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. On a deeper level, this play shows the decay of a person who chooses material gains (by commanding the devils to suit his desires) over spiritual belief and in so doing loses his soul. 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.
The two versions
Two versions of the play exist, one published in 1604 and the other in 1616. 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 text 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.
In the past, it was assumed that the low comic scenes were additions by other writers. However, most scholars today consider the comedy an integral part of the play, as its pettiness shows the decay of Faustus's ambitions.
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, 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 Bidermann's 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 1592, especially in the way it mixes comedy with tragedy.
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 is 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.
Chorus: Serve as introduction and information of events that has taken place in the play
Darius: King of Persia, Defeated by Alexander in 334 BC. Conjured by Faustus
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 is likened to the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with his waxen wings and as a result fell to his death when the sun melted the wax. 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, for instance, the skill of argumentative attributed to Logic. 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 if we all have sins, which meant it was inevitable, and thus be awarded death as a result of sin, makes Divinity as having no sense. He dismisses it as "What doctrine call you this? Che Sera Sera (What will be, shall be)".
He calls upon his servant Wagner to bring forth Valdes and Cornelius, two famous magicians schooled in the art of Magic. The good angel and the bad angel dispenses 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's standing.
Faustus's absence is noted by two scholars who are less accomplished than Faustus himself. They request of Wagner, Faustus's present location, to which Wagner haughtily replies back. We can see Wagner as a person who deems himself of significant social standing. The two scholars worry about Faustus falling deep into the art of Magic and leave to inform the head of the university about it.
Faustus summons a devil, under the presence of Lucifer and other devils although Faustus is unaware of it. With a circle and a ritual speech proclaimed, a devil named Mephistopilis appears before him, to which Faustus who is unable to tolerate the hideous looks of the devil, commands it to change its form to a Franciscan friar. It would seem Faustus is either deliberately unwilling or simply unable to see things the way they are. Faustus, in seeing the obedience of the devil (for changing form), takes pride in his skill and perhaps his inherent talent. He tries to bind the devil to his service but is unable to because Mephistophilis serves Lucifer the prince of devils. Mephistophilis 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 get one's soul.
Mephistophilis introduces the history of Lucifer and the other devils while indirectly cluing Faustus that hell has no circumference and is more of a state of mind as opposed to a place. Faustus's questioning of hell leads to Mephistophilis saying: "Oh Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, which strikes a terror to my fainting soul." Although it can be said that Mephistophilis is sympathizing or advising Faustus for the better, it seems highly unlikely because it would be inconsistent with Mephistophilis's character in the play. Mephistophilis seems to imply that Faustus's questioning has reminded Mephistophilis of his origins.
The pact with Lucifer
Using Mephistophilis as a messenger, Faustus strikes a deal with Lucifer: that he is to be allotted twenty-four years of life on Earth, during which time he will have Mephistophilis as his personal servant, and, at the end of which, he will give his soul over to Lucifer as payment and spend the rest of time as one of the damned in hell. This deal is supposed to be cemented in the form of Faustus' own blood. Interestingly, at first his blood congeals, leading to second thoughts by Faustus. Mephistophilis brings coals to break the wound open again, and thus Mephistophilis begins his servitude and Faustus his oath.
Wasting his skills
Faustus begins by learning much about the sciences. He has an interesting debate with Mephistophilis regarding astronomy and the "nine spheres". Two angels, good and bad, appear to Faustus giving him the chance to repent and rebuke his oath with Lucifer. This is the largest fault of Faustus throughout the play, that he is blind to his own salvation. Though he is told initially by Mephistophilis to "leave these frivolous demands, Which strike a terror to my fainting soul," Faustus remains set on his soul damnation.
Lucifer brings to Faustus the personification of the seven deadly sins. Faustus recognizes these as detestable, not pleasing, but ignores the echo of his own 'detestable' life.
A humorous interchange occurs shortly thereafter where Faustus visits the Pope in Rome. Faustus turns invisible and steals the Pope's food from in front of his face. Later, he impresses the Duke of Vanholt by conjuring spirits from Troy.
From this point until the end of the play, Faustus does nothing of worth, having started Mephistophilis' servitude 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. However, Mephistophilis comes and Faustus appears to leave willingly for his eternal damnation.
Unlike later adaptations of the legend, notably that of Goethe, Marlowe's Faustus pays the price of his diabolical deal and is irrevocably damned.
The play asks serious questions about humanity's relationship with God. In the first scene, Faustus believes that if we all have sins, sin is inevitable, and it is thus implausible that God would punish us for sin. This helps one to conclude if Faustus, who abandons divinity for the devil, was at fault to begin with. This is because it evokes his false notion that in the story of Adam and Eve, if the Creator -being all knowing as well as omnipotent- knew that Adam would sin in the end, he should have made Adam resilient to it (or rather make him of better stuff). This would lead one to think (wrongly) that if that were so, it would be the Creator's fault as opposed to Adam simply because the Creator gave him the ability to sin. This of course is flawed reasoning because it neglects to point out the Creator's desire for those who will love him by choice, rather than by default. Indeed the play of Doctor Faustus provokes thought on many interesting concepts like these.
Faustus's flawed conclusions are the result of self-selective interpretations and act as a consolation for Faustus. This is because Faustus as a renaissance man, is pressured by the environment he is in. Men who serve the community over God are acknowledged and given high esteem. On top of that, the renaissance meant the discovery of the world and man. It made it possible for a man of humble origin to carve a status of power and affluence. Faustus is influenced by the environment –an individual and its society- to carve out greater fame. Apparently, he is not rewarded accordingly or in proportion to his efforts and hence turns to the art of Magic which he says promises power and honour to the studious artisan.
Faustus includes a well-known speech addressed to the summoned shade of Helen of Troy, in Act V, scene i. The following text is from the Gutenberg project e-text of the 1616 quarto (with footnotes removed).
FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
The speech is today best known to contemporary audiences from the audition scene in the film Shakespeare in Love. Also, the first three lines were quoted by Trelane in the Star Trek episode "The Squire of Gothos".