Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Doctor Faustus

In Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe supplies a nearly diagrammatic study of damnation—of the decline and fall of a human soul—growing out of excessive pride and overreaching ambition. The well-schooled Faustus, with his unbridled curiosity, skepticism, and knowledge, stands as the epitome of the Renaissance “new man.” On his graduation from the German university at Wittenberg, Faustus casts about for a suitable profession. He rejects, in turn, philosophy, medicine, law, and theology, finding that all these fields fall short of what amounts to his supra-human desires. For example, medicine (“physic”) promises the possibility of temporary healing but not of bestowing everlasting life or of raising the dead. Accordingly, Faustus at last lights upon necromancy—magic and the black arts—as providing the sole means whereby he can achieve “omnipotence” and become a “mighty god.”

In the company of his like-minded friends Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus summons up the demon Mephistophilis and informs him that, in exchange for twenty-four years of earthly pleasure, wealth, and honor, he is ready to abandon his soul to Lucifer, the evil one himself. Immediately, Good Angel and Bad Angel appear to Faustus, the former urgently pleading for the scholar’s repentance, and the latter airily dismissing the efficacy of prayer. Willfully determined, Faustus stabs his arm and writes out his agreement with the devil in his own resisting blood.

Almost immediately, however, it becomes clear that there are limits to demonic power: For example, Faustus asks for a wife only to learn that holy matrimony, a sacrament of the Church, is not open to him now. In place of a wife, Mephistophilis promises Faustus a succession of prostitutes, an adjustment that the lascivious Faustus finds congenial. The demon then converses with Faustus about astronomy and cosmology. Throughout this long discourse, Faustus is tempted to repent from time to time; but Mephistophilis, Belzebub, and Lucifer are each time able to distract him with entertaining (if insubstantial) “shows”—for example, with a diverting parade of the personified Seven Deadly Sins—so that the enthralled scholar forgets any misgivings and hews to his bargain.

In a subsequent series of relatively brief and decidedly farcical vignettes—first at the Vatican at Rome, then at the imperial German court, and finally in the swindling of a lowly horse seller—Faustus, aided by the devils who accompany him, demonstrates the arguably paltry powers he has attained at the cost of his soul. In Rome, for example, he assumes invisibility in order to strike the pope about the head, set free the pontiff’s enemy Bruno, and befuddle a host of Ecclesiastes. At the royal court, he beguiles Emperor Charles by evoking the forms of such historical figures as Alexander the Great and Darius—all the while reminding the monarch that these apparently tangible manifestations are in fact “but shadows, not substantial.” Finally, he provides out-of-season grapes for the duchess of Inhaled and, in the role of court jester, amuses himself and the ducal assembly by cruelly hoodwinking some rustic yokels.

At last, however, as the end of Faustus’s life draws near, the mood of the play inevitably lurches from the farcical to the terrifying and demonic. Back in the magician’s study, a pious Old Man, representing God’s infinite mercy, warns Faustus of the eternal agonies of hell and entreats him, even at this late hour, to repent. Shaken, Faustus nonetheless gives way to the sin of despair and begs Mephistophilis to summon up the distracting image of Helen of Troy, a mythic figure metaphorically associated with fire—in this case, the fires of hell. Kissing Faustus, her “lips suck forth [his] soul.” By willfully embracing this demonic figure, Faustus permanently seals his fate, and even as he cries out pitifully for more time, the unholy trinity of Lucifer, Belzebub, and Mephistophilis lead the magician offstage to the unending torment that awaits his spirit. Two scholars later discover his earthly body, horribly torn and dismembered.

Doctor Faustus Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus is generally considered his greatest. The play shares certain elements with its ancestor, the medieval morality play: the opposing admonishments of good and bad angels; the characters of Lucifer and Mephostophilis; and the appearance of the Seven Deadly Sins. Yet it breaks with tradition in two important respects: in the sympathy evoked for the straying hero, and in the questions raised against the cosmic order of conventional Christian doctrine.

Faustus pursues his grand aspirations in what Marlowe portrays as a repressive climate of Christian orthodoxy, which, in designating certain knowledge as forbidden, blocks fulfillment of his desires and effectively becomes his antagonist. The play opens with Faustus in his study. He has plumbed the depths of all disciplines and found them unfulfilling. He will settle for no less than a dominion that “Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man”—a world of physical beauty, sensual delight, and power over life and objects. He decides his best hope is necromancy, an art forbidden by Christian doctrine.

Thus, the scene is set for Faustus’s tragic decline. Planted in the text, even from the beginning, are warnings of the terrible fate awaiting Faustus. A master of dramatic irony, Marlowe has these warnings go unheeded by his hero while they build an uneasy tension in the audience’s awareness. An example is Faustus’s remark on his own great powers in conjuring up Mephostophilis. Only a few lines later, it is revealed that Mephostophilis has come more out of his own and Lucifer’s self-interest than in deference to Faustus’s wishes. Similarly, when Mephostophilis tells Faustus that Lucifer was thrown from Heaven for aspiring pride and insolence, the audience recognizes that Faustus exhibits the same faults and may meet the same fate. There is ambivalence, too, in Faustus’s repeated exhortation to himself to be resolute in his damnable course of action. The word, used more often in connection with Christian virtue, gains an ironic weight, rendering Doctor Faustus a negative version of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684).

Counterbalanced against this carefully crafted tragic inevitability is the hope that Faustus will repent and save himself. Marlowe keeps the conflict in Faustus’s soul active until the end. In the moving soliloquies, Faustus’s initial confidence in his pact with Lucifer alternates with regret and determination to turn back to God. Despair however, prevails. In his second soliloquy, Faustus is turned back from repentance by his sense of God’s indifference to him and his own indifference to God: Faustus serves only his own appetite. In one profoundly moving scene, Faustus announces, “I do repent” only to have Mephostophilis threaten him with having his flesh torn into pieces for disobedience to Lucifer. Faustus effects a hasty turnabout of meaning in an ironic echo of his previous phrase: “I do repent I e’er offended him.”

Yet just as God failed Faustus in his aspirations, so does Lucifer. Disillusionment follows rapidly on his pact. Faustus asks for a wife; but marriage is a sacrament, so Mephostophilis cannot provide one. When Faustus questions him about astronomy, Mephostophilis tells him nothing the scholar Wagner could not have told him. Although the Chorus reveals that Faustus attains fame for his learning, his achievements are superficial and empty in comparison with his grandiose intentions at the outset. He humiliates the pope (a typically Marlovian scenario), avenges some petty wrongs done to him by Benvolio by attaching antlers to his head, and entertains the duke and duchess of Vanholt with insubstantial illusions. At the play’s start, no area of knowledge is large enough for Faustus’s overweening sense of self; toward the end, fear and despair have so diminished him that he wants only dissolution and oblivion: “O soul, be chang’d into little water drops,/ And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found.”

In spite of the intellectual nature of the play’s premise, it contains scenes of a striking visual immediacy. The first entrance of Mephostophilis, too ugly for Faustus’s taste, and the appearance of Helen of Troy are examples. Often, scenes of horror are not directly represented on stage but chillingly evoked in words. Faustus’s blood congeals as he attempts to sign his soul away to the Devil; a Latin inscription meaning “Fly, O man!” appears on his arm. That the audience is told this by Faustus rather than seeing it for itself lets it experience the terror through his awareness. Similarly, a chill of fear is produced by Faustus’s words to the Scholars: “Ay, pray for me, pray for me; and, what noise soever ye hear, come not unto me, for nothing can rescue me.” The image is as powerful in its understatement as the explicit horror of the final scene, where devils drag Faustus off to Hell.

Marlowe’s verse reached its full emotional power in Doctor Faustus. Faustus’s soliloquy beginning “Ah, Faustus,/ Now hast thou but one bare hour to live” is an example of the emotional intensity of which Marlowe was capable. Faustus’s request that the spheres of Heaven cease their motion to give him time to repent is heartrending because of its very impossibility. Desperation is conveyed in the rapid and diminishing series of time extensions that he demands. His violent reversals of mood—from calling on God to anguish at being dragged downward by devils, from the vision of Christ’s blood streaming in the firmament to the pain of Lucifer’s tortures—move the audience with him from despair to hope. His spiritual agony is summarized in the evocative and poignant line, “O lente lente currite noctis equi” (“Slowly run, O horses of night”).

The traditional morality play affirmed Christian virtue and faith and condemned the vices of those who strayed from the path. Doctor Faustus offers no such comfortable framework. It does not offer a reassuring affirmation of Christian faith or a straightforward condemnation of Faustus. Instead, it presents a disturbing challenge to the cosmic order as defined by Christian orthodoxy. Listeners are invited “Only to wonder at unlawful things,/ whose deepness doth entice such forward wits/ To practise more than heavenly power permits.”

The question with which the play ends is whether the tragedy of Faustus is individual, the tragedy of one man’s fall from grace, or universal, the tragedy of Everyman in a system of belief that offers no place or path for the growth of the illimitable human spirit.

Doctor Faustus Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Faustus is born to a common family in Rhodes, Germany. In his maturity, while living with relatives in Wittenberg, he studies theology and becomes a doctor as well. However, Faustus is so swollen with conceit that, like Daedalus, the ancient Greek inventor, he strives too far, becoming glutted with learning. He conspires with the Devil and falls, accursed to Hell.

At the outset of his downward path, Doctor Faustus finds himself complete master of three fields of knowledge—medicine, law, and theology. As a medical doctor, he achieves huge success and great renown. After obtaining good health for his patients, he faces no challenge except achieving immortality for them. He concludes that law is nothing but an elaborate moneymaking scheme. He thinks that only theology remains, but that it leads to a blind alley. He knows that the reward of sin is death and that no one can say that he or she is without sin; all people, guilty of sin, consequently die.

Necromancy, or black magic, greatly attracts Faustus. Universal power would be within his reach, the whole world would be at his command, and emperors would lie at his feet, if he could become a magician. Summoning his servant, Wagner, Faustus orders him to contact Valdes and Cornelius, believing they could teach him their black arts.

The Good Angel and the Evil Angel each try to persuade Faustus. Faustus is in no mood to listen to the Good Angel. He exults over the prospects of his forthcoming adventures. He will get gold from India, pearls from the oceans, tasty delicacies from faraway places; he will read strange philosophies, cull from foreign kings their secrets, control Germany with his power, reform public schools, and perform many other fabulous deeds. Eager to acquire knowledge of the black arts, he departs to study with Valdes and Cornelius. Before long the scholars of Wittenberg begin to notice the doctor’s prolonged absence. Learning from Wagner of his master’s unhallowed pursuits, the scholars lament the fate of the famous doctor.

Faustus’s first act of magic is to summon Mephostophilis. At the sight of the ugly Devil, he orders Mephostophilis to assume the shape of a Franciscan friar. The docile obedience of Mephostophilis elates Faustus the magician, but Mephostophilis explains that magic has limits in the Devil’s kingdom. Mephostophilis claims that he does not actually appear at Faustus’s behest but comes, as he will to any other person, because Faustus curses Christ and abjures the Scriptures. Whenever someone is on the verge of being damned, the Devil will appear.

Interested in the nature of Lucifer, Faustus questions Mephostophilis about his master, the fallen angel, and about Hell, Lucifer’s domain. Mephostophilis is cagey. He claims that the fallen spirits, being deprived of the glories of Heaven, find the whole world to be Hell. Even Mephostophilis urges Faustus to give up his scheme. Faustus, however, scorns the warning, saying that he will surrender his soul to Lucifer if the fallen angel will give to Faustus twenty-four years of voluptuous ease, with Mephostophilis attending him.

While Faustus indulges in an intellectual dispute concerning the relative merits of God and the Devil, the Good Angel and the Evil Angel, symbolic of Faustus’s inner conflict, appear once again, each attempting to persuade him. The result is that Faustus is more determined than ever to continue his course.

Mephostophilis returns to assure Faustus that Lucifer is agreeable to the bargain, which must be sealed in Faustus’s blood. When Faustus tries to sign his name, however, his blood congeals, and Mephostophilis has to warm the liquid by fire. Significantly, the words “Fly, man” appear in Latin on Faustus’s arm. When Faustus questions Mephostophilis about the nature of Hell, the Devil claims that Hell has no limits for the damned. Intoxicated by his new status, Faustus disclaims any belief in an afterlife. In this way, he assures himself that his contract with Lucifer will never be fulfilled, in spite of Mephostophilis’s own warning that he himself is living proof of Hell’s existence.

Faustus, eager to enjoy the promise of the Devil’s offerings, demands books that will contain varied information regarding the Devil’s regime. When the Good Angel and the Evil Angel come to him again, he thinks that he is beyond repentance. Again, the opposing angels incorporate themselves into Faustus’s mind, until he calls on Christ to save him. Nevertheless, as he speaks, wrathful Lucifer descends upon his victim to admonish him never to call to God. As an appeasing gesture, Lucifer conjures up a vision of the Seven Deadly Sins—Pride, Covetousness, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lechery.

Faustus travels extensively throughout the world, and Wagner marvels at his master’s rapid progress. In Rome, at the palace of the pope, Faustus, becoming invisible as a result of his black arts, astounds the Roman Catholic pope by snatching items from the holy man’s hands. Like a gleeful child, Faustus asks Mephostophilis to create more mischief. When Faustus returns home, the scholars eagerly question him about many things unknown to them. As Faustus’s fame spreads, Charles V, emperor of Germany, asks him to conjure up the spirit of Alexander the Great. A skeptical knight scoffs at such a preposterous idea, so Faustus, after fulfilling the emperor’s request, spitefully places horns on the head of the knight.

Foreseeing that his time of merriment is drawing to a close, Faustus returns to Wittenberg. Wagner senses that his master is about to die because Faustus is giving him all of his worldly goods. As death draws near, Faustus speaks with his conscience, which, taking the form of an old man, begs him to repent before he dies. When Faustus declares that he will repent, Mephostophilis cautions him not to offend Lucifer. Faustus asks Mephostophilis to bring him Helen of Troy as a lover to amuse him during the final days of his life.

In his remaining hours, Faustus converses with scholars who love him, and the fallen theologian reveals to them his bargain with Lucifer. Alone, he utters a final despairing plea that he be saved from impending eternal misery, but in the end he is borne off by a company of devils.

Doctor Faustus Summary

Act 1 Summary

Prologue
The chorus enters, explaining that the play tells the story of a scholar named Faustus, who, like Icarus, "his waxen...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Act 2 Summary

Act II, Scene i
As Faustus prepares to sign in blood a contract giving Lucifer his soul, the Good and Bad Angels appear,...

(The entire section is 190 words.)

Act 3 Summary

Act III, Scene i
Bruno, supported as Pope by German Emperor Charles V, is brought before Roman Pope Adrian, to be condemned for...

(The entire section is 183 words.)

Act 4 Summary

Act IV, Scene i
The Emperor requests that Faustus conjure up Alexander the Great and his paramour. Skeptical of Faustus's power,...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Act 5 Summary

Act V, Scene i
Faustus raises the spirit of Helen of Troy for a group of scholars. When the scholars leave, an Old Man appears,...

(The entire section is 324 words.)