....
There are reasons to be suspicious. Marlowe was known to be an atheist. Moreover,
he included a lot of blasphemy in the play. He seems to have taken an unholy glee
in anti-religious ceremony. There is some powerful sacrilege in Doctor Faustus, half
buried in the Latin.
Was Marlowe trying to slip a subversive message past the censors? Or was he honestly
coming to grips with doubts about his own atheistic beliefs? If Marlowe knew the
truth, it died with him.
Hell has a lot of interesting gimmicks to keep Faustus from thinking about death and
damnation. Devils provide distracting shows, fireworks, and pageants for his entertainment.
Soon Faustus catches on to the idea. He learns to preoccupy his own mind by feasting, drinking, and playing pranks. All these diversions keep Faustus from turning
his attention to God and to the salvation of his soul. But is Faustus so different
from the rest of us? Perhaps Marlowe is saying that diversions are not only the pastimes of hell. They are also the everyday business of life itself.
Whenever you read a critical work on Marlowe, you are almost certain to find the writer
referring to "Marlowe's mighty line." That much-quoted phrase was coined by Ben
Jonson, an Elizabethan playwright, in a poetic tribute he wrote, not to Marlowe,
but to Shakespeare. The poem was a send-off to the first complete edition of Shakespeare's
plays, published in 1623. Here is what Ben Jonson had to say:
How far thou [Shakespeare] didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe's mighty line.
And there Marlowe has stood through the ages, his name unflatteringly bracketed with
Shakespeare's. Marlowe the loud-voiced trumpet to Shakespeare's mellow violin.
Ben Jonson's left-handed compliment was fair enough in its way. Marlowe earned his
reputation as a loud-mouth. His heroes are boasters, not only in their aspirations,
but also through their language, which defies all limits.
You can see the mighty line at work in Doctor Faustus. When Faustus speaks of power,
for instance, he boasts of command over "all things that move between the quiet
poles," dominion that stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man." The literary term
for extravagant, exaggerated language like this is "hyperbole." And Marlowe exaggerates
in many interesting ways. For example, he likes exotic adjectives. "Pearl" alone
won't do. He wants to convey the soft luster of a rarer gem. So he reaches for a
phrase that has an air of Eastern mystery to it. He writes of the "orient pearl." Marlowe's
giants are not merely large, they are "Lapland giants," huge, furclad creatures
from the frozen North who come running, with smoke on their breath, to obey a magician's
Marlowe has a fondness for dazzling heights and far-off vistas. In Doctor Faustus,
he speaks of the "topless towers" of Troy, towers so dizzyingly high they can't be
climbed or assaulted. He imagines spirits who will "ransack the ocean" floor and
"search all corners of the new-found world" for delicacies and treasure. This outward thrust
of the language suggests space without limits, space that gives his restless, searching
heroes worlds to conquer and room to maneuver in.
Marlowe likes the sound of large, round numbers. In Doctor Faustus, the figures tend
to be moderate: "A thousand ships," "a thousand stars." But elsewhere, the playwright
deals cavalierly in half-millions.
In addition, Marlowe makes impossible comparisons. Faustus is promised spirit-lovers
more beautiful than Venus, the queen of love. In fact, he is given Helen, who is
brighter and more luminous than a starlit sky.
The very use of Helen as a character suggests another of Marlowe's stylistic devices.
He raids the pantheon of classic gods and heroes for comparisons that reflect favorably
on his own protagonists. Helen steps out of the pages of the world's most famous
epic straight into Faustus' arms. And Alexander the Great appears at the snap of
the magician's fingertips. Marlowe's heroes don't seek to emulate famous figures.
The ancient gods and warriors come to them.
Marlowe's use of hyperbole has a profound effect on your perception of Faustus, though
you may not be aware of it. Without the real magic of the language, Faustus would
be a second-rate magician. But with the poetry spinning its silken web, Faustus becomes a dreamer of real magnitude. The language makes him a force to be reckoned with and
gives him heroic stature.
The term "Elizabethan English" is often applied to the English of the period 1560-1620.
It was a time when English began to be used with vigor and growing confidence. Before
Elizabeth I's reign (1558-1603), Latin was the language of the Church, of education, of law, science, scholarship, and international debate. English was regarded
by many as an inferior language. It had no fixed spelling, no officially sanctioned
grammar, and no dictionaries. In the words of one scholar, writing in 1561, "Our
learned men hold opinion that to have the sciences in the mother-tongue hurteth memory and
During Elizabeth's reign, poetry, drama, and criticism in English flourished. Writers
like Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare helped to forge
English into a flexible medium capable of being used not only for the expression
of local culture but also for a translation of the Bible.
Language differences can occur even today between parents and their children. It is
only to be expected, therefore, that the English used some four hundred years ago
will diverge markedly from the English used today. The following information on Marlowe's
language will help you to understand Doctor Faustus.
- MOBILITY OF WORD CLASSES
Adjectives, nouns and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular classes in Marlowe's
day. For example, nouns could be used as verbs. In the first lines of the Prologue,
the Chorus says:
Not marching in the fields of Trasimene
Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens
using "mate" to mean "befriend." Nouns could also be used as adjectives as in Act
I, Scene I, when "orient" is used to mean "shining":
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl.
Adjectives could be used as adverbs. In Act II, Scene II, Faustus says to Lucifer,
"This will I keep as chary as my life," using "chary" where a modern speaker would
require "charily" or "carefully."
- CHANGES IN WORD MEANING
The meaning of words undergoes changes, a process that can be illustrated by the fact
that "silly" used to mean "holy" and "villain" referred to a "peasant." Many of the
words in Doctor Faustus are still an active part of our language today but their
meanings have changed. The change may be small as in the case of "dispute," which meant
"debate, discuss," as in:
Is to dispute well logic's chiefest end?
and "wit," which meant "understanding":
A greater subject fitteth Faustus' wit
The change could be more fundamental, so that "artisan" implied "student"; "cunning"
was the equivalent of "knowledgeable"; and "boots" meant "is worth" in:
What boots it then to think of God or heaven?
(Act II, Scene I)
- VOCABULARY LOSS
Words not only change their meanings but sometimes disappear from common usage. In
the past, "earm" meant "wretched" and "leod" meant "people." The following words
found in Doctor Faustus are no longer current in English, but their meaning can
usually be gauged from the context in which they occur.
- at top speed
- immediately, soon
- it would appear, probably
- suits, fits
- cut short, abbreviated
- miserable person, wretch
- turmoil, noisy row
- 45 inches (103 centimeters)
- made famous forever
- willingly, gladly
- spirits. Old women's cats were often thought to be "familiars," devils
- skill in running
- create, beget
- great thanks
- express pleasure at
- wish, please
- clumsy men
- sweet wine
- muscatel wine
- pointed beards
- pray thee
- payment for
- cut, scratch
- carousal, drinking bout
- by God's blood
- lord, lordship
- by God's nails
- end, terminate
- small coin
- for this
- sky, heavens
- whatever, whatsoever
- hippocras, cordial wine
- by God's wounds
In addition, Marlowe could have assumed much of his audience was familiar with Latin
and the Bible. This is why he could make use of such Latin tags as "Stipendium peccati
mors est," meaning "The wages of sin are death."
Elizabethan verb forms differ from modern usage in three main ways:
- Questions and negatives could be formed without using "do/did," as when Faustus
Why waverest thou?
where today we would say: "Why do you hesitate?" Marlowe had the option of using forms
a and b whereas contemporary usage permits only the a forms:
What do you see? What see you?
What did you see? What saw you?
You do not look well. You look not well.
You did not look well. You looked not well.
- A number of past participles and past tense forms are used that would be ungrammatical
today. Among these are:
"writ" for "written":
...here's nothing writ.
"beholding" for "beholden":
...I am beholding
To the Bishop of Milan.
"cursen" for "accursed" and "eat" for "eaten":
...as I am a cursen man, he never left eating till he
had eat up all my load of hay.
- Archaic verb forms sometimes occur:
No Faustus, they be but fables.
Thou art damned
Thou needest not do that, for my mistress hath done it.
Marlowe and his contemporaries had the extra pronoun "thou," which could be used in
addressing equals or social inferiors. "You" was obligatory if more than one person
Come, German Valdes, and Cornelius
And make me blest with your sage conference.
It could also be used to indicate respect, as when Faustus tells the Emperor:
My gracious Lord, you do forget yourself.
Frequently, a person in power used "thou" to a subordinate but was addressed "you"
in return, as when the Clown agrees to serve Wagner at the end of Act I, Scene IV.
Clown: I will, sir. But hark you, master, will you teach me this
Wagner: Ay, sirrah, I'll teach thee to turn thyself to a dog.
Relative pronouns such as "which" or "that" could be omitted:
...'twas thy temptation
Hath robbed me of eternal happiness.
The royal plural "we" is used by the Pope, the Emperor, and Lucifer when they wish
to stress their power:
We will despise the Emperor for that deed.
Thrice-learned Faustus, welcome to our court.
Thus from infernal Dis do we ascend.
Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they are today and
so we find several uses in Doctor Faustus that would have to be modified in contemporary
speech. Among these are:
"of" for "by" in:
Till, swollen with cunning of a self-conceit
(Prologue) - "of" for "from" in:
Resolve me of all ambiguities
"on" for "of" in:
Ay, take it, and the devil give thee good on't.
"of" for "on" in:
They put forth questions of astrology.
(IV, The Chorus)
"unto" for "into" in:
...and I be changed
Unto some brutish beast.
- MULTIPLE NEGATION
Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and regards such utterances
as "I haven't none" as nonstandard. Marlowe often used two or more negatives for
emphasis. For instance, in
Why, thou canst not tell ne'er a word on it.
THE FAUST LEGEND AND MARLOWE
There really was a Faust, casting his magic spells about fifty years before Christopher
Marlowe wrote his play. Johannes Faustus, a German scholar of dubious reputation,
flourished between 1480 and 1540. Some of his contemporaries spoke of him as a faker
who lived by his wits, a medieval swindler. Others, more impressed, thought him a sorcerer
in league with evil spirits. Whatever else he may have been, he was certainly notorious.
A drunken vagabond, he was reported to have studied magic in the Polish city of Cracow. While some regarded him as a fool and a mountebank, others claimed that
he traveled about with a dog and a performing horse- both of which were really devils.
Soon after his death the "real" Dr. Faustus disappeared into the realm of legend,
and every story popularly told about wicked magicians was told about him. Faustus
became the scholar who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for universal knowledge
and magical power, and so was damned forever.
Stories like these weren't new- they had been popular for centuries. There was a legend
about Simon Magus, a wizard of early Christian times, who was said to have found
death and damnation, when he attempted to fly. Pope Sylvester II (314-335) was also
suspect. He knew so much that his contemporaries thought he must have sold his soul to
the devil to gain such knowledge.
During the Renaissance, the Faustus tales had a powerful impact. They dramatized the
tug-of-war between the admonitions of the church and the exciting possibilities of
knowledge suggested by the advance of science and the revival of classical learning.
All over Europe, inquisitive spirits found themselves in trouble with the conservative
clergy. In Italy, for instance, Galileo was accused of heresy for challenging the
Roman Catholic view of the heavens. In England, the free-thinking Sir Walter Raleigh
was investigated for atheism. And in Germany, adventurous scholars found themselves at
odds with the zealous spirit of the Protestant Reformation. Protestant theologians
thought that mankind's energies should be focused on God, the Bible, and salvation
By 1587, the German Faustbuch (Faustbook) had appeared, a collection of tales about
the wicked magician. The Protestant author makes it clear that Faustus got exactly
what he deserved for preferring human to "divine" knowledge. But theological considerations aside, these were marvelous stories. The book was enormously popular and was rapidly
translated into other languages, including English. However, the English Faustbook
wasn't published until 1592, a fact that creates some mystery for scholars who believe that Doctor Faustus was written in 1590.
Christopher Marlowe saw the dramatic potential of the story. He promptly used it as
the plot of his play, the first Faust drama, and possibly the best. Every incident
in the play seems taken from the Faustbuch, even the slapstick comedy scenes. The
attacks on the Roman Catholic church had also become part of the Protestant orthodoxy of
the tale. The poetry, however, is Marlowe's.
Since then, the story has been used many times, both comically and seriously. The
German poet Goethe turned Faust into a hero whose thirst for knowledge leads to
salvation. In the nineteenth century, Charles Gounod and Hector Berlioz wrote operas
about Faust. Shortly after World War II, the novelist Thomas Mann used the Faust story as
the basis of an allegory about the German people. More recently, the story was transformed
into the musical comedy Damn Yankees, in which the hero sells his soul to help his hometown baseball team win the pennant.
FORM AND STRUCTURE
Allowances must be made for the shattered form in which Doctor Faustus survives.
Originally, the play may have had the loose five-act structure suggested by the 1616
text. Or it may simply have been a collection of scenes or movements, as in the shorter
version of 1604. In fact, the act divisions in Doctor Faustus are the additions of
later editors. Scholars have made their own decisions about the play's probable cut-off
points. That's why no two editions of Doctor Faustus have identical act and scene
The genre of Doctor Faustus is the subject of critical debate. Some readers view
the play as an heroic tragedy where the hero is destroyed by a flaw in his character
but retains his tragic grandeur. Others believe Doctor Faustus is more of a morality
play in which the central character forfeits his claim to greatness through a deliberate
choice of evil.
Doctor Faustus most closely resembles the type of drama known in the Renaissance as
an atheist's tragedy. The atheist's tragedy had for its hero a hardened sinner, a
scoffer who boldly denied the existence of God. In such a play, the hero's cynical
disbelief brought about his downfall. His tragedy wasn't just death. It was also damnation.
For the edification of the audience, the hero died unrepentant, often with a curse
on his last breath, and one had the distinct impression that repentance would have
It is technically possible to diagram Doctor Faustus in a manner similar to Shakespearean
- ACT I: EXPOSITION
Faustus' ambitions are explored. He turns to magic to fulfill them.
- ACT II: RISING ACTION
Faustus summons Mephistophilis and signs a contract with hell.
He begins to regret his bargain.
- ACT III: CLIMAX
Faustus repents, but Lucifer holds him to his agreement. Faustus
reaffirms his bondage to hell.
- ACT IV: FALLING ACTION
Faustus wins fame and fortune through magical evocations.
His inner doubts remain.
- ACT V. CATASTROPHE
Faustus damns himself irrevocably by choosing Helen over heaven.
His final hour comes, and he is carried off by devils.
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
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