Playing Up logo
Playing Up logo
EXPLORE

Dr Faustus

By Christopher Marlowe

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, based on the German Faustbuch, was the first dramatised version of the Faust legend about a scholar’s dealing with the devil. While versions of “The Devil’s Pact” can be traced back to the 4th century, Marlowe deviates significantly by having his hero unable or unwilling to repent and paying the price for his arrogance.

The script was highly edited and rewritten after Marlowe’s death. Two versions of the play exist: the 1604 quarto, also known as the A text, and the 1616 quarto or B text. Many scholars believe that the A text is more representative of Marlowe’s original because it contains irregular character names and idiosyncratic spelling: the hallmarks of a text that used the author’s handwritten manuscript as a major source.

Doctor Faustus is German scholar who believes he has exhausted all areas of conventional knowledge and, like many of us, is still searching for the true meaning of life. He turns to magic in the hope that it will provide him with the knowledge he yearns for. After learning the fundamentals of the black arts, he summons Mephistoheles (a servant of Lucifer) and makes a pact with the devil. He is granted 24 years of power and access to limitless knowledge in return for his soul. Initially, it seems Faustus has made a good deal but the clock is ticking and, in spite of Faustus’ arrogance, he will not be able to conquer death – Lucifer will come for him and take what he is owed; Faustus’ immortal soul.

This production relies on the original A text – it is a story that remains timeless as it seems to sum up the Achilles’ heel of the human race; hubris. Through Faustus, Marlow reveals the extreme egotism of the human race which constantly forgets its place in the universe and refuses to learn from history. While such a resolute belief in our own brilliance has enabled us to rule the world, it will unfortunately be responsible for our eventual demise. Although written in the 16th Century, the play focuses on worthless greed and materialism. This reflects perfectly 21st Century Western societies. We live in a world that is self-serving and materialistic and, in the opinion of some, soulless – so many of us are willing to sell our souls for so little. Faustus sells his soul for nothing – everything he thinks he gains is nothing more than a trick of the eye; a sleight of hand or a figment of his own imagination. Ultimately, his sacrifice was not worth it.

Dr Faustus

The playwright - Christopher Marlowe

Born in the same year as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593) was to become the first great poet of the theatre’s Golden Age. In a short and violent life he wrote seven plays: Dido Queen of Carthage, Tamburlaine (in two parts), The Jew of Malta, Edward II, The Massacre at Paris and The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

The son of a shoemaker, Marlowe attended King’s School, Canterbury and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. According to university records, his attendance was poor. He disappeared to Rheims (probably to work as a spy for the Government observing English Catholics abroad), and to socialise in colourful literary circles with figures such as Phillip Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh. There are very few hard facts about his life though rumours abounded about his supposed atheism and homosexuality. It is known that in 1589 he was arrested after a street fight and in 1592 he was bound over to keep the peace. A week before his death, he was summoned to report to the Privy Council (to stand trial at the Queen’s court) accused of heresy. His roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd, was tortured into giving evidence against him, and died shortly after.

Before Marlowe could be brought before the Privy Council, he was stabbed and died at Dame Eleanor Bull’s tavern in Deptford, London. On May 30, 1593, he had gone to the tavern to have dinner with some friends. According to witnesses, there was an argument over the bill: Marlowe suddenly drew his dagger on another man, Ingram Frizer, who, defending himself, drove the dagger back into the young poet’s eye, killing him. There is reason to believe, however, that Marlowe may have been deliberately provoked and murdered in order to prevent his arrest. Had he been brought before the Privy Council, he might have implicated more powerful men. Other, more colourful, theories are that his death was faked and he went on to assume the identity of one William Shakespeare!