This is the 1631 edition of Christopher Marlowe’s best-known play, Doctor Faustus. Its title page shows Faustus as a magician with his robes, book and staff, alongside a devilish figure. Like Prospero in The Tempest, Faustus raises moral questions about the exploitation of magic as a means of gaining power and the links between two ‘potent Arts’ – sorcery and theatre.
Doctor Faustus was first performed around 1588, and first published in 1604 (in a version usually called the A-text). It appeared in revised editions in 1616 and 1631 (in this version, called the B-text).
What happens in Doctor Faustus?
The play’s tragic hero, Faustus, is a brilliant German scholar who feels he has reached the limits of divine academic learning, and devotes himself to the study of magic. He makes a pact signed in blood, with the evil spirit Mephistopheles, to sell his soul to the devil. In exchange for 24 years of service, Lucifer gives Faustus a life of pleasure, magical power and illicit knowledge of the secrets of the universe.
What are the A- and the B-texts?
Doctor Faustus was first performed around 1588, and first published in 1604, in a version usually called the A-text. The revised edition which appeared in 1616 and 1631 is known as the B-text.
Critics have debated which of these is more ‘authentic’, since both texts were printed long after Marlowe’s death in 1593. Most scholars now agree that the A-text is probably nearer to the lost ‘original’ written by Marlowe and a collaborator. The B-text is probably a later version revised in 1602 by two other writers – William Byrde and Samuel Rowley – at the request of Philip Henslowe, a theatrical entrepreneur.
The B-text is significantly longer and different in important ways. Satirical scenes where Faustus plays havoc with the Pope are developed, as if to give Protestants under James I more chances to laugh at Catholics. There are also additions to the comic and slapstick scenes. The B-text emphasises Faustus’s suffering in Hell with his limbs ‘All torn asunder’, making it more conventional in religious terms. Faustus’s cry at the end of the A-text, ‘Ah Mephistopheles’, makes his death seem more ambiguous.
Doctor Faustus and The Tempest
Like Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Faustus uses his powers to perform theatrical tricks, leading some critics to draw comparisons between theatrical spectacle and magical illusion. Faustus makes himself invisible and conjures a disappearing ‘Banquet’ for the Pope, just as the invisible Prospero summons ‘several strange shapes, bringing in a banquet’ for Alonso and Sebastian (Act 3, Scene 3).
Faustus experiences moments of doubt prompted by the Good Angel, but continues to lurch towards eternal damnation. It is only when he faces death that he vows to ‘burne [his] bookes’. Likewise, Prospero rejects his ‘rough magic’ in the final act of The Tempest, vowing to ‘break [his] staff’ and ‘drown [his] book’ (5.1.50–57). But while Faustus is last heard shrieking as he burns in ‘ugly hell’, Prospero – in a more comedic ending – returns to Milan to reclaim his dukedom.