The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

Infobox Play
name = The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

image_size = 150px
caption = Title page to a 1620 printing of "Doctor Faustus" showing Faustus studying and Mephostophilis rising through a stage trap door.
writer = Christopher Marlowe
characters = Doctor Faustus
Good Angel
Bad Angel
Three scholars
Seven Deadly Sins
Pope Adrian VI
Raymond, King of Hungary
Two Cardinals
Archbishop of Rheims
Charles V
Duke of Saxony
Two soliders
Horse courser
Hostess of a tavern
Duke and Duchess of Vanholt
Old man
mute = Darius
Alexander the Great
Alexander's Paramour
Helen of Troy
setting = 16th century Europe
date of premiere = c. 1592
country of Origin = England
original language = English
genre = Tragedy

"The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" is a play by Christopher Marlowe, based on the "Faust" story, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for power and knowledge. "Doctor Faustus" was first published in 1604, eleven years after Marlowe's death and at least twelve years after the first performance of the play.

"No Elizabethan play outside the Shakespeare canon has raised more controversy than "Doctor Faustus". There is no agreement concerning the nature of the text and the date of composition...and the centrality of the Faust legend in the history of the Western world precludes any definitive agreement on the interpretation of the play...." [Logan and Smith, p. 14.]


The Admiral's Men performed "Doctor Faustus" twenty-five times in the three years between Oct. 1594 and Oct. 1597. On Nov. 22, 1602, the Diary of Philip Henslowe records a £4 payment to Samuel Rowley and William Bird for additions to the play, which suggests a revival soon after that date. [Chambers, Vol. 3, pp. 423.]

The powerful effect of the early productions is indicated by the legends that quickly accrued around them. In "Histriomastix", his 1632 polemic against the drama, William Prynne records the tale that actual devils once appeared on the stage during a performance of "Faustus", "to the great amazement of both the actors and spectators." Some people were allegedly driven mad, "distracted with that fearful sight." John Aubrey recorded a related legend, that Edward Alleyn, lead actor of The Admiral's Men, devoted his later years to charitable endeavors, like the founding of Dulwich College, in direct response to this incident. [Chambers, Vol. 3, pp. 423-4.]


The play may have been entered into the Stationers' Register on Dec. 18, 1592—though the records are confused, and appear to indicate a conflict over the rights to the play. A subsequent Stationers' Register entry, dated Jan. 7, 1601, assigns the play to the bookseller Thomas Bushnell, the publisher of the 1604 first edition. Bushnell transferred his rights to the play to John Wright on Sept. 13, 1610. [Chambers, Vol. 3, p. 422.]

The two versions

Two versions of the play exist:
1) the 1604 quarto, printed by Valentine Simmes for Thomas Law; sometimes termed the A text. The title page attributes the play to "Ch. Marl." A second edition (A2) in 1609, printed by George Eld for John Wright, is merely a reprint of the 1604 text. The text is short for an English Renaissance play, only 1485 lines long.

2) The 1616 quarto, published by John Wright, the enlarged and altered text; sometimes called the B text. This second text was reprinted in 1619, 1620, 1624, 1631, and as late as 1663.

The 1616 version omits 36 lines but adds 676 new lines, making it roughly one third longer than the 1604 version. Among the lines shared by both versions, there are some small but significant changes in wording; for example, “Never too late, if Faustus can repent” in the 1604 text becomes “Never too late, if Faustus will repent” in the 1616 text, a change that offers a very different possibility for Faustus's hope and repentance.

The relationship between the texts is uncertain and many modern editions print both. As an Elizabethan playwright, Marlowe had nothing to do with the publication and had no control over the play in performance, so it was possible for scenes to be dropped or shortened, or for new scenes to be added, so that the resulting publications may be modified versions of the original script.

The 1604 version is believed by most scholars to be closer to the play as originally performed in Marlowe's lifetime, and the 1616 version to be a posthumous adaptation by other hands. However, some disagree, seeing the 1604 version as an abbreviation and the 1616 version as Marlowe's original fuller version. Bucchianeri proposes "both" versions were performed, i.e. that Marlowe redrafted the A Text after its debut c. 1589, accounting for the B Text, which Bucchianeri speculates was performed later in 1592.

Comic scenes

In the past, it was assumed that the comic scenes were additions by other writers. However, most scholars today, such as Bucchianeri, consider the comedy an integral part of the play, as its tone shows the change in Faustus' ambitions, suggesting Marlowe did oversee the composition of them. [E.A. Bucchianeri: "Faust: My Soul be Damned for the World. Vol. I", Chapter 3]


"Doctor Faustus" is based on an older tale; it is believed to be the first dramatization of the Faust legend.

Some scholars believe that Marlowe developed the story from a popular 1592 translation, commonly called "The English Faust Book", ["The History of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor Iohn Faustus" by P.F. Ghent. The book is often described as a chapbook from its method of sale - it was distributed by itinerant peddlers called chapmen; there is an official 1528 Ingolstadt municipal reference to a "suspicious" Doctor Faustus; see also] of an earlier, unpreserved, German edition of 1587, which itself may have been influenced by even earlier, equally unpreserved pamphlets in Latin, such as those that likely inspired Jacob Bidermanns treatment of the damnation of the doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus (1602). Whatever the inspiration, the development of Marlowe's play is very faithful to the "Faust Book" of especially in the way it mixes comedy with tragedy.


Play Structure

The play is in blank verse and prose in thirteen scenes (1604) or twenty scenes (1616). Blank verse is largely reserved for the main scenes while prose is used in the comic scenes. Modern texts divide the play into 5 acts; act 5 being the shortest. As in many Elizabethan plays, there is a chorus who does not interact with the other characters but rather provides an introduction and conclusion to the play and gives an introduction to the events that have unfolded at the beginning of some acts.


Faustus learns necromancy

As a prologue, the Chorus tells us about the type of play "Doctor Faustus" is. It is not about war or courtly love, but rather about Faustus, who was born of lower class parents. This can be seen as a departure from the Medieval tradition; Faustus holds a lower status than kings and saints, but his story is still worth being told. It gives an introduction to his wisdom and abilities, most notably in divinity which he excels so tremendously that he is awarded a doctorate. During this opening, we also get our first clue to the source of Faustus' downfall. Faustus' tale is likened to that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death when the sun melted his waxen wings . This does indeed clue us to Faustus's end as well as bringing our attention to the idea of hubris (excessive pride) which is represented in the Icarus story. Faustus comments that he has reached the end of every subject he has studied. He dismisses Logic as being a tool for arguing; Medicine as being unvalued unless it allowed raising the dead and immortality; Law as being petty and below him; Divinity as useless because he feels that all humans commit sin, and thus to have sins punishable by death complicates the logic of Divinity. He dismisses it as "What doctrine call you this? Que Sera Sera (What will be, shall be)".

He calls upon his servant Wagner to bring forth Valdes and Cornelius, two famous magicians. The good angel and the bad angel dispense their own perspective of his interest in Magic. Though Faustus is momentarily dissuaded, proclaiming "How am I glutted with conceit of this?", he is apparently won over by the possibilities Magic offers to him. Valdes declares that if Faustus devotes himself to Magic, he must vow not to study anything else and points out that great things are indeed possible with someone of Faustus' standing.

Faustus' absence is noted by two scholars who are less accomplished than Faustus himself. They request that Wagner reveal Faustus' present location, a request which Wagner haughtily denies. We can see Wagner as a person who thinks very highly of himself. The two scholars worry about Faustus falling deep into the art of Magic and leave to inform the head of the university.

Faustus summons a devil, under the presence of Lucifer and other devils although Faustus is unaware of it. After creating a circle and speaking an incantation, a devil named Mephostophilis appears before him. Faustus is unable to tolerate the hideous looks of the devil and commands it to change its form to that of a Franciscan friar, a shape which "suits a demon best", an ironic statement used to mock religion. Faustus, in seeing the obedience of the devil (for changing form), takes pride in his skill. He tries to bind the devil to his service but is unable to because Mephostophilis already serves Lucifer, the prince of devils. Mephostophilis also reveals that it was not Faustus's power that summoned him but rather anyone that abjured the scriptures would result in the devil coming to claim one's soul.

Mephostophilis introduces the history of Lucifer and the other devils while indirectly telling Faustus that hell has no circumference and is more of a state of mind than a physical location. Faustus' inquiries into the nature of hell lead to Mephostophilis saying: "Oh Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, which strikes a terror to my fainting soul."

The pact with Lucifer

Using Mephostophilis as a messenger, Faustus strikes a deal with Lucifer: he is to be allotted twenty-four years of life on Earth, during which time he will have Mephostophilis as his personal servant. At the end he will give his soul over to Lucifer as payment and spend the rest of time as one damned to hell. This deal is to be sealed in Faustus' own blood. Interestingly, at first his blood congeals, leading to second thoughts by Faustus. After cutting a second time, Faustus finds the congealed blood on his arm has formed a Latin inscription instructing him to run away. Despite the dramatic nature of this obvious divine intervention, Faustus disregards the inscription with the presumption that he is already damned by his actions thus far, therefore left with no place to flee to. Mephostophilis brings coals to break the wound open again, and thus Mephostophilis begins his servitude and Faustus his oath.

Wasting his skills

Faustus begins by learning much about the sciences. He has an interesting debate with Mephostophilis regarding astronomy and the "nine spheres". Two angels, one good and one bad, appear to Faustus: the good angel urges him to repent and revoke his oath to Lucifer. This is the largest fault of Faustus throughout the play: he is blind to his own salvation. Though he is told initially by Mephostophilis to "leave these frivolous demands," Faustus remains set on his soul's damnation.

Lucifer brings to Faustus the personification of the seven deadly sins. Faustus recognizes these as detestable, but ignores the echo of his own 'detestable' life.

From this point until the end of the play, Faustus does nothing worthwhile, having begun his pact with the attitude that he would be able to do anything. Faustus appears to scholars and warns them that he is damned and will not be long on the earth. He gives a speech about how he is damned and eventually seems to repent for his deeds. Mephostophilis comes to collect his soul, and Faustus' dismembered body is found by his friends and colleagues.

Damnation or salvation

The text leaves Faustus' final confrontation with Mephostophilis offstage, and his final fate ambiguous. The scene following begins with Faustus' friends discovering his body parts strewn about the stage: from this they conclude that Faustus was damned. However, his friends decide to give him a due burial, a religious ceremony that hints at salvation. It should be noted that the discovery of the body parts is a scene present only in the later 'B text' of the play -- the earlier version of the play, in offering no direct evidence of Faustus' fate, is more ambiguous.


"Faustus" includes a well-known speech addressed to the summoned shade of Helen of Troy, in Act V, scene i. The following is from the Gutenberg project e-text of the 1616 quarto (with footnotes removed).


"Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships, And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?-- Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.-- [Kisses her.] Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!-- Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again. Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips, And all is dross that is not Helena. I will be Paris, and for love of thee, Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack'd; And I will combat with weak Menelaus, And wear thy colours on my plumed crest; Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel, And then return to Helen for a kiss. O, thou art fairer than the evening air Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars; Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter When he appear'd to hapless Semele; More lovely than the monarch of the sky In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms; And none but thou shalt be my paramour!"

Excerpts from this speech appear in the film "Shakespeare in Love" and the "" episode "The Squire of Gothos"; it also served as inspiration for the title of Volume 1 of the popular Age of Bronze comic book.

Another well-known quote comes after Faustus asks Mephostophilis how he is out of Hell, to which Mephostophilis replies

"Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God, And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, Am not tormented with ten thousand hells In being deprived of everlasting bliss?"

This quote comes from a translation of Saint John Chrysostom, and implies that Mephostophilis has both a deep knowledge of God and a desire to return to heaven.



*E.A. Bucchianeri. "Faust: My Soul be Damned for the World. Volume I." Bloomington, Indiana: Authorhouse, 2008. ISBN 9781434390608
* Chambers, E. K. "The Elizabethan Stage." 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
* Logan, Terence P., and Denzell S. Smith, eds. "The Predecessors of Shakespeare: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama." Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1973.

ee also

*Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris, line from the play
*Deal with the Devil

External links

* [ 1616 quarto online]

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