Doctor Faustus Summary
by Christopher Marlowe

Doctor Faustus book cover
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Doctor Faustus Summary

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is a 1592 play by Christopher Marlowe that tells the story of a man who makes a deal with the devil in exchange for power. 

  • Doctor Faustus decides to pursue ungodly magic. The Good Angel and the Bad Angel vie for Faustus’s conscience, but Faustus ignores the Good Angel’s pleas.
  • Faustus summons Mephistophilis and bargains to surrender his soul in exchange for twenty-four years of power.
  • Faustus performs a range of fantastical deeds with Mephistophilis's help, and in the end, despite his regrets, his soul is taken to Hell.

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Summary

Doctor Faustus, a brilliant scholar, considers what area of study he ought to devote himself to, desiring to master only the greatest of subjects. After exhausting numerous potential subjects, including philosophy, medicine, law, and theology, Faustus decides that the pursuit with the greatest potential is magic. He decides this because his interpretation of the bible leads him to believe that sin and damnation are inevitabilities and that he can simply repent towards the end of his life if necessary and be saved. And unlike theology, mastery of unholy magic promises unparalleled power, wealth, and greatness.

He therefore sets out to master these unholy arts with the help of two scholarly acquaintances, Valdes and Cornelius, who are known to practice the art of summoning spirits. Having learned from these men, Faustus sets himself to conjuring a devil and successfully summons the great demon, Mephistophilis. Faustus commands Mephistophilis to hide his devilish appearance by dressing as a Franciscan monk and asks him to go back to Lucifer with a bargain: Faustus will trade his immortal soul in exchange for twenty-four years of service from Mephistophilis, who is to grant Faustus anything he wishes. Mephistophilis departs and returns later to tell Faustus that Lucifer agrees to this bargain. After briefly considering repentance, Faustus decides that hell is likely more mythological than real. Attempting to sign the blood oath, Faustus’s blood first congeals so as not to be usable for writing, and then the words “Homo Fuge!” (run away, O human!) appear on his arm. Finally, however, he signs a deed to his soul, and from this point, Mephistophilis is in Faustus’s service.

With the powers of hell at his command, Faustus conveys his grandiose ambitions to conquer all the kingdoms of Europe, divert the world’s geography to suit his wishes, call forth the greatest treasures of the earth, and to rein, invulnerable, over all the realms he desires.

Meanwhile, the narrative turns to a comedic scene featuring Faustus’s servant, Wagner, who has picked up some of Faustus’s unholy magic. Wagner goes to the street and mocks an impoverished clown, insisting that the clown become his servant or he will summon devils for his torment. When the clown finally sees the devils, he relents and agrees to call Wagner his master.

With the demon now at his command, Faustus asks Mephistophilis a number of questions about hell, and Mephistophilis reveals that hell is not so much a location as it is a state of being that is absent the graces of God. Unfazed, Faustus then asks Mephistophilis for a beautiful wife, but since marriage is a sacrament of God, Mephistophilis is only able to provide a devil in women’s clothing, whom Faustus rejects. From there, Faustus asks to be given knowledge of various subjects, including the nature of the cosmos, all of which Mephistophilis is able to provide. He is unable, however, to answer when Faustus asks him who it was who created the universe, as to do so would be against his demonic nature.

Having come up against these obstacles to power—and fearing that the splendours of creation may be out of his reach with only the powers of hell—Faustus again considers repentance. At this, Mephistophilis, Beelzebub, and Lucifer himself rise up from hell in an attempt to convince Faustus to uphold his agreement. To accomplish this, Lucifer...

(The entire section is 1,454 words.)