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Doctor Faustus
Christoper Marlowe


There is no standard edition of Doctor Faustus. The play survives in two widely read versions, one dating from 1604, the other from 1616. The 1616 text is longer by about 600 lines and contains incidents and characters missing from the 1604 text. There is great critical debate as to which is the "real" Doctor Faustus. Some scholars attribute the additional material in the 1616 text not to Marlowe, but to a collaborator named Samuel Rowley. Check the introduction to your copy of Doctor Faustus. It will tell you which version of the play you are reading. This guide is based on the version of Doctor Faustus printed in The Norton Anthology of English Literature (New York: Norton, 1979), edited by M. H. Abrams and others. The version in that anthology is based on W. W. Gregg's composite of the 1604 and 1616 texts of Marlowe's play.


The play opens with a speech by the Chorus, a voice outside the action that prepares you for the story of Doctor Faustus. The Chorus was used in Greek and Roman plays as a way of commenting on the dramatic action. Here, the Chorus might also be called the "Commentator" since it consists of only one actor. He tells us that Faustus grew up in the German town of Rhodes, had lower-class parents, and went on to study theology in Wittenberg. After earning his doctorate, Faustus soon realized that he preferred magic to religion.

The Chorus calls this magic "cursed necromancy." Does he disapprove of Faustus? Or does he privately admire him? Your answer is important because the Chorus' feelings influence the audience's reaction to Faustus, even before Faustus himself appears on stage.

NOTE: THE CHORUS The first business of the Chorus is to speak the prologue. The Elizabethan prologue usually contains a brief introduction to the story and is delivered before the play begins. If the plot is complicated, the prologue gives the audience a thread to hold on to. And just as important, when there is little scenery on the stage, the prologue often tells an audience when and where the play will take place.

The Chorus informs you that this isn't a play about warlike conquests or love. The hero of this play is a scholar, a university man, a peasant's son, who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a Doctor of Divinity.

What the Chorus is announcing in these opening lines is a departure from the usual subject matter of tragedy. Traditionally, tragedy was the province of noblemen and kings. But Faustus occupies a lower rung of the social ladder, hailing from a poor and humble family. Brains, energy, and talent have lifted him from obscurity to a position of honor in Wittenberg. Despite his achievements, Faustus is not a nobleman. He is a self-made man, with a strong skepticism toward much of the establishment around him.

The Chorus' speech contains an abbreviated biography of Faustus, but it also parallels events in Marlowe's life. It is the story of a town laborer's son, sent by generous relatives to college so that he might get ahead in life. For a while, Faustus, like Marlowe, flourished at the university. He followed the usual clerical path of study and excelled in disputes (the academic exercises of the time, similar to our exams) concerning "heavenly matters of theology." Then something happened to Faustus. Theology lost its attraction. From heavenly matters, he fell to the "devilish exercise" of necromancy (black magic).

To mark this shift in the man, the Chorus uses the image of appetites gone awry. At one point in his life, Faustus relished the healthful fruits of learning. Now he craves unwholesome delicacies. Magic comes to Faustus like a rich dessert at the end of a heavy meal, sweet to his taste, yet destructive of his well-being.

With such an introduction, the Chorus sweeps aside the curtain to reveal the inner stage. Faustus is seated in his study, a small monkish cell that is both a library and a laboratory.

In the Chorus' reference to Faustus' "waxen wings," you have an implied comparison of Faustus to Icarus. Icarus was a figure of Greek mythology who flew too near the sun on wings of wax and feathers, made for him by his father, Daedalus. When the wax melted, Icarus fell into the sea and drowned. There is something heroic about this foolish boy, consumed by the oldest dream of man, who challenged the heavens in his desire for flight. The image of Icarus qualifies the negative feelings toward Faustus, aroused in you by all the Chorus' words ("swollen, glutted, surfeits") that suggest a monstrous appetite.

As Marlowe will remind you throughout the play, there are two faces to scholarly ambition. One is of greed and ruthlessness, but the other is of courage and ambition. If Doctor Faustus is an ambiguous play- that is, a play capable of more than one interpretation- then the ambiguity begins here in the opening speech.


You come upon Faustus at a critical moment in his life. He is obsessed with the course of his future, and speaks in a formidable, scholarly fashion, sprinkling his sentences with quotations in Latin and Greek. Try reading it first for the English sense. Then read it again for insights into the man. Who is this Faustus? What kind of choice is he about to make?

The first thing that may strike you about Faustus is the sheer breadth of his knowledge. He has mastered every advanced course of study offered by the university. Divinity, logic (we would say philosophy), medicine, and law are all at his finger-tips. Whatever the scholarly life can teach- the liberal arts, the professions, the sciences- Faustus has already learned. In our age of specialization, it is hard to grasp the scope of his achievement. What Faustus knows is just about everything there was to know in the world of his time.

Unless such a man is content to rest on his laurels, he has a problem. Where does he go from here? Perhaps more deeply into one of the various disciplines. Watch Faustus as he grapples with his inner conflicts.

Trained in philosophy, he asks the very basic question: "What is the end, or the purpose, of every art?" The end of law is to settle petty legacies, and this is a waste of such considerable gifts as his. Medicine strives to preserve the body's health. Faustus has done more than his share of this already. His prescriptions alone have saved whole cities from the plague.

The aim of logic is to dispute well. Yet this won't do much good for the star debater of Wittenberg. Disputation is for boys in the schoolroom. Faustus has advanced far beyond that stage.

In the reasons for Faustus' rejections, you gain insight into his dreams. The practice of law may serve society, but that doesn't mean one should become a lawyer. Medicine may prolong life, but it cannot make life eternal. Logic offers a tool and a method of thought, but it does not even begin to approach life's ultimate truths. None of these disciplines offers a supreme purpose. All leave him still "but Faustus and a man."

Perhaps, after all, religion will best serve his ends. Having dismissed the secular disciplines one by one, Faustus returns for a moment to his first love, theology. Laying aside the books he's been leafing through, the works of Aristotle and Galen, he picks up the Bible and reads from St. Paul: "The reward of sin is death." Flipping a little further, he comes upon a text which seems to him an ominous contradiction. It says all men are sinners. Thus, all must die. But sinning is human. The two passages, taken together, bring Faustus up short. Mortality is what he came to the Bible to avoid. And here it is again, staring him in the face. Faustus takes refuge in fatalism- what will be, will be, he says with a shrug of the shoulders. Tossing the Bible aside, he turns with evident relish to the books (already in his library) on the forbidden art of necromancy.

Faustus, of course, is quoting the Bible out of context. The passage from St. Paul reads: "The reward of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life." Faustus notes only the first part of the text, the part that seems to doom him from the beginning. He ignores the message of hope at the end of the same chapter and verse. This seems an oversight for a learned Doctor of Divinity.

The question is why does Faustus read the Bible in such a selective manner? Here are some possible answers:

  1. Faustus finds in the Bible exactly what he is looking for- an excuse to plunge headlong into magic. Since he is eager to take up the "damned" art of necromancy, it is convenient for him to believe he is damned, no matter what he does.

  2. Another hand than Faustus' is at work, turning the leaves of the Bible and directing his eyes. In Act V, you will see the suggestion that, for all his sense of power, Faustus may not be in charge of his own life.

  3. Marlowe believes religion to be a closed door. Faustus finds no hope in the Bible because Marlowe finds no hope there. From the author's point of view, Faustus' reading of the Bible, however incomplete, may be essentially right.

    Do you see other possibilities? Try to figure out why Faustus quotes so selectively from the Bible.

Faustus is instantly charmed by his books on black magic. For one thing, they still hold secrets for him. Here's the ideal subject for a man who wants to know everything. All those strange lines and circles are so wonderfully mysterious.

Faustus dreams of power and imagines that magic will give him mastery over the elements, dominion over the winds and the clouds. What is a king, after all, compared to a mighty magician? With magic, Faustus thinks it possible to become a god.

Faustus' ambition may seem less far fetched if you compare his hopes of magic with our own expectations of science. We look to science to carry us to the stars, to control disasters like famine and flood, to cure disease and to prolong human life. Faustus looks to magic for the power of flight and for freedom from death and old age. So our own dreams are pretty close to Faustus'. The real difference lies in our method. We try to make our dreams come true with the cool, factual discipline of science, whereas Renaissance scholars like Faustus turned, instead, to a curious blend of science and superstition.

The sixteenth century made no clear distinction between astronomers (people who studied the stars through the newly-discovered telescopes) and astrologers (people who used the stars to predict human destiny). The word "astrologer" applied to both. In a similar manner, early Renaissance chemistry included alchemy, the pseudo-science of turning base metals into gold.

Faustus, as you've seen, knows the experimental sciences. His room is, in part, a laboratory. But he does not find it unusual to have in his office both test tubes and necromantic books. For Faustus, magic and science merge into a deep, dark area which was feared and largely prohibited by the church.

As Faustus reaches out for this forbidden knowledge, two angels suddenly appear before his eyes. The Good Angel urges him to "lay his damned book aside" and return to God and the scriptures. The Evil Angel tells Faustus to continue on the path he has chosen since this will enable him to rival God in power.

The Good and Evil Angels are hold-overs from medieval morality plays. In this form of drama, popular during the Middle Ages, they did battle for the soul of a character known as Everyman. (The characters in medieval drama were abstractions. Everyman, as his name implies, stood for all humanity.) Marlowe has borrowed the device of the angels to dramatize Faustus' inner struggle. The Good Angel is the voice of his conscience; the Evil Angel, that of his appetites. Throughout the play, the angels will appear on stage whenever a moral crisis is at hand. And they will vanish as soon as Faustus has chosen his course.

You'll notice that the Good Angel doesn't put up much of a fight. Magic has taken too deep a hold on Faustus. "How am I glutted with conceit of this!" indicates that he is wildly excited about magic. His thoughts take wing. They fly all over the place. To India for gold and to the New World for exotic fruits, then back again to the lecture halls of Germany, where he will clothe the scholars in silk.

But wait. Faustus seeks knowledge and power, yet now he sets his goals on luxury and wealth. Are Faustus' desires sensual or intellectual? Does he want wisdom- or material comforts? You might keep this question in mind as you read the play. Faustus is first and foremost a scholar. But he's no professor in an ivory tower. As the Chorus has pointed out, Faustus is a man of appetite. He may love books as few men love them, but he also has a strong taste for good food, rare gems, and rich clothing.

Some readers are disturbed by the sensual side of Faustus. While they admire his quest for knowledge, they're dismayed by his bent for luxury. If Faustus would stick to pure research into the workings of Nature, he might be a noble hero in their eyes. But his craving for lush fruits and silk garments make him seem undignified.

Other readers regard Faustus' sensuality as an heroic quality. His hunger for beauty and lust for life are part of the great Renaissance adventure. The medieval church was unnatural in its efforts to suppress bodily desires. Such readers conclude that Faustus is right in giving full play to his senses.

What do you think of Faustus' desires? Do they enhance or diminish him in your eyes? If offered unlimited power, in what direction would your thoughts travel?

As Faustus embarks on his career in magic, he summons to his home Valdes and Cornelius, two practitioners of black magic from Wittenberg University. They have been in the neighborhood, if not in the lecture halls, distracting students' minds with their conjuring tricks. They also have called on Faustus before.

Faustus' greeting to Valdes and Cornelius suggests that they are responsible for luring him into magic. Last time you came for dinner, you talked me into it, Faustus implies. But no, he quickly retracts his words. Magic is his own idea. He has reached the point where he simply cannot concentrate on anything else.

Valdes is delighted with Faustus' news. He imagines a trio of magicians- Cornelius, Valdes, and Faustus- who will take the world by storm. With Faustus' brains and the experience of Cornelius and Valdes, they'll all be rich and famous. But that's not what happens. Valdes and Cornelius instruct Faustus in the basics of conjuring and then send him off to practice on his own.

The student magician quickly becomes a master who has no need of partners for his act. This will isolate Faustus since he will now practice magic without a human tie.


Faustus has been missing from the university. The disputations, which he was accustomed to win with his persuasive arguments (his "sic probos," Latin for "thus, I prove") just aren't the same any more. Two Wittenberg scholars, as they pass Faustus' house, wonder what has happened to him.

The scholars make the mistake of stopping and questioning Wagner, Faustus' half-servant, half-disciple. (The Renaissance called such a person a "famulus.") Wagner considers himself superior to servants, but obviously the scholars see him as a servant. They address him contemptuously as "sirrah," a term appropriate for a menial worker, and they quickly irritate him. For the rest of this scene, Wagner takes his revenge by matching wits with the scholars and proving that he is just as sound a logician as either one of them. This is all part of a comic subplot, and to reinforce the difference in tone, Marlowe has Wagner speak in prose.

Elizabethan dramatists reserved poetry for their upperclass characters. Kings, nobles, and Doctors of Divinity like Faustus generally spoke a formal, dignified language appropriate to their station in life. Lowerclass characters didn't usually merit the verse line. Servants and clowns like Wagner and Robin could be expected to speak prose, the language of the London streets.

Wagner is also speaking nonsense. When asked where his master is, he answers that "God in heaven knows." Don't you know? the scholars ask him. Ah, that doesn't necessarily follow, Wagner replies, wagging his finger in their faces and reminding them severely that, after all, he isn't God. No, Wagner isn't God. But he finds it necessary to say so. In Wagner's insolence, there are echoes of Faustus' aspiring pride. In fact, these scenes in the comic subplot are often called "echo scenes" since servants follow in their masters' footsteps.

After Wagner answers insult for insult, he finally gives the scholars the information they want. Faustus is having dinner inside with Valdes and Cornelius. The scholars, shuddering at the mere names of these two demon-traffickers, wring their hands and fear the worst.


In the pitch black of night, with an ominous thunderstorm brewing, Faustus goes off to a grove to conjure spirits. As the thunder roars and the lightning flashes, he draws a charmed circle on the ground. The circle marks the spot where the spirits will rise. Inside the circle, Faustus writes anagrams (or twisted versions) of the name of God, spelling Jehovah forward and backward, as one might change "God" to "dog." Faustus celebrates the blasphemous Black Mass and, by so doing, demonstrates his growing commitment to necromancy.

The Black Mass was a travesty of the Roman Catholic service, and was conducted over the centuries by the worshippers of Satan. The Black Mass mimicked the language of the Catholic mass (Latin, in those days) and used some of the sacred gestures in a way that perverted their meaning. For example, Faustus sprinkles holy water and makes the sign of the cross. This mockery of a holy rite contained a message for Satan: I denounce God, and I serve only you. In the 1590s, it was an act of daring to perform this sacrilege on the stage. Though Henry VIII had pulled England away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1533, there were still English people alive who remembered attending mass every Sunday during the reign of the late Queen Mary. Even if Rome and all its works were detested in England now, Satan was quite another story.

The climax of Faustus' ceremony is his farewell to God and his hail to the devils Lucifer, Demi-gorgon, and Belzebub. In the name of the three princes of hell, Faustus calls upon the demon spirits to rise. (Don't worry if you don't understand Faustus' speeches in this scene. The convoluted Latin sentences were no more intelligible to most of Marlowe's audience than they are to you. The playwright's intent is to mystify and appall you with these Latin incantations.)

In response to Faustus' summons, Mephistophilis appears in the hideous shape of a dragon. Faustus takes one look at the fire-breathing monster, then tells it to go away and change its appearance. You're too ugly for me, he says. And, in a satiric thrust at a Roman Catholic monastic order, he orders the demon to come back as a Franciscan friar. After a short delay, the spirit returns, his dragon's scales exchanged for a friar's sedate hooded gown.

Why does Mephistophilis first appear as a monster, only to vanish and reappear as a monk? Readers of Doctor Faustus disagree on the meaning of this bit of quick-change artistry. Some think that the devil is giving Faustus fair warning by portraying hell honestly. Mephistophilis arises in the horrifying form of a dragon because hell is a place of horror and damnation. It is Faustus, the self-deceiver, who wants evil prettied up.

Other readers claim that it is all just good theater. The dragon zooms on stage to scare the audience, and the friar follows to relieve terror with laughter. It's open to interpretation and your opinion is as good as any.

Faustus is delighted with his demon spirit's obedience and compliance. Faustus thinks, like Aladdin, that he has rubbed a genie out of a lamp. (The genie's business, you recall, was to fulfill Aladdin's every wish.) Faustus is ready with some pretty tall orders for his spirit.

Now that you're here, Faustus says to Mephistophilis, of course, you'll do everything I say. If I command it, you'll make the moon drop out of the sky or cause the oceans to flood the Earth.

Can't do it, says Mephistophilis. Sorry, Faustus, but I work for Lucifer, not you. My master has to approve every step I take. It turns out that Faustus has been flattering himself. Magic hasn't brought him half the power he thought. In fact, strictly speaking, he hasn't summoned Mephistophilis at all. The spirit has come of his own accord because he has heard Faustus "racking" (torturing with anagrams) the name of God.

Mephistophilis explains in scholastic terms that Faustus' conjuring speech is only the incidental cause ("the cause per accidens") of his showing up. The real reason he has come is that spirits always fly to souls who are in imminent danger of being damned.

I'm not afraid of damnation, Faustus replies with bravado. Heaven and hell, they are all the same to me. ("I confound hell with Elysium," is what he says, dangerously equating the Christian hell of flame with the blessed underworld of the dead in Greek mythology.)

What does Faustus think about hell? He says hell holds no terrors for him. He implies (he'll later make it explicit) that he doesn't even believe in it. But if, in one breath, Faustus belittles the whole idea of hell, in the next breath, he is eager to hear more about it. Just who is this Lucifer you keep talking about? Faustus demands of Mephistophilis.

Mephistophilis tells Faustus the story of Lucifer, the bright angel (his name in Latin means light-bearer) who rebelled against God and was thrown out of heaven. Lucifer's sins were "aspiring pride and insolence," sins Faustus has reason to be all too familiar with.

You are moving in a world which believed profoundly in order, in knowing one's place and staying in it. The Renaissance inherited from the Middle Ages a belief in a great chain of being that descended from God all the way down to the sticks and stones. In this great chain, every link, from the lowliest pebble to the angels on high, had a divine purpose. If a link was broken because somebody reached above his station, then chaos ensued.

In heaven, as on earth, order was strictly enforced. God reigned in glory there over nine different levels of angels. Angels, being without sin, were presumably without envy. They rejoiced in God's order and sought only to uphold it. Lucifer was the exception, being ambitious. Not content to serve God, he tried to rival Him.

In the eyes of the medieval church, Lucifer's aspiring pride was the first- and worst- sin. Lucifer's rebellion and consequent fall created hell and brought evil into the world. Is Marlowe endorsing the church's view that ambition is a deadly sin? Does he imply that ambition is a great virtue? These are important questions in Doctor Faustus and are open to interpretation.

So far, ambition has made Faustus jeopardize his soul through contact with demons and through his denial of God. But ambition has also made Faustus a first-class scholar. Without inner drive, he would have remained the illiterate peasant he was born. Ambition has given Faustus magnificent dreams- dreams like expanding the boundaries of human knowledge- on which all progress depends.

The image of Lucifer falling from heaven, dark against a flaming sky, recalls the image of Icarus in the prologue. Both Lucifer and Icarus flew too high, sought the sources of light, and got burned in the process. Lucifer and Icarus are emblems for Faustus. They tell you about the precedents and penalties for soaring ambition. Their fate suggests that limitless aspiration is ill-advised. But is it also wrong? At what point do you know whether your ambition is too great?

Faustus' next question to Mephistophilis concerns the nature of hell. If you're damned, you're in hell, right? he challenges the spirit. But if Mephistophilis is in hell, then why is he here? But I am in hell, the spirit replies. Hell isn't a spot Mephistophilis can point out on a cosmic map. It's a state of being that one carries around inside. "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it." For Mephistophilis, hell is a real, if unlocalized place. It's where Mephistophilis dwells and is an immeasurable distance from God. Mephistophilis is a fallen angel. And for a moment, he acts like one. Perhaps he remembers the higher things and this gets the better of him, for he doesn't egg Faustus on. Instead, he tries to hold him back and issues a warning:

O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!

The words are powerful. They show you a Mephistophilis afraid for Faustus. The spirit knows what is to come for this foolish, arrogant man. And he suffers for him in advance. Faustus, however, takes Mephistophilis' pain for weakness. Can't you be more manly about things? he asks contemptuously.

Faustus sends him to Lucifer with the message that he would like to strike a bargain with the fallen angel: Faustus' soul in exchange for twenty-four years of luxury, with Mephistophilis as a servant who will cater to his every whim. Notice that Faustus refers to himself in the third person, like a king. Why do you think Marlowe does that?

Mephistophilis agrees and returns to the nether regions with no further comment.


We return to the comic subplot and the high-handed doings of Wagner. Wagner's pride has been hurt by his encounter with the scholars in Scene II. As a result, he is looking for someone to humiliate in turn. Wagner hails the clown, Robin, with the same demeaning terms, "Sirrah, boy" that he himself objected to from the scholars. Robin doesn't care for this sort of treatment, either. Boy! he mutters indignantly. I'm sure you've seen many "boys" with beards on their faces like mine.

Wagner tries another approach. He accuses the unemployed Robin of being so down-at-the-heels that he'll sell his soul to the devil for a piece of raw mutton. No dice, says the clown. Not unless the mutton is well roasted and sauced. Like Faustus, Robin is willing to sell his soul, but only if the price is right.

This exchange between Wagner and Robin is a bawdy pun on the word "mutton." Mutton is sheep's flesh, but in Elizabethan English mutton also referred to the human sexual organs. Robin is thinking less about food than about the kitchen maid.

Wagner, who is Faustus' servant and disciple, has a hankering for a servant-disciple of his own. And who better, he reasons, than this out-of-work clown. Wagner makes Robin an imperious offer: "Sirrah, wilt thou... wait on me?"

Faced with resistance, Wagner tries to buy Robin into his service by offering the poor clown money. It's a trick which Robin fails to catch in time. By taking Wagner's money, Robin is accepting wages. He's offering himself as Wagner's man. Of course, there's a condition attached to that money. He is to present himself, at an hour's notice, at a place Wagner will name. And there he is to be carried off by a devil. When Robin hears what the condition is, he drops the coins like a hot potato.

Oh no! cries the clown. Oh yes, says Wagner, who conjures up two devils to come to his aid. (Notice that Wagner is Faustus' disciple in more ways than one. He's been practicing to good effect his master's magic tricks.) The devils, Banio and Belcher, appear on stage in a spray of fireworks. They chase the poor clown until, frightened out of his wits, he agrees to Wagner's terms.

Robin will serve Wagner, call him master, and walk after him in a manner that Wagner describes pedantically in Latin as Quasi vestigiis nostris insistere (a high-flown way of saying "follow in my footsteps").


With Mephistophilis gone, Faustus begins to have doubts about this deal with hell. Must he go through with it and be damned? Or can he still change his mind and be saved?

Faustus is seized with a sudden impulse to give up the game and throw himself on God's mercy. It's an impulse that he fiercely subdues. How can he, a denier of God, go crawling to God now? Faustus tells himself to despair of God and trust in the devil. Yet still he wavers: "Now go not backward, no, be resolute!"

You may be surprised by this hint of uncertainty in Faustus. What happened to all his proud boasts of manly resolution? That's what Faustus also wonders. He's disgusted by these signs of human weakness in himself.

In this speech, Marlowe has altered the verse line to convey Faustus' feelings of uncertainty. The meter is wildly uneven. The number of stresses varies with almost every line. Within the lines themselves, there are many abrupt pauses to break the flow of the verse. This poetry reflects the nervous pacing of Faustus' thoughts. The speech starts off in one direction, turns back on itself, and comes crashing down on the one point of assurance:

To God? He loves thee not.
The God thou servest is thine own appetite,
Wherein is fixed the love of Belzebub.

In the midst of such candid self-assessment, Faustus sees the angels again. This time, he does more than passively listen to their advice. He actively questions them. "Contrition, prayer, repentance- what of them?" Faustus doubtfully ticks off this list of virtues like a man who has heard that such things work, but who's never had the leisure to try them.

They're illusions, the "fruits of lunacy," according to the Evil Angel, who has heard something in Faustus' voice which prompts him to describe a praying man as an idiot, a pathetic figure calling in the void to a God who does not hear. Forget such fancies, the Evil Angel continues. Think of tangible things- such as wealth.

Wealth! Faustus seizes the idea with a passion. He shall have the signiory of Emden- that is, he will control the wealthy German seaport of Emden, one of the richest trading centers in all of Germany. (Did the Evil Angel say this? Think for a minute. How many enticements have been offered to Faustus by other characters in the play? How many has he, in fact, invented for himself?) Faustus can already hear the clink of gold in his coffers. In a fever of greed, he calls to Mephistophilis to hurry back from hell with Lucifer's answer. And sure enough, on the wings of a wish, the spirit flies into the study.

Here's what my master says, Mephistophilis informs Faustus. You may have me to serve you, as you desire. But first, you must promise him your soul. Faustus protests that he has already done that. Yes, in words, the spirit replies. But now, you must do it in writing.

Faustus discovers that there are various stages of commitment when dealing with the devil. Faustus has already "hazarded" his soul (or set it at risk) by foreswearing God and praying to Lucifer. But he has not yet signed away his soul. Faustus can still back out of the deal. But if he proceeds with it, he may never be able to back out. Lucifer is leaving no loopholes. The devil wants a contract. And he wants that contract written in Faustus' blood because blood contracts are binding forever.

Faustus winces at the thought. Left to himself, he might never write such a document. But Mephistophilis is there to give him "moral" support. Just put up with this nasty little cut, the spirit tells him, and "then be thou as great as Lucifer."

Taken at face value, this remark constitutes a glowing promise. Sign this contract, Faustus, and you'll become as powerful as the monarch of hell. But the comment is ironic. Mephistophilis sounds as if he's deriding Faustus' ambitions. The spirit really seems to be saying, "you think you'll be as great as Lucifer, but just wait and see."

Does Mephistophilis deliver his line sincerely? Or is there irony in his voice? If so, he may be giving Faustus one last warning to back off while he can. How does the offer sound to you?

Faustus, however, is tone deaf to irony. He suspects no double meaning in the spirit's words. And so he prepares to comply with Lucifer's demands. But as Faustus stabs his arm to draw blood, he finds that no blood will run. It has mysteriously congealed, preventing him from writing the words that would give the devil his soul.

We use the expression "My blood freezes over" to describe a feeling of great horror. That is what happens to Faustus. The blood in his veins- that which is human to him- freezes at the sight of this hideous contract with hell. Mephistophilis acts quickly. He comes running with a grate of hot coals to warm Faustus' blood and to set it flowing again, so that the contract can be completed.

Hold onto this image of flowing blood. You will see it again in Act V, when Faustus has a vision of Christ's blood streaming in the night sky and knows that one precious drop of it would save his lost soul.

As Mephistophilis snatches up the coals, he winks at the audience and whispers, "What will not I do to obtain his soul!" Clearly the spirit has changed his tune. Earlier in the play, Mephistophilis did his best to stop Faustus from damning himself. At this point, he seems eager for Faustus' ruin. How do you explain it?

You can argue that Mephistophilis is simply doing his job. Since Faustus has insisted on this unholy bargain, the spirit has no choice but to hold him to it. Or you may feel that Mephistophilis is at last showing his true fiendish colors. The spirit is eager for Faustus' damnation because all demons want to add more notches to their score of souls garnered for hell. Mephistophilis is not the most consistent of characters. You will have to decide what motivates him at various points in the play.

Faustus has finished writing his contract. "It is completed," he says wearily, as he lays down his pen. "Consummatum est." Another blasphemy! These are the words of Christ on the cross, rolling casually off the tongue of a man who has just put his bloody signature on a contract with the devil. Suddenly, Faustus has a hallucination. He sees writing on his arm. "Fly, man," the inscription reads. Run for your life. ("Man." Why "man"? Wasn't this contract supposed to make Faustus immortal?)

Mephistophilis is prepared for this sort of emergency. Undoubtedly, he's played scenes like this before. He arranges a diversion, something to take Faustus' mind off the perils of the contract and focus attention instead on the delights it will bring. Mephistophilis summons devils who enter bearing a crown and ermine robes. The devils dance around Faustus, offering him these symbols of power. Then they depart.

Faustus is delighted with the royal treatment and with the thought that he can summon such demons at any time. He starts to hand the contract over to Mephistophilis. (Notice it's still in Faustus' possession, one reason why Mephistophilis is treating Faustus like a king.) Then Faustus halts, claiming that he'd better read the contract to Mephistophilis since he has made some changes.

Faustus, like Lucifer, is something of a legalist. He has added articles to the contract, amendments to make sure he gets full value for the price he is going to pay. Flattered by Mephistophilis, Faustus assumes he can dictate his own terms to hell.

Most of Faustus' conditions are self-explanatory. They list the terms of an agreement already understood. Mephistophilis will be at Faustus' beck and call. He will appear in any shape that Faustus commands. (No more unpleasant surprises like that dragon.)

But there is a new condition. Faustus shall be "a spirit in form and substance." In other words, he will take on the physical attributes of a demon. Like Mephistophilis, Faustus will be able to walk invisible or fly through the air.

Does this mean that Faustus actually becomes a demon? If so, then he is lost from this point on in the play. If not, then he still has a chance, however remote, of being saved. It is difficult, looking back across the space of four hundred years, to be sure of the exact rules of Renaissance demonology. But most scholars think that under the terms of the contract, Faustus forfeits his human body but keeps his human soul.

Faustus returns to the subject that fascinates him: the nature and whereabouts of hell. Notice that Faustus always asks about hell after he's made an irrevocable step toward hell. He leaps first, then looks to see where he has landed.

Mephistophilis expands on what he's said before. Hell is a place without limits. It's wherever the damned happen to be. The spirit speaks matter-of-factly now. He's no longer worried about frightening Faustus. The contract is signed. What's done is done. But Faustus doesn't believe it. Come, come, he says. You're making this up. Hell's an "old wives' tale." There is no life after death. We die with our last breath. And that's the end of it.

Mephistophilis is amused in an ironic sort of way. Why, Faustus, he asks, what do you think you have just signed? A contract with hell. Then his amusement dies, and his irony turns bitter. You think there's no hell, do you? "Aye, think so still, till experience change thy mind."

As Mephistophilis points out, Faustus is being illogical. Faustus has asked for a contract with the devil in order to enjoy the powers that hell can give him. But if there is no hell, then there is no contract and no demon spirit in the room.

Faustus, the great logician of Wittenberg, shouldn't need Mephistophilis to point out the flaws in his reasoning. He should see for himself that this argument is not sound. So why doesn't he? Perhaps Faustus is too fierce a skeptic to believe in a hell that he can't see or touch. Faustus prides himself on being a scientist. He prefers concrete facts to abstract ideas. And the hell described by Mephistophilis is an undefined place. In fact, it makes Faustus think of life itself:

Nay, and this be hell, I'll willingly be damned.
What, sleeping, eating, walking, and disputing?

On the other hand, Faustus may be less a skeptic than an opportunist. That is, he may change his beliefs to suit his desires of the moment. Faustus seems willing enough to accept hell, provided that hell promises to make him a king like Lucifer. He only doubts hell's existence when it looms up before him as a place of punishment.

In this dialogue between Faustus and Mephistophilis, you can see the clash of old and new ideas that troubled Marlowe's generation. Coming out of the Middle Ages was the orthodox vision of hell, the pit of quenchless fire and pitchfork-carrying devils. Then there was the newer, more subtle definition of hell offered by Mephistophilis. Hell was a gray, twilight place from which God had withdrawn his presence. And finally, there was the atheistic view, espoused by Faustus in this scene. The only hell we could ever know was the hell of this world.

Faustus, however, is not disposed to linger on the subject. Now that he has his contract signed, he is eager to test his powers and get some questions answered. He turns to Mephistophilis with his first demand. I'm a lusty man, he says. I need a woman to share my bed. Get me a wife.

Mephistophilis is on the spot. He can't meet Faustus' first demand because marriage is a sacrament, a holy rite of the church, and sacraments lie outside his jurisdiction.

When Faustus insists on having this wish, Mephistophilis summons a female demon, who arrives hissing and sparking like a firecracker. Faustus dismisses her as a "hot whore." He's beginning to see that hell keeps its promises in strangely unpleasant ways.

Never mind a wife, Mephistophilis consoles him. I'll give you the mistress of your heart's desire. And better yet, I'll give you books that will reveal to you the hidden secrets of Nature. I'll show you everything you've always wanted to know about the trees and the stars.

Faustus reaches greedily for the fabulous volumes handed to him by the spirit. But as he leafs through the printed pages, he finds that they contain only gibberish. This is worse than Wittenberg. "O, thou art deceived!" he cries.

Remember we asked a little while back, "what does Faustus really want, knowledge or sensual pleasure?" In this scene, Faustus reaches for both, only to be disappointed on both counts. But while he's merely annoyed by Mephistophilis' failure to produce a wife, he is cut to the quick by the spirit's fraudulent volumes. It's this latter deception that wrings from Faustus a cry of anguish.

Between Act II, Scenes I and II, there is probably a lost scene in which Robin, the clown, steals one of Faustus' conjuring books and runs away from Wagner to find work at an inn. We will find him there in Act II, Scene III.

THE STORY, continued


ECC [Doctor Faustus Contents] []

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