Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (?1593/1604 [A-text]/1616s [B-text])

Genre: Tragic drama.   Click here for some basic advice about how to read plays.

Form: Blank verse (for main plot), unrhymed iambic pentameter, set in 13 scenes with a prologue, three internal choruses, and an epilogue (the "A text" published in 1604) or five acts, composed of 4, 3, 3, 7, and 3 scenes, and all but the last scene begins with a "Chorus" delivering a transitional epilogue (the significantly longer "B text" published in 1616, and probably contributed to by later poets).  Subplot passages involving Wagner, the Clown, the Horse Courser etc. usually are in prose and use colloquial diction to comic effect, though Faustus becomes involved with the subplot in the end.  

Characters: Major characters include Faustus, a German professor at Wittenberg who has turned magician, his servant Wagner, Mephistopholis the tempting demon and Lucifer, his lord, and a host of minor characters (three scholars who hope to learn from Faustus, a troop of "clowns" or country bumpkins whose quests for silly powers parodies Faustus' own desires, a set of high status characters including the pope and the emperor, and a set of allegorical characters including Faustus' good and bad angels, and the Seven Deadly Sins (a stock favorite of medieval moralities--Everyman transformed them into social types).   Click here for advice about "the mnemonic bookmark," a strategy for remembering characters' names and major plot and thematic issues!

Summary: The scholar seeks the ultimate wisdom, and with it, the ultimate power, but becomes obsessed with power to the neglect of his spirit. A demon, summoned, tempts him to surrender his soul for a brief period of exotic earthly powers. His servant and a gang of comic characters, in a subplot, mirror Faustus' search for earthly power but with markedly less success (and, hence, less risk to their souls!). Faustus trades his spirit for illusions like his vision of Helen, a "dumbshow" (silent play) or metadrama that occurs within his own life's play and mocks his ambitions. Unlike Goethe's Faust, Marlowe's Faustus remains confident in his own damnation until the end, and therefore he is correct, though also morally wrong.  Marlowe's own view of Faustus' career remains much more complex, however, since he shares many qualities with the necromancer, as do we all.

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. Is this a comedy or is this a tragedy (or is it a history)? The title claims it's a "tragical history," but that may mean no more than "tragic story" in Early Modern English. However, as the genre of tragedy begins to take on more pronounced formal characteristics, it becomes possible to say Faustus was transformed into something very like a tragedy (five acts, ascending and descending dramatic structure, high-status hero with poignant flaw which dooms him by means of his deeds, etc.). Notice especially the difference in structure between the 1604 and 1616 versions. More troubling, perhaps, is the intrusion of comedy into the doctor's downfall. The comic subplots are separated from the doctor's behavior until the deceived Horse Courser appears to pull off Faustus' leg in Scene 10.
    • What does the separation do to our sense of the relationship between plot and subplot, and what does the fusion of the two do to the main plot?
    • Do you have any sense of whether Marlowe feels Faustus was morally wrong in seeking the knowledge and power he praises in the first scene?
    • Or is Faustus tragic, for Marlowe, because he seeks it and finds it and loses it?
  2. English literature owes a great debt to Marlowe for identifying a certain type of classical tragic hero in the works of Sophocles and making him intelligible in English cultural terms. Harry Levin called this type "the over-reacher" after rhetorician George Puttenham's attempt to find a close English synonym for the Greek word "hyperbole" (in The Arte of English Poesie, 1589). Marlowe characters have an exaggerated appetite for achievement, whether it's world conquest (Tamburlaine), knowledge as power (Faustus) or revenge and the acquisition of riches (Barabus). Marlowe's heroes were popular then, and remain fascinating now, as portraits of English imperial ambitions dressed in the appearances of an Asian warlord, a German scholar, and a wealthy Maltese Jew. Their exotic (to C16 English audiences) appearances and settings gave Marlowe an opportunity to dazzle us with some of the most elaborate and extended set speeches in English drama. His use of the new Elizabethan vocabulary drew upon the language of the exploring nations (Spain, France, Holland) as well as the Latin and Greek learning that had filtered down to the street-English of his time from the most exotic experiments of the humanists and sonneteers.
    • Is Marlowe, perhaps, something of a "Faustus" in language?  That is, has he made a kind of bargain with imperialism in order to make his theater, a bargain that costs him something precious?
    • Is writing, itself, and literacy as a social force, something "demonic" in the sense that it transforms its possessors?  Look closely at Faustus' first description of his book of necromancy, "Lines circles, schemes, letters and characters" (1:51).  Isn't this just a specialized sort of writing and reading, one that gives its user access to power?
    • In a related scene, note that writing the "deed" or instrument of his damnation is a crucial event in Scene 5.  What interrupts the writing of it, what aid is brought by Faustus' "Writing Center tutor" to break his "writer's block"?  Is this in any sense an analogue of Marlowe's own writer's psychology?
  3. What is the function of the "Chorus" in Faustus?
    • What kinds of information does the Chorus deliver, and what does that tell you about the state of Marlowe's dramatic skill and the sophistication of the theatrical audience?
    • How does a modern film producer introduce the same information, and what would be the effect of having a "Chorus" do it in a modern movie?
  4. Marlowe's dramas broke new ground in their ambitiously exotic settings (Asia, Germany, Rome, Malta) and their extravagantly developed heroes' characters, but they also preserve curious elements of Medieval English drama, like the "Chorus" (above), archaic which indicate Marlowe believed his audiences needed some help to experience the full illusion of his dramas.  Allegorical characters, like those we encountered in Everyman, also make appearances in Dr. Faustus, but Marlowe appears to be of two minds regarding their usefulness.  When allegory  first appears, in the "Seven Deadly Sins" play (Scene 5), the "author" is Lucifer, and Faustus, as the inscribed audience for their performance, openly mocks them and fails to listen to the message they communicate about sin.  What might Marlowe be saying in this scene about the older English theatrical tradition and, perhaps, its linkage to a theology now identified with the Roman Church?  Also in Scene 5, Marlowe introduces "Good Angel" and "Evil Angel," two allegorical characters who appear to represent aspects of Faustus' own mind or soul.  They do not reappear, but in Scene 13, an enigmatic "Old Man" materializes in Faustus' study to deliver a message similar to that which the "Good Angel" offered.  How do you explain what Marlowe was doing with those three allegorical characters, and how might that be compared with those Lucifer causes to appear to Faustus?  How do they relate to Alexander and His Paramour, and "Helen of Greece," herself perhaps the most well-known Elizabethan character who never spoke a line, due to Faustus' famous apostrophe to her (13: 81-100)?  Are those characters somewhere between allegory and "round" characters?  How would you explain their function in the play?
  5. Christopher Marlowe's rapid rise to fame as England's first "super-star" dramatist began while he was still a student at Cambridge.  There he wrote Tamburlaine the Great, the story of an Asian warlord whose boundless appetite for conquest was expressed in some of the most glorious blank verse dialogue ever written.  The play was so popular that Marlowe wrote a sequel, Tamburlaine the Great, Part Two.  His Faust play appears to have been written near the end of his life (ca. 1595), but it remained popular for decades after his death.  The first print edition is issued nine years after he died, and the play was still being adapted and remounted twenty-one years later.  Why was this play so compelling?  Perhaps it had to do with England's emerging imperialist view of the world, which Faustus' dreams anticipate.  Perhaps it had to do with the play's radically new treatment of learning as something sought for power rather than to make one good (viz. "Knowledge" in Everyman).  Perhaps it had to do with the growing popularity of Elizabethan drama, itself, which the play appears to illustrate and to criticize and to praise, all at once.  One must ask, having read the play, is art real?  Does art have cultural/social/political power?
  6. Marlowe was a secret agent of Queen Elizabeth's government, and probably was killed by another agent, perhaps assassinated. Secrecy plays a strong role in both Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta, Marlowe's last plays.
    • How does he treat the secret realm, whether of knowledge or of politics?
    • What things are hidden there, and what is the effect of penetrating that secrecy?
    • For instance, how do Faustus' trips to the Vatican and the Emperor's palace affect him and his audience?
    • Is it what you expected, based on what he said he'd do with magic in scene 1?
    • What might Marlowe be signaling here about the effects of his sojourns among the secret realms of Elizabethan government, and how might it relate to the views we get of Tudor secrecy in Wyatt ("They Flee From Me," "Lucks My Falcons," and "Mine Own John Poins") and Surrey ("Th' Assyrian King, in peace with foul desire" and "Imprisoned in Windsor")?
    • Is there, in these poets, also a satire on the state as well as upon human frailty, and if so, what would be the dangers that would attend writing such a satire?
  7. We will return frequently (if we can remember) to the question of when tragic and comic drama take on their current structural shapes (e.g., five acts?  protagonist has a flaw?).  For now, compare this play's structure and characterization with the classical Greek (C5 B.C.E.) model for how tragedy ought to operate.
  8. The play makes use of a metadramatic morality of the Seven Deadly Sins, enacted for Faustus by demons from a script apparently created by Lucifer, Hell's playwright.  If you are not sure what a "sin" is or whether it's a "deadly sin," click here.  Marlowe is writing in a Protestant country, but many Catholics live in England, and the poet's theology is by no means certain.  He may even have been an atheist, according to charges leveled against him by a contemporary.  What is this play's theological doctrine?  Don't assume that, just because Faustus and Mephistophilis make fun of the Pope and his retinue, the play is pro-Protestant.  It could also be telling us something about the peculiar anxieties of Protestants in a post-Catholic nation where Everyman's "Confession" and "Good Deeds" no longer guarantee salvation.
  9. For some more specific ways to approach particular passages in Scenes 1 through 5 at a level that might support analytical papers, click here.  For a similar set of analytical angles on Scenes 6 through 13, click here.
  10. Marlowe, spies, sex, and tobacco.  Clicking on this link will take you to Stephen Orgel's 2000 article reviewing the available evidence about Marlowe's religious beliefs, erotic orientation, and relationship with Elizabeth's other secret agents.  That's right--"other"--Marlowe was a spy.  Ordinarily, good literary criticism pays more attention to the structure of the poem, play, novel or story than to the work's author.  In the early C20, a pattern of careless confusion of biographical curiosity with the analysis of literature helped inspire the "New Criticism," with its famous emphasis on "the text, itself," as the proper object of literary study.  How might we legally, with full professional care for evidence and critical methods, use the limited evidence of Marlowe's life to help us discover new ways to read his plays?  Note that this is an advanced level of literary analysis, related to New Historicism and other Post-Modern literary theories, and you should not undertake this unless you are an extremely experienced with ordinary literary analysis.  Otherwise, you risk reproducing the "biographical fallacy" all over again.
  11. One way to track the changes a play might go through when it is performed for a decade or more after its author's death would be to examine the titles it was given in successive print editions, as in the case of the A and B texts of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.  To work with the printed texts of the editions, themselves, you can see a parallel text edition on a web site hosted by an independent Marlowe scholar named Peter Farey, A-text (pub. 1604) on the left, and B-text (pub. 1611) on the right, We will be reading the A-text because it's what the Norton decided to print in the 7th edition after living with the B-Text for decades.  In the end, scholars do not agree about which is closer to the play as Marlowe intended it to be performed in his lifetime, but that will give us a chance to talk about all the ways in which drama as it is performed is different from a modern novel on your desk with a publication date, a publisher, and the author's copyright boldly claimed on the back of the title page.

Primary Source for Research:

        The Norton editors, in addition to modernizing spelling, have "emended" or editorially "improved" the texts of all the medieval and early modern works by altering their punctuation to make them conform to their Modern/Po-Mo expectations.  Pre-modern printers did not "point" or punctuate their editions as heavily as Modern printers.  They tended to expect longer "periods," or what we would call "sentences."  A typical soliloquy by Faustus, when viewed in a photographic facsimile of the 1604 A-Text edition (available through the prior hyperlink), often would contain few "full stops" or periods.  The Norton editors often replace colons and semi-colons, which are fairly frequent in the A-Text edition, with periods.  This becomes extremely important to actors/performers/presenters because of its effect on enjambed and end-stopped lines.  Ordinarily, rational dialogue in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter, the language of the play's tragic scenes) is end-stopped because the speaker develops rational thought in orderly units which conform to single lines ending in semi-colons, colons, periods, or at least commas.  When the speaker is overwhelmed by emotion, positive or negative, poets often dramatize that by enjambing lines, running the overflow of speech past the line ends into the next one (or ten?) lines, in a manner that communicates the speaker's kind of emotional overflow and degree of emotional disturbance to audiences viscerally, and to scholars who can see punctuation and count lines.  If the Norton punctuation differs from that in the A-Text, someone presenting on it, or writing a paper about the passage for a midterm paper, might want to take issue with the Norton punctuation if it served her/his thesis.

Back to English 211, Syllabus View.