The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE Why, Faustus, Think’st thou heaven is such a glorious thing? I tell thee, ’tis not half so fair as thou Or any man that breathes on earth. —Doctor Faustus 1. The tragic fall of Faustus mirrors the trajectory of Lucifer from heaven. Lucifer was once the most dearly loved angel of God, but ―aspiring pride and insolence‖ caused his fall from grace (1.3.69). Likewise, Faustus, among the brightest of men, soared like Icarus too close to the sun in pursuit of unlawful knowledge: So soon he profits in divinity, The fruitful plot of scholarism graced, That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name, Excelling all whose sweet delight disputes In heavenly matters of theology; Till, swoll’n with cunning of a self-conceit, His waxen wings did mount above his reach, And, melting, heavens conspired his overthrow. (Prologue 15–22) Faust studies necromancy, the black arts, in order to know more than mankind has right to know. At the end of his first soliloquy, Faustus concludes: ―A sound magician is a mighty god. / Here, Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity‖ (1.1.65–66). Faustus aspires to be more than a man, and the action of the play puts him in his rightful place. At the same time, his crime is not mere hubris, but actual sin against the Christian God. Faustus trades eternal life in heaven for temporary pleasure on earth. The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, 1592, (modernized and edited by William Rose in the twentieth century; 2003), is considered a source for the play. For more on the black arts, see Martin Coleman’s Communing with the Spirits: the Magical Practice of Necromancy (2005). Kirsten Shepherd-Barr’s Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen (2006) provides a history of plays about science. 2. Faustus surrenders his soul to the devil for twenty-four years of earthly delights. Marlowe’s title character is less interested in scholarly, intellectual matters than physical pleasure and material gain. He desires to live in ―all voluptuousness‖ and admits, ―The god thou [Faustus] servest is thine own appetite‖ (1.3.94, 2.1.11). Mephistopheles and Lucifer distract Faustus from the good throughout the play by appealing to the scholar’s basest instincts. They give him money, tempt him with courtesans, and offer him books, proof that knowledge is only another form of appetite. Indeed, they present a show of the Seven Deadly Sins that gives shape to Faustus’ unquenchable desires. The doctor requests another book that can tell him how to change shapes and even render him invisible. In a later scene (3.1), Faustus visits Rome and spies on the pope, stealing his food and even boxing him on the ears. Such shenanigans, however comic, dispel any notion that Faustus has bartered his individual soul for the betterment of all humanity. For twentieth-century versions of the tale, see Thomas Mann’s novel, Doctor Faustus, and David Mamet’s 2004 play, Dr. Faustus. 3. The devil has no power to afflict the soul. Even after signing an oath in his own blood early in the play, Faustus still has the power to repent and choose God and heaven over hell. Several times in the play a Good Angel appears with an Evil Angel in a battle over Faustus’ soul. Again and again, evil wins because Mephistopheles tempts Faustus with earthly pleasures in the here and now and simultaneously threatens to torture Faustus physically should he recant his pledge to Lucifer. In a last chance play for redemption, an Old Man enters to guide Faustus on the safe path of mercy, ―of thy Savior sweet, / Whose blood alone must wash away thy guilt‖ (5.1.46–47). Christ’s blood, then, shed for all humanity, can wipe out the very blood oath that Faustus first signed. After hearing the Old Man, Faustus stabs himself again and renews his oath to the devil, asking also for Mephistopheles to torment the Old Man. Mephistopheles responds: ―His faith is great. I cannot touch his soul‖ (5.1.79). Threatened with death, the Old Man exclaims: ―Hence, hell! For hence I fly unto my God‖ (5.1.119). At the very end, Faustus still recognizes that he could have been saved: ―See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! / One drop would save my soul, half a drop. Ah, my Christ!‖ (5.2.74–75). Lacking Christian faith, Faustus succumbs. 4. In the cosmology of the play, hell is all that is not heaven. Heaven is above, but all that is under it is hell. In 2.1 Mephistopheles explains hell’s location to Faustus: Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed In one self place, for where we are is hell, And where hell is must we ever be. And, to conclude, when all the world dissolves, And every creature shall be purified, All places shall be hell that is not heaven. (122–27) Only the spiritual world, composed of the human soul, resides in heaven. Although the body is temporal, the soul is eternal and can be redeemed by the grace of God and allowed to enter the kingdom of heaven. The devil repudiates the physical world that Faustus would conquer, and the action shows the fruitless rewards of Faustus’ vanity and egotism. 5. Faustus conjures spirits of the dead in order to impress friends, curry favor with those in power, and glut his sexual desire. First, he brings back Alexander and his paramour to please the Emperor, and then he offers delicious grapes to the Duchess to satisfy her whim. Then, back with his fellow scholars at Wittenberg, Faustus brings back Helen of Troy to prove her as most ―admirablest lady that ever lived‖ (5.1.12). Later, as a kind of last request, Mephistopheles allows Helen to come back in order to convince Faustus to keep his vow to Lucifer. The ploy works beautifully to distract Faustus from seeking his own salvation. ―Sweet Helen,‖ Faustus implores, ―make me immortal with a kiss‖ (5.1.93). This speech, coming near the end and the most famous in the play, demonstrates conclusively that Faustus chooses physical and earthly rewards over the promises of eternal life in heaven. His desire for immortality on earth blasphemes against the heavens, and God condemns him to hell. 6. The playwright condenses Faustus’ final hour on earth into a single monologue dramatically punctuated by strikes from a clock. Faustus’ contract with the devil lasts for 24 years, but the final two pages take place in one hour. Marlowe thus employs a sophisticated time scheme as he juxtaposes stage time (2+ hours) with story time (24 years), then retards the action at the end to represent Faustus’ last minutes on earth, even as in actual stage time the monologue races through to the end in only a few minutes. Just as Faustus began the play alone on stage with a long soliloquy, here at the end he bids adieu to his fellow scholars and waits to meet his fate alone. His final speech is scarcely 60 lines long and commences after the clock strikes eleven. At the halfway mark, about 30 lines into the speech, the clock strikes again to signal the passing of 30 minutes. After another 20 lines, the clock strikes twelve and Faustus prepares himself for his end. Thunder and lightning crack, and after a few more lines Lucifer, Mephistopheles, and other devils enter, surround him, and lead him away. The clock adds suspense to the scene, but it also provides the illusion of accelerating time because the interval between chimes is shorter in the second half of Faustus’ speech. The solitary figure on stage graphically illustrates, also, that for all Faustus’ accumulation of things during the course of the action, money, knowledge, power, women, he stands completely alone, bereft of all company, at the end. Throughout the action, Faustus feared physical pain and torture. Finally, the devils enter, dressed in all their fiendish attire, to punish Faustus eternally. Media Resources Parables of Power: Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. 47 min. DVD. Fordham University, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Theatre Arts. Fordham University Press, n.d. Doctor Faustus. Dir. Nevill Coghill. Perf. Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor (Helen of Troy). 93 min. DVD. 1968. Bedazzled. Dir. Stanley Donen. DVD. 1967. Perf. Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Raquel Welch (Lust). Comic, modern retelling of Faust legend. Notable Productions 2005. Dir. James Edmondson. Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Elizabethan Theatre, Ashland, Oregon. 2002. Dir. David Lan. Perf. Jude Law (Faustus). Natural Nylon Theatre Company, Young Vic Theatre, London. 1979. Dir. Christopher Martin. Classic Stage Company, CSC Theatre, New York. 1964. Dir. Word Baker. Phoenix Theatre, New York. 1960. Dir. Michael Bakewell. Perf. Ian McKellen. Cambridge Arts Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Open Air Theatre. 1937. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Orson Welles (Faustus). Federal Theatre Project, Maxine Elliott’s Theatre, New York. Discussion Questions 1. The Good Angel and Evil Angel fight over Faustus’ soul. How might you conceive and costume such characters in a production that attempts to avoid clichés? 2. ―Was this the face that launched a thousand ships . . . ?‖ This opening description of Helen and the subsequent lines in scene 5.1 paint a portrait of unparalleled physical beauty. How can any physical production in which this scene is played compare to the images of beauty in the mind of the reader engendered by Marlowe’s great poetry? What role does gender play in a drama about the seductive powers of evil? 3. If, as Mephistopheles says in scene 1.3, hell is all that is not heaven, how would you envision or design a production of the play? EssayTopics 1. Compare and contrast Doctor Faustus with the allegorical Everyman. How is Marlowe’s hero more complex than the morality play figure? 2. Why does the knowledge that Faustus craves amount to only a few parlor tricks in the stage action? How do these tricks solve a potential problem for the playwright? 3. The devils are not metaphors but real in the play. Where do the devils lurk and what do they look like in our contemporary world? 4. Discuss the role and obligations of the intellectual at the dawn of the scientific age. Is Faustus a tragic hero? 5. The Faust legend has been told many times. Why is it such a compelling story? 6. How do the comic scenes support or detract from the main action of the play?