ADA3M- Notes on The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

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					                       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

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
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?

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
6. How do the comic scenes support or detract from the main action of the

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