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Doctor Faustus

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Doctor Faustus

Ever thought of signing your soul over to the devil for a bit of extra knowledge? Probably not. But you aren't Doctor Faustus – Wittenberg's greatest scholar – who believes he has just about learned everything there is to know about anything. What's left? Magic, of course, but learning the powers of the dark arts always comes at a cost.

Although no dates are certain, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus had already been performed for over fifteen years before it was published in 1604 due to high public demand, and that's just the first edition, known as the A text. The revised (and much longer) B text followed in 1616, and featured a lot of significant changes. Considering both texts were published long after Marlowe's death in 1593, the authorship is difficult to pinpoint, and the authenticity of either text is hard to verify.

Doctor Faustus is actually based on a German story. The original Germany legend, Faust, was published anonymously in 1587, with an English translation in 1592. Alongside Marlowe's version, the play has numerous in adaptations, including Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe's 1808 play (Faust, Part One and Faust, Part Two), and Thomas Mann's 1947 novel adaptation (Doctor Faustus).

The legend of Faust is so embedded in history and culture that it even has it's own dictionary definition! To be Faustian means to go against your morals for a chance at power and success.

Doctor Faustus: author

Born in Canterbury in 1564 – the same year as Shakespeare – Marlowe studied at Cambridge before beginning his career as a playwright. He was immensely popular in the Renaissance era, second only to Shakespeare himself, and wrote a total of seven plays before his untimely death in 1593 after being stabbed under mysterious circumstances. While the popular consensus is that Marlowe was stabbed during a simple bar fight, some suspect that he was in fact a secret agent, and that his execution was planned! How sinister!

The Renaissance era originated in 15th century Italy, spreading throughout Europe, and bringing with it a new way of thinking. People were focused on human progress, science, theology and the natural world around them.

Doctor Faustus: summary

German scholar Doctor Faustus believes that he has learned everything that conventional human studies have to offer, and so decides to delve into magic. A Good and Evil Angel appear, with the Good Angel telling Faustus not to pursue sorcery, and the Evil Angel arguing that it’s a good idea. Faustus goes ahead, summoning Mephistopheles, eventually settling on an offer to propose to Lucifer; in exchange for his soul, he will receive 24 years of immense power and knowledge.

Did you know? The name 'Lucifer' is just another way to say 'the Devil'.

'Mephistopheles' is now a commonly used name to mean 'demon', but the character in the original Faust was the first time the character had been used in this way.

Lucifer accepts Faustus’ offer, and the agreement is signed in blood. Faustus is warned of the dangers and has second thoughts once more, but Mephistopheles provides him with riches, and gives him a book of spells. Faustus continues to ignore the Good Angel and agrees not to think of God again after intimidation from Mephistopheles.

In the meantime, Robin – the play's clown – has found one of Faustus’ books, using it to learn magic of his own. He casts several unfortunate spells, humorously mishandles the books power, and even comically summons a frustrated Mephistopheles.

Faustus travels around Europe, using his magic to impress people and play tricks. He steals food and boxes the ears of the Pope while invisible, summons Alexander the Great to impress Charles V, and punishes a knight for laughing at him by making him grow antlers. When a group complain to the authorities, Faustus dazzles the Duke with magic and sends the angry mob away, humiliated.

With Faustus’ time running out, he becomes concerned, but still doesn’t repent, only choosing to do so when it is far too late. Once his time is up, a group of devils arrive at midnight, dragging him down to hell. The Chorus reminds us of the wasted potential of Faustus and asks us to heed the moral lessons learned from his downfall.

The Chorus is the narrator of the story. They are the third party that comment on the narrative from an outsider's perspective, and will give us the key moral lessons of the story.

Doctor Faustus: characters

Let's take a look at some of the important characters in Doctor Faustus.

Doctor Faustus

The play’s tragic hero – a scholar with supreme intelligence – who becomes bored with the confines of regular knowledge and resolves to delve into evil magic. Faustus makes a pact with Lucifer, selling his soul for 24 years of limitless power. He indulges in his newfound knowledge, only realising his mistake when his time is up, leading him to desperately try to repent before being dragged down to hell.

Mephistopheles

After Faustus delves into magic and necromancy, Mephistopheles is the devil that he summons, the motives of whom are unclear. On one hand, he serves Faustus, distracting and mocking him when he attempts to repent, and ultimately aims to collect Faustus’ soul for Lucifer. On the other hand, he tells Faustus he hates his role, and initially tries to warn Faustus of the eternal suffering of Hell. In this way, he can also be seen as a tragic figure, forced to carry out his role in the pact despite the misery it causes him.

Good Angel and Evil Angel

Whenever Faustus is uncertain, and has conflicting emotions, the two angels appear and provide their input. The Good Angel offers Faustus the chance to repent, while the Evil angel attempts to convince him to sell his soul.

The Angels in Doctor Faustus are representative of Faustus' conscience, but on the stage, the pair would be played by two real actors.

The Chorus

As the narrator of the story, the Chorus provides insight to the audience from outside of the narrative, and teaches us the moral lessons of the story.

Robin

The Stable hand that stumbles across a magic book and engages in multiple comic escapades that act as the comic subplot against Faustus’ serious magic.

Doctor Faustus: setting

Doctor Faustus is primarily set in Wittenberg, Germany, which is forever remembered as the home of Martin Luther - the leading figure in the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation was a movement throughout all of Europe that involved the creation of a new branch of Christianity called Protestantism. The Protestants believed in a different religious doctrine, and so distanced themselves from the Roman Catholic Church, creating the divide between Protestant and Catholic we know today.

If we consider it a town of conflicting, radical religious and scientific opinion, what could the significance be of having Wittenberg, Germany as the backdrop for the play? Is it an appropriate setting for Faustus' own conflicting beliefs?

Faustus also travels around the globe, stopping off in Rome, Spain and even visiting the stars. Marlowe is no stranger to interesting locations, but don't be fooled - the majority of the play is actually set within the confines of Faustus' study in Wittenberg.

A study may seem tame compared to the exotic settings typical of the Renaissance era, but remember that Doctor Faustus is primarily the story of one man. Aside from his petty pranks and trickery, no one is hurt by Faustus but himself. In this way the study provides a perfect backdrop for the religious and academic debates that the play is concerned with.

Doctor Faustus: themes

Let's take a look at some of the key themes in Doctor Faustus.

Sin vs repentance

The play sees Doctor Faustus engaging in the worst sin possible in Christianity – pledging his soul to the devil – creating the expectation that Faustus will be damned to hell once his 24 years are up. However, the opportunity for redemption in Christianity shines through, as Faustus is repeatedly offered the chance to repent and be accepted by God. All he would have to do, in theory, is ask God for his forgiveness. He repeatedly refuses to do this, and it is only when he has refused the chance of redemption multiple times that God turns his back and Faustus can no longer be saved

Free will vs fate

Did Faustus make his own choices when it came to eternally damning himself? It certainly seems so. The Good Angel gave him many chances to repent and he didn’t take them, so it seems likely it was all his own fault. However, Calvinist theology would argue that Faustus’ free will was an illusion all along, and that his path had already been chosen by God.

Calvinism - A significant branch of the Protestant Christians – led by John Calvin – and one of the key branches of the Reformation Era. Calvinists believed that God is all powerful and chooses the fate of man, predetermining whether they will be damned or saved.

What’s more, different versions of the text suggest different things. In the A text, the Good Angel says it isn't too late for Faustus 'if he will repent’ (A text, Act 2, Scene 2) – suggesting that the choice is his – and in the B text the Good Angel says it isn't too late for Faustus ‘if he can repent’ (B text, Act 2, Scene 2), implying that he may not have a say in the matter at all. The question must be asked: did Faustus have a say in his fate, or not?

Medieval world vs Renaissance world

One of the key themes in Doctor Faustus is the battle between Medieval and Renaissance values. Religion was firmly at the centre of all things in Medieval Europe – the individual was of less importance than God – and those who sinned would be condemned and sent to hell.

Doctor Faustus, with his desire to push his knowledge to the extreme outside of the confines of religion, is representative of the quintessential renaissance man. Despite this, he is firmly within a Medieval world, and is punished by God as a result. This clash of values can be viewed in different ways. Is Marlowe implying that those who attempt to push the limits will be punished for it, and therefore cautioning against the reckless ambition of Faustus? Could he instead be showing us a sympathetic, tragic hero, unfairly punished for attempting to achieve greatness in line with Renaissance thinking? It's a hot topic, and definitely up for debate!

Doctor Faustus: important quotes

Let's analyse some of the key quotes within the text.

The reward of sin is death? That’s hard.Si peccasse negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veritas.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.

- Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1

Here Faustus quotes the first book of John in the Bible, which says that the reward of sin is death. Faustus argues that everybody sins at some point in their life, and as the result of all sin is death, all that Christianity can offer us is death. Faustus uses this to justify selling his soul to Lucifer.

What's more important is the following line in the first book of John – which Faustus conveniently forgets to recite – which says that once we confess our sins God will be 'faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness' (1 John 1:9)1. Marlowe implies that as long as Faustus were to confess and repent, he would be saved. Faustus ignores this possibility of redemption, foreshadowing the rest of the play, where he will disregard the Good Angel's pleas for him to repent.

MEPHISTOPHELES.: Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed

In one self-place; for where we are is hell,And where hell is, there must we ever be.. . .All places shall be hell that is not heaven.FAUSTUS: Come, I think hell’s a fable.MEPHISTOPHELESs.: Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind.

- Mephistopheles, Act 2, Scene 1

Mephistopheles gives Faustus a clear warning that hell is terrible, but Faustus wilfully ignores it, implying that he is making his own decision to be ignorant about the danger he is in. In his assertion that 'hell's a fable' we also see Faustus portrayed as the typical non-religious man of the Renaissance era, who believes in human progress outside of the confines of traditional religion, placing him as a Renaissance figure in a Medieval world.

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,And burnèd is Apollo's laurel-boughThat sometime grew within this learnèd man.

- Chorus, Epilogue

This quote brings attention to the role the chorus plays in teaching the moral lesson of the play, as they insist that Faustus was full of potential and could have grown into something more, like a branch that has been cut before it could fully grow. The use of the word 'might' also links the quote to the free will argument as it suggests that Faustus was not doomed by God from the start, and instead made the choices that led to him being carried off to hell.

Doctor Faustus - key takeaways

  • Doctor Faustus was written by Christopher Marlowe, and first published in 1604.
  • The text had existed as a play for over fifteen years before it was published after Marlowe's death in 1593.
  • The text has two versions, an A text and B text, with the latter published in 1616.
  • The play is set in Wittenberg, home of radical religion, where Martin Luther split the Protestants from the Catholics.
  • The main themes of the play are sin vs repentance, free will vs fate, and the Medieval world vs the Renaissance world.

1 Crossway Bibles, ESV: Study Bible : English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 1 John 1:9 (2007).

Frequently Asked Questions about Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus tells the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil for a chance at immense power, dealing with dilemmas surrounding sin, repentance, and free will.

Faustus sells his soul in exchange for 24 years of power, uses it to play petty tricks and perform feats of magic. He refuses to repent until it is much too late, and he is dragged down to hell. 

The main theme in Doctor Faustus is religious, sin and repentance, and all of the moral questions surrounding man's relationship to God.

The message in Doctor Faustus is to never let ambition and greed get in the way of purity and morality. Being good matters more than being powerful.

Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus to challenge his Renaissance audience by provoking them to judge Faustus, and religion, for themselves.

Final Doctor Faustus Quiz

Question

Who created the play Doctor Faustus?

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Answer

Christopher Marlowe

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Question

In what year was Doctor Faustus first published?

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Answer

1604

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Question

Who is the devil that Faustus summons?

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Answer

Mephistophilis

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Question

Which of these is not a key theme in Doctor Faustus?

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Answer

Revenge

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Question

Which character acts as the play's clown?

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Answer

Robin

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Question

Where is the play set?

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Answer

Wittenberg, Germany

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Question

Which religious branch would argue that Faustus' fate was sealed and that he had no free will?

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Answer

Calvinism

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Question

How long does Faustus have his immense power before the devils come to collect his soul?

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Answer

24 years

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Question

In which country did the Renaissance era originate?

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Answer

Italy

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Question

How much earlier was the play performed before it was published as a text?

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Answer

15 years

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Question

Which character provides the external narration for the play?

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Answer

The Chorus

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