Doctor Faustus Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, The
by Christopher Marlowe

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus 1593(?)

In his The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe used the structure of the medieval morality play to reinterpret the nearly century-old legend of Faust, a man who sacrifices his immortal soul in exchange for knowledge and power. Marlowe presented a mythic, archetypal tale of human pride, sin, and fall from grace that has appealed to readers and audiences through the humanist aspirations of the Renaissance, the spiritual explorations of Romanticism, and the skepticism of modernity.

Biographical Information

Marlowe was a well-educated man who was frequently embroiled in religious and political controversy. He studied theology at Cambridge, but in 1587 the university refused to grant his Master of Arts degree, accusing him of visiting a Jesuit seminary in Rheims, France. Marlowe received his degree only after Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council informed the university that he had been at Rheims to spy on exiled English Catholics who were believed to be plotting against the English monarchy. In 1593 officials discovered a blasphemous document in the home of Marlowe's friend and fellow dramatist Thomas Kyd. Facing imprisonment, Kyd claimed the papers belonged to Marlowe. Another acquaintance, Richard Baines, then accused Marlowe of making shockingly blasphemous and atheistic statements when he was a student. A warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest, but before it could be served, he was killed, stabbed to death at age 29. Historians have debunked the popular story that Marlowe was killed in a dispute over "the reckoning," the bill for a night of food and drink at a tavern. In fact, he died in a private house in the company of men who had also been engaged as spies by the Privy Council. These men claimed that Marlowe attacked first, without provocation, and the stabbing was ruled self-defense. Modern reexaminations of the circumstances of Marlowe's death do not support the claim of self-defense, and a variety of theories have arisen to explain why someone might have ordered Marlowe's assassination.

Scholars do not agree on how to interpret the charges of Marlowe's blasphemy and atheism. The reliability of both Kyd and Baines remains a prominent issue. Whether or not Marlowe actually espoused religious heresy may never be known for certain. Nevertheless, commentators do suggest that Marlowe's extensive education in theology, his participation in the bitter conflicts between Catholicism and Protestantism, and his exposure to atheistic doctrines made him uniquely prepared to dramatize the story of a man who rejects Christianity and makes a pact with the devil.

Textual History

The text of Doctor Faustus survives, as Harry Levin wrote, in a "mangled and encrusted form." Marlowe probably wrote the play between 1588 and 1589, following the success of both the first and second parts of his drama Tamburlaine. Doctor Faustus was performed throughout the 1590s before the first edition, now known as the A-text, was published in 1604. A second version, known as the B-text, was published in 1616. These two versions of the play differ substantially. The A-text has speeches that are not in the B-text; the B-text has almost 700 lines that are not in the A-text. Lines that appear in both versions have many verbal differences, both small and large.

Changes may have been made to both versions during theatrical productions by directors or actors transcribing the play text. Further complicating textual matters, the original publisher of the A-text paid two writers named Samuel Rowley and William Bride to make revisions to Doctor Faustus. Because the A-text is know to have been revised, many scholars maintain that the B-text is probably closest to Marlowe's original version. Some critics have treated the texts as two distinct but related literary works, finding political and ideological differences between the two versions.

Furthering complicating the textual history of Doctor Faustus is the probability that a collaborator...

(The entire section is 177,092 words.)