The tale of the brilliant mind of a mortal man--and the soul he sells to the devil. This edition includes a revised introduction, a history of the play onstage, and an updated bibliography by the editor. Also includes commentaries by Richard B. Sewall, G.K. Hunter, David Benington and Eric Rasmussen, and John Russell Brown as well as a critical essay by Kevin Dunn.
So I really want Marlowe's version to be the definitive one, not only because it's for the stage and that's where all our deepest folk-warnings should play themselves out, not only because Marlowe himself stands as such a vivid and brilliant transgressor of norms in the literary mythic unconscious, but also because of when it was: English Renaissance, kicking off a modernity that was already making whole new types of human, whole new types of self-creation, possible. The Romantics would famously rediscover Faust (and cf. to Goethe's probably more definitive Faust the Prometheus of Shelley or the Hyperion of Keats), but the Romantics also show that transgressive knowing becomes mere self-improvement if everyone's doing it; the Elizabethans still burned witches at the stake.
But expecting a magnificent light-bringer here turns out to be expecting just a bit too much--Marlowe is too canny a player of both sides against the middle to make of Faust an antihero for the present's version of the forward(-thinking) edge of the past and risk getting burned. Instead of Galileo-as-a-smouldering-leading-man, sapere aude, we get something more akin to a dangers-of-excess tale, where everyone is clucking their tongues about Faust and he is using his devilish servant, after a few initial sallies at the kind of music-of-the-spheres, number-of-the-birds-of-the-air deep lore deftly turned aside by Mephistophilis with pseudo-answers, to cuddle up to the HREmperor and take Helen of Troy as concubine and do the kind of groundling-oriented stage business like slapping the Pope and giving horns to hapless dickhead knights that might have gone over when everybody still half-wanted (and official culture and state religion explicitly wanted) Faust to fall on his arse for thinking he was a smart fucker with his books. You thrill a little bit at his initial daring in rejecting God, no matter how guided and groomed by the devils—the effortlessness with which he assumes that he’s forced Mephistophilis to take on corporeal form and he’s not just being manipulated, the flaming human pride with which he meets Lucifer as a kind of equal, though the imposing figure he cuts will prove insubstantial once they have his soul and he’s left with an eschatological credit card debt no honest man can pay. This, again, makes him a hero for our times (I too drape myself in nicer rags than I can afford! Pleasantly, capitalism in this metaphor is Satan), but it is disappointing in a larger sense if we see the truest tragedy as the tale of nobility brought low. Crucially, Faustus does not merely gamble his soul: he gambles on the existence of his soul, because if there is no such superstitious thing, what punishment can he face? And that kind of radically enlightening Do-As-Thou-Wiltism promises us a kind of paragon in Faust, but as he indulges his appetites we learn to our chagrin that what he’s really about is a (with apologies to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra) less principled “nothing is true; everything is permitted.” He never learns a thing … but then it turns out he never really wanted to anyway, which transmutes a bit too much of the pathos into satire for me.
Two particular notes on all this. The first on religion and meritocracy: We today are used to thinking of Protestantism, liberal capitalism, and science as mutually reinforcing threads in the early modern period, and the Catholic Church as essentially medieval in its hierarchies, attitudes, and practices, but this here was not so long before the Thirty Years’ War set Faustus’s Germany on fire and the situation is entirely more complicated. Marlowe went to Cambridge during the period of the great debates there on the Calvinist idea of absolute predestination, which was actually adopted as official doctrine by the Church of England in this period, and which of course sees Faust as tragic because he is destined to be great but not good, full of supernatural mojo borrowed from Lucifer, who takes back with interest, rather than truly Elect. This play has been read both as a substantiation and a critique of that view, an ambiguity of course by authorial design. But it’s interesting the way the Catholic Church as “worldly” (and “demonic”) is aligned somewhat with Faust’s knowledge-quest and certainly with his brilliant career (the Pope gets sooooo mad when Faust steals his lunch) and not with the backward ignorance we’re comfortable ascribing to the historical Church in the Anglo-American, post-Protestant present; Protestantism here is still a rude young fundamentalist movement with a lot of its own transgressives still to burn. In this sense it’s almost too cute when Marlowe gestures back to the Faust story’s roots as a medieval morality tale by conducting a Parade of the Sins only instead of scaring us they are being held out by Lucifer to Faustus as baubles, as instances of the kind of knowledge (and, implicitly, indulgence) he can expect.
The second on books: we fetishize them plenty today, of course, rise of the ereader notwithstanding, but it’s fascinating to see what a monopoly book-learnin’ had on knowledge transmission and people’s ideas about what had meaning and where it was located in this pre–scientific method, vernacular-Bible era. Books lubricate the plot and embody the choice between good and evil—the Good Angel** enjoins Faustus to “lay that damnéd book [that he uses to summon the devil] aside […] Read the Scriptures:—that is blasphemy”; and it is deeply adorable when Mephistophilis asks Faust what’s his command and Faust takes the most literal-minded interpretation of the “Book of Nature” that he could and wants a book about the secrets of the Earth and one about the firmament and one about Hell so that he can go back to his room and read them like a bookworm. (It makes me laugh to think about the Hollywood film version, where instead of a Master and Margarita-style effects-laden flight to the source of the rainbow and the dark side of the moon we get Faust sitting in his study with a candle rubbing his chin like “I see, I see” and pushing the cat off his lap.) And these same “conjuring-books” then stand as knowledge-talismans or fetishes (most people still couldn’t read, of course), appropriated in various ways by other characters and leading to much hijinx. (The only other motif of comparable complexity to books in the play, barring perhaps the planets, is fire, and, well, we know what you get when you put fire and books together, literally and symbolically.)
You can’t always get what you want, so don’t try or you’ll be damned, damned, damned, seems to be the message; but this is salvaged and made darkly majestic by its author’s wisdom about the evil in the hearts of men: he knows what we are and that we’ll never listen to that old saw, and that certainly makes this a powerful tragedy, albeit simply one of the appetites, not the “tragedy of the scholarly mind” or the “tragedy of the creation of the self” that the Faust-legend can be at its best.
*Whaaaa I was just reading about these mystics and found out Faust was a real dude! A cabalist, astrologer, etc., just like those others. The real guy is distinct from and preceded by the legend-topos, of course, whether it took his name or not.
**Is the angel-and-devil-on-the-shoulders thing beloved of Looney Tunes animators original with Marlowe?
For the Elizabethan audience, this play must have been like nothing else. There are devils, the Pope and his Cardinals, Alexander killing his foe Darius, and whores. The theatergoer must have left feeling they had gotten their money's worth. Marlowe was the bad boy of playwrights and this play shows why he had that reputation.
The big surprise for me was the amount of Latin spoken, which is a lot. I don't know how much Latin the average person would have understood, especially since illiteracy was the norm, but Marlowe certainly flaunts his fluency in it.
The length of the piece makes it easy to analyze, but also leads to a shallowness of meaning. Doctor Faustus, having explored and mastered all the fields of study he knows of, turns to the occult to relieve his boredom. Though constantly advised against it, he summons the demon Mephistopholes and sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for "four and twenty" years of power.
These years are squandered--naturally, perhaps; what is the point of doing anything when you needn't expend any effort doing it? Faustus refuses to repent to God for his sins, and is dragged down to Hell/consumed by demons. End of story. If you don't repent, you're damned, but if you do repent, you're saved. Not quite the multi-layered ethics Hamlet.
While the piece might lack in symbolic depth, the language is (in my opinion) very well-crafted, not to mention quotable:
Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
(I remember one of my high school English teachers reflecting that Faustus must certainly have been lonely to summon an apparition of Helen to accompany him. I must admit, though, that I too would like to see just what was so great about this girl!)
Overall, one of the 'classic' Elizabethan plays, it lives up to its reputation and is only rated so because it is overshadowed by other formidable works of the time period.
A well written play with religious, philosophical, and allegoric implications. Doctor Faustus is overly attracted to power and wealth, and thus begins to practice necromancy. This leads to him securing a pact with the devil, Lucifer, and selling his soul in return for riches and fame.
I loved how this work of theater combined comedy with tragedy, though I would say that I felt more moved by the ironic sadness of the story than the laughable scenes.
A very good work of literature.
After the uneven poems-cum-plays of "Dido" and "Tamburlaine", Marlowe achieved comedic success with "The Jew of Malta", even though it too runs on far too long. "Faustus", which followed, certainly doesn't have THAT problem, and it continues Marlowe's streak of dominating, fascinating leading men. Faustus is one of those roles which is a delight for an actor, as he quite literally sees all of human history, and what lies beyond, but the play is a challenging work. First of all, Marlowe was a pioneer, working in a medium that was far from fully-formed. "Faustus" is a significant step away from his early plays, which are glorified poems at times, and it's only in Faustus' (justified) opening and closing monologues that we get something too lengthy for the stage.
The story itself - the learned man giving up his future life for present glory - would be replayed again and again in both Western and Eastern dramas, and it's not hard to see why. Faustus' most beautiful moments include, of course, his "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" speech, and his final realisations that he is truly damned. The rest of the play is never quite certain what it wants to be. The comic interludes are (pardon the pun) damn funny, even if they sometimes feel like they wandered in from another play. The Representational elements in Faustus' good and evil angels are - understandably - removed from some modern productions. The play, intriguingly, chooses to portray very little of Faustus' 24-year orgy, instead showing us only the beginning and ending of his deal with Lucifer. It's an enjoyable production, but an uneven one. While Marlowe had managed to tame his language for the stage, he created something lacking in subtlety and still a long way from the bravura productions that Shakespeare was about to start writing for the London stage.
This review - in retrospect - is less than coherent, and I apologise. I don't want to seem like a complete dolt for so blithely dismissing "Faustus". It is a fascinating play done well, and has at its core a character whose desires and fate will probably remain relevant and terrifying as long as we live. As in all of Marlowe's work, moments of pure beauty rise to the surface and the comedy was archetypal for what was to follow with other authors. Yet to me, it still feels slight. It has neither "The Jew of Malta"'s dramatic unity nor "Edward II"'s sheer breadth of character. Instead, it is Marlowe's most crowd-pleasing mature play. A pioneer for its time, and still of merit to the Western canon (whatever you believe that to be) but - sad to say - since eclipsed.
This is one of those plays that gets mentioned in pop culture so much that Faust is just an accepted part of the cultural zeitgeist. There was even a short lived television show in which two agents for Good tracked down humans who had made deals with the devil called "Faustians."
I feel like everyone should either read or see this play performed at least once in their lives.
It is one of the stories you've read parts of in class or maybe just heard about (it is after all not as well known as Shakespeare; but I personally like this one better).
Dr. Faustus is tempted to sell his soul to the devil in order to make his wishes (ultimate wisdom for example) come true.
The story shows similarities to a well known 16th century Dutch play called 'Marieken van Nieumeghen'; in which Marieken also makes a deal with Mephisto in exchange for wisdom.
It's a short read, just sit down an hour or two and read this book. It's available for free on forgottenbooks.com. I liked the Latin in it as well, but when you can't translate it, it's not a problem to understand the story. Personally I liked the notes which came with the story (as it is a play) and some seemed rather extraordinary but were fun to read and imagine Enjoy the story!
The language is marvelous. Here’s three verses, from Scene 13, of what Ben Johnson characterized as “Marlowe’s mighty line.”
Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
My 2008 Kobo e-reader (which came with the text pre-loaded) did not allow me to easily access the footnotes at the end of the text, which was just as well. The footnotes tend to be a distraction, and most of them compared varying editions of the play, which may be useful for scholars, but not for general readers.
I was surprised how much I recognised -- it seems that the play has had just as much influence as any single work of Shakespeare's. Pop quiz: what's the deal with "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it"? Answer: it's Mephistophilis's answer to the question "How comes it then that thou art out of hell?":
"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?"
Heavy stuff, to which Faustus proudly replies
"What, is great Mephistophilis so passionate
For being deprived of the joys of heaven?
Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude
And scorn those joys thou never shalt possess."
If you wanted to make Faustus a Tragic Hero, his fatal flaw would be simple: he never listens to sensible advice and warnings.
I recommend the play, but the particular edition I've got is not worth searching out. Depending on your flexibility with spelling, it might be worth getting a modern-language edition like this one though.
Could have done with a more erudite edition, too: the annotations etc in this edition are about high school level.
I enjoyed reading Doctor Faustus, despite being assigned to read it for English class. It was an interesting story, and I would read it again.
Of course, there is much more that can be said about this play, but I am not a scholar and have found that Wikipedia gives a very interesting—and thorough—analysis of it. I did have a little bit of trouble understanding some of the old English and numerous Latin quotes and expression, although these were translated in my annotated version. I was expecting a very serious and dark approach to this story, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was in fact treated with quite a lot of humour. I initially became interested in the legend of Faust when I was reading [The Master and Margarita], which is why I got this book, forgetting all along that Bulgakov had based himself on Goethe's [Faust], written much later, but am glad I did read the Elizabethan classic interpretation first which will give me something to compare Goethe's version to when I get to it.
It tells the tale of a Doctor in Wittenburg, Germany. While experimenting in the dark and unholy art of magic, he summons a demon named Mephostophilis. Through the cajoling of the demon and an evil angel, and regardless of God’s offers of forgiveness and callings, the Doctor, John Faustus, sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for twenty-four years of absolute power given to him by Mephostophilis, who will stay with him until that time and grant whatever Faustus desires. He goes from swindling money from unsuspecting people to even haunting the Pope. And through it all he denies God, trading eternal life in Heaven for a mortal life full of all the knowledge and power that he could ever want. In the end, one hour before his demise and descent into Hell, he is shown of the tortures that await him. And he prays to God for forgiveness, declaring his repentance and begging for mercy. Sadly, Faustus does not receive it, and is torn asunder by demons who proceed to drag his soul away.
There wasn’t really anything wrong with the writing at all. It was beautiful and got its point across quite easily. One might even wish for it to be longer! A definite five stars.
when the story is embodied by a protagonist it will be much closer to you; you will feel the sufferance of the loss and the deviation the shattering that is caused because of confusion, hesitance, indecision and in the end despair.
Maybe some people will think of Faustus as a sinner and that no matter what we do we would not be like him he is damned and he is the one who chose it, so we won't choose it and end up like him, of course! but his humanist side (even if it's sometime more apparent in the play) is within us too. we could encounter a situation when choosing the truth is so much harder than staying on the easy and appealed side, right ?
we may be put in a situation like this, like what happened to Faustus, but I'm not sure if we really could be patient on the verge of choosing the damnation , life is deceiving .. but being fortified by truthful rules will do the trick :)
and in conclusion this is of course a tragic End and tragic play too.