Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, The - Essay

Christopher Marlowe


(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 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.

Critical Reception

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.

Robert B. Heilman (essay date 1945)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Tragedy of Knowledge: Marlowe's Treatment of Faustus," in Quarterly Review of Literature, Vol. II, No. 4, 1945, pp. 316-32.

[In the following essay, Heilman examines the tragic ramifications of Faustus's quest for knowledge.

One of the most attentive of the guests at the Conference of Science, Philosophy, and Religion some years ago was a distinguished Old World thinker who united in one rare mind the achievements of scientist, philosopher, and theologian. Ironically, however, he was the least evident of visitors. Despite his international fame, few of the conferees felt his presence; despite his intellectual venturesomeness, he was but a withdrawing,...

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Lily B. Campbell (essay date 1952)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Doctor Faustus: A Case of Conscience," in PMLA, Vol. LXVII, No. 2, March, 1952, pp. 219-39.

[In the following essay, Campbell characterizes the nature of Faustus's sin as that of despair. She finds parallels in the action of Doctor Faustus with the historical account of a sixteenth-century Italian lawyer named Francesco Spiera, who was charged with heresy and forced to recant his sincerely held religious views.]

[Anyone attempting to write about Doctor Faustus is bound to feel like invoking Sir Edmund Chambers to write another essay of protest, this one on "The Disintegration of Doctor Faustus." So thorough has...

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D. J. Palmer (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Magic and Poetry in Doctor Faustus," in The Critical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1964, pp. 56-67.

[In the following essay, Palmer maintains that Marlowe's portrayal of magic in Doctor Faustus heightenis the tragic intensity of the drama.]

Magic is not only the subject of Doctor Faustus, it is the means by which the dramatic illusion generates power and conviction. As in Tamburlaine, Marlowe evidently conceives the stage as an area liberated from the limitations which nature imposes on the world around; the restraining conditions of probability here seem to be in abeyance, and Marlowe's stage affords scope to realise the...

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G. K. Hunter (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Five-Act Structure in Doctor Faustus," in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 8, No. 4, Summer, 1964, pp. 77-91. Reprinted in Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 13-25.

[In the following essay, Hunter analyzess the reluctance of Romantic critics to treat Doctor Faustus as a theatrical work and argues for the dramatic unity of the play.]

The original and substantive texts of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (the Quartos of 1604 and 1616) present the play completely without the punctuation of act division or scene enumeration. This is common enough in the play-texts of the period. Indeed it is much...

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Susan Snyder (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Marlowe's Doctor Faustus as an Inverted Saint's Life," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXIII, No. 4, July, 1966, pp. 565-77.

[In the following essay, Snyder interprets Doctor Faustus as an inverted hagiography, reversing the traditional seven stages toward sainthood and showing Faustus moving away from sanctity rather than to beatitutude.]

Critics have long recognized that Doctor Faustus is both a tragedy and a morality play. Because Faustus despairs, tragedy wins out in the end; but along the way semi-allegorical characters periodically wrestle over the soul of Faustus, reminding us of the contrasting medieval pattern of fall and...

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Wilbur Sanders (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "New Wine and the Old Bottles: Doctor Faustus," in The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1968. Reprinted in Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 27-45.

[In the following excerpt, Sanders suggests that Faustus represents more than an aspiring Renaissance humanist; he argues that Marlowe meant his audience to "detect a serious moral weakness" in his actions.]

Just as, in the treatment of the supernatural order, Marlowe seems to waver between a rather leaden-footed literalism and real imaginative insight, so in the...

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Robert Ornstein (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Marlowe and God: The Tragic Theology of Dr. Faustus," in PMLA, Vol. 83, No. 5, October, 1968, pp. 1378-85.

[In the following essay, Ornstein suggests that Doctor Faustus is informed by Marlowe's personal vision of a harsh and unforgiving diety, and that the play is "Marlowe's testament of despair."]

Apart from Shakespearean drama, few Elizabethan plays have been so frequently and thoroughly studied in recent decades as Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. Yet it remains as problematical a work of art today as it was thirty years ago. Interpretations based on the biographical evidence of Marlowe's atheism are now in disrepute, because scholarly...

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Michael Hattaway (essay date 1970)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Theology of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus," in Renaissance Drama, New Series Vol. III, 1970, pp. 51-78.

[In the following essay, Hattaway examines the Christian iconography in Doctor Faustus and concludes that the drama moves "inevitably towards orthodoxy rather than iconoclasm."]

Oh men most braine-sick and miserable, that endevour to be worse than they can!

Montaigne, Essays, II.xii

(trans. Florio)

Ever since Eliot described The Jew of Malta as a "tragic farce," critics have been trying hard to define the particular conjunctions...

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Cleanth Brooks (essay date 1965)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Unity of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus," in his A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Writer's Craft, Methuen & Co., 1971, pp. 367-80.

[In the following essay first given as a lecture in 1965, Brooks argues that the middle of Doctor Faustus supports, rather than disrupts, the unity of the drama, and he defends the poetry in Faustus's final soliloquy as an expression of the individuality that "is at once his glory and his damnation."]

In his Poetics, Aristotle observed that a tragedy should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The statement makes a point that seems obvious, and many a reader of our time must have dismissed it as one of more...

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A. Bartlett Giametti (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Marlowe: The Arts of Illusion," in The Yale Review, Vol. LXI, No. 4, June, 1972, pp. 530-543.

[In the following essay, Giamatti reads Doctor Faustus as an examination of the Renaissance conviction that human beings could "remake or change or transform" themselves, and as an exporation of the question of whether this would tend to be done good or for evil purposes.]

George Sabellicus was pleased to call himself, a contemporary tells us in 1507, "the younger Faust, the chief of necromancers, astrologer, the second magus, palmist, diviner with water and fire, second in the art of divination by water." But even this billing did not smooth the way, for Dr....

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Stephen Greenblatt (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Marlowe and the Will to Absolute Play," in his Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, The University of Chicago Press, 1980, pp. 193-221.

[In the following excerpt, Greenblatt explores the act of strenuous, aggressive self-fashioning on the part of protagoniss in Marlowe's plays. He contends that Faustus, like Tamburlaine and Edward II, wilfully reshapes himself in opposition to authority.]

On 26 June 1586 a small fleet, financed by the Earl of Cumberland, set out from Gravesend for the South Seas. It sailed down the West African coast, sighting Sierra Leone in October, and at this point we may let one of those on board, the merchant John...

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Barbara Howard Traister (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Doctor Faustus: Master of Self-Delusion," in Heavenly Necromancers: The Magician in English Renaissance Drama, University of Missouri Press, 1984. Reprinted in Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 77-92.

[In the following excerpt, Traister explores the historical and literary associations of magic in Doctor Faustus. She concludes that the imagery of magic undercuts the humanistic message of the play and results in a very pessimistic view of humankind's ability to effectively deal with forbidden knowledge.]

Ambiguity and irony—key words in almost every discussion of Faustus—are...

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Johannes H. Birringer (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Faustus's Rhetoric of Aspiration," in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and Tamburlaine: Theological and Theatrical Perspectives, Verlag Peter Lang GmbH, 1984. Reprinted in Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 93-103.

[In the following excerpt, Birringer examines Doctor Faustus in terms of the protagonist's struggle against the limits of language, of theology, and of his personality.]

The theatrical presentations of the Scenes on which Faustus and Macbeth are going to act out their fatal transgressions quite distinctively create a sense of atmosphere that shapes the audience's perception of...

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Jonathan Dollimore (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Doctor Faustus: Subversion Through Transgression," in his Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, University of Chicago Press, 1984. Reprinted in Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 105-14.

[In the following excerpt, Dollimore examines Marlowe's "subversion through transgression" of traditional religious values and behaviors in Doctor Faustus.]

One problem in particular has exercised critics of Doctor Faustus: its structure, inherited from the morality form, apparently negates what the play experientially affirms—the heroic...

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Malcom Pittock (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "God's Mercy Is Infinite: Faustus's Last Soliloquy," in English Studies, Vol. 64, No. 4, August, 1984, pp. 302-11.

[In the essay below, Pittock argues that Faust is not doomed to damnation until a point during the course of his final soliloquy, underscoring the extraordinarily momentous nature of this scene in the tragedy. In the course of his discussion, Pittock counters commentators who have judged Faustus's final speech nonfunction in advancing the drama. because, they believe, Faustus lost his chance of salvation much earlier in the play.]

In the course of a discussion of Dr Faustus in The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge, 1968),...

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Lawrence V. Ryan (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Panurge and the Faustian Dilemma," in Stanford Literature Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall, 1985, pp. 147-63.

[In the following essay, Ryan compares the respective attitudes of the protagonists of Rabelais's comic romance Tiers Livre with Marlowe's Faust toward the possibility of spiritual salvation.]

As Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Dr. Faustus begins, the protagonist is discovered in his study lamenting his failure, through ordinary means, to satisfy the boundless desires of his intellect and will and so turning as a last resort to magic. The insatiable hunger of this dramatic character for impossibly attainable knowledge, power,...

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Neil Forsyth (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Heavenly Helen," in Etudes de Lettres, Vol. 4, 1987, 11-21.

[In the excerpt below, Forsyth examines the depiction of Helen in Doctor Faustus as an ambiguous, destabilizing character, comparing this presentation with her appearance in several classical texts.]

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed.

Dr. Faustus, 2.1.120

Mélange curieux d'éléments divers, l'image traditionnelle de la belle Héléne est pleine de contradictions. Le dramaturge anglais Christopher Marlowe exploite cette tradition ambiguë dans sa pièce Dr. Faustus, afin de pousser plus loin encore les...

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Kay Stockholder (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "'Within the massy entrailes of the earth': Faustus's Relation to Women," in "A Poet and a filthy Play-maker": New Essays on Christopher Marlowe, edited by Kenneth Friedenreich, Roma Gill, and Constance B. Kuriyama, pp. 203-219, AMS Press, Inc., 1988.

[In the following essay, Stockholder explores the erotic element of Faustus's magic and offers a psychological discussion of imagery pertaining to Faustus's desires for and simultaneous fear of women."]

All images or portrayals of extrahuman figures, gods and devils, ghosts and witches, are necessarily extensions and exaggerations of human characteristics, for human characteristics are all that we know. To isolate...

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Colin Manlove (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Marlowe: Dr. Faustus," in his Christian Fantasy from 1200 to the Present, University of Notre Dame Press, 1992, pp. 73-92.

[In the following essay, Manlove explores some contrasts between Marlovian dramatic characters Tamburlaine and Faustus, focusing on the pursuit that each undertakes of materialistic and earthly rather than spiritual attainments.]

Our soules, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous Architecture of the world:
And measure every wandring plannets course:
Still climing after knowledge infinite,
And alwaies mooving as the restles Spheares,
Wils us to weare our selves...

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David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Introduction," in their Doctor Faustus A- and B-Texts (1604, 1616): Christopher Marlowe and His Collaborator and Revisers, Manchester University Press, 1993, pp. 1-15, 42-48, 62-77.

[In the following excerpt from the introduction to their edition of Doctor Faustus, Bevington and Rasmussen survey the controversies surrounding the A- and B-texts, as well as assessing the evidence for the date, the sources, the staging, and the authorship of the play.]


Among the myriad uncertainties about Doctor Faustus, the first is the question of when it was written and initially performed. Two dates vie for our attention, one...

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Emily C. Bartels (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Demonizing Magic: Patterns of Power in Doctor Faustus," in Spectacles of Strangeness: Imperialism, Alienation, and Marlowe, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, pp. 111-42.

[In the following excerpt, Bartels examines the relation between magic, politics, and Protestantism in Doctor Faustus.]

The European Subject

The prologue to The Tragical! History of Doctor Faustus sets the forthcoming material apart from what has come before on the Marlovian stage—from "the pomp of proud audacious deeds," from marches of war and sports of love that "overturn'd" "courts of kings" in Carthage and beyond (prologue...

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T. McAlindon (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Marlowe's Myth" and "Source, Design, Genre," in his Doctor Faustus: Divine in Show, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 8-11, 23-31.

[In the following excerpt, McAlindon explores Marlowe's reshaping of traditional elements of the Faustus myth]

Of the six surviving plays written by Marlowe, Doctor Faustus is by far the most famous, yet it is by no means the most finished and satisfactory. It is indeed depressingly uneven, so that scholars have long surmised that much of it (and not just the additions paid for by Philip Henslowe in 1602) was written by a collaborator or collaborators of greatly inferior capacities. Yet, the overall conception of the tragedy is...

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Douglas Cole (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Doctor Faustus: Tragedy in the Allegorical Tradition," in his Christopher Marlowe and the Renaissance of Tragedy, Praeger Publishers, 1995, pp. 122-147.

[In the following essay, Cole considers the relationship between Doctor Faustus and Marlowe's likely source, the English Faustbook..]

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is not only Marlowe's best-known play but also the most often produced non-Shakespearean Elizabethan drama in English professional theatre of the last century.33 In textbooks and anthologies of drama, it stands conventionally as the most notable "bridge-piece" between the theatrical modes of medieval drama...

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William M. Hamlin (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Skepticism and Solipsism in Dr. Faustus," in Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, edited by David M. Bergeron, Vol. XXXVI, University of Kansas, 1997, pp. 1-22.

[In the following essay, Hamlin disputes the modern critical tendency to interpret Doctor Faustus as either supportive or subversive with regard to the societal and especially religious orthodoxy of Marlowe's time. Hamlin declares that commentators are wrong to focus their analysis of the play on whtether it is "orthodox or heterodox, Christian or Diabolonian, homiletic or iconoclastic … liberal humanist or predestinarian," instead contending that this play explores these positions without...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Bluestone, Max. "Libido Speculandi: Doctrine and Dramaturgy in Contemporary Interpretations of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus." In Selected Papers from English Institute: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, edited by Norman Rabkin, pp. 33-88. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Surveys modern interpretations of Doctor Faustus and concludes that ambiguities in the play have created a critical tradition that "tends toward antithesis and dispute."

Ribner, Irving. "Marlowe and the Critics." Tulane Drama Review 8, No. 4 (Summer 1964): 211-24.

Traces scholarly reaction to Marlowe's works from...

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