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Doctor Faustus
Christoper Marlowe

THE STORY, continued


Faustus is in his study, looking at the night sky. The sight of the heavens lit with stars reminds him of the glories he has sacrificed. Faustus' first instinct is to lash out at Mephistophilis. You did this to me, he tells the spirit angrily. Mephistophilis calmly denies the charge. No, Faustus. It was your own doing, not mine. Do you agree with the spirit? Is Faustus being unfair? Mephistophilis understands and tries to comfort Faustus with the thought that heaven isn't such a wonderful place after all.

Prove your theory, demands Faustus the philosopher. And the spirit gives him logical proof in an unexpected burst of enthusiasm for man. After all, heaven was made for man. Therefore, man must be "more excellent."

You might expect Faustus to agree with Mephistophilis. Faustus is just the type to put man at center stage. His whole rationale for denying God in the first place was his belief in human potential, human greatness- a typically Renaissance ideal. Now, if ever, is the time for a speech like Hamlet's "O, what a piece of work is man!" But you don't get such a speech from Faustus. What you get from this humanist-scholar is a purely Christian impulse to renounce magic and repent. Can God forgive him, hardened sinner that he is? As Faustus debates this vital question with himself, the angels come on stage for the third time.

The Good Angel assures Faustus that God will still forgive him. But, as usual, the Evil Angel has the stronger argument. God can't pity you, Faustus. You're a spirit, a demon. (Remember the terms of the contract.) You're not even a human being any more.

God would pity me, even if I were the devil himself, Faustus retorts, using strange language for an atheist. That is, God would pity me, if I'd repent. Ah, the Evil Angel throws out his parting shot. "But Faustus never shall repent." It turns out to be an accurate prophecy. Why doesn't Faustus repent? It's one of the great puzzles of the play. This is his second attempt at repentance and his second refusal. What is standing in his way?

Maybe Faustus isn't very sincere about repentance, and all this talk is lip service only. Some readers feel this way. Certainly there are traits inherent in Faustus' character that make repentance difficult for him. Pride is a problem. Faustus is too arrogant to readily admit his errors. Appetite also trips him up. Faustus lusts after the gleam of silk and the whiteness of a woman's arms. But God, in this still half-medieval world, demands austerity. For Faustus, penitence would mean the hair-shirt under a monkish robe and sandals in the winter snow.

Maybe the contract is the big stumbling block, as Lucifer intended. Faustus has told the Evil Angel that God can still pity him. But he doesn't really seem to believe it. Whenever Faustus thinks about salvation now, he is thrown into despair. He contemplates suicide, as if to rush to his inevitable fate.

All the while, Mephistophilis spins his web, pulling Faustus toward hell with his sweet magic tricks. The spirit gives Faustus just enough pleasure to keep him wondering if there's more. As the angels depart, Faustus relishes the memory of beautiful, ghostly concerts in his study. By Mephistophilis' arrangement, the great bards of ancient Greece have strummed their lyres for Faustus alone.

Perhaps, Faustus reasons, there's something to this diabolic life after all. Come, Mephistophilis, he says, throwing off his mood of depression, tell me about the stars.

In the discussion that follows, Mephistophilis presents Faustus with the common medieval view of the universe. It is known as the Ptolemaic system, in contrast to the Copernican view that we still accept today. In the Ptolemaic system, the Earth stood at the center of the universe, with the sun, planets, and stars circling around it. The universe was thought to be made up of nine concentric spheres, ascending from the Earth right up to God's Heaven. The spheres were those of the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the stars, and the primum mobile or first mover, the sphere which set all the other spheres in motion. Each sphere was supposed to have an angel presiding over it. In the text of the play, Faustus refers to the angel as a "dominion or intelligentia," a ruling power or intelligence. Beyond the spheres was God's empyrean, a heaven bathed in light. Some people believed (it is the meaning of Faustus' question, "Is there not coelum igneum, etc.?") that there were eleven spheres, adding a heaven of fire and one of crystal to the scheme. It was a nice, orderly universe, with the spheres nestled in each other's arms, making sweet music as they turned. What Mephistophilis can't help describing to Faustus is a majestic sweep of stars and spheres that could only have been imagined by the mind of God.

Notice that Mephistophilis volunteers very little information about the heavens. Faustus must pry for information from the spirit. "Tush! These are freshmen's suppositions," the scholar protests. What Mephistophilis makes such a great show of disclosing, Faustus has learned years ago in a course called Introduction to Astronomy. Ask yourself why the spirit is being so evasive. Does he begrudge Faustus a share of his secret knowledge? Or does he sense that the stars may be a dangerous topic of conversation?

Faced with this coy cosmic voyager, Faustus feels a tremendous sense of frustration. Imagine a modern scientist talking to a visitor from outer space who knows- but who won't say- what a black hole really looks like or what kinds of life exist among the stars. Faustus wants to know, for example, why such phenomena as eclipses occur at varying intervals, if the whole system of spheres turns on a single axle-tree. The sun and the moon, he reasons, should always be in the same relative positions, as they spin around the earth.

Mephistophilis hedges. He retreats into Latin and reels off a pat academic formula, arguing that the spheres turn at different velocities.

"Well, I am answered," mutters Faustus, meaning that he isn't answered at all. Here is hell again, dealing with him in half measures and half-kept promises. But Faustus grasps the real point of this lesson in astronomy. He's been wondering in silence how this whole great system of spheres came into being. And now he asks Mephistophilis, "Who made the world?"

The spirit has seen this coming, and he absolutely refuses to answer the question. But Faustus hardly needs Mephistophilis to tell him. God made the world, the God he doubted, the God whose existence is proven by the spirit's grim silence. If there is no God, why should His name be banned in the kingdom of hell?

Forget about Heaven, Mephistophilis warns. Think about hell, Faustus. That's where you're going. "Remember this!" he calls out while waving the blood-signed contract in Faustus' face. But Faustus has finally, inevitably, broken down. He falls to his knees calling to Christ, his Savior. Only it isn't Christ who answers Faustus' call. It is Lucifer who emerges from a trap door on stage, with Belzebub by his side. You're mine, Faustus, the monarch of hell proclaims. You gave your soul to me, and I have come to claim you.

Lucifer's appearance comes at a highly sensitive moment. Just as Faustus cries out to God, the arch-fiend arrives. Some spectators might wish that Marlowe had sent the Good Angel flying to Faustus' side, but instead he sends Lucifer, restless with purpose.

What's the message? Is Marlowe saying that people who play with matches get burned? Faustus has chosen to unleash the forces of hell. And now he falls victim to powers beyond his control. Or is Marlowe making a broader and more devastating statement about the presence of demons and the absence of God in this world? Men cry out in need. And God stays in his heaven silent, while the devil pays house calls.

Faustus takes one look at his visitors and caves in. This man, with dreams of being a king, trembles like a slave before the regent of hell. Faustus starts to babble outrageous things about pulling down churches and murdering priests.

Lucifer is pleased. Now that he is again sure of Faustus, he arranges some entertainment to take the unhappy scholar's mind off himself. This is the second diversion hell has created for Faustus. In this play, diversions are like tranquilizers. They are hell's handy remedy for sorrow and stress.

Lucifer and Faustus witness a pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride, the sin which felled the angels, is the leader of the pack. The rest follow in a grimly comic review of human vice.

The Seven Deadly Sins are Pride, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Lust, and Sloth. These were called "the deadly sins" because, in church dogma, all other sins were supposed to stem from them. Marlowe borrowed the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins from the medieval morality plays. Often, in medieval drama, the sins provided a comic interlude, as they do here. At the very least, they were human traits which all spectators could identify in themselves.

Faustus converses with all the sins, but especially with Gluttony. Can you imagine why Gluttony might be his favorite? After hearing their stories, he dismisses them with a wave of the hand, as if he saw in this parade of vices no particular application to himself.

In spite of their crassness, the Seven Deadly Sins are a thorough delight to Faustus. "O this feeds my soul!" he exults, when the last of them goes from the stage.

Why do some regard this pageant as a turning point for Faustus? One clue to help you phrase your answer is that we hear no more about God from Faustus until the very end of the play.


Robin has stolen one of Faustus' conjuring books and is feeling very self-important. His job is to care for the horses at the inn, but he can't be bothered with such trifles. He orders Dick, another clown, to walk the horses for him. (In some editions of the play, Dick is called Rafe or Ralph.)

The semi-literate Robin pores over his book, breaking into a sweat as he tries to figure it out. "A by itself," he drones, repeating a child's formula for learning the alphabet. Then he manages to recognize a word. "T... h... e." Robin is making progress, when Dick saunters over to see what the book is all about. A conjuring book, ha, says Dick. I bet you can't read a word of it.

Can't I though? Robin retorts. I'll work such magic that I won't need a job. I'll live like a king, and I'll get you free wine in every tavern in Wittenberg.

This is magic Dick can understand. He's won over by Robin's grand promises. The two clowns go off together to get roaring drunk, leaving the horses unexercised and the devil to pay the bill.

Magic, you see, has a strange effect on people. In Act I, when Wagner learned how to conjure, it was no longer good enough to be Faustus' servant. Wagner wanted to have a servant of his own. Now Robin has similar ideas. He doesn't see why he should slave for an innkeeper when he can summon a demon to provide all his wants.


The Chorus returns to fill you in on Faustus' activities over the years. Go back for a moment to the Chorus' speech in Act I. Has his attitude toward Faustus changed? In the opening speech of the play, the Chorus seemed to disapprove of Faustus. Now you just may hear a note of admiration in his voice.

Look at the exploits the Chorus has to relate. Faustus- who couldn't get a straight answer from Mephistophilis about the heavens- now flies among the stars himself in a dragon-powered chariot. Faustus soars higher than an astronaut, right up to the ninth sphere of the universe. And while he's up there, he gets a chance to correct the maps of Earth. These are high adventures, indeed. For once, hell has lived up to its promises.

Marlowe now maneuvers Faustus' chariot into a landing pattern and brings the scholar-magician skimming down over the Alps into Rome.


In Elizabethan England, Rome was the target of many criticisms. In those days, the Vatican wasn't just a religious institution. It was a political power and a hotbed of European Catholic plots against Protestant England. For years, Rome had incited English Catholics to rebel against Queen Elizabeth and to place the Roman Catholic, Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne. Rome had also been involved in Philip of Spain's 1588 attempt to invade England by sea. Not surprisingly, Elizabethan audiences roared their approval whenever Catholic clergymen were portrayed as greedy monsters or as stuttering idiots. This scene, then, offers a sample of Catholic-baiting. But first, Marlowe provides an interesting exchange between Faustus and Mephistophilis in their airborne chariot.

Faustus is calmer now than when you saw him last. He has come to terms with his situation. He intends to make the best of a bad bargain. He tells Mephistophilis that all he wants is to get the most pleasure possible out of his remaining time on Earth. The spirit approves. He praises Faustus' attitude. There's no use, he agrees, in crying over spilt milk. Mephistophilis has known for centuries that life means the graceful acceptance of limits. Now, Faustus seems to know it too.

What kind of relationship do you sense between Faustus and Mephistophilis in this scene? Faustus calls the spirit, "Sweet Mephistophilis, gentle Mephistophilis" in a way that could mean affection- or fear. And the spirit seems happy, in an austere way, to be sightseeing at Faustus' side. Is there a real bond between the two? Or only a false camaraderie that dissolves the instant Faustus defies the spirit's authority? What evidence can you offer in support of your opinion?

Faustus and Mephistophilis have come to Rome at a time of papal festivities. The Pope is celebrating his victory over a rival. (The collision between the Pope and Bruno, described in this scene, belongs only to the 1616 text.) A magnificent papal procession enters. The red-robed cardinals carry great jewelled crosses. The dark-robed monks and friars chant their prayers. The Pope follows, leading a prisoner in chains. The prisoner is Saxon Bruno, a German pretender to the papal throne. In a ruthless display of power, the Pope climbs to his throne on his conquered rival's back.

During the Middle Ages, Roman Catholic pontiffs were often at war with secular monarchs and with each other. Sometimes there were two rival candidates for the papacy, and neither was willing to back down gracefully. So the question was settled by force of arms, with secular kings backing one candidate or the other. That's what happens in Doctor Faustus. King Raymond of Hungary has supported Pope Adrian, while the Holy Roman Emperor (a German king despite his fancy title) has backed the Antipope Bruno. When a ruler like the Holy Roman Emperor defied the Pope, the pontiff had a weapon to use. It was called the "interdict," a papal curse laid upon rulers and all the people in their domains. While the interdict lasted, all church sacraments were denied throughout the entire kingdom. That meant no one could be married by a priest, no one could receive holy communion, and none of the dying could receive last rites. After a few grim years of this treatment, kings sometimes bowed to the pressure of their people and submitted to the church. When Adrian arrogantly threatens to depose the Emperor "and curse all the people that submit to him," he is talking about using the interdict.

Faustus decides, for sheer mischief's sake, to intervene in this clash of the pontiffs. He will prick a hole in proud Adrian's balloon. As the cardinals troop off in solemn conclave to decide Bruno's fate, Faustus sends Mephistophilis to put them all to sleep. While the cardinals snore away, Faustus and Mephistophilis tiptoe among them and steal two of their gowns. Disguised as cardinals in brilliant red silk, Faustus and the spirit appear before the Pope. Dolefully they declare Bruno to be a Lollard (a Protestant heretic) and recommend that he be burnt at the stake.

The Pope agrees. To Mephistophilis' glee, he and Faustus receive the papal blessing. "Was never devil thus blessed before!" the spirit laughs. Faustus and Mephistophilis are given charge of the prisoner Bruno and are told to lock him up in a tower. But they have other plans for the papal pretender. They spirit him over the Alps to the safety of the Holy Roman Emperor's court.


As part of his victory celebration, the Pope is holding a banquet. Servants enter to lay out sumptuous food. Faustus and Mephistophilis reappear on stage. They have shed their borrowed cardinals' robes and now make themselves invisible in order to wreak havoc at the feast.

The Pope ushers in his guests of honor, King Raymond of Hungary and the Archbishop of Reims. (In the 1604 text, the Pope's guest is the Cardinal of Lorraine.) One of the Vatican cardinals timidly interrupts. Excuse me, your holiness, he asks. Don't you want to hear our decision about the heretic Bruno? I've already heard it, the Pope answers, dismissing the cardinal with a wave of his hand. When the poor cardinal persists, the Pope suspects treachery. What do you mean you didn't pass sentence on Bruno? And what do you mean you can't produce the prisoner? the Pope demands.

The Pope has good reason to be upset, but being the perfect host, he has the cardinal hauled off in chains without interrupting the feast. Graciously, he offers a choice bit of meat to King Raymond, explaining that the beautiful roast had been sent to him by the Archbishop of Milan.

As Raymond reaches out with his fork, the meat suddenly disappears. It is snatched away from the Pope's hand by the invisible Faustus. The startled pontiff looks around, but of course he sees nothing. He tries again with another "dainty dish," then a cup of wine. Both disappear in the same astonishing way.

"Lollards!" screams the Pope. (Those wicked Protestants are capable of anything.) The Archbishop suspects a ghost, and the Pope agrees. To exorcise the evil spirit, the Pope frantically crosses himself.

Faustus, annoyed by the holy sign sprinkled like salt all over his food, boxes the Pope on the ear. The Pope, wailing that he has been slain, is carried off by a group of distracted cardinals. The feast breaks up in disarray. The friars come on stage to curse the unseen spirit in their midst with bell, book, and candle.

Bell, book, and candle were the symbolic elements of the rite of excommunication. They reflected the last words of the solemn ceremony: "Do the book, quench the candle, ring the bell." The friars' dirge that closes this scene is a grimly comic echo of the Black Mass performed by Faustus in Act II, Scene I. Faustus turns the phrase bell, book, and candle "forward and backward," just as he has done earlier with the letters that make up the name of God.

The Vatican banquet is sheer slapstick comedy, and many readers are disturbed by its presence in the play. You have moved from the flickering hell fires of the early scenes into the world of Laurel and Hardy. After making you shudder at his black magician, Marlowe suddenly invites you to guffaw.

What is Marlowe's purpose? Is he demeaning Faustus, deliberately making his hero trivial in your eyes? Look, Marlowe may be saying, here's a man who bargained away his soul for superhuman power. And what does he do with that power, once he gets it? He uses it to play silly tricks on the Pope.

If this is Marlowe's message, then this scene has a Christian moral. Faustus takes up with the devil and is debased by the company he keeps. You can trace Faustus' decline, within the act itself, from the pursuits of star travel to his mindless clowning at the Vatican feast.

Other readers see a different interpretation of Marlowe's sudden change from seriousness to farce. The real clown of the Vatican banquet, they note, isn't Faustus at all. It's the Pope. If anything, Marlowe is making an anti-Christian statement. He's saying that churchmen are pompous fools. He uses a Roman Catholic example because it was open season on Catholics in the England of the 1590s. But the truth is, he means all churchmen, Catholics and Protestants alike.


At last sight, Robin was in search of a tavern where he promised his sidekick Dick to conjure up spirits, both the kind you work magic with and the kind you drink. Now you find the two clowns fleeing for their lives, with the vintner (or wine-seller) in hot pursuit. Robin has stolen a wine cup which he pawns off, in a bit of stage fooling, on Dick. When challenged by the vintner, Robin is outraged and plays innocent. Cup? Never saw your cup in my life. Frisk me, if you like. Like Faustus, Robin has acquired the art of making wine cups vanish into thin air.

The vintner, sure of his man but cheated of his evidence, grows angrier by the minute. Feeling the situation get out of hand, Robin whips out his conjuring book. Abracadabra, he mutters (or the Latin equivalent). The spell works, and Mephistophilis appears.

Robin feels a rush of elation, but Mephistophilis is thoroughly disgusted. Here he is, servant to the great prince of hell, whipped around the world at the whim of these ruffians. He will teach the clowns a lesson. With a wave of his wand, Mephistophilis turns Robin into an ape and Dick into a dog. The pair will make up a circus act, the ape riding on the dog's back and performing silly tricks.

There are penalties for meddling with the powers of hell, though the clowns are too thoughtless to feel them. Robin and Dick scamper off stage, apparently delighted with their fate.


The Chorus gives you a glimpse of the human side of Faustus. His friends have missed him while he's been away- which may seem odd since Faustus has seemed like a loner.

After his travels abroad, Faustus stops home for a rest. All this flying about the world has proved to be bone-wearying. Magic or no magic, Faustus is tired.

Faustus' friends greet him with affection and awe. Here's a man who knows the heavens first-hand. Faustus walks the streets of Wittenberg with an aura of star dust about him. His fame as an astrologer (astronomer) spreads throughout the land. He is even invited to the Holy Roman Emperor's court.


The court is in a state of excitement. The Anti-pope Bruno has just materialized from nowhere. (Remember Faustus and Mephistophilis whisked him out of Rome.) And Faustus follows hard on Bruno's heels with the promise of some fabulous entertainment.

Faustus has told the Emperor he will raise the shade (that is, ghost) of Alexander the Great. Faustus intends to summon from the underworld the ghost of the greatest conqueror the world has ever known.

Alexander was king of Greece and Macedonia in the fourth century B.C. He was called Alexander the Great because, during his brief reign, he extended Greek rule all the way to Egypt and India. He was a young, handsome, and fearless ruler, considered by the ancient world to be almost a god. Darius of Persia was Alexander's enemy. The two kings clashed in battle when Darius' army blocked Alexander's path to conquest in the East. Alexander's paramour or lover is unnamed. But she is apparently the lovely Thais, whose beauty was celebrated in ancient Greek poetry and song.

Martino and Frederick, two gentlemen-in-waiting, are bursting with expectation. Nothing like this has ever been seen in Germany before. But there are skeptics about the court. Benvolio, in a nightcap, recovering from a hangover, yawns at the whole business. Haven't they all had enough of magic lately, what with Bruno's whirlwind arrival from Rome? How can you bear to miss the show? Frederick asks Benvolio. Well, I suppose I'll watch it from my window here, Benvolio replies without enthusiasm. That is, if I don't go back to bed first. (The entire Benvolio episode is found only in the 1616 text of Doctor Faustus.)


The Emperor praises Faustus abundantly for his role in Bruno's rescue. "Wonder of men, renowned magician, / Thrice-learned Faustus, welcome." The Emperor speaks the flowery, extravagant language of the court, and Faustus responds in kind.

The magician promises the Emperor that his magic charms will "pierce through / The ebon gates of ever-burning hell." Benvolio, at his window, sneers at Faustus' words. What a silly, transparent boast! Admittedly, Faustus' language is pompous. But is he really boasting? He does mean to raid the underworld for Alexander's ghost. (Faustus, you recall, makes no distinction between the classic underworld, Elysium, and the fiery Christian hell.)

When the Emperor asks to behold Alexander the Great and the fabulous Thais, Benvolio yawns again. If Faustus can produce these two, he mutters to himself, let me be turned into a stag. Benvolio's remark is meant as an aside. But Faustus overhears it. He promises the skeptical knight that he shall get his wish.

Faustus holds everyone in court but Benvolio in a state of breathless expectation. Trumpets sound. Alexander the Great and Darius enter with drawn swords. Alexander slays his enemy and places Darius' crown on Thais' lovely brow.

The Emperor is ecstatic. He jumps up from his throne and rushes over to embrace Alexander. Before he can do so, he is stopped by Faustus' cautioning hand. The figures he has summoned, Faustus warns, are "but shadows, not substantial." They can be seen, but not touched, nor can they be spoken to. (Remember Faustus' warning when Helen's spirit appears in Act V.)

The Emperor wants to prove the reality of these ghosts. Since he cannot touch them, he has another test in mind. He has heard that Thais had a single imperfection, a mole on her neck. May he look? Yes, the mole is there. Faustus has raised Thais as she was, warts and all, accurate to the last detail.

Yet these shades seem only half real. Although they are Alexander and Thais to the life, they are airy things which cannot interact with flesh-and-blood human beings. They play their silent parts as if they were inside a thick glass cage. So perhaps they have entertainment value only, and Faustus is wasting his vast power on a fairly trivial trick.

The Emperor is impressed. Are you? You will have to decide whether this feat of Faustus' is just a circus act or a display of power worthy of a great wizard.

Faustus now turns his attention to Benvolio. Look, he points at the knight, snoring at his windowsill. Benvolio's head is weighed down by a heavy pair of stag's horns.

In Elizabethan England, horns on a man's head were a sign that he was a cuckold. In other words, his wife had been unfaithful to him. The Elizabethans did not sympathize with cuckolds. They regarded wronged husbands as figures of ridicule. Benvolio's plight is terrible, indeed. Not only has he lost his normal appearance, he's become an object of raillery for the entire court. Those horns are Benvolio's punishment for skepticism. Faustus, a skeptic himself on certain subjects, does not take it kindly when people disbelieve his magic.

As Benvolio awakes and feels his head with horror, Faustus addresses him with icy mirth. "O, say not so, sir. The Doctor has no skill, / No art, no cunning" to put a pair of stag horns on your head. Faustus is really rubbing it in, when the Emperor intervenes. He requests that Faustus (an Emperor's request is a command) restore Benvolio to his normal shape.


Benvolio promises to take revenge on Faustus. He convinces his friends, Martino and Frederick, to help him. They lay ambush for Faustus in a wood.

Either Faustus guesses their plans or his demons tip him off, for he enters the wood wearing a false head on his shoulders. The ambushers attack and strike off what they assume to be Faustus' head. They admire their grisly trophy and plan to wreak all sorts of indignities on it.

Faustus, of course, isn't dead at all. He's merely lying in wait for Benvolio, Frederick, and Martino to make complete fools of themselves. Then he picks himself off the ground, keeping his hood pulled down over his shoulders, and speaks to the terrified conspirators. Where, they wonder in panic, is his voice coming from?

The "headless" magician informs the appalled knights that their efforts to kill him have been in vain. For twenty-four years, until his contract with the devil expires, he can't be killed or injured. He leads a charmed life.

Faustus summons his spirits (notice there are three of them now) to drag the ambushers through the wood. Throw Martino into a lake, he orders. Drag Frederick through the briars. Hurl Benvolio off a cliff.

As you've probably noticed, there's a lot of roughhouse and ghoulish stage business in this scene. What do you think is the point of it all? This second encounter with Benvolio doesn't advance the plot, and it doesn't tell you anything new about Faustus. You've seen him get the better of Benvolio before. If you can't think of a point, then you'll understand why some readers suspect this scene isn't Marlowe's. The mindless horror, plus those additional demons, may point to a collaborator's work.


Benvolio, Martino, and Frederick have taken quite a beating at the hands of Faustus' spirits. They drag themselves out of the mud and briars to find that each of them now wears a pair of stag horns on his head. They steal away to Benvolio's castle, where they can hide their shame and live unobserved by the world. The horns are permanent now, since there is no merciful Emperor around to make Faustus take them off.

If you have read Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, you may want to compare Benvolio's fate with that of Bottom the weaver. In Shakespeare's play, the mischievous fairies give Bottom an ass' head to wear through the long summer night. But in the morning, they restore Bottom to his original appearance. In contrast, Benvolio and his friends are left to wear their stag horns forever. Shakespeare, with his love of harmony and his tenderness even for fools, restores the world to normal. Marlowe, perhaps a crueler spirit, leaves undone his magician's devilish work.


A horse-courser, or horse-trader, approaches Faustus with an offer to buy his horse. In Elizabethan times, horse-traders were known for being cheats and sharp dealers. The trader offers Faustus forty dollars (German coins) for his horse but apparently the price is low. Faustus suggests fifty, but the horse-trader pleads poverty, so Faustus agrees to the deal.

As the trader starts to lead the horse away, Faustus stops him with a warning. Ride the horse anywhere, but not into water. Why not? asks the suspicious trader. Faustus offers no explanation, but the reason is simple. The horse is a demon spirit which will vanish in water.

The trader suspects some hidden power in the horse that Faustus didn't want to reveal. He rides the animal into a pond. Two seconds later, he's left sitting on top of a wet bundle of hay.

So the sharp dealer is outsmarted. Was Faustus being honest with the man when he told him not to ride the horse into water? Or was he deliberately arousing the trader's curiosity, knowing full well the man would take the first opportunity to satisfy it? The question is of interest because it makes you wonder how much humanity is left in Faustus. As soon as the trader departs, Faustus has one of those moments of introspection which occur so rarely now. "What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die?" Possibly, Faustus has remembered that we are all human beings condemned to die. Perhaps he has felt a fleeting sense of brotherhood with the poor trader.

More likely, however, Faustus has intended all along to cheat the horse dealer. He's devised this elaborate trick to distract his thoughts from approaching death. The faster Faustus runs, the less time he has to think. Whenever he stops his feverish activity, as he does for a moment now, the terror comes upon him. Faustus escapes his fear this time by falling asleep.

The wet horse-trader returns in a rage to demand his money back. He finds Faustus asleep on a chair, and he tugs at the magician's leg to wake him up. To the trader's horror, Faustus' leg comes off. (Remember, Faustus has a demon's body now, and he can play macabre tricks with it.) The trader flees in terror with Faustus yelling "Murder!" at the top of his lungs. Faustus roars with laughter at his joke. He has the trader's money, and the trader has no horse.

Is this scene funny? Are you supposed to laugh with Faustus at the horse-trader's rout? Or are you supposed to be shocked and saddened at the level to which Faustus has sunk?


The horse-trader meets the clowns, Robin and Dick, in a nearby tavern. (This episode is found only in the 1616 text.) The trader is still fuming about his vanished horse. He tells his story, but he changes a few details to make himself out a hero.

Know what I did to pay Faustus back for his nasty trick? the horse-trader confides. I attacked him while he was sleeping, and I yanked off his leg. No kidding? says Dick. I'm glad to hear it. That damn demon of his made me look like an ape.

A carter or cart driver joins the party. He has a weird tale of his own to tell. The carter has met Faustus on the road to Wittenberg, where the magician offered him a small sum of money for all the hay he could eat. The carter, realizing that men don't eat hay, accepted the sum, whereupon Faustus devoured his whole wagon-load. It's really a grotesque story. Faustus' runaway appetites seem to have turned him into a fairy-tale monster, like a troll.

The carter, the horse-trader, and the clowns continue to drink ale. Full of false courage, they decide to find the magician and give him a rough time about his missing leg.


Faustus has been summoned to the Duke of Vanholt's castle, where he's busy showing off his magic arts. He asks the Duchess, who is pregnant, if there is any special food she craves. The Duchess admits she has a yen for grapes. Only it's January, she sighs. Snow covers the ground, and the grapes have long since vanished from the vines.

Faustus replies graciously that grapes are no trouble at all. He sends Mephistophilis whizzing around the globe to warmer climates. The spirit returns in a twinkling of an eye with a ripe cluster of grapes.

This scene asks you to exercise some historical imagination. In the twentieth century, we have electric freezers for storing summer fruits and vegetables during the winter. But the Elizabethans didn't. In their eating habits, the Elizabethans were strictly subject to the seasons. With that point in mind, what do you think of Faustus' latest trick? Is it just some good-natured hocus-pocus that you shouldn't take too seriously? Or is Faustus doing something rather impressive by thumbing his nose at the calendar?

The issue at stake, as you've probably guessed, is Faustus' dignity. Either he retains the heroic stature he had in the early scenes, or he deteriorates as he wades deeper and deeper into evil- and into the illusions of Lucifer's hell.

You can make an argument for Faustus' steady decline that runs something like this. In Act II, Faustus wanted knowledge and questioned Mephistophilis about the stars. In Act III, Faustus opted for experience and enjoyed the delights of travel. But by Act IV, Faustus has become obsessed with food. All he can think about is something to eat- hay for himself, "dainties" for pregnant women, and so on. In other words, Faustus began with noble aims, but under the influence of demons, he's gone steadily downhill. This leads you back to the play's Christian moral.

The rowdy crew from the tavern descends on the castle of Vanholt. They bang on the gates and loudly call for Faustus to show himself. The Duke is shocked and wants to call the police. But Faustus says no. Let the louts be admitted. We'll all have a good laugh at their expense.

The noisy, snow-splattered group invades the quiet stone halls of the castle. They are drunk, and the horse-trader calls loudly for beer. Then he starts ribbing Faustus about his supposed wooden leg. (Remember, the trader boasted in the tavern about the way he injured Faustus by pulling off his leg. The horse-trader, the carter, and the clowns all believe Faustus is crippled.)

The trader wants to humiliate Faustus by publicizing his deformity. Stop denying you have a wooden leg, he explodes. I know I pulled your leg off while you were asleep. Faustus lifts his robe to reveal two very healthy limbs. The tavern crew breaks into noisy protests. Faustus decides it's time to silence the fools. With a wave of his hand, he strikes each of them dumb in mid-sentence.


A puzzled Wagner appears on stage. He suspects his master is dying. Faustus has made a will leaving Wagner all his property. What troubles Wagner is that Faustus doesn't behave as if he is dying. He doesn't lie in bed, for instance, and send for the priest. Instead, he drinks the night away with his cronies from Wittenberg. What's Faustus up to?

The scholars who are Faustus' guests this night beg him for some after-dinner entertainment. They have heard of Faustus' reputation for raising the shades of the dead. They want to see the most beautiful woman who has ever lived- Helen of Troy.

Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, fell in love with Helen, wife of the Greek king, Menelaus. With the help of the goddess of love, Paris stole Helen from her husband's side. The enraged Menelaus called upon the other Grecian kings to help him avenge his honor and win back his wife. The Greeks set sail for Troy, and for ten years, laid siege to the city (this was the Trojan War). Finally, unable to win a decisive battle, they entered Troy by treachery (hidden inside the Trojan Horse) and burned the city to the ground. The Trojan War was the subject of Homer's epic, The Iliad. The Renaissance admired Homer above all other poets. In this scene, Faustus acts like a truly great teacher by bringing the greatest epic of the classic world to life.

As Helen walks across the stage, the scholars sing her praises. She is incomparably beautiful, "the pride of Nature's works." As the scholars' words suggest, Helen represents the glories of this world, set against the glories of the next. With her bright eyes and radiant hair, she is Nature's ultimate challenge to God.

An Old Man comes on stage now to present God's side of the case. You must imagine what he looks like to understand what he means to Faustus. The Old Man is stooped over and walks with a cane. He has wrinkles, gray hair, and weary eyes.

Though Faustus is twenty-four years older now than he was at the start of the play, he shows none of these signs of age. His contract with the devil has protected him. Faustus' demon body is untouched by the indignities of time.

Yet the Old Man's eyes shine with a light of faith that captures Faustus' attention. When the Old Man speaks, Faustus listens respectfully. There is no scoffing from the magician now.

The Old Man gently scolds Faustus for the magic which has lured him away from God. So far, he tells Faustus, you have sinned like a man. "Do not persevere in it like a devil." He means that Faustus still has a human soul and can be forgiven by God.

The Old Man's words tear through the veil of illusion that magic has created in this Wittenberg house. They set off a final struggle in Faustus, though, as in Act II, Faustus at first despairs at the very idea of salvation.

You might imagine how he feels after all those years of denying God and serving Lucifer- all the favors he has had from hell. How can he back out of his bargain now? "Hell claims its right," a right which Faustus acknowledges. And he will do hell right by killing himself.

Suicide is a mortal sin which will damn Faustus just as surely as the expiration of his contract with Lucifer. As Faustus is well aware, hell is not at all fussy about the manner in which it acquires his soul.

Faustus reaches for the dagger which Mephistophilis- no friendly spirit now- puts in his hand. The Old Man intercedes. He tells Faustus not to despair and to remember God's mercy. He points to the sky overhead. Look, an angel hovers there, ready to fill your soul with grace. Faustus looks up. Does he see an angel too? Or is the air vacant to his eyes?

Whatever he sees, Faustus calms down and thanks his advisor for his good counsel. The Old Man shuffles off, leaving Faustus to his conscience- and to Mephistophilis.

The spirit is right there to threaten Faustus with torture if he so much as thinks of repentance. "Revolt," he orders Faustus (he means from these thoughts of God), "or I'll in piecemeal tear thy flesh." Courage has never been one of the scholar's strong points, and he pales at the threat. He urges Mephistophilis to turn on the Old Man. Torture him. Him! Not me! Faustus pleads.

Mephistophilis shrugs his shoulders. I can hurt the Old Man's body, I suppose, but I can't touch his soul. However, anything to please.

And may I have Helen? Faustus asks, his thoughts abandoning the grace he has been offered for the beautiful shade who has just crossed the stage. I'll be back with her, Mephistophilis promises, "in a twinkling of an eye." (That phrase again suggests a magician's sleight of hand, when the audience barely blinks.) The caresses of the most beautiful woman in history will be Faustus' last diversion and the final payment hell will make for his soul.

As Helen returns, Faustus greets her with a speech that makes you wonder if she isn't worth the price:

"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium [Troy]?"

Did Helen cause the destruction of a city, the agonies of war, the death of ancient heroes? Who can doubt it? For such beauty as this, Troy was well lost.

Helen dazzles Faustus. Her radiance seems to bring tears to his eyes, so that he describes not a woman but the shimmering effect of light. Helen outshines the evening stars. She is brighter than flaming Jove, the king of the gods, when he dallied in the arms of nymphs whose very names (Semele and Arethusa) sound like all the pleasures of love.

"Sweet Helen," Faustus murmurs in ecstasy, "make me immortal with a kiss." He moves to embrace her. As Faustus kisses Helen, he cries, "Her lips suck forth my soul!" Possibly this is a lover's rhapsody, or a disturbing hint that Helen may be a succuba (demon).

A succuba was a demon spirit who assumed human form to have intercourse with men. Intercourse with demons was an unpardonable sin in the eyes of the church. If Helen is a succuba, then Faustus, by claiming her as his lover, is beyond redemption. When he says, "Her lips suck forth my soul!" he is being quite literal. That's just what her lips are doing.

The Old Man, who has been watching this romantic interlude from the wings, hurls damnation at Faustus like an Old Testament prophet. He is set upon by devils. Torture is the test of his faith which he passes with flying colors. Heaven opens its gates to welcome him.

Faustus sweeps Helen off stage in his arms. At best, he has chosen worldly beauty over other-worldly grace. At worst, he holds a creature whose fairness disguises an ugly moral reality. As the Old Man enters heaven by the straight and narrow gate, Faustus takes the primrose path to hell.

Yet, you should ask yourself how deeply you quarrel with Faustus' choice. Suppose a religious advisor warned you against a passion for the loveliest woman or the handsomest man in the world. What would you do about it?

Admittedly, Faustus doesn't love Helen in any meaningful sense. He is infatuated with physical looks. But is Faustus' response to Helen a sign of gross physical appetite- or of a moving sensitivity to beauty? That's an important question because whichever it is, it's what damns Faustus in the end.


In the 1616 text, Lucifer and Belzebub enter to watch Faustus' final hours. They stand on a balcony above the stage, looking down at the scene to come. The two princes of hell make a suggestive picture. The devils are on top of the world, running the show.

Faustus comes from his study, where he has completed a new will. The scholars of Wittenberg greet him with concern. They have come expecting the usual food and good cheer. Instead, they find a white-faced Faustus, the somber testament of a will in his hand.

Are you sick? they ask Faustus. Maybe it's only a bit of indigestion, one scholar suggests. ("Surfeit," the word he uses, means overindulgence of the appetite. Not a bad diagnosis of Faustus' trouble.)

Part of Faustus yearns toward these companions. "Ah, my sweet chamber-fellow," he turns to one of them who, years ago, shared his dormitory. "Had I lived with thee"- had I stayed with the common herd of scholars- "then had I lived still."

But part of Faustus insists on isolation, exclusivity. He takes a certain pride in the enormity of his sin. The serpent who tempted Eve may be forgiven, he says, but not Faustus. The magician will be great to the last, if great only in his offense.

The scholars give Faustus the usual advice. Pray, man. Turn to God. But these are really just platitudes. The scholars lack the wisdom to rise to the occasion. Finally, they withdraw into the next room, leaving Faustus alone to die. As in the morality plays, the friends of Everyman abandon him on the path to the grave.

In the 1616 text, there is a last exchange between Faustus and Mephistophilis. Faustus accuses the spirit of having put temptation in his way. "Bewitching fiend," he cries. "You're the one who's robbed me of paradise."

Faustus made this accusation once before (see II, iii), and Mephistophilis had denied it. But now the spirit freely admits the charge. Yes, it was all my doing, Faustus. And one of my most brilliant jobs. You almost slipped away from me while you were reading the Bible. But I made sure you found no hope there. (Remember those two Biblical passages which, when read together, seemed to prove to Faustus that he was doomed? Mephistophilis is saying he made sure Faustus read those passages back-to-back.)

This is quite an admission on the spirit's part. And for some readers, it casts long shadows over the play. If Mephistophilis stood unseen (and as yet unsummoned) at Faustus' elbow, turning the leaves of the Bible, who knows what other nasty tricks he has played? Switched a succuba for the shade of Helen, no doubt. Perhaps even sent Valdes and Cornelius to call. Is Faustus responsible for any of his actions? Or has he been just a puppet all this time, with Mephistophilis pulling the strings?

To what degree, after all, has Faustus been in control of his fate? It's not an easy question. You can cite plenty of evidence in the play for free will. The Old Man's warning, for instance, makes sense only if Faustus is free to accept the grace he is offered, free to choose the Old Man's way. But you can also argue that Faustus is right in his feeling that he's been doomed all along. Mephistophilis' speech points in this direction. So does Lucifer's unexpected arrival (II, ii), when Faustus desperately calls on Christ.

Still in the 1616 text, Faustus is now shown the heaven he has forfeited and the hell he has earned. As sweet music plays, a heavenly throne descends toward the stage. The Good Angel appears and tells Faustus, Ah, if you had only listened to me, there you would be seated like the saints in glory.

The throne hovers above Faustus' head, within his vision, but forever out of reach. And now, a trap door on stage opens, revealing hell. The Evil Angel makes Faustus look down into the burning pit, where grinning devils are torturing the damned. As Faustus turns away in horror, the clock strikes the eleventh hour of Faustus' last day on earth.

Faustus' final soliloquy runs fifty-nine lines, one for every minute of the hour that remains. Time is the subject of the speech, as Faustus tries frantically to stop time or at least to slow it down. He calls to the stars to halt in the sky and to the sun to rise again in the west, bringing back the precious day.

The poignant speech replays the heroic themes of Act I, only this time in a sad minor key. Faustus wanted to be a god, to command "all things that move between the quiet poles." But the stars wheel in the heavens now in response to far different commands than his. Faustus' cry of protest is grand, and grandly futile. Like every human being since Adam, Faustus finds he is trapped in time.

A classicist to the last, Faustus recalls a line from Ovid, the Latin love poet. "O lente, lente currite noctis equi." Run slowly, slowly, horses of the night. The line falls ironically in the midst of Faustus' death scene, for the difference in Faustus' situation and the original speaker's is great. In Ovid's poem, the lover longs for night to last so that he may continue to he in the arms of his beloved. Faustus, of course, wants the night to endure because the sun will rise on the dawn of his torment. The Latin words sound like a last attempt to cast a spell. But it doesn't work. if anything, the pace of time speeds up. "The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike."

Faustus has a vision. Far off in the night sky, he sees the streaming blood of Christ. You remember when Faustus signed a contract with the devil, his own blood refused to flow. He asked Mephistophilis, "Why streams it not?" And the spirit brought coals to set it flowing afresh. Christ's blood streams in the heavens now as a sign of divine mercy, withheld from Faustus because of his own denial of God.

The clock strikes eleven-thirty. The seconds are ticking away much too fast. And yet, time stretches away before Faustus in that dizzyingly endless expanse we call eternity. Faustus will burn in hell a billion years- only the beginning of his torment. Faustus wanted immortality, and he has found it in an unlooked-for way.

The clock strikes midnight. The thunder roars. Leaping devils come on stage to carry Faustus away. Faustus makes his final, frantic plea. "I'll burn my books," cries this seeker of forbidden knowledge. Well, he will burn for them, at any rate. And then a shriek, "Mephistophilis!" A cry for help? An accusation? A shock of recognition? Then Faustus disappears through the trap door into the yawning mouth of hell.

If you are reading the 1604 text, the play ends here.


After a dreadful night, a quiet morning dawns. The scholars find Faustus' torn body, and though they deplore his fate, they honor his great learning. Wittenberg will hold a stately funeral.

The Chorus returns for a final word. He speaks like a Christian moralist now. The Chorus has severe qualms about all this classic learning. One has only to look at its effect on Faustus.

The laurel was the sacred tree of Apollo, the Greek god of intellect. When the Chorus says, "Burned is Apollo's laurel bough / That sometime grew within this learned man," he means that Faustus, the avid classicist, followed the classics too far. Spurred on by the freedom of ancient Greek thought, Faustus delved into knowledge forbidden by the church. As a result, he found the searing Christian hell, never imagined by the Greeks.

Let Faustus' fall be a lesson to everyone, the Chorus continues, not to practice magic. There is nothing wrong with curiosity, but for God's sake, don't touch.

The great disturbance at Wittenberg is over. The scholars return to their studies. The professors give their everyday lectures, unassisted by ghosts. And peace returns to the university. Or does it? Look again at the Chorus' last words:

Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits.

Faustus may be roasting in hell, but magic has lost none of its appeal. Its very deepness testifies to its enduring fascination.

The old men of Wittenberg may have won the day for now. They have succeeded, for the time being, in clamping down on the questionable practice of wizardry. But the "forward wits," the young scholars, are still champing at the bit, waiting for their chance to rush into necromancy.

As long as young men have adventurous spirits, the university hasn't heard the last of black magic. Not by a long shot.



ECC [Doctor Faustus Contents] []

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