Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
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...
(The entire section is 657 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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...
(The entire section is 1081 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1044 words.)
Act 1 Summary
The chorus enters, explaining that the play tells the story of a scholar named Faustus, who, like Icarus, "his waxen wings did mount above his reach."
Act I, Scene i
Faustus contemplates his accomplishments and plans his future endeavors. He considers, then rejects, philosophy, medicine, law, and theology before deciding to study magic. Significantly, Faustus rejects theology because of a misunderstanding of the relationship between divine justice and Christian mercy.
A good and bad angel appear, urging Faustus to resist and indulge in temptation, respectively. Two magicians, Valdes and Cornelius, enter, offering Faustus books of spells and agreeing to instruct him in the black arts.
Act I, Scene ii
Two scholars, who wonder what has become of Faustus, ask his assistant, Wagner. He chides the scholars about the logic of their conversation, then informs them that Faustus dines with Valdes and Cornelius. The scholars suspect that Faustus has "fall'n into that damned art."
Act I, Scene iii
Lucifer and four devils appear as Faustus chants his spells. When he asks them if his chants commanded them to appear, they reply that was merely accidental, that they appear whenever anyone "abjures the scriptures and his savior Christ." Faustus asks about the nature of hell but ignores the devil Mephistopheles's reply and agrees to exchange his soul for twenty-four years of...
(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, offering advice. After Faustus signs, devils dress him in rich robes and dance around. Again, Faustus asks Mephistopheles about hell, then refuses to believe the devil's honest reply, insisting that "hell's a fable."
Faustus asks and receives from Mephistopheles several books of spells to bring riches, control the elements, and provide knowledge of nature.
Act II, Scene ii
Faustus tells Mephistopheles that when he sees the heavens, he considers repenting. The Good Angel appears, urging Faustus to repent and take advantage of God's mercy, while the Bad Angel tells him he will never repent. Faustus agrees that he cannot ask for forgiveness.
Faustus asks Mephistopheles who made the world, but rather than answer and introduce the subject of God, the devil offers a morality play showing the seven deadly sins: Pride, Covetousness, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lechery.
Act II, Scene iii
Robin and Dick joke about the power of magic.
The Chorus tells us of Faustus learning the secrets of nature and travelling to Rome.
(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 heresy. As a joke, Faustus and Mephistopheles put the cardinals to sleep, then impersonate them, telling Pope Adrian they have decided to punish Bruno severely. Delighted, Pope Adrian orders a banquet to be prepared.
Act III, Scene ii
Faustus and Mephistopheles free Bruno, who returns to Germany. When the real cardinals awake, they tell Pope Adrian they had not yet delivered their verdict, and when Pope Adrian learns that Bruno has escaped, he imprisons the cardinals.
Faustus, now invisible, accompanies the Pope, archbishop, and friars to the banquet, stealing food and drink from the Pope's hand. The clergy damn the soul responsible for this mystical behavior.
Act III, Scene iii
Robin and Dick have stolen a cup from the Vintner; when he comes to reclaim it, they conjure up Mephistopheles. Angry at being disturbed, the devil transforms Dick into an ape and Robin into a dog.
The Chorus explains that Faustus has arrived at the court of the Emperor.
(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, Benvolio, a knight with a hangover, insists that if Faustus can bring back Alexander, he will become Actaeon and turn himself into a stag. After Alexander appears, Faustus grows horns on Benvolio's head, which the Emperor, pleading leniency, asks Faustus to remove.
Act IV, Scene ii
Two knights, Martino and Frederick, help Benvolio in a vengeful attack on Faustus. When the magician appears, they cut off his head, but he rises again, telling them he cannot die before his contract expires in twenty-four years. They plead for mercy but various devils punish them and their soldiers.
Act IV, Scene iii
Benvolio, Frederick, and Martino enter, bloody, with horns on their heads. Embarrassed, they decide to hide in Benvolio's castle.
Act IV, Scene iv
Faustus sells his incredible horse to the Horse-courser (dealer) for 40 dollars, but warns the dealer not to ride it through water.
Alone, Faustus, "a man condemn'd to die," remembers that divine mercy led Christ to forgive one of the thieves with whom he was crucified. Still, the thief had repented, and Faustus does not. Instead, he falls asleep.
The Horse dealer returns, wet. His curiosity led him to ride the horse through water, and the animal has turned into a little wet straw. He comes upon...
(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, urging Faustus to repent. Faustus, believing himself damned, contemplates suicide, and Mephistopheles hands him a dagger. The Old Man advises repentance, but Faustus asks the demon for Helen. Faustus then makes redemption impossible by kissing her spirit, asking as he does, for Helen, not God, to make him immortal.
Act V, Scene ii
Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistopheles come to claim Faustus, whose time has run out. Various scholars, seeing Faustus's sad demeanor, wonder if physicians might cure his ill, but he informs them that his powers came, not from himself, but because he sold his soul to the devil. The scholars advise him to repent, but Faustus says if he thinks of God, the devil will tear his body to pieces. The Good Angel appears, telling Faustus that the time for repentance is past, while the Bad Angel gloats over the damnation of the magician's soul. The Bad Angel tells Faustus, who refused to repent because his fear of physical pains exceeded his fear of spiritual pain, about the exquisite torments that await him in hell.
As the clock strikes eleven, Faustus wishes he could stop time, then wishes he were not immortal and doomed to suffer for eternity, but still he fails to repent. Finally, as the clock strikes twelve, he wishes his soul could be turned into drops of water which...
(The entire section is 324 words.)