Doctor Faustus

Eugène Delacroix. Mephistopheles Flying, from Faust. 1828.

  • Play title: Doctor Faustus (The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus)
  • Author: Christopher Marlowe
  • Written: 1588 or 1589
  • Printed: 1604
  • Page count: approximately 45


Doctor Faustus is an Elizabethan tragedy written by Christopher Marlowe and is based on the German legend of Faust. The play exists in two versions, the A-text (1604) and the B-text (1616) and it is generally accepted that the A-text is solely Marlowe’s work while the B-text includes changes and additions by another writer. Both versions tell essentially the same tale but scholars advise that they be treated as separate texts. The core of the story is that Faustus signs a deed with the Devil for 24 years of unlimited power in exchange for his own soul. The main setting is the university city of Wittenberg, Germany where Faustus is an eminent scholar. While the protagonist does go on several journeys, only the one to Rome is detailed. Like most Elizabethan plays, there are several memorable comic scenes in the work. The central themes explored in the play are those of pride, ambition and religious faith.

Ways to access the text: reading/listening.

The play is available free online via Project Gutenberg. The 1604 quarto version includes footnotes which are very important as they provide translations for Latin quotes, explain outdated terms and allusions etc.

On YouTube, there is an audio version of the play entitled, “BBC Radio Drama Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe” which is 2 hours long.

Why read/listen to Doctor Faustus?

The first and possibly the best version.  

Doctor Faustus is one of the greatest tales of all time. Marlowe’s dramatization was based upon the German “Faustbuch” but it was the playwright who first made this story a commercial success on the stage. There have been innumerable versions of the tale told ever since in every medium from movies, novels, short stories, operas and even symphonies. Marlowe’s play is not simply about a deal with the Devil, which is the lazy man’s one line synopsis, but is instead a quite engaging and complex work. This is the story of a man from humble origins who goes on to achieve great academic success but whose insatiable ambition leads him to make a tragic choice. Only by reading one of the earliest and still most successful versions of the legend will one fully understand the meaning and implications of a Faustian pact.

A feast for the imagination.

Marlowe’s play is replete with episodes of shape-shifting, invisibility, transportation, and conjuration. It is a wonderful play for a modern reader whose imagination has already been stocked full of fantastic scenes from movies. Because the play deals with a man who becomes a great master of black magic, one gets to read fantastic scenes that will fully come to life in one’s own mind. For example, when Mephistopheles first appears to Faustus, he is so ugly that he is asked to change his shape by the frightened mortal. When Faustus asks his new servant, Mephistopheles, to supply him with a wife then the results are both amusing and somewhat grotesque.

A deal that no one can refuse.

At the heart of the play is the deal that Dr. Faustus makes with the Devil. It is too easy to say that Faustus is tricked when he first signs away his soul. In fact, Faustus is an exceptionally intelligent and astute man so the question is how he could sign the deed so assuredly as he does in the opening pages of the play. What Marlowe appears to be exploring is how Faustus or any one of us will respond when we seem to have attained our wildest desires through a simple deal. What makes Marlowe’s play complex is how he explores Doctor Faustus’s psychological response to this agreement as time passes by, how distractions and illusions cloud his mind, and ultimately what makes this deal so important. If all deals are breakable then why exactly does the deal at the centre of this play cause such problems. Should one beware of who one makes a deal with,  or is it, paradoxically, that one should beware of what one wishes?

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

Multiple ironies.

Most people probably would not identify irony as one of the key features of the play. However, it has an important role. For example, Faustus first practices his magic incantations to “try if devils will obey my hest.” When Mephistopheles appears, Faustus believes this devil to be under his command. However, Mephistopheles makes clear that Faustus’ blasphemous behaviour has put his soul in danger of damnation and that devils naturally rush to such a scene for the prize of a soul. This declaration by a devil sets the tone for the entire play where Faustus is enamoured with his feeling of power, never fully accepting its false and fleeting nature.

Another major irony is the fact that Faustus signs an agreement with a representative of Hell which consigns his soul to eternal damnation while Faustus simultaneously holds to his belief that Hell is no different from the pagan Elysian Fields (i.e. no punishments). What proof of a fiery Hell would satisfy Faustus if not the physical presence of one of its chief emissaries? Why does Faustus ignore Mephistopheles’ admission that he himself is tormented in Hell? This devil even advises Faustus to “leave these frivolous demands” (magic). It seems that the tantalizing fulfilment of Faustus’ wildest dreams overwhelms his normal capacity for logical, critical thought, making him vulnerable.

The final and greatest irony is that Faustus’ wish for the power granted by Lucifer eventually thwarts his long held ambitions. With black magic at his command, Faustus initially declares “I’ll be great emperor of the world.” However, he ends up conjuring dead spirits for the entertainment of a real ruler, Emperor Charles V, or getting grapes for the pregnant wife of the Duke of Vanholt, but never achieving his own goals. In summation, Faustus refuses to acknowledge that the devils always hold the power, that Hell is a real and horrible place, and that his dreams have become dust. This is evidence of structural irony in Marlowe’s work, where a fallible character, Faustus, fails to gain true insight into the various predicaments he lands himself in because his reasoning is fundamentally distorted by his own prejudiced view. We as readers see these situations more objectively and this is how Marlowe communicates Faustus’ brain fog brought about by the intoxicating deal that promises almost too much.

The unbreakable deal.

Why is the deal that Faustus makes with Lucifer seemingly unbreakable? There are various interpretations of the play, for example that Faustus is predestined to be damned, that he loses hope of salvation and despairs, or that he is too proud to mend his ways. If one considers Faustus to be predestined to damnation in the religious sense then the play loses all value as a tragedy because the conclusion holds no suspense. Yet, the Chorus open the play by comparing Faustus to Icarus, “his waxen wings did mount above his reach” which clearly foreshadows his imminent fall. In Faustus’ own last words, he cites fate as the reason for his downfall, “you stars that reigned at my nativity / whose influence hath allotted death and hell.” However, it is clearly demonstrated in the play that Faustus has numerous opportunities to break the deal with Lucifer and thereby to save himself. The play is deliberately named The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus as he is a man with free will. Therefore, we must consider pride and despair as the key factors in explaining why Faustus does not save himself.

The deal with Lucifer and its dissolution are two separate issues. One may say that Faustus not only signs a legal deed/document giving away his soul but that the deed, meaning the act itself, is simply the first of many misdeeds on the new life path he has consciously chosen. In this respect, the initial signing initiates his slow descent into Hell. This interpretation explains how the thought of overturning or dissolving the deal is not simply a rejection of an old mistake but is instead a rejection of the path he has actively followed for so long. Faustus is a minion of Lucifer, one who blasphemes the church, take for example his disrespect towards the Pope in the Vatican and his repeated conjuring of the dead. To renege on the deal would be to lose all his power and advantage. However, when ultimately faced with Hell as his new home, one may ask why indeed he does not break the deal.

There are many representatives of God in the play who offer Faustus hope. The Good Angel says, “never too late, if Faustus can repent” and the Old Man advises Faustus to repent and save himself. At one point, Faustus says “my heart’s so harden’d, I cannot repent” which is explained by his own self-confessed despair at his misdeed which he feels is not forgivable. The consolations offered by the good side are countered by threats like when the Bad Angel says to Faustus, “if thou repent, devils shall tear thee in pieces”, and Mephistopheles threatens “I’ll in piece-meal tear thy flesh.” In the end, Faustus feels his wrongs are so injurious to God that he can never be forgiven, saying to his scholarly friend, “Faustus’ offence can ne’er be pardoned.” Before Lucifer comes to collect on his deal, Faustus shudders before a God he believes can only be punishing, “hide me from the heavy wrath of God.” It is Faustus’ excessive pride, his belief that he has offended God in a way that no other man could, that actually seals his fate and blocks his own redemption. One must try to understand the psychology of a man who cannot see beyond his own sin, a man who through feeling lost does indeed become lost.

Works Cited.

Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, edited by David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.