Doctor Faustus Summary

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is a 1592 play by Christopher Marlowe that tells the story of a man who makes a deal with the devil in exchange for power. 

  • Doctor Faustus decides to pursue ungodly magic. The Good Angel and the Bad Angel vie for Faustus’s conscience, but Faustus ignores the Good Angel’s pleas.
  • Faustus summons Mephistophilis and bargains to surrender his soul in exchange for twenty-four years of power.
  • Faustus performs a range of fantastical deeds with Mephistophilis's help, and in the end, despite his regrets, his soul is taken to Hell.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1454

Doctor Faustus, a brilliant scholar, considers what area of study he ought to devote himself to, desiring to master only the greatest of subjects. After exhausting numerous potential subjects, including philosophy, medicine, law, and theology, Faustus decides that the pursuit with the greatest potential is magic. He decides this because his interpretation of the bible leads him to believe that sin and damnation are inevitabilities and that he can simply repent towards the end of his life if necessary and be saved. And unlike theology, mastery of unholy magic promises unparalleled power, wealth, and greatness.

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He therefore sets out to master these unholy arts with the help of two scholarly acquaintances, Valdes and Cornelius, who are known to practice the art of summoning spirits. Having learned from these men, Faustus sets himself to conjuring a devil and successfully summons the great demon, Mephistophilis. Faustus commands Mephistophilis to hide his devilish appearance by dressing as a Franciscan monk and asks him to go back to Lucifer with a bargain: Faustus will trade his immortal soul in exchange for twenty-four years of service from Mephistophilis, who is to grant Faustus anything he wishes. Mephistophilis departs and returns later to tell Faustus that Lucifer agrees to this bargain. After briefly considering repentance, Faustus decides that hell is likely more mythological than real. Attempting to sign the blood oath, Faustus’s blood first congeals so as not to be usable for writing, and then the words “Homo Fuge!” (run away, O human!) appear on his arm. Finally, however, he signs a deed to his soul, and from this point, Mephistophilis is in Faustus’s service.

With the powers of hell at his command, Faustus conveys his grandiose ambitions to conquer all the kingdoms of Europe, divert the world’s geography to suit his wishes, call forth the greatest treasures of the earth, and to rein, invulnerable, over all the realms he desires.

Meanwhile, the narrative turns to a comedic scene featuring Faustus’s servant, Wagner, who has picked up some of Faustus’s unholy magic. Wagner goes to the street and mocks an impoverished clown, insisting that the clown become his servant or he will summon devils for his torment. When the clown finally sees the devils, he relents and agrees to call Wagner his master.

With the demon now at his command, Faustus asks Mephistophilis a number of questions about hell, and Mephistophilis reveals that hell is not so much a location as it is a state of being that is absent the graces of God. Unfazed, Faustus then asks Mephistophilis for a beautiful wife, but since marriage is a sacrament of God, Mephistophilis is only able to provide a devil in women’s clothing, whom Faustus rejects. From there, Faustus asks to be given knowledge of various subjects, including the nature of the cosmos, all of which Mephistophilis is able to provide. He is unable, however, to answer when Faustus asks him who it was who created the universe, as to do so would be against his demonic nature.

Having come up against these obstacles to power—and fearing that the splendours of creation may be out of his reach with only the powers of hell—Faustus again considers repentance. At this, Mephistophilis, Beelzebub, and Lucifer himself rise up from hell in an attempt to convince Faustus to uphold his agreement. To accomplish this, Lucifer conjures a show for Faustus, featuring personifications of all the Seven Deadly Sins. This so delights Faustus that he agrees that the pleasures of his hellish bargain surely outweigh the costs.

The narrative turns once again to a comedic scene, this time featuring two stable hands, Robin and Rafe. Robin has stolen a book of magic spells from Doctor Faustus, and the two men joke and scheme over their (mostly vulgar) plans for the mystical, unholy powers they will soon possess with the secrets contained in this book.

Faustus embarks on a journey through the cosmos with Mephistophilis, on a chariot pulled by dragons, to see for himself the grand celestial bodies. He then decides to tour Europe, including a visit to Rome and the Pope. Arriving in the Pope’s private quarters, Faustus has Mephistophilis turn him invisible. He plays numerous crude tricks, even going as far as to “box the ears” of the Pope himself. Fearing the Catholic powers of exorcism, Faustus and Mephistophilis leave the Papal chambers.

The narrative returns to the stable hands Robin and Rafe. The two men are exiting a pub, where they have stolen a silver goblet. When the Vintner chases the men to retrieve the cup, Robin and Rafe (who are illiterate) utter a spell that sounds like gibberish but nonetheless successfully summon Mephistophilis to their aid. Although Mephistophilis does chase off the Vintner for the men, he is outraged at having been summoned by these ruffians for so petty a purpose. He turns Robin and Rafe into an ape and a dog, respectively.

Having toured the cosmos and now Europe, Faustus returns to Germany and becomes famous for the performance of supernatural deeds. He is soon summoned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and Faustus goes to perform magic for the Emperor’s entertainment. The Emperor tells Faustus that he would like to see Alexander the Great, and so Faustus conjures spectres in his likeness, to the delight of the Emperor. A Knight in the Emperor’s court, however, believes Faustus to be a charlatan, and interrupts the performance to insult the doctor. Faustus, in return, causes horns to grow out of the Knight’s head, signifying that the man is a cuckold. Although the Emperor is thrilled, rewarding Faustus handsomely, Faustus is privately concerned that the twenty-four years for which he sold his soul to Lucifer are going by faster than he had expected.

We next see Faustus come into an altercation with a Horse Courser, a man who trades horses. The courser buys Faustus’s horse for less than it is worth. Faustus sells the man his horse, but warns him not to ride the horse into water. When the courser does so, the horse turns into straw (the material out of which Mephistophilis clearly conjured the animal). The courser returns to Faustus, demanding the return of his money. Faustus pretends to be asleep, and the Horse Courser pulls on his leg in order to wake him, but Faustus uses the magic of Mephistophilis to cause his leg to come right off in the courser’s hands, making the man run away, horrified. Faustus’s leg regenerates immediately. Wagner, Faustus’s servant, enters the scene, informing Faustus that the Duke of Vanholt also wants to see a performance of Faustus’s black magic.

At the Duke’s palace, Faustus performs his magic but fails to entertain the Duchess. She tells Faustus of a craving for grapes, which she cannot have because it is winter, and Faustus sends Mephistophilis to the Southern Hemisphere to retrieve some grapes for her. Grateful, the Duke and Duchess reward Faustus for his performance.

Time passes, and Faustus’s twenty-four years have come near their end. He has returned to Germany, where he has taken on numerous students, for whom he performs magical acts, such as summoning the likeness of Helen of Troy. In private, however, Faustus has become gravely concerned for the damnation that soon awaits him. An Old Man approaches Faustus, imploring him with strong language to repent his wicked, sinful ways and pray to God for the salvation of his soul. This greatly upsets Faustus, and he considers suicide. The Old Man stops him from doing so, however. Mephistophilis, meanwhile, is angry at Faustus for being so swayed by the prospect of God’s redemption. He commands Faustus to reaffirm his commitment to Lucifer in a new blood oath or he will tear Faustus to pieces. Faustus does so, apologizing for his lapse of faith in Lucifer, and asks Mephistophilis to punish the Old Man. Faustus then has Mephistophilis conjure Helen of Troy once more so that he may take her as his paramour and take comfort in her great beauty.

The final day of Faustus’s twenty-four years arrives, and Faustus appears gravely ill, sick with worry for his impending damnation. As the hours quickly go by, Faustus becomes increasingly upset, attempting to bargain with the forces of the world for more time. Unable to repent for his life of sin, and soon to be damned to Lucifer’s grasp for eternity, Faustus cries regretfully into the night. The clock finally turns to midnight, and devils come to carry him off to hell. As they do so, Faustus offers to burn his books, and he utters his final words, “Ah, Mephistophilis!”

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