Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


An essay on the play by Christopher Marlowe

The following essay is reprinted from The Age of Shakespeare. Thomas Seccombe & J.W. Allen. London: George Bell and Sons, 1903. pp. 44-7.

It would have seemed impossible for the author of Tamburlaine to eclipse that piece in popular estimation; yet his next production threw into yet stronger relief than its predecessor the transcendent genius of Christopher Marlowe. Pre-eminently bold was his choice of material for his next play -- the old story of a man's contract with the devil.

The bold are proverbially fortunate. Marlowe found a fine setting of the old fable ready to his hand. The story had crystallized round Dr. Faustus (fl. 1520), a strolling necromancer of South Germany, the successor of the great Rhineland wizards as they were reputed, Tritheim, Paracelsus, and Cornelius Agrippa. The legend of Faustus went on growing and being improved until it was worked up into a connected Life and Adventures of Dr. Johann Faust, Master of the Black Art, with how he sold himself to the Devil, printed at Frankfurt in 1587. The life of such a famous magician could not fail to be popular; it had a large sale and was promptly translated from German into various tongues. The early copies of little books of this kind are specially apt to be thumbed out of existence, and the first version that now exists in England is dated 1592; but this is expressly described as a new and amended edition. That used by Marlowe was probably dated 1587-8. The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus, as Marlowe's play was called, became very popular both in England and by means of translations in Germany and the Low Countries. It kept Marlowe's fame alive in Germany down to 1829, when Goethe exclaimed, 'How greatly it is all planned!' He had thought of translating it: he was fully aware that Shakespeare did not stand alone. There is less declamation in Faustus than in Tamburlaine; the verse is somewhat freer; there is rather more dramatic variety and much more human feeling, with a considerable leaven of pathos. The dictum that it is 'greatly planned' does not seem particularly apposite, if that be precisely what Goethe said. The planning is mainly that of the obscure writer who produced the Faust-book at Frankfurt. There is remarkably little shaping of materials into dramatic form. As with Tamburlaine, it is a succession of scenes, some greater than any in that piece, others much more trivial. First enters Chorus who makes a speech and then draws a curtain, discovering Faustus, seated in his study, meditating that, in contrast to the limitations of human knowledge,

These metaphysics of magicians
And necromantic books are heavenly.

Then come his visions of magical power in a passage which gives the keynote of his ambition:

How am I glutted with conceit of this!
Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please,
Resolve me of all ambiguities,
Perform what desperate enterprise I will?
I'll have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the Ocean for orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new-found world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates:
I'll have them read me strange Philosophy
And tell the secrets of all foreign kings....
I'll have them fill the public schools with silk
Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad;
I'll levy soldiers with the coin they bring
And chase the Prince of Parma from our land,
And reign sole king of all our provinces.

The somewhat vulgar nature of these desires is significant of the lack of symbolism in Marlowe's conception of the story. Next we have Faust's first colloquy with Mephistopheles, a superb scene, in which the headstrong blindness of man's folly in pursuit of some idealized whim is brought out with an appalling clearness. Scenes viii. to xiii. are occupied by the tricks that Faustus plays by conjuring, derived from the old Faust-book; and here there is more horseplay and buffoonery than satire, the opportunities of the situation as a vehicle for irony being almost entirely ignored, though we have an amusing caricature of a precisian and Faust's significant request to Mephisto:

Go, and return an old Franciscan friar:
That holy shape becomes a devil best.

Scene xiv. contains the magnificent apostrophe to Helen, whom Faust requires as his paramour.

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships?

Scene xvi. brings us to the agony of Faust's last hour previous to the expiration of his twenty-four years' contract with the devil. The soliloquy, which culminates in the shrill-voiced terror of the damned soul, is of a tragic intensity which is unsurpassed in any play that is known to us. Where else in the whole range of dramatic literature shall we find a climax at once so terrible and so grotesque?

Browse quotes from Doctor Faustus

Back to Christopher Marlowe