When Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus appeared on the London stage in 1594, audiences did not name it an overwhelming success. Today, however, critics and theatre-goers alike consider it Marlowe's masterpiece. Contemporary critical debate focuses on several, related critical issues: what motivates Faustus's character? When does his damnation occur? And does the play have a "middle?"
Critics interested in assessing the play's quality consider the unity of Doctor Faustus's structure to be central. For some, it has a beginning—Faustus's contract with the devil—and an end—Faustus's damnation—with little of consequence in between. The frivolous ways Faustus uses his powers supports this position, suggesting that the hero learns or changes little as the narrative action progresses. As Wilbur Sanders wrote in Shakespeare's Contemporaries: Modern Studies in English Renaissance Drama, the "unity of Doctor Faustus is ... something that we have to create for ourselves."
The play's complex textual history further complicates the issue. Two different published versions of the play appeared in 1604 and 1616, and theatre manager Philip Henslowe contracted revisions from other writers. This leaves the authorship of the play's middle sections open to debate, though Marlowe certainly wrote the play's beginning and end. Few believe Marlowe wrote the middle of Doctor...
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