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Comic Scenes Of Dr Faustus Essays For Scholarships

This article is about the play by Christopher Marlowe. For other uses, see Doctor Faustus.

The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, commonly referred to simply as Doctor Faustus, is an Elizabethantragedy by Christopher Marlowe, based on German stories about the title character Faust, that was first performed sometime between 1588 and Marlowe's death in 1593. Two different versions of the play were published in the Jacobean era, several years later.[1]

The powerful effect of early productions of the play is indicated by the legends that quickly accrued around them—that actual devils once appeared on the stage during a performance, "to the great amazement of both the actors and spectators", a sight that was said to have driven some spectators mad.[2]


The Admiral's Men performed Doctor Faustus 25 times in the three years between October 1594 and October 1597. On 22 November 1602, the diary of Philip Henslowe recorded a £4 payment to Samuel Rowley and William Bird for additions to the play, which suggests a revival soon after that date.[2]

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 endeavours, like the founding of Dulwich College, in direct response to this incident.[2]


The play may have been entered into the Stationers' Register on 18 December 1592, though the records are confused and appear to indicate a conflict over the rights to the play. A subsequent Stationers' Register entry, dated 7 January 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 13 September 1610.[3]

The two versions[edit]

Two versions of the play exist:

  1. The 1604 quarto, printed by Valentine Simmes for Thomas Law; this is usually called the A text. The title page attributes the play to "Ch. Marl.". A second edition (A2) of first version was printed by George Eld for John Wright in 1609. It is merely a direct 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; usually called the B text. This second text was reprinted in 1619, 1620, 1624, 1631, and as late as 1663. Additions and alterations were made by the minor playwright and actor Samuel Rowley and by William Borne (or Birde), and possibly by Marlowe himself.[4]

The 1604 version was once believed to be closer to the play as originally performed in Marlowe's lifetime, simply because it was older. By the 1940s, after influential studies by Leo Kirschbaum[5] and W. W. Greg,[6] the 1604 version came to be regarded as an abbreviation and the 1616 version as Marlowe's original fuller version. Kirschbaum and Greg considered the A-text a "bad quarto", and thought that the B-text was linked to Marlowe himself. Since then scholarship has swung the other way, most scholars now considering the A-text more authoritative, even if "abbreviated and corrupt", according to Charles Nicholl.[7]

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.

Another difference between texts A and B is the name of the devil summoned by Faustus. Text A states the name is generally "Mephistopheles",[8] while the version of text B commonly states "Mephostophilis".[9] The name of the devil is in each case a reference to Mephistopheles in Faustbuch, the source work, which appeared in English translation in about 1588.[10][11]

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.[12]

Comic scenes[edit]

In the past, it was assumed that the comic scenes were additions by other writers. However, most scholars today consider the comic interludes, whoever wrote them, an integral part of the play.[13][14] Their tone shows the change in Faustus's ambitions, suggesting Marlowe did oversee the composition of them.[citation needed] The clown is seen as the archetype for comic relief.[citation needed]


Doctor Faustus is based on an older tale; it is believed to be the first dramatization of the Faust legend.[10] Some scholars[15] believe that Marlowe developed the story from a popular 1592 translation, commonly called The English Faust Book.[16] There is thought to have been an earlier, lost,[17] German edition of 1587, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten (chapbook), 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). Several soothsayers or necromancers of the late fifteenth century adopted the name Faustus, a reference to the Latin for "favoured" or "auspicious"; typical was Georgius Faustus Helmstetensis, calling himself astrologer and chiromancer, who was expelled from the town of Ingolstadt for such practices. Subsequent commentators have identified this individual as the prototypical Faustus of the legend.[18]

Whatever the inspiration, the development of Marlowe's play is very faithful to the Faust Book, especially in the way it mixes comedy with tragedy.[citation needed]

However, Marlowe also introduced some changes to make it more original. He made three main additions:

He also emphasised Faustus' intellectual aspirations and curiosity, and minimised the vices in the character, to lend a Renaissance aura to the story.


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 five acts; act 5 being the shortest. As in many Elizabethan plays, there is a chorus (which functions as a narrator), that does not interact with the other characters but rather provides an introduction and conclusion to the play and, at the beginning of some Acts, introduces events that have unfolded.

Along with its history and language style, scholars have critiqued and analysed the structure of the play. Leonard H. Frey wrote a document entitled “In the Opening and Close of Doctor Faustus,” which mainly focuses on Faustus's opening and closing soliloquies. He stresses the importance of the soliloquies in the play, saying: “the soliloquy, perhaps more than any other dramatic device, involved the audience in an imaginative concern with the happenings on stage”.[19] By having Doctor Faustus deliver these soliloquies at the beginning and end of the play, the focus is drawn to his inner thoughts and feelings about succumbing to the devil. The soliloquies have parallel concepts. In the introductory soliloquy, Faustus begins by pondering the fate of his life and what he wants his career to be. He ends his soliloquy with the solution and decision to give his soul to the devil. Similarly in the closing soliloquy, Faustus begins pondering, and finally comes to terms with the fate he created for himself. Frey also explains: “The whole pattern of this final soliloquy is thus a grim parody of the opening one, where decision is reached after, not prior to, the survey”.[20]


Faustus learns necromancy[edit]

In the prologue, The Chorus introduces the reader to Faustus and his story. He is described as being "base of stock"; however, his intelligence and scholarship eventually earns him the degree of a Doctor at the University of Wittenburg. During this opening, the reader also gets a first clue to the source of Faustus's downfall. Faustus's 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 is a hint to Faustus's end as well as bringing to the reader's attention the idea of hubris (excessive pride), which is represented in the Icarus story and ultimately Faustus'.

Faustus comments that he has mastered every subject he has studied. He depreciates Logic as merely being a tool for arguing; Medicine as being unvalued unless it allowed raising the dead and immortality; Law as being mercenary and beneath him; and 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).

Faustus instructs his servant Wagner to summon Valdes and Cornelius, a famous witchcrafter and magician, respectively. Two angels, called the Good Angel and the Bad Angel, appear to Faustus and dispense their own perspectives of his interest in magic and necromancy. Though Faustus seems momentarily dissuaded, he is apparently won over by the Bad Angel, proclaiming, "How am I glutted with conceit of this?" ("conceit" meaning the possibilities magic offers to him). Valdes and Cornnelius declare that if Faustus devotes himself to magic, great things are indeed possible with someone of Faustus' learning and intelligence.

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 at first haughtily denies, then bombastically reveals. The two scholars worry about Faustus being corrupted by the art of Magic and leave to inform the rector of the university.

That night, Faustus begins his attempt to summon a devil in the presence of Lucifer and other devils (although Faustus is unaware of their presence). After he creates a magic circle and speaks an incantation through which he revokes his baptism, a demon (a representative of the devil himself) named Mephistophilis appears before him, but Faustus is unable to tolerate the hideous looks of the demon and commands it to change its appearance. Faustus, seeing the obedience of the demon in changing its form, takes pride in his skill. He tries to bind the demon to his service, but is unable to because Mephistophilis already serves Lucifer, who is also called the Prince of Devils. Mephistophilis also reveals that it was not Faustus' power that summoned him but rather his abjuration of scriptures that results in the Devil coming in the hope of claiming Faustus' soul.

Mephistophilis introduces the history of Lucifer and the other devils while indirectly telling Faustus that Hell has no circumference nor limit and is more of a state of mind than a physical location. Faustus' inquiries into the nature of hell lead to Mephistophilis saying: "Oh, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, which strikes a terror to my fainting soul".

The pact with Lucifer[edit]

Using Mephistophilis as a messenger, Faustus strikes a deal with Lucifer: he is to be allotted 24 years of life on Earth, during which time he will have Mephistophilis as his personal servant and the ability to use magic; however, at the end he will give his body and soul over to Lucifer as payment and spend the rest of time as one damned to Hell. This deal is to be sealed in the form of a contract written in Faustus' own blood. After cutting his arm, the wound is divinely healed and the Latin words Homo, fuge! ("Man, flee!") then appear upon it.[21] Despite the dramatic nature of this divine intervention, Faustus disregards the inscription with the assertion that he is already damned by his actions thus far and therefore left with no place to which he could flee. Mephistophilis brings coals to break the wound open again, and thus Faustus is able to take his oath written in his own blood.

Wasting his skills[edit]

Faustus begins by asking Mephistophilis a series of science-related questions. However, the demon seems to be quite evasive and finishes with a Latin phrase, Per inoequalem motum respect totes ("through unequal motion with respect to the whole thing"). This sentence has not the slightest scientific value, thus giving the impression that Mephistophilis is untrustworthy.

Faustus then asks who made the world, a question which Mephistophilis refuses to answer (Mephistophilis knows that God made the world). When Faustus announces his intention to renounce magic and repent, Mephistophilis storms away. The good and evil angels return to Faustus: the Good Angel urges him to repent and recant his oath to Lucifer, but the Evil Angel sneers that Faustus will never repent. This is the largest fault of Faustus throughout the play: he is blind to his own salvation and remains set on his soul's damnation.

Lucifer, accompanied by Beelzebub and Mephistophilis, appears to Faustus and frightens him into obedience to their pact. Lucifer then, as an entertainment, brings to Faustus the personification of the seven deadly sins. Faustus fails to see them as warnings and ignores their implication.

From this point until the end of the play, although he gains great fame for his powers, Dr. Faustus does nothing worthwhile, having begun his pact with the attitude that he would be able to do anything. Instead, he merely uses his temporary powers for practical jokes and frivolous demonstrations to the nobility. Finally, with his allotted 24 years mostly expired and realizing that he has given up his soul for no good reason, 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.


At the end of the play, on the eleventh hour, Mephistophilis comes to collect Faustus' soul and Faustus is dragged off the stage to Hell by Mephistophilis and other devils even though Dr. Faustus tries to repent and beg for mercy from those devils. In the later 'B text' of the play, there is a subsequent scene [V.iii] where the three scholars discover his remains strewn about the stage: they state that Faustus was damned, one scholar declaring that the devils have torn him asunder, but they determine, because of Faustus' learning, to have him properly buried and mourned.[22] Mephistophilis says to Faustus in the A text 'What are thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die'

The Calvinist/anti-Calvinist controversy[edit]

The theological implications of Doctor Faustus have been the subject of considerable debate throughout the last century. Among the most complicated points of contention is whether the play supports or challenges the Calvinist doctrine of absolute predestination, which dominated the lectures and writings of many English scholars in the latter half of the sixteenth century. According to Calvin, predestination meant that God, acting of his own free will, elects some people to be saved and others to be damned – thus, the individual has no control over his own ultimate fate. This doctrine was the source of great controversy because it was seen by the so-called anti-Calvinists to limit man's free will in regard to faith and salvation, and to present a dilemma in terms of theodicy.

At the time Doctor Faustus was performed, this doctrine was on the rise in England, and under the direction of Puritan theologians at Cambridge and Oxford had come to be considered the orthodox position of the Church of England.[23] Nevertheless, it remained the source of vigorous and, at times, heated debate between Calvinist scholars, such as William Whitaker and William Perkins, and anti-Calvinists, such as William Barrett and Peter Baro.[24] The dispute between these Cambridge intellectuals had quite nearly reached its zenith by the time Marlowe was a student there in the 1580s, and likely would have influenced him deeply, as it did many of his fellow students.[25]

Concerning the fate of Faustus, the Calvinist concludes that his damnation was inevitable. His rejection of God and subsequent inability to repent are taken as evidence that he never really belonged to the elect, but rather had been predestined from the very beginning for reprobation.[26] In his Chiefe Points of Christian Religion, Theodore Beza, the successor to John Calvin, describes the category of sinner into which Faustus would most likely have been cast:

To conclude, they which are most miserable of all, those climb a degree higher, that their fall might be more grievous: for they are raised so high by some gift of grace, that they are little moved with some taste of the heavenly gift: so that for the time they seem to have received the seed...But this is plain, that the spirit of adoption, which we have said to be only proper unto them which are never cast forth, but are written in the secret of God's people, is never communicated to them, for were they of the elect they should remain still with the elect. All these therefore (because of necessity, and yet willingly, as they which are under the slavery of sin, return to their vomit, and fall away from faith) are plucked up by the roots, to be cast into the fire.[27]

For the Calvinist, Faustus represents the worst kind of sinner, having tasted the heavenly gift and rejected it. His damnation is justified and deserved because he was never truly adopted among the elect. According to this view, the play demonstrates Calvin's "three-tiered concept of causation," in which the damnation of Faustus is first willed by God, then by Satan, and finally, by himself.[28] As Calvin himself explains it in his Institutes of Christian Religion:

We see therefore that it is no absurdity, that one self act be ascribed to God, to Satan, and to man: but the diversity in the end and manner of doing, causeth that therein appeareth the justice of God to be without fault, and also the wickedness of Satan and man, bewrayeth itself to their reproach.[29]

The anti-Calvinist view, however, finds such thinking repugnant, and prefers to interpret Doctor Faustus as a criticism of such doctrines. One of the greatest critics of Calvinism in Marlowe's day was Peter Baro, who argued that such teachings fostered despair among believers, rather than repentance among sinners. He claimed, in fact, that Calvinism created a theodical dilemma:

What shall we say then? That this question so long debated of the Philosophers, most wise men, and yet undetermined, cannot even of Divines, and men endued with heavenly wisdom, be discussed and decided? And that God hath in this case laid a crosse upon learned men, wherein they might perpetually torment themselves? I cannot so think.[30]

Baro recognised the threat of despair which faced the Protestant church if it did not come to an agreement of how to understand the fundamentals. For him, the Calvinists were overcomplicating the issues of faith and repentance, and thereby causing great and unnecessary confusion among struggling believers. Faustus himself confesses a similar sentiment regarding predestination:

"The reward of sin is death." That's hard.
..."If we say that we have no sin,
We deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us."
Why then belike we must sin,
And so consequently die.
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this? Che sera, sera,
"What will be, shall be"? Divinity, adieu![31]


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 1604 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 Wertenberg 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!"

Another well-known passage comes after Faustus asks Mephistophiles how he (Mephistophiles) is out of Hell, to which Mephistophiles 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 the fallen angel Mephistophilis has both a deep knowledge of and longing for God, whom he still rebels against.

Themes and motifs[edit]

"Ravished" by magic (1.1.112), Faustus turns to the dark arts when law, logic, science, and theology fail to satisfy him. According to Charles Nicholl this places the play firmly in the Elizabethan period when the problem of magic ("liberation or damnation?") was a matter of debate, and when Renaissance occultism aimed at a furthering of science. Nicholl, who connects Faustus as a "studious artisan" (1.1.56) to the "hands-on experience" promoted by Paracelsus, sees in the former a follower of the latter, a "magician as technologist".[7]


Mephistophiles is a demon whom Faustus conjures up while first using magic. Readers initially feel sympathy for the demon when he attempts to explain to Faustus the consequences of abjuring God and Heaven. Mephistophiles gives Faustus a description of Hell and the continuous horrors it possesses; he wants Faustus to know what he is getting himself into before going through with the bargain:

“Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joy of heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands
Which strikes a terror to my fainting soul!” [32]

However, Faustus believes that supernatural powers are worth a lifetime in Hell:

“Say he (Faustus) surrender up to him (Lucifer) his soul
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness
Having thee (Mephistophiles) ever to attend on me” (Marlowe 15)

Some scholars[who?] argue that Mephistophiles depicts the sorrow that comes with separation from God. Mephistophiles is foreshadowing the pain Faustus would have to endure, should he go through with his plan.[33] In this facet, Faustus can be likened to Icarus, whose insatiable ambition was the source of his misery and the cause of his plight.


The first television adaptation was broadcast in 1947 by the BBC starring David King-Wood as Faustus and Hugh Griffith as Mephistopheles.

Another BBC television version was broadcast in 1958 and starred William Squire as Faustus in an adaptation by Ronald Eyre intended for schools.

In 1961, the BBC adapted the play for television as a two-episode production starring Alan Dobie as Faustus; this production was also meant for use in schools.

The play was adapted for the screen in 1967 by Richard Burton and Nevill Coghill, who based the film on an Oxford University Dramatic Society production in which Burton starred opposite Elizabeth Taylor as Helen of Troy.

On 24 December 1995, BBC Radio 3 broadcast an adaptation of the play with Stephen Moore as Faustus, Philip Voss as Mephistopheles and Maurice Denham as the Old Man. A second adaptation was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 23 September 2007, this time with Paterson Joseph as Faustus, Ray Fearon as Mephistopheles, Toby Jones as Wagner, Janet McTeer as the Evil Angel and Anton Lesser as the Emperor.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast a full radio adaptation of the play with Kenneth Welsh as Faustus and Eric Peterson as Mephistopheles and later released it on audio cassette (ISBN 978-0-660-18526-2) in 2001 as part of its "Great Plays of the Millennium" series.

Two live performances in London have been videotaped and released on DVD: one at the Greenwich Theatre in 2010 and one at the Globe Theatre in 2011 starring Paul Hilton as Faustus and Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles.

Critical history[edit]

Doctor Faustus has raised much controversy due to its alleged interaction with the demonic realm.[34] Before Marlowe, there were few authors who ventured into this kind of writing. After his play, other authors began to expand on their views of the spiritual world.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^Logan, Terence P.; Denzell S. Smith, eds. (1973). The Predecessors of Shakespeare: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. p. 14.  
  2. ^ abcChambers, Vol. 3, pp. 423–4.
  3. ^Chambers, Vol. 3, p. 422.
  4. ^Bevington and Rasmussen 72-73.
  5. ^Kirschbaum, Leo (1943). "Marlowe's Faustus: A Reconsideration". The Review of English Studies. 19 (75): 225–41. JSTOR 509485. 
  6. ^Greg, W. W. (1950). Marlowe's Doctor Faustus 1604-1616: Parallel Texts. Oxford: Clarendon. 
  7. ^ abNicholl, Charles (8 March 1990). "'Faustus' and the Politics of Magic". London Review of Books. pp. 18–19. Retrieved 11 May 2015. 
  8. ^Kendell, Monica (2003). Doctor Faustus the A text (A text ed.). United Kingdom: Longman. p. 1. ISBN 0-582-81780-3. 
  9. ^Bevington and Rasmussen xi.
  10. ^ abChristian, Paul (1952). The History and Practice of Magic. 1. Nichols, Ross (trans). London: Forge Press. p. 428.  
  11. ^Jones, John Henry (1994). The English Faust Book, a critical edition. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-521-42087-7. 
  12. ^Bellinger, Martha Fletcher (1927). A Short History of the Theatre. New York: Holt. pp. 207–13. Retrieved 14 January 2017. 
  13. ^Tromly, Frederic (1998). "Damnation as tantalization". Playing with desire: Christopher Marlowe and the art of tantalization. University of Toronto Press. p. 135. ISBN 978-0-8020-4355-9. 
  14. ^Cantor, Paul A (2004). "The contract from hell". In Heffernan, William C.; Kleinig, John. Private and public corruption. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 98. ISBN 978-0-7425-3492-6. 
  15. ^Leo Ruickbie, Faustus: The Life and Times of a Renaissance Magician (The History Press, 2009), p. 15
  16. ^The History of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor Iohn Faustus by P.F., Gent,
  17. ^Lohelin, James N. (2016). Marlowe: Doctor Faustus. London: Palgrave. p. 3. ISBN 978-1137426345. Retrieved 4 November 2016. 
  18. ^Keefer, Michael (2008). "Introduction". Doctor Faustus: a critical edition. Ontario: Broadview. pp. 67–8. 
  19. ^Frey, Leonard H. "ANTITHETICAL BALANCE IN THE OPENING AND CLOSE OF DOCTOR FAUSTUS." Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Saint Louis University, Saint Louis. 26 Mar 2009 <http://ezp.slu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=10044282&site=ehost-live> p350
  20. ^(352)
  21. ^Dr. Faustus unabridged (Dover Thrift Editions)
  22. ^Bevington and Rasmussen 46.
  23. ^p. 157. Milward, Peter. Religious Controversies of the Elizabethan Age: A Survey of Printed Sources. University of Nebraska Press, 1977.
  24. ^p. 157-163. Milward.
  25. ^p. 249. Princiss, G. M. "Marlowe's Cambridge Years and the Writing of Doctor Faustus." Studies in English Literature 33.2 (1993).
  26. ^Honderich, Pauline (1973). "John Calvin and Doctor Faustus". The Modern Language Review. 68 (1): 1–13. doi:10.2307/3726198. JSTOR 3726198. 
  27. ^5.5. Beza, Theodore. "A Brief Declaration of the Chief Points of Christian Religion Set Forth in a Table." 1575. Early English Books Online. 10 2 2007. http://eebo.chadwyck.com.
  28. ^p. 292. Stachniewski, John. The Persecutory Imagination: English Puritanism and the Literature of Religious Despair. Oxford University Press, 1991.
  29. ^2.4.2. Calvin, John. "The Institutes of Christian Religion." 1585. Early English Books Online. 10 2 2007. http://eebo.chadwyck.com.
  30. ^p. 510. Hyperius, Andreas. "A Special Treatise of God's Providence With an Appendix by Peter Baro." 1588. Early English Books Online. 10 2 2007. http://eebo.chadwyck.com.
  31. ^1.1.44–50.
  32. ^(Marlowe 14)
  33. ^(Snydre, Susan. "Marlowe's Doctor Faustus as an Inverted Saint's Life." Studies in Philology 63(1966): 565–577.)
  34. ^Hamlin, William M. (2001). "Casting Doubt in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus". Studies in English Literature: 257–75. 
  35. ^Hamlin 258.


  • 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.
  • Marlowe, Christopher (1962). Bevington, David; Rasmussen, Eric, eds. Doctor Faustus, A- and B-texts (1604, 1616). Manchester: U of Manchester P. pp. 72–73. 

External links[edit]

Works based on Faust

Folk legend
Seminal works
  • Faust (1816, Spohr)
  • La damnation de Faust (1846, Berlioz)
  • Faust (1859, Gounod)
  • Mefistofele (1868, Boito)
  • Faust and Marguerite (1855, Lutz)
  • Faust up to Date (1888, Lutz)
  • Doktor Faust (1916–25, Busoni)
  • Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1938)
  • The Rake's Progress (1951, Stravinsky)
  • Reuben, Reuben (1955)
  • Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1994)
  • Faustus, the Last Night (2006)
Classical music

In this essay undergraduate Stephanie Bain looks at the tradition of occult magic in Marlowe's time. Dr Faustus has things in common with high-minded philosophy aiming to extend the potential of human beings, but it also has things in common with forms of witchcraft that were feared and condemned in the period. In the end, Stephanie wonders whether Marlowe may be making a rather sharp point about how people who thought they knew about magic and witchcraft probably knew very little indeed.

A Storm At Sea

The title page from James VI and I, Daemonologie (London, 1603). The work was first printed in Edinburgh six years earlier.

In 1590 King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) was travelling home from a winter in Denmark when he was caught in a violent sea storm. By the time he eventually reached the shore of Scotland, he had apparently become paranoid about his own mortality and convinced of a supernatural plot against him. A number of Scots were interrogated and subsequently found guilty of treason for melting a wax effigy to raise the storm. Three hundred 'witches' were accused of plotting to kill James. James' interest in witchcraft was sparked by private fears and suspicions, but in publishing a tract called Daemonologie in 1597 he attempted to harness these personal demons in the name of contemporary scholarship. He can be credited with making and raising of spirits a hot topic at the end of the sixteenth century, when the theatres became filled with ghosts, witches, and devils. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was first performed in 1594, followed by William Shakespeare's Macbeth (c. 1605) and Thomas Middleton's The Witch (c. 1613). Ben Jonson's early for the Stuart court, The Masque of Queens (1609), featured a dance of witches who appear with snakes and rats on their heads. Putting evil spirits on stage ensured commercial success, and this theatrical popularity also increased interest in a very different concept of Renaissance magic.

Occult Philosophy

The fantastic visions of witches and demons imagined by James VI and others were not the only kind of magic on offer. Renaissance occult philosophy was an established branch of intellectual thought, which drew together with .

The occult philosophers believed that through rigorous study man could realise his full potential and unite with the mind of God. He could then practice what was known as theurgic magic. Theurgic magic was basically seen as 'good' or 'white' magic, involving communion with the divine and the conjuring of angelic spirits to produce wonderful effects. In Doctor Faustus, Marlowe's protagonist has been particularly associated with one of the leading occult philosophers, Cornelius Agrippa. In Act 1 of Doctor Faustus the similarities between Faustus' desires and ideas presented in Agrippa's De occulta philosophia (On occult philosophy), can help us to see the philosophical basis of Faustus' conjuring.

The title page of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, De occulta philosophia libri tres (1551).

In De occulta, Agrippa sets out strict guidelines for the type of man suited to occult investigations: he must have a good grasp of philosophy, mathematics and theology. Faustus shows himself to be qualified in his first speech. He shows an awareness of Aristotle (philosophy), Galen (medicine), Justinian (law) and Scripture (theology) and at the end of the speech he wants to move beyond this learning:

All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces
Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that does excel in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man: (Act 1, Scene 1, 56-61)

When researching this topic I was struck with the similarity between these lines and the catalogue of feats attributed to occult philosophers in De occulta. Agrippa and his followers believed that an experienced practitioner of magic could conjure spirits to command the elements. The last line shows Faustus thinking of magic, like Agrippa, as a way for man to explore the utmost limits of his potential.

However, the occult philosophers gave a strict warning against conjuring without adequate learning or correct motivation. This is particularly important in the play, as Faustus is such an ambiguous figure. His interest in the occult is encouraged by Valdes and Cornelius, who represent ideal occult philosophers (one of whom shares Agrippa's first name), but Faustus misunderstands the basic tenet of Renaissance magic: the goal of communion with the divine.

Philosophy is odious and obscure,
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
Divinity is basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vile.
'Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me. (Act 1, Scene 1, 106-110)

His rejection of Divinity shows that the 'magic' that has 'ravished' Faustus is not the intellectual philosophy of the Neoplatonists, but a different notion of bad or black magic - the type that terrified James VI. Here the play seems to veer off almost into a different genre. Devils appear on stage and the play becomes a comic , close to the rat-wearing witches of Jonson's Masque of Queens. The arrival of Mephastophilis is followed by Faustus' transformation into prankster and conman, a shift typical of sensationalist supernatural drama of the period. Witchcraft, although initially frightening, is revealed to be merely ridiculous and no more threatening than petty crime.

Diagrams from Agrippa's De occulta philosophia libri tres.

Different Kinds of 'Spirit'

I noticed that this split, between serious 'philosophy' and comic 'witchcraft', is accompanied by a change in the the language of the play, especially in the use of the word 'spirit'. Neoplatonic philosophers recognised different types of spirit. Angelic or planetary spirits could be conjured and controlled by the skilled philosopher through theurgic ('good') magic. The opposite might happen, however, and an inept practitioner could become controlled by malignant spirits. Faustus, of course, experiences both. The first appearance of the good and evil angels follows Faustus' long speech which ends:

A sound magician is a mighty god,
Here Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity (Act1, Scene 1, 62-63)

The first line suggests Faustus' misunderstanding of magic and a desire to surpass God, yet the second line could refer to the use of occult philosophy to unite with the mind of God. This ambiguity is dramatized in the dialogue of the two angels. The first dialogue between the angels ends in Faustus' exclaiming:

Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please
Resolve me of all ambiguities,
Perform what desperate enterprise I will? (Act 1, Scene 1, 79-81)

As we have seen, the ability to command spirits was among the abilities of the good occult philosopher and at this point Faustus appears also to have an goal to his desires: he wishes to resolve all ambiguities and understand all that is possible to know. The scene ends with his intention to 'canvas every quiddity' (165). Many of Faustus' other desires, however, resemble the kind of fantastic plans found in witch trials from the 1590s onwards, like flying to India or drying up the sea.

The second time Faustus appears, after the philosophers Valdes and Cornelius have disappeared from the play, Marlowe makes a subtle change from 'spirit' to 'devil', as Faustus prepares to conjure Mephastophilis:

Faustus begin thine incantations
And try if devils will obey thy hest. (Act 1, Scene 3, 5-6)

The good spirits of the occult philosophers are replaced by the devils of the witchcraft texts. From this point 'spirit' and 'devil' are used interchangeably to refer to evil, non-human beings. If you are able to watch a production of Dr Faustus you will notice that as the play continues the stage becomes increasingly populated by these 'devils'. Faustus himself becomes a spirit, Alexander, his paramour and Helen are all spirits. It is with Helen that the two concepts of magic are recombined. Faustus prepare to embrace his fantasy woman with the famous line:

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss ,
Her lips sucks forth my soul, see where it flies! (Act 5, Scene 12, 83-84)

By presenting Helen as a communing with Faustus, Marlowe stages one of the most horrifying features that appeared in witchcraft confessions: sexual intercourse with demons. Critics such as Walter Greg have suggested that it is this that marks the moment of complete damnation for Faustus. However, I find it very intriguing that at this moment, Marlowe's language reaches back to occult philosophy. 'Make me immortal with a kiss' is unusual because the Cabbalists described the mystical union of human soul with God as 'the death of the kiss'.

So Is The Play Confused?

The finger is not pointed at Agrippa.

I've presented the play as veering from a personal tragedy of ambition and misunderstanding, to a comic burlesque on a fashionable theme and then back to philosophical tragedy again. I've suggested that Marlowe combines two completely opposite concepts of magic. This all sounds a bit muddled, but is it possible that Marlowe is doing something quite subversive? James VI intended his Daemonologie to be a serious contribution to occult philosophy. Similarly Faustus can be seen not as a qualified occult philosopher but as a bumbling amateur. He is a man driven by his intellectual aspirations, but without the required rigorous application he falls subject to his own fantasies. The finger is pointed, not at Cornelius Agrippa and his followers, but at the soon to be king of England. Dr Faustus, like Macbeth, shares the excitement embodied in James' demonology obsession, but it represents much more than Marlowe pandering to that interest. Instead, the power is placed in the playwright's pen.

Further Reading

  • Henry Cornelius Agrippa, De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three Books of Occult Philosophy), trans James Freake, ed. Donald Tyson (St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn, 1993). This is huge and quite a lot of it sounds like nonsense today, but it is useful to dip into this primary source to get an understanding of the ambition and aims of the occult philosophers. Book 3 Part 4 is most relevant to Dr Faustus, particularly 'Of Natural Magick' and 'Of Theurgrie'. There are a number of readable versions online.
  • W. W. Greg, 'The Damnation of Faustus', Modern Language Review, 41 (1946), 97-107. This is a crucial text in Dr Faustus criticism. Greg considers Helen's demonic kiss to be the key to Faustus' damnation. He explores this idea by paying close attention to Marlowe's language.
  • Frances A. Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge, 2001). This fascinating book gives a detailed overview of magic and occultism in Renaissance thought. It gives clear explanations of the way Neoplatonic ideas combined with notions from Christian cabbala and profiles of key figures such as Agrippa and John Dee. Yates also relates her ideas to a number of literary texts of the period, including Dr Faustus.

Further Thinking

Stephanie Bain's mention of 'burlesque' draws attention to the fact that many of the things achieved by Faustus' magic are rather farcical. How do you think the audience is meant to react to these moments (e.g. the humiliation of the Pope)?

At the end of her essay Stephanie suggests that Faustus might be a 'bumbling amateur' rather than a profound philosopher or a devilish monster. What difference does this make to your sense of the play as a tragedy?

A form of fortune telling by summoning the dead. 'Nigromancy', derived from 'niger' (black), suggests the practice was understood as 'black magic' which achieved its effects through evil spirits.

A kind of entertainment performed at the royal court which combined music, dance and poetry and usually involved elaborate costumes and backdrops.

A form of philosophy developed in 3rd century AD by a thinker called Plotinus who adapted some ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato. The basic idea is that everything that exists comes from one world source and that the aim of the soul is to reunite with this 'One'. In the Renaissance some Neoplatonic thinkers believed that magical practices could aid the soul's development towards this goal.

Renaissance scholarship increased access to previously unknown Greek and Hebrew texts. Thus some Renaissance thinkers became intrigued by the mystical aspects of Jewish texts (Kabbala was originally a form of Jewish mysticism), particularly with the emphasis on personal religious experience through conversion, miracles or meditation. They attempted to apply the concepts to Christian doctrine.

BURLESQUE - a comic imitation of a serious subject matter or artistic form, as occurs when the tragedy gets waylaid by Faustus tricking the Pope

Relating to the theory and acquisition of knowledge.

A female demon that drains the energy out of men to the point of death. There is a sexual aspect to this exchange and some believed that the demon may actually metamorphose into a beautiful woman in order to seduce her victim.

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