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So you’re going to teach Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, Doctor Faustus has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it has challenging elements—Elizabethan language and several screen adaptations—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying Doctor Faustus will give them insight into the genre of Elizabethan tragedy and important themes including the danger of knowledge and free will versus predestination. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

Note: This teaching guide adheres to the “A-Text” version of Doctor Faustus.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: Composed 1592, Published 1604
  • Recommended Grade Level: 11th and Up
  • Approximate Word Count: 12,500
  • Author: Christopher Marlowe
  • Country of Origin: England
  • Genre: Elizabethan Tragedy
  • Literary Period: English Renaissance
  • Conflict: Person vs. Self, Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society
  • Setting: Wittenberg, Germany; Rome, Italy; the Court of Emperor Charles V 
  • Structure: Play
  • Dominant Literary Devices: Blank Verse, Wordplay, Allusion
  • Mood: Farcical, Tragic, Terrifying

Texts that Go Well with Doctor Faustus

A Modern Mephistopheles (1877), by Louisa May Alcott, retells the Faustian legend, centering the story around an ambitious but unsuccessful young writer offered the fulfillment of his dreams by a Mephistophilis-like visitor. The plot intensifies when both writer and devil fall for the same woman, complicating their pact.

Faust (1829), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is another tragic adaptation of the Faust legend. Like Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Goethe’s Faust is a successful scholar who promises his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and pleasure. Goethe’s rendition arguably offers a more modern protagonist, whose interior struggles are more convincingly and realistically expressed than those of Marlowe’s Faustus.

Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1587), by an anonymous German author, is the first written account of the popular German legend of Faust, a doctor whose desire for knowledge leads him to sell his soul to the devil. Christopher Marlowe most likely read the English translation of this chapbook when it appeared in 1592 and based The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus on the tale.

The Monk (1796), by Matthew Lewis, is a Gothic novel about a devout monk, Ambrosio, who is tempted into sin by a woman who pretends to be a monk to gain access to the monastery. He becomes increasingly lustful after this first sin and unknowingly sells himself to Lucifer in order to gain access to Antonia, an innocent and beautiful girl he desires.

Paradise Lost (1667), by John Milton, is an epic poem about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, as initially recorded in the biblical Book of Genesis. Similar to Doctor Faustus, Paradise Lost explores themes like good versus evil and free will versus predestination within a Christian framework. Both texts represent excellent examples of English Renaissance blank verse; students can learn a great deal by comparing and contrasting Marlowe and Milton’s handling of the blank verse form.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), by Oscar Wilde, is a Victorian novel about a beautiful young man who trades his soul for eternal beauty and worldly pleasures. Dorian Gray is distraught when he learns that his good looks will fade and wishes that the beautiful painting of his likeness would age instead of him. He promises his soul in exchange for such an extraordinary gift and is stunned when the painting begins to show signs of age and moral degradation. Though devoid of devils, The Picture of Dorian Gray features many similarities with the Faust legend—notably, trading one’s soul for base pleasures and meeting a destructive end.

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History of the Text