This sensational collection of semi-mythical tales describes the ‘damnable life’ and ‘deserved death’ of Doctor John Faustus, who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for magical powers. It is the first known English translation of the best-selling German book, Historia von D. Johann Faustus (1587), often called the Faustbuch.
What is the Faustbuch?
In the early 16th century, there was a real north German magician known as Dr Johann Georg Faust. When he died, his story was wildly embellished with tales of ancient magicians and the myth of a man who made a pact with the Devil. The 1587 Faustbuch contains this strange mix of tales – from Faustus’s studies in Wittenberg and his 24-year contract with the spirit Mephistopheles, to his magical escapades around the world and his violent death and damnation.
The Faustbuch was reprinted and translated throughout Europe, achieving huge notoriety.
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and the English Faustbuch
Marlowe’s famous play, The tragicall history of the life and death of Doctor Faustus, takes and adapts many details from the English Faustbuch – perhaps drawing on this 1592 text, or perhaps an earlier, lost version.
While the English Faustbuch presents Faustus’s gruesome death as a ‘deserved’ punishment for his ‘damnable’ deeds, Marlowe’s ‘tragicall’ drama encourages more empathy with Faustus’s moral conflict, his superhuman ambition and his failure to turn back to God.
Which pages are digitised here?
- In Wittenberg, the ‘naughty’ Faustus rejects ‘Divinitie’ and takes up the secret study of ‘Necromancy and Conjuration’. In his quest for ‘worldly pleasure’ he gives up any hope of achieving ‘redemption’ (pp. 1–2).
- When Faustus’s fellow students plead to see the spirit of the legendary ‘Helena of Greece’, he makes her appear in a ‘sumptuous gowne of purple Velvet’ with ‘amorous cole-black eyes’ and a ‘smiling & wanton countenance’ (pp. 64–65).
- Facing death and damnation, Faustus warns other students to ‘strive continually agaynst the devil’. They tell him to beg for mercy, but he says his sins are ‘greater than God was able to forgive’, and he dies shouting ‘murther, murther’. Afterwards, the hall is ‘besprinckled with blood, his braines cleaving to the wall: for the Divel had beaten him from one wall against another, in one corner lay his eyes, in another his teeth’ and his body was left ‘lying on the horse dung, most monstrously torne’ (L1r–L2v).
- The summary of contents (L3r–L4r) shows the numerous parallels between this text and Marlowe’s play.