Christopher Marlowe based his play Doctor Faustus on stories about a scholar and magician, Johann Faust, who allegedly sold his soul to the devil to gain magical powers. Born in 1488, the original Faust wandered through his German homeland until his death in 1541. In 1587, the first story about his life appeared in Germany, translated into English in 1592 as The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus.
Exactly dating Renaissance texts can be difficult, but Doctor Faustus poses particular challenges. Scholars believe Marlowe heard or read the story of Johann Faust and composed Doctor Faustus sometime between 1588 and 1592. London's Stationer's Register entered the play into the official records in 1601, but in 1602, at least two other writers were paid for additions to the text. (Most critics believe that Marlowe wrote the play's tragic beginning and end, while his collaborators wrote much of the comical middle sections.) A theatrical company named the Earl of Nottingham's Men (commonly known as the Admiral's Men) performed the play twenty-four times between its opening in 1594 and 1597. Thomas Busshell published the play in 1604, though John Wright published a different version in 1609. Editors generally combine parts of these and other versions of the text to create the play as it is widely read today.
Contemporary theatre records indicate that in early performances, Faustus may have worn the cloak of a scholar, decorated with a cross, while the devil Mephistopheles appeared in the costume of a dragon. It has been said that performances of the play were so terrifying that during the 17th century audiences believed that the devil actually appeared among them.
In spite of a literary career prematurely shortened by his violent life, Marlowe profoundly influenced English literature. In particular, scholars credit his play Tamburlaine with successfully introducing blank verse into English drama and with developing the Elizabethan concept of tragedy as a way of exploring key moral issues of the Renaissance. Although not a favorite with early audiences, today critics and theatre-goers alike consider Doctor Faustus Marlowe's masterpiece.