Doctor Faustus is probably Christopher Marlowe’s most famous work. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, and author of nondramatic poetry as well, Marlowe wrote only seven plays. If Shakespeare had died at an equally young age—twenty-nine rather than fifty-two—Marlowe might be the more famous of the pair. Marlowe was one of the first English writers to perfect black verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—and to use it with flexibility and poetic effect in drama. He was killed in a tavern brawl.
The manuscripts of Doctor Faustus, surviving in different versions, were revised by theatrical companies after Marlowe’s death in 1593. Printed versions of the play, one in 1604 and another in 1616, indicate further editorial adjustments, particularly involving the comic scenes. Scholars do not agree about which version is more authentic. They agree that Marlowe wrote the tragic scenes, but disagree about the authorship of the comic scenes. Moreover, they question whether the comic scenes comment on or detract from the main plot.
The comic scenes of Doctor Faustus, however, follow the medieval practice of the farce or interlude—humorous, clownish, or boisterous amusement that entails variations on or exaggerations of Faustus’s dealings with Mephostophilis. For instance, the servants and the clowns try to conjure devils, and Faustus’s sale of a horse to a horse-courser, who returns to pull off Faustus’s leg after the horse proves to be a creation of black magic, parody Faustus’s own more serious deviltry. The episode involving Faustus’s pulled-off leg, actually a bundle of hay that dissolves, suggests Faustus’s own bodily disintegration at the end of the play and the disintegration of his chances for salvation. Faustus remains giddy with hollow, short-lived successes. He never experiences the somber reflection that usually grips the living in the presence of mortal decay. Overall, the comic elements present thematic reminders of how evil lures by deceit and blunts or vulgarizes sensibility.
Marlowe based Doctor Faustus on the early sixteenth century German doctor Johann Faust, a practitioner of magic, who was thought to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and magical power. Marlowe dramatizes tales that gathered around Faustus’s name, those typically involving the conflict between human aspiration and human limitation. His version of the life of Faustus greatly enriches and extends its scope. He incorporates many literary, philosophical, and religious contexts.
In particular, Marlowe structures Doctor Faustus as a morality play combining religious instruction with vivid entertainment. The morality play, a medieval poetic drama, mingles tragic and comic aspects of ordinary life with Christian liturgical services and the homily. Its concern is humanity’s earthly existence and spiritual state, but especially humanity’s well-being in the afterlife. Death stands as preoccupation, as in the play itself, because it ought to bring every moment of life into sharp focus. The present should be viewed as a preparation for eternal life; the struggle for salvation calls for faith, endurance, repentance, and constant alertness. Furthermore, the morality play is allegorical; it personifies virtues and vices. Good and bad forces in a person’s heart and mind are presented in the likeness of living men and women, and they act in accord with their names or natures. For example, in the morality play, the main character, representing all, encounters characters such as Faith, Hope, and Charity as well as Pride, Lust, and Envy. The ensuing struggle demonstrates life’s trials and the soul’s particular relation to God, and Christ’s blood is shed for its salvation. Medieval culture had emphasized that believers should detach themselves as much as possible from things of this world.
Through elements of the morality play, Marlowe makes Doctor Faustus’s situation expressive of the lives of all believers. For example, he presents...
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