Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus: plot and character overview

Would you sell your soul? And, if you would, for what?

Doctor Faustus opens with its protagonist John Faustus, eminent scholar of theology, medicine and metaphysics in Wittenberg, renouncing his studies in favour of the ‘metaphysics of magicians / And necromantic books’ (1.1.49-50), and the power, knowledge and prestige that he believes they will bring him.

Like many of Christopher Marlowe’s heroes, Faustus seeks to surpass the restrictions of ordinary life. He summons the demon Mephistopheles, and pledges his soul in blood to Lucifer, the Devil, in exchange for 24 years of power, magic and Mephistopheles’s service. Almost immediately, the bargain doesn’t live up to his expectations: Mephistopheles gives disappointing and limited answers to his questions about the nature of the universe. But Faustus and Mephistopheles travel the world, playing tricks on monks and unsuspecting citizens, and performing magical demonstrations. Meanwhile, Faustus’s fellow scholars worry for his soul, and his comic servants misuse his magical books. Twenty-four years later, Faustus, now a famous magician, returns to Wittenberg as the hour of his end draws near. Although tormented by thoughts of God and damnation, he rejects repentance. At the stroke of midnight, he is dragged away to hell.

When did Marlowe write Doctor Faustus and when was it first performed?

When exactly Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus is unknown, but it must have been between about 1589 and his death on 30 May 1593. The earliest surviving record of a performance of the play dates from 1594, and the earliest surviving printed text is from 1604.

Another version of Doctor Faustus was printed in 1616. This version differs significantly from the playtext printed in 1604. The 1604 Doctor Faustus is shorter, and its action is carefully concentrated, while the 1616 text is over 600 lines longer, with more comic scenes and spectacular stage-properties and displays. For example, Faustus’s death-scene in the 1616 Doctor Faustus features an audience of watching devils, a representation of a hell-mouth onstage, and later Faustus’s ‘mangled limbs’ (5.3.132), all absent in the 1604 text. It is generally accepted that the 1604 text presents a version of the play closer to Marlowe’s original text, while the 1616 text preserves an ‘updated’ version of the play prepared for a later run of performances. It might include the ‘adicyones’ [additions] to the play that the actor-writers William Birde and Samuel Rowley were paid for by the theatre manager Philip Henslowe in 1602.

Christopher Marlowe
c. 1589–93
Drama, Play
Renaissance drama
Literary period:

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