The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (Crofts Classics)

by Christopher Marlowe

Other authorsPaul H. Kocher (Editor)
Paperback, 1950






Harlan Davidson (1950), 61 pages


Renaissance England's great tragedy of intellectual overreaching is as relevant and unsettling today as it was when first performed at the end of the sixteenth century.

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
The Faust legend-topos is one of our really old and deeply rooted ones, allied to those of Raven and Icarus and Frankenstein and Babel (esp. as seen by early modern Faustian scholar-mystics like Jakob Böhme and Athanasius Kircher*) and the tragical history of the Germans (as seen by Thomas Mann); and in the darkest and smokiest irony, also that of Lucifer. And it is more relevant every day, and indeed may prove in this age of moneymancers entering a kind of posthuman state and technomagi melting icecaps to chase the singularity to be humanity's fittest epitaph. (It is of course also at some level the motivation for just about everyone still studying the humanities in our age. What profit a man if he gain forbidden knowledge but lose his job prospects? That's hubris!)

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?
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LibraryThing member mstrust
Doctor Faustus doesn't believe in hell, and so has no fear of conjuring a demon. Faustus wants to sell his soul, which he does, in return for fame, status and knowledge. He quickly begins moving in circles with the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, able to conjure Alexander the Great and Helen of Troy and make himself invisible so he can punch people. His plan is to spend his allotted time being rich, famous and devious, then repent in order to save his soul from Lucifer.

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.
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LibraryThing member deptstoremook
This short but important work seems to pre-figure the more nuanced and complex ethical questions that Shakespeare starts addressing a few years down the line from when this piece was written and performed.

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.
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LibraryThing member MaowangVater
Based on the Faustbuch, an anonymous cautionary tale about the German magician who sold his soul to the devil, this Elizabethan update on the old medieval morality play is enlivened by short comic sketches layered between the miraculous conjuring tricks—complete with fireworks for special effects—and tragedy as Faustus, torn between Good and Evil Angels struggles with thoughts of repentance only to sign a compact with the devil in his own blood in exchange for the spirit of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy, to be his lover.

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.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe wrote the first English-language version of the classic German tale of a man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and worldly pleasures. There are different, varying texts; I read the 1604 edition as provided by Project Gutenberg, which "is believed by most scholars to be closer to the play as originally performed in Marlowe's lifetime" (according to Wikipedia). I was pleasantly surprised at how readable and easy to follow this play was. Faustus is not a sympathetic character (one sign of his narcissism is that he always refers to himself in the third person) but it is hard not to feel sorry for him when the end of his twenty-four years of earthly pleasure come to an end, and the Devil takes is due.

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.
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LibraryThing member Floratina

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 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!
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LibraryThing member regularguy5mb
Dr. Faustus is the classic tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for power and prestige. This is the story that so many similar stories over the years have taken their cues from.

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.
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LibraryThing member Unionhawk
A tragic tale, yet not so tragic, if you think about it. Faustus isn't exactly a character you can really cheer for, given his devilish tricks and arrogance.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member eldatari
Even if you haven't read this play, you're probably familiar with the tale of Dr. Faustus. The fact that this tale has proven so enduring over the centuries is due in good part to the power of this text. Reading this play, it's hard to believe that it was written back in the 1500s. Marlowe is every bit as good as his contemporary, William Shakespeare.… (more)
LibraryThing member DCArchitect
Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe gives us his version of the Faustian Legend.
LibraryThing member cleverusername2
I love Shakespeare too, but his verbiage is much harder to follow than Marlowe. This story, what can I say. It's about hubris, forbidden lore, attaining ultimate power and ultimate corruption. It's epic and just as relevant all these years later.
LibraryThing member the_awesome_opossum
The Faustian deal of selling your soul to the devil is so pervasive in our culture now, most people would probably be familiar with the story without having read it - either Marlowe's version or any other. Partly morality play (although more engrossing than most) and partly commentary on pre-destination versus free will, Doctor Faustus is about a young scholar who manages to conjure up a devil and live a short and sweet life of luxury before his eternal damnation.

Faustus is never a particularly sympathetic character - he is horrifically short-sighted and solipsistic, right up to his final hour before damnation. But it is entertaining, and would be a fun play to stage. Plus it's interesting to see the origins of what I had thought of as a timeless cultural legend
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LibraryThing member antiquary
The great scenes meeing the devil, Helen, the final damnation) are truly great, but some of the comedy is very feeble.
LibraryThing member Smiler69
This short play is based on a classic German legend about Faust, a scholar who makes a deal with the devil where he proposes to sell give his soul in exchange for unlimited knowledge and pleasure. In Marlowe's interpretation, Doctor Faustus asks the Devil for twenty-four years of life during which time the demon Mephistopheles will do his bidding, in exchange for his soul which will spend eternity in the fires of hell, and he signs his pact with Lucifer in his own blood to finalize the deal. Throughout the play, we see Doctor Faustus being pulled between his craving for unlimited power and his yearning for salvation, with the Good Angel urging him to repent and the Bad Angel encouraging him to fulfill his promise. Faustus chooses to keep to the path of sin for the privileges that power affords him, such as the ability to perform magic, and is taken to hell by Mephistopheles when his time on earth is expired.

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.
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LibraryThing member Brent.Hall
A must read, it's a classic
LibraryThing member Soplada
Doctor Faustus won't make you close your head as soon as you close the book, No it will ignite it to question every thought which you encounter in your life with the relation to your major standards in your life wither it is your religion or just thought about life and why we are here

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.
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LibraryThing member Alera
This play reveals the story of a common man who allows his greed for knowledge to overwhelm his common sense and objectivity and lead him down a cursed path from which he cannot recover. It is also a commentary on the plight of the Renaissance man as he attempted to find and define himself without God. Intriguing to look at, and quite revealing to the mindset of both the author and the time.… (more)
LibraryThing member br13wivan
Doctor Faustus is a stunning literary jewel by Christopher Marlowe. It is a fascinating and moving religious work. It is hilariously funny at points and brutally serious at others. This story of Victorian jihad (the struggle is lost in this case) couldn’t have been clearer in its message, touching in its story, or crafted better than Marlowe had from his block of marble, the Historia von D. Iohan Fausten, which provided the bones of this spectacular theatrical work.
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.
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LibraryThing member Rinnreads
I found this a little dull to start with, due to the way it's written (why does that make me feel bad?). But it picked up when Faustus finally signed the contract. It was actually pretty funny!

Here are just some of Faustus' hijinks...

- Faustus often talks about himself in third person, so I was just imagining him as some sort of crazy doctor
- he doesn't seem to completely realise what he's getting himself into when he signs the contract
- one of the first things he does is ask Mephistophilis for a wife. He is presented with a demon in a dress
- he sees an opportunity to punch the Pope in the face, and takes it. He's going to Hell anyway, so why not?
- he also steals food and wine from the Pope's plate
- he insults a knight by suggesting his wife is committing adultery (makes him wear horns upon his head -> cuckolding)
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LibraryThing member tikitu-reviews
The introductory essay reads almost like a parody of scholarship, and the notes are almost totally useless for appreciating the play. The play itself is great though, particularly the (surprisingly sympathetic) character Mephistophilis. Faustus himself comes across as foolish rather than tragic, and his reaction once his damnation arrives doesn't make him look any better. The demon gets most of the really emotionally affecting lines.

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.
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LibraryThing member wellreadcatlady
It's one of those plays you need to read through and reread to get the whole idea of what's going on. My first opinion of it was that it didn't make sense and was poorly put together, but once I read it again and allowed myself to get sucked in and think "ok lets say this is possible" I felt like I had a better understanding and can actually say I kinda like the play now. The characters are similar for a reason, and I know this, but it bothers me.… (more)
LibraryThing member pgchuis
This edition comes with an almost oppressive number of notes and commentaries and background pieces and questions to think about. A good read, but I imagine a stage production would be disturbing.
LibraryThing member therebelprince
"Faustus", like all Marlowe's plays, is a fascinating exercise but far from a satisfying one. This seems like a cheap and somewhat naive review to give to one of the most well-known works of the Western canon, but there you go.

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.
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LibraryThing member MaowangVater
Based on the Faustbuch, an anonymous cautionary tale about the German magician who sold his soul to the devil, this Elizabethan update on the old medieval morality play is enlivened by short comic sketches layered between the miraculous conjuring tricks—complete with fireworks for special effects—and tragedy as Faustus, torn between Good and Evil Angels struggles with thoughts of repentance only to sign a compact with the devil in his own blood in exchange for the spirit of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy, to be his lover.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member leslie.98
Glad I read this but think that Elizabethan English will continue to be a trouble for me. Maybe I should look for a modern-language version...


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