What is a reference to the historical context for Marlowe's Doctor Faustus?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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There are two historical contexts related to Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. The one is the historical context of Marlowe's own time, the other is the historical context of the true-life person from which Marlowe's story was drawn. From the late 1400s until the mid-1500s one Johann Faustus lived who became a legend for his phenomenal powers displayed throughout Germany, which led to the common belief that he had sold his soul to the devil.

Documentation places him in the capital town of Gelnhausen performing magic in 1506. He was excommunicated by the church for having made a pact with the Devil. A number of books were written about this Faustus beginning in 1587. These early books were called "chapbooks" and contained poems like ballads, tales, or religious tracts; the tale of Faustus would have been classed as a religious tract. The historical origins aren't so simple, however.

According to J. W. Worthy, the Doctor Faustus of the legend of necromancer, sorcerer and magician who sold his soul to the Devil had its roots in a Johann Faustus who was a contemporary the church father, Augustine (400s-500s). This Faustus was well known during Martin Luther's time (1483-1546) as an early heretic who had sold his soul to the Devil as was evidenced by his arrogant pride. This was the same Faustus whose heresies Augustine denounced in his treatise, Augustin: Reply to Faustus the Manichaean.

Instead, [researchers] devoted their efforts and enormous resources to unearthing an historical Faustus--and they found him, of course:  in archives, in memoirs, and  in public records several plausible individuals were attested. Probably none of them was known to the author of the Faust Book, or to the citizens of Nuremberg.  "Cutting edge" academic research has not asked [about the missing connection].

But a genuine historical Faustus was especially well known in Luther's century.  This Faustus had lived more than a thousand years earlier in the Roman provice [sic] of Numidia.  Martin Luther and his pupils were very familiar with him as a notorious heretic.  (J. W. Worthy, Professor of Moral Sciences, John Tarleton Military Academy, Texas)

As to the historical context at the time Marlowe wrote the tragedy of Faustus (C. 1588-1592), the most significant historical point is that England was split along theological lines in the wake of the continually surging Protestant Reformation (1517: Ninety-five Theses of Religion, Luther) denouncing the tenets and practices of Catholicism. Protestant theology had dominance in England at the moment but debates continued to rage over various points of doctrine and theology, such as how one might claim and accept repentance and forgiveness, a doctrine called "justification." In fact, this is one of the issues Faustus struggles with at the conclusion of Marlowe's play:

FAUSTUS: Hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast:
What shall I do to shun the snares of death?
[...]
See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop:  ah, my Christ!—

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