Remarks on Doctor Faustus

Originality Then and Now

We have already seen that the story of Tamburlaine was based on a historical figure, and to a large extent taken from what amounted to a travelogue by the Spanish ambassador to Tamburlaine. The story of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was to an even greater extent based on the very recent translation of a lengthy German story. Marlowe's play is what we today might call an adaptation for the stage of the English Faustus Book, where he added and reinterpreted in his distinctly personal style. In Elizabethan times originality was not pursued with as much enthusiasm as it is now. In fact, the education of boys (those who were well off or fortunate enough to be educated) employed the imitation of classical authors to teach Latin and the very important art of rhetoric. Shakespeare, too, borrowed directly from many sources in a substantial number of his plays. This is obvious in his history plays, but is also true in - among others - the dark comedy, The Merchant of Venice.

The English Faust Book

The original Faust story was written in German and published in 1587 in Frankfurt. It made its way quickly into English, entitled, The History of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus. This translation is attributed to P.F. Gent., not otherwise identified, and became available in England in 1592 or perhaps a few years earlier. It is long, the better part of one hundred pages. We don't know just when Marlowe encountered it. If not until 1592 then he must have pounced on this opportunity since he died in May 1593. The Faust Book is (as one critic has put it) horrifying and titillating. Devils, angels, sorcery, sex ... it's all there for the good burghers and their English counterparts to read, knowing that Faustus' horrible end provides the sanctimonious setting for the episodes of bedding multiple beautiful women. We can be sure that no English women were allowed to read this scandalous book. It is not particularly original, owing much of its content to the many stories about the Simon Magus who appears in the New Testament book, Acts of the Apostles. Simon Magus was the object of a considerable amount of writing for hundreds of years as well as subject for Renaissance paintings, although the stories of him and his actions are far from consistent. Everyone does seem to agree that he was a very accomplished magician and theological troublemaker. Perhaps surprisingly, there actually was a real Dr. Faustus, who died around 1540. This fellow was evidently quite a character and reasonably well described by the German Faust Book. Between Simon Magus, Dr. Faustus, and the willingness of people to believe in magic, the Faust Book was a best-seller for sure.

You should keep in mind that works like this (of which there were quite a few) were not thought of as fiction. While full of titillating and, in other circumstances, possibly forbidden matters, these works were didactic - they were there to teach that the wages of sin were damnation. Excuse me please, as I wander a bit, but the Tudor view of history was that it was there to teach, and if the writer chose to be a bit creative and free with facts, dates, and so on, that was ok.

It's not hard to see why the English Faust Book would have appealed to Marlowe. As with the historical Tamburlaine, Faust had been born into a commonplace family. As a young child, Faust had been adopted by a well-to-do uncle and, his intelligence recognized, had been sent to university where he was at the top of his class (borrowing a modern phrase). Tamburlaine, too, distinguished himself. Both Tamburlaine and Faust were "socially mobile," successfully contesting the class-based restrictions of their times. Just the right material for Marlowe, who himself had been born into a commonplace family, and who was not shy about revealing his resentment against having to beg for patronage (see the material on Tamburlaine for more on that). And further, considering Marlowe's reputation for brash behavior, we see the same of Faust. In Chapter 1 of the Faust Book we learn that "within short time after he had obtained his degree [as Doctor of Divinity], fell into such fantasies and deep cogitations that he was marked of many, and of the most part of the students was called the Speculator. And sometimes he would throw the Scriptures from him as though he had no care of his former profession, so that he began a very ungodly life ..."

There are parts of the play that resemble the Faust Book with great fidelity, but other parts that diverge from it. Marlowe was writing a play and that required a three-dimensional contact with his audience. Visual effects would be important as would be dropping the book's moralizing, and boring, speeches. More than that, though, Marlowe expanded upon elements that were only partly developed in the book or introduced matters entirely missing from it.

Text and Authorship

A continuing frustration in the study of Elizabethan theater is the lack of reliable scripts, dating of performances and printings, and even confidence in their authorship. Many plays vanished from existence as scripts were thrown away, lost or decayed. It was late in the sixteenth century that printing and selling scripts was seen as a way to make money and by then, putting together anything reliable was a hit and miss affair. Marlowe's death prevented any careful editing of his plays; Shakespeare didn't seem to take much, if any, interest in the printed versions of his own plays. So what we have is what we have, and that has made many a scholarly career.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus has come to us in two versions, conveniently called the A-Text and the B-Text. The A-Text was published in 1604 and the B-Text in 1616. Of course, Marlowe had to have written his play between 1588 and 1593 (he came to London in 1587 and died in 1593), probably earlier rather than later). There are significant differences between the two texts but many of these are in details, The B-Text has more in the way of stage directions, but most critics prefer the A-Text as being what you might call crisper and in some places, clearly a better play. On the other hand, the B-text has rectified some confusing places in the A-Text. We will almost exclusively use the A-Text.

That there are two different texts raises the question of how that happened. Various combinations of marked-up scripts stuck away in desk drawers, the sometimes errant memories of performers, and the would-be helpful hands of later would-be collaborators were probably the main sources. The A-Text may be substantially what was put on the stage, but it could be a shortened version, or put together from variously reliable and unreliable sources ... That's the way it is. We will look for Marlowe the poet, Marlowe the ironist, Marlowe with his preoccupations, Marlowe as he imitates and diverges from the Faust Book.

Marlowe probably had a collaborator who wrote the comic scenes for the A-Text, and certainly for the B-Text. Marlowe just was not a comedy writer, and indeed, extra pages for the comedic scenes were found interleaved with a B-Text quarto. Speaking of collaborators, since some changes were evidently made after Marlowe had died, it is hard to think of these as collaborative. Even in the A-Text there are uneven passages that make the careful reader wonder if they were introduced by the lack of interest of Marlowe, or the later addition of material he never saw. The second and third Acts (hardly worthy of so grand a designation) have a good supply of these questionable passages, but they are what we have.

Necromancy, Angels, Devils

The sixteenth century in Europe was part of a transition from the medieval to the modern that took several centuries. The western world's understanding of the natural world was slowly moving away from dicta derived from classical authors or the Bible, and towards engagement with experiment and mathematics. William Harvey demonstrated human anatomy in the mid-1600s; Francis Bacon published his groundbreaking Novum Organon in 1620; Isaac Newton invented the differential calculus, and discovered the laws of mechanics and indirect action in the decades spanning 1700; Copernicus developed his theory of heliocentrism in the early 1500s and Galileo ran up against the power of the church a century later. However, insofar as quotidian society was concerned, the 1500s were prior to all that activity and natural philosophy was still very much in the medieval mold. Angels, devils, sorcery, necromancy (summoning spirits to act through the dead) ... these were all real and played their parts in the natural world. Protestantism fought against the more literal Catholicism, banishing purgatory and the intercessory powers of saints, but hell remained real and Lucifer and his hosts, as well as God and his angels, continued to wield there influences. Even amongst the most rational thinkers of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, Protestant and Catholic, people like the French political philosopher Jean Bodin, there were those who believed in witches, magic and astrology. Of course, we shouldn't be surprised nor think ourselves immune to such strains on credulity - our own time finds harbors for quite surprising beliefs.

Necromancers, sorcerers, and magicians sought to control spirits in order to achieve such goals as power, knowledge, and wealth. Today, magic and magicians are associated with trickery. In Marlowe's time, magic was a legitimate if morally dangerous path to substantial goals, or at least its promise was. Of course, there were magicians who were tricksters and there was, as ever, a gullible public be amazed. Doctor Faustus, he of the book and of the play, never had the intention to be a fake; he was deadly serious. However, we will see in Marlowe's play that Faustus may have deluded himself, just as society can delude itself.

Witches, and witchcraft, were something different. Witches were people who could do impossible things but they had to have an evil intent. Witches could cause crops to fail, animals and humans to die, etc. They were part of cultural memories that extended into the dimmest past. While witches sometimes could tell of future events, their intentions were much smaller in scale and depth than those of magicians. With the partial exception of England, witches were burned by the hundreds. Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Calvinists and Jesuits, clerics and lawyers, stormed through all of Europe and Scotland declaring the imminent danger to Christendom presented by the ever increasing host of men and women who consorted with the Devil. Some few people undertook to write against the confessions acquired through torture, but only at great personal risk and to little avail. Against hysterical and sadistic preaching on the one hand and vicious legal codes on the other, against the pornographic encyclopedias that cataloged the doings and powers of the legions of witches, there was little room for objections. Witches would just fade away, although advantage, fear, and prejudice would stay around as the fuel for persecution. Faustus was not a witch - he aspired to be a magician - but supernatural agents and the war between Satan's servants and Christendom were taken as facts even by the most discerning minds of the times.

The German Faustus Book brings to mind a well-known and remarkable fellow named Agrippa (Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, 1486-1535). Briefly, Agrippa studied and practiced the occult arts, and at the same time maintained that the only source of certainty was faith in the Christian god. He wrote at great length on occult philosophy and he also wrote against all forms of reason, be it in mathematics, music, medicine, even against the always botched translations of Scripture (the traditions of the Catholic Church provided a stable and reliable platform for understanding Scripture). Here is what Agrippa had to say in his book, De vanitate: "O yee fooles & wicked ones, which setting apart the giftes of ye Ghost, endevour to learne those things of faitheles Philosophers, and masters of errours, whiche ye ought to receive of God, and the holy Ghoste." Anyone living in continental Europe in the sixteenth century who read the Faustus Book would very likely have seen a simplified Agrippa lurking in it. Marlowe mentions him explicitly in Act I Scene 1. A good source for more information on Agrippa is at

Doctor Faustus was not some symbol of a bygone age - although a character in a play, as a magician (not a witch) he could have been the real thing. Marlowe had chosen to deal with spectacle but also with matters that in his contemporaneous society were immediate and substantial. As we have said, the author of the original Doctor Faustus book wrote his story to horrify and titillate. Marlowe, great ironist that he was, took this medieval although still current view of reality and used it to confront aspects of the human condition.

Speaking Of Angels (and Comedy)

Elizabethan audiences expected to have a good time, and playhouses had to compete with other venues for the many pennies that would be spent. People could go to watch bear-baiting or hangings (there were some famous ones from time to time, especially the executions for treason); there was bowling and partaking of the many prostitutes ... Theatrical comedy and spectacle, or what we would call special effects, were good draws. Shakespeare used comedy extensively, which we will mention later.  

The Thirty-Nine Articles

The Church of England, that is, the Anglican Church, was established by King Henry VIII to replace, or displace, the Catholic Church in England. Over some thirty years the doctrines of this church matured and solidified. In 1563, the fifth year of Queen Elizabeth's long reign, the definitive Thirty-Nine Articles were agreed by the Church hierarchy and the queen (who was the head of the Church). These articles formed the commonly understood religion that Marlowe and his audience practiced. Reading through the Articles will give you an insight into some of the struggles that engaged Faust, and also into the mind-set that Marlowe's audience brought into the theater. Article 17 is particularly of interest in the setting of Marlowe's play. There are arguments about whether Marlowe was a believer but whether or not, he lived in that mileu.

A very nice presentation of the XXXIX Articles can be found here. A wikipedia article on them is here. Both these links were verified 3/17/2013.

What Is This Play About or It's Only A Play - How Complicated Can It Be?

For decades, critics have argued about just what this play is about. What do we make of Marlowe's Faustus? Is he a humanist plunged into despair and deprived of salvation? Is he a well educated man wasting his gifts on trivia, trading trinkets for eternal bliss, nothing more than a fool? Is he refraining from evil but engaging in anti-Catholic tricks and very serious apostasy in order to challenge the Protestant doctrine of predestination? Is Marlowe seeing the opportunity to write another box-office hit featuring yet another over-reacher like Tamburlaine? Just a poet taking advantage of the chance to show off his talents? The decision, or lack of it, is yours.


Updated 2014-09-14