Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus 

God forbade it, indeed; but Faustus hath done it…

This play, often referred to simply as Dr. Faustus, is a tragedy, by English playwright, Christopher Marlowe, late 16thcentury.

It is the story of learned Dr. Faustus, who disdains his conventional education and turns to dark texts.

          Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
          O, what a world of profit and delight,
          Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
          Is promis’d to the studious artisan!
          All things that move between the quiet poles
          Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
          Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
          Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;
          But his dominion that exceeds in this,
          Stretcheth as far as doeth the mind of man;
          A sound magician is a mighty god:
          Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.

Faustus often speaks to himself, and refers to himself in first person.

I’m not certain, but Marlowe may be the creator of the well used trope of the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, as Dr. Faustus is often visited by a good angel and an evil angel. When they find him reading of the dark arts, the good angel warns:

          O, Faustus, lay that damned book aside,
          And gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soul
          And heap God’s heavy wrath upon thy head!
          Read the scriptures:  – that is blasphemy.

          This word “damnation” terrifies not him,

Dr. Faustus sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of power and prestige. One of Lucifer’s chief lieutenants, Mephistophilis, is put at Dr. Faustus disposal. When Faustus questions that fallen angels must not be condemned to Hell, because after all – here is Mephistophilis free from hell, the demon responds:

          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 deprived of everlasting bliss?

At the end of the 24 years, as midnight, the hour of reckoning approaches, Faustus of course regrets his choice but finds
          But Faustus’ offence can ne’er be pardoned…

I was surprised by this short play. I expected Marlowe, educated, intellectual, and atheist to use the play to mock Christianity and make Faustus something like a hero, but no.

Marlow is knowledgeable of Christianity’s tenets, and treats them respectfully – almost, dare I say, reverently. Faustus is indeed portrayed as the fool, who gained the world, and lost his soul.
God forbade it, indeed; but Faustus hath done it: for vain pleasure of  twenty-four years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity.

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019: a classic play

Faustian legend is based on the German alchemist, astrologer, and magician Johann Georg Faust, of the 15-16th centuries. Numerous writers have told a version of the legend, but Marlowe's play is perhaps the most well known. They vary greatly in details, but the common premise is a man who compromises his morals, ethics, or mortal soul in exchange for worldly fame, fortune, and pleasure.



  1. I'm looking forward to this one. My Charlotte Mason sources encouraged followers of CM philosophies to read this, and about two weeks ago, I finally found a used copy and bought it. And just yesterday I learned that I get to read this for my WEM plays! It may be a few years...

    I'd also like to add that I was read recently that for societies long ago, Christianity was known by much of the Western world, and even if one did not accept its truths, they knew them quite well, and even followed them bc it was the way of society. So may be the case w/ Marlowe, who knew and lived the Christian way, but did not believe. Just guessing...I wonder if maybe he understood that it wouldn't have been wise for him to turn the plot the other way. ??

    Today people are bolder to be outright rebellious and rejecting of Christianity. Obviously, it no longer has its influence on society anymore either.

    1. That's certainly one possible explanation. Some believe that Marlowe wasn't actually an atheist, but that he only claimed to be to gain notoriety. I don't know. Regardless, there is some pretty profound theology in this play.

  2. Yeh, I will always remember the exchange:

    FAUSTUS. Come, I think hell's a fable.

    MEPHIST. Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind.

    Hee-hee, just like old Pascal later said, payoff is better to believe!

    1. Yes, that was perhaps my favorite dialogue exchange. Thanks Major.

  3. I look forward to reading this - it's on my TBR shelf!

    1. It was thought provoking. Hope you enjoy it.


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