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.
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.
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 wrote the comic scenes in Doctor Faustus—scenes that have long been considered different in style and awkwardly inserted into the rest of the play. Elizabethan playwrights regularly collaborated on projects, and they often divided their work by scenes. Word-frequency tests provide strong indications that the comic and tragic scenes were written by different authors, while contradictions within the play indicate that the comic writer did not know all the details of the tragic scenes.
Plot and Major Themes
The character of Faustus, already a renowned scholar and an accomplished physician when the play opens, aspires to vast wealth, physical pleasures, and the power to restore life to the dead. When he realizes that living a good Christian life will not bring him what he desires, he employs magic to invoke the devil. Mephistophilis, an agent of Lucifer, appears and at first advises Faust not to forego the promise of heaven to pursue his goals. Mephistophilis cites his own bitter fate as one "who saw the face of God / And tasted the eternal joys of heaven" before his exile and fall into damnation. Faustus, however, rejects the warnings and willingly exchanges his soul for the supernatural power and knowledge offered in exchange.
The play spans the next twenty-four years of Faustus's life. In the comic scenes most likely written by a collaborator or inserted after Marlowe's death, Faustus visits the Vatican and mocks the Pope, performs magic for continental royalty, and takes revenge on a horse dealer. These scenes are often considered unworthy of the rest of the text as they seem to reduce the longing of a brilliant man to gain forbidden knowledge to an adolescent delight in flouting authority and associating with the rich and powerful. Throughout his life, Faustus is attended by a Good Angel, who begs him to repent while it is still possible, and a Bad Angel, who assures him that he is past salvation and might as well make the best of his bargain. At one point Faustus seems on the point of repentance, but he chooses instead to commit the sin of invoking and carnally embracing Helen of Troy. In the final scene, he confesses to some scholars that he purchased his amazing powers at the expense of eternal damnation, and retires to an inner room to await the appearance of Lucifer and Mephistophilis to claim his soul.
The greatest controversies surrounding Doctor Faustus have turned on the question of orthodoxy: whether the play serves Protestant theology or subverts it. One school of critical thought holds that reformation theology provides dramatic unity of the play. Douglas Cole argues that Doctor Faustus is "thoroughly Christian in conception and import"; pointing out that Faustus sins knowingly, does not repent, and suffers eternal damnation--a plot that in no way contraverts Christian doctrine. Other commentators emphasize the humanism of the play, interpreting the character of Faustus as a Promethean image representing the aspirations of the Renaissance. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the protagonist does revolt against the limitations of sin and death, and by extension, against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. In a biographically based interpretation, Harry Levin suggests that Marlowe himself, like Faustus, was an "impenitent and wilful miscreant" committed to subverting Christian values. The subversive nature of the play is a common theme of late twentieth century criticism. Many critics now see the drama as raising questions without offering affirmations of either a religious or a humanist nature.