Christopher Marlowe - Doctor Faustus Act 1


Presented by a chorus, the Prologue (as in Tamburlaine) states what this play will not be. The chorus quickly moves through Faustus' birth and, dispensing with the brief Chapter 1 of the English Faust Book, sets the stage for what will follow.

Till sworn with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspir'd his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now with learning's golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:
And this the man that in his study sits.

This is the Renaissance, the Age of Humanism. "Glutted now with learning's golden gifts" was not just a passing barb. The Faust Book's author, seconded by the playwright, was throwing down a serious charge. New ways of thought were disrupting the traditional theology-centered ways of the past. Universities, like Cambridge and Oxford, were exposing young men to the classical, pagan authors. All this fascination with learning would end up with Faustus destroyed, just as Icarus had mounted too high for his own good. Magic. too, was not an empty invective. Magic and devils and necromancy (the belief that magic could be used to call up and control evil spirits) were there in the world, more by influence than in a substantive form, but nevertheless part of man's experience. Magic is discussed a bit further in the introduction to Doctor Faustus. Where will Faustus, and Marlowe, take us?

Act 1 Scene 1

Faustus is on stage alone. One at a time he considers the traditional, and safe, sources of learning that he has, or readily may, master. Coming to theology, he just may be giving us an insight into something that has a sinister sound. His two Latin quotations (from Romans and from John) are incomplete, leaving out God's promises to those who repent. We will see more of that very soon.

Magic is what he wants (and doesn't he sound like the over-reacher Tamburlaine, although inverting the warlord's perspective!):

O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!
... Emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind or bend the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far doth the mind of man.
A sound magician is a mighty god.

Having established the Faustus character, Marlowe wastes no time in moving the play forward. We meet Wagner, by name in the English Faust Book, who is ordered to fetch two de novo characters, the German Valdes and Cornelius. Marlowe uses them to provide insight into Faustus' character and motives and soon dismisses them. The center of this Scene is now revealed: the Good Angel and the Evil Angel, also additions by Marlowe. All this within about seventy lines. It is now Faustus and the two angels who occupy the stage. The angels direct their words to Faustus but not to one another. The angels disappear, appropriately having been influences, insights into Faustus' thoughts, not having actually engaged him in conversation. They each had four lines and now Faustus has a prescient monologue. What are the angels doing there? Valdes and Cornelius serve a role as their conversation with Faustus is a nice way to convey on stage what would otherwise have been a stultifying monologue. The angels, though, seem to do more. They are not just theatrical ploys; they raise the substantial matter of free will. Faustus now can be seen grappling with choice. Instead of merely being driven by Lucifer, Faustus engages, and episodically dismisses, inner conflict, absent from the preachy Faust Book. But is this free will or is Faustus already set on a path to destruction?

Marlowe was not a playwright who hid the future course of a play from his audience. He kept his audience interested and alert not by establishing and then resolving ambiguity, but by spectacle and speech. Yet he was ironical; whatever there was on the surface, you can be assured there was much more in the shadows and on the perimeter. In his monologue, Faustus restates what he had said just prior to the appearance of the angels, and tosses in a few additional remarks. He wants wealth, knowledge, power - he wants to free his country from its foreign occupier, and to "reign sole king of all the provinces." We will see that this idea of being a work-a-day king fades from sight. Being a magician will always be better than being an autocrat. Faustus makes one remark that is jarring in its prosaicness:

I'll have them [the spirits at his command] fill the public schools with silk,
Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad.

This may be an insight into a Marlowe who had to endure the class-based discrimination so much a part of English society. Silk could be worn by the nobility, but not by commoners. There were sumptuary laws that (repeatedly) enforced the need to be able to look at people and see what class they belonged to. The repetition of these royal proclamations indicates that the prohibitions were less than effective. 

Valdes and Cornelius arrive and the three engage in a round that sounds like a pep talk before a college basketball game. Boys will be boys, and no doubt the audience cheered them on. In their self-congratulations they cover current events that would have been familiar to some of the audience. To mention a few, we already discussed Agrippa, who was known across Europe for his enthusiastic defense, and explication, of magic. Philip was the king of Spain, upon whose argosies (treasure ships - the word refers to the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece, their ship being the Argos) the English preyed as official and unofficial pirates. Astrology was understood to be a science, and the actions of heavenly bodies upon earthly affairs to be substantial. Roger Bacon and Pietro d'Abano (both of the 13th century) had the reputation of having been sorcerers.

Act 1 Scene 2

This is a comic relief probably written by a collaborator of Marlowe. There are several scenes like this in the otherwise somber play.

Act 1 Scene 3

Sorcery traditionally involved the use of spoken as well as written words. Neo-Platonism, a philosophical framework popular at the time, supposed that the Earth itself was in a sense alive, and that all things of the earth and of the celestial spheres interacted. Magic involved the cataloging and proper use of the many techniques for calling on and controlling the spirits, good or bad. The Faust Book takes quite some time to describe Faust's summoning of Mephistopheles. By the way, there are several spellings of that name, so you may see it even in one publication spelled differently.

This Scene is central to the rest of the play. Faustus summons Mephistopheles (a great opportunity for special effects). A bargain is negotiated - who sets the terms? It all starts with Faustus' use of sorcery which is supposed to put him in charge of whatever spirits he conjures up. Faustus demands that the much too ugly Mephistopheles go away and return looking like a Franciscan friar. This is an anti-Catholic joke that would have pleased Marlowe's Protestant audience. 

Prejudice was an aspect of English society that expressed itself in many ways, including humor. Anyone different would do - Spaniards, the French, Italians, Germans, Dutch, Irish, Jews ... Queen Elizabeth issued several royal proclamations insisting that no such humor be directed against the king of Spain. Indeed, King Philip was evidently a sensitive fellow, taking it personally when it was reported to him that insults to him were to be found in English ballads and theater. (In the convoluted world of European royalty, this was the same man who, before becoming king of Spain, had married the Catholic Mary I - and quickly headed back to Spain where he felt more at home.) These perceived insults contributed to the king launching the Spanish Armada of 1588, resulting in the loss of thousands of Spanish soldiers and sailors. The anti-Semitism found in Marlowe's "Jew of Malta" and Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" was part of this English mean-spirited sense of humor although with the accumulation of fifteen hundred years of antipathy.

Faustus then makes demands of Mephistopheles:

I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live,
To do whatever Faustus shall command,
Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere,
Or the ocean to overwhelm the world.

Is Faustus being cozened into further dealings with Mephistopheles? Is he a sucker set up by an experienced confidence man? Here's Faustus' speech continuing,

I see there's virtue in my heavenly words:
Who would not be proficient in this art?
How pliant is this Mephistophilis,
Full of obedience and humility!
Such is the force of magic and my spells:
No, Faustus, thou art conjuror laureat,
That canst command great Mephistophilis:
Quin regis Mephistophilis fratris imagine
[Why don't you come back, Mephistophilus, in the shape of a friar.]

Mephistopheles explains that he reports to Lucifer so he will need Lucifer's permission to proceed. Faustus is surprised at this because he thought Mephistopheles had come at his command. But no, Mephistopheles says:

That was the cause, but yet per accidens;
For, when we hear one rack the name of God,
Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,
We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul;
Nor will we come, unless he use such means
Whereby he is in danger to be damn'd.
Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring
Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,
And pray devoutly to the prince of hell.

As far as Mephistopheles et al. are concerned, Faustus has already abjured his God. Faustus immediately confirms this, saying "So Faustus hath already done ..." If Faustus has some future idea that he is making choices, that he has any choices to make, which would raise the prospect that free will is involved, he is dead wrong. But as we will see, Faustus does try to make choices, too little, too late. The hint we saw in the first Scene that Faustus had no hand to play has become more a certainty.

Faust dismisses the soul as trivial and moves on to ask a question. 

This word "damnation" terrifies not him,
For he confounds hell in Elysium:
His ghost be with the old philosophers!
But, leaving these vain trifles of men's souls,
Tell me what is that Lucifer thy lord?

Marlowe slips in a little higher learning here. Elysium was a pagan concept, a good enough place to be if you were dead. At least there were no hellish tortures and you might meet the spirits of some people worth knowing.  Marlowe's remark is ambiguous, but the idea seems to be that as far as Faustus is concerned, the pre-Christian afterworld is fine and no threat.

The English Faust Book, in chapter 9, says "Doctor Faustus continued thus in his epicurish life day and night and believed not that there was a God, hell, or devil. He thought that body and soul died together ..." Marlowe was a university-educated man. He knew that Epicurianism held that the body, indeed all the world, was made of atoms, and that the soul dissolved into nothing when the body died. The Faust Book was a perfect fit for the ironist and sceptic playwright.

This Mephistopheles is not a mere demon. He is much more than that. Faustus asks, "How comes it then, that thou art out of hell?" Marlowe gives Mephistopheles this moving answer:

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 depriv'd of everlasting bliss?
O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!

Calvin held that apostasy was the one sin that God would not forgive. There was no redemption, no salvation if the sin was to turn one's back on God. Lucifer and all his minions had committed that sin and were forever damned. Faustus is adamant in his decision to proceed, saying,

Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude.
And scorn those joys thou never shalt possess.

Faustus lays out his deal: twenty-four years of voluptuousness, of attendance by Mephistopheles, of knowledge and power, and he will "surrender up to him [Lucifer] his soul." 

Act 1 Scene 4

Here is another comic interlude. Wagner, again, being the center character.

Act 1 Questions to Consider

What does Faustus say he wants in exchange for his soul?

Why twenty-four years? It seems short, doesn't it?

Faustus has a very high opinion of his intelligence and magical abilities. Is this justified?


Updated 2014-03-20