More than any other play, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus celebrates that God-like power of language, and shows us how words can soar, and tempts us to dizzying heights within our heads. But all the time, Marlowe is in control. He knows too much about the shaping power of words to be a Faustus. Marlowe is a magus too, all poets are, but one who tells us in this play to use that awesome power of words to fashion ourselves in God’s image. Else, like his hero, we will be deformed by the servant we abuse.
—A. Bartlett Giamatti, “Marlowe: The Arts of Illusion”
Christopher Marlowe in Doctor Faustus, one of the earliest and the most famous non-Shakespearean Elizabethan tragedies, manages not only to bridge the gap between the medieval morality plays and the secular, classically influenced dramas of the Renaissance but to produce one of the core myths of Western civilization. Like Oedipus, Faustus, who exchanges damnation for knowledge and power, has become a resonating tragic archetype, epitomizing the doomed but daring overreacher whose rebellion and defeat enact a struggle for transcendence against the gravitational pull of the human condition. Faustus’s bargain with the devil, his ambitious rise and terrifying fall, encapsulate and typify the dilemma of the modem tragic hero. As critic T. McAlindon observes, ‘What makes the play most remarkable is the fact that in composing it Marlowe so elicited the latent meanings of the devil compact—a type of story that had been familiar in the West for centuries—that he gave it the force and status of myth. Indeed, he shaped it into a myth that usurped the place in the Western imagination hitherto enjoyed by the myths of Lucifer and of Adam and Eve. The Faust figure has become the archetype of all human striving to reach beyond the human; more particularly, he has become the personification of that postmedieval phenomenon we call individualism.” The descendants of Faustus include Byron’s romantic outlaws, Shelley’s Prometheus, Melville’s Ahab, Brontë’s Heathcliff, and Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen. Goethe, who marveled at Marlowe’s dramatic construction—“How greatly it is all planned!”—would take up the story of Faustus for his own masterwork. Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West saw in the drama a metaphor for Western technological hubris and cultural self-destruction that defined the modem world, which he called the “Faustian Age.” The power of Faustus as a spiritual and cultural myth originates from Marlowe’s remarkable dramatic conception and astonishing poetic skills that helped to transform Western drama. Synthesizing the conventions of the medieval morality play and the tradition of classical tragedy, Marlowe achieved both the overwhelming concentrated force of Everyman and the breathtakingly expansive, existential dramatic poetry of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
If Doctor Faustus continues to haunt our collective consciousness, its creator has proven to be no less fascinating. Christopher Marlowe was born in 1564 in Canterbury, two months before fellow playwright William Shakespeare. Both men came from the rising middle stratum of Elizabethan society, from the world of trade and the yeomanry. Like Shakespeare’s father, who was a glover, Marlowe’s father was a successful shoemaker, but Marlowe, unlike Shakespeare, gained a scholarship to attend Cambridge University to prepare for a clerical career. Marlowe received a bachelor’s degree in 1584 and a master’s in 1587, but only after Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council inter-ceded on his behalf when university officials, suspecting Marlowe’s Catholic sympathies, refused to grant his degree. Their suspicions were aroused by Marlowe’s travels to Rheims a prominent center in France, for English Roman Catholic expatriates. The letter from the Privy Council on Marlowe’s behalf asserted that “in all his accions he had behaved him selfe orderlie and discreetlie wherebie he had done her Majestic good service.” What exactly the service was that Marlowe had provided is unknown, but his clandestine activities, possibly as a spy and informer, would continue to shadow Marlowe, as would his unorthodox, heretical ideas, as he rejected the approved point of his college education in holy orders and began to make his name as a poet and playwright in London.
As one of the so-called University Wits, a group that included such writers as John Lyly, Robert Greene, George Peele, and Thomas Nashe, Marlowe would bring his classical training and new secular humanistic ideas fostered at Cambridge to bear on English popular drama and would help to transform it into a sophisticated and expressive artistic form. Marlowe’s six plays—Dido, Queen of Carthage; Tamburlaine the Great; The Jew of Malta; The Massacre of Paris; Edward II; and Doctor Faustus—were all written in a period of about six years, from 1587 to 1593. Marlowe’s assault on the dramatic conventions of his day is clearly announced in the prologue of Tamburlaine, which first established his reputation as a dramatist, in which he contemptuously dismisses the prevailing “jygging vaines of riming mother wits” and the “conceits clownage keepes in pay.” With the unprecedented power of what Ben Jonson described as his “mighty line” in some of the most eloquent poetry in English drama, Marlowe puts at center stage the larger-than-life, cruel Mongolian tyrant who threatens “the world with high astounding terms.” Marlowe thereby pioneered a new breed of hero for the Elizabethan stage: the master of his own destiny who succeeds by the strength of his will, claiming authority by his own human powers. Marlowe’s dramatization of the cost of such powers would set a new focus and standard for drama that would dominate the Elizabethan period and tragedy ever since.
The violence and lawbreaking that Marlowe put on stage dogged the playwright’s life as well. In 1589 Marlowe was arrested and jailed for a fort-night over his involvement in a fatal brawl. The homicide would be ruled “in self-defence” and “not by felony.” For a time Marlowe shared quarters with playwright Thomas Kyd, and in 1593, when Kyd was arrested for sedition, the authorities discovered documents in his rooms containing “vile hereticall Conceiptes Denyinge the Deity of Jhesus Christ our Savior.” Kyd insisted that the papers belonged to Marlowe, and the Privy Council issued an arrest war-rant. Before it could be executed, however, Marlowe was killed in the house of Mrs. Eleanor Bull in Deptford, where the writer had spent the day with companions eating and drinking, in a scuffle ostensibly about who should pay the bill. An inquest ruled Marlowe’s death accidental, but conspiracy theories have persisted that Marlowe was assassinated for political or religious reasons or in connection with his espionage activities. The manner of Marlowe’s early death at age 29, as well as the details and rumors of a contentious and possibly shadowy secret life, have helped burnish the legend of a doomed literary artist of great genius who embodies baffling contradictions. Was Marlowe an Elizabethan apologist or an apostate? A scholar and intellectual, Marlowe was nevertheless a habitué of the seedy underworld of Elizabethan informers, spies, and tavern brawlers. He was the praised servant of the authoritarian, theocratic Elizabethan state but was also a radical freethinker and considered a dangerous religious skeptic. Marlowe’s plays exalt daring rebels even as they work out their inevitable punishment for transgressions of accepted limits. At the core of Marlowe’s life and works, therefore, are some of the fundamental contradictions of the Elizabethan (and the modern) age itself in its contention between the religious and the secular, the individual and the community, restraint versus liberation, power versus morality, ambition versus responsibility. These tensions are best expressed in the tragic moral fable of Doctor Faustus.
Like its author, Doctor Faustus has generated vexing unanswered questions and endless speculation. Scholars remain divided over whether the play was an early work composed shortly after Marlowe’s popular success with Tamburlaine or whether it is one of his last plays. The earliest record of the play’s production is in 1594, but most experts do not believe this reflects the play’s first staging. The textual history of the play is no less cloudy and contentious as its compositional and performance history. Doctor Faustus was first published in a 1,485-line version in 1604, nearly a dozen years after Marlowe’s death, and a longer 2,131-line version followed in 1616. The discrepancy between these texts and the degree to which other hands were responsible for many of the play’s scenes have made Doctor Faustus one of the thorniest bibliographical puzzles in English literature. Although the origins and authorship of the pieces of the puzzle remain debatable, the impact and effectiveness of the whole trump academic conjecture. No one doubts that the overall conception of Faustus’s rise and fall is Marlowe’s alone, and in the power and forcefulness of its moral vision and stage spectacle, Doctor Faustus, in whatever version is preferred, is one of the wonders of English drama. It is a play that looks back for its effects to the allegorical, didactic roots of medieval drama while it anticipates in its psychological probing of human nature the fully developed tragedy of Shakespeare and the later Elizabethan dramatists.
The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus makes clear its connections to the medieval morality play by enacting, like Everyman, the ultimate choice of a soul between salvation and damnation. The allegorical nature of Faustus’s struggle is emphasized by the on-stage presence of devils, by the good and bad angels who externalize Faustus’s inner conflicts, by the spectacular procession of the Deadly Sins that captivates him and seals his fate, and the final terrifying vision of hell of act 5. However, other elements help to pattern the drama of Faustus as a classical tragedy. Marlowe employs a chorus for exposition and commentary, and the particularity of Faustus as an exceptional hero, rather than a generic, representative Everyman, links his story with the Aristotelian tragic fall of a great man. Moreover, Everyman and the other morality plays end in a comic reconciliation between the wayward sinner and the sources of his salvation. Doctor Faustus, however, concludes with the protagonist’s unconsoled damnation and hopeless extinction, caught between the irresistible drive of his nature and the immovable limitations of the human condition. Marlowe structures the play to emphasize the tragic pattern of a rise and fall, of choice and consequence.
In act 1 Faustus mounts his rebellion. “Glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,” but with his intellectual ambitions still unsatisfied, Faustus, a Wittenberg scholar, turns to magic and necromancy to “get a deity” and “reign sole king of all the Provinces.” He conjures the devil, Mephistophilis, and makes a bargain with him: in exchange for 24 years of power and knowledge, Faustus agrees to forfeit his immortal soul. Refusing to believe “that after this life there is any pain,” undeterred by his conscience, personified by the battling good and bad angel of his nature, and by Mephistophilis who frankly warns him about the torments of hell that he risks, Faustus seals his bargain in blood in act 2. Faustus reveals himself in the negotiation blinded by his desires, a megalomaniac who craves power and knowledge not to serve others but as ends in themselves, who denies the imperatives of anything but his own will. The wrong-headedness of Faustus’s aspirations is emphasized in the comic scenes concluding both acts 1 and 2, in which Faustus’s servant Wagner parodies his master’s conjuring by trying to compel a servant of his own and in the attempt by Robin the ostler to use Faustus’s magic to avoid work and satisfy his bodily appetites. In both cases, Faustus’s daring and dignity are undercut by comic foolery that diminishes Faustus’s overreaching while alerting the audience to his short-sighted self-indulgence. Critics and scholars remain divided on how to regard these comic scenes as well as the farcical episodes of acts 3 and 4 in which Faustus’s gained supreme powers are translated into nothing more than conjuring tricks at the expense of the pope in Rome and to provide entertainment at the court of Charles V. Contrasting so markedly with the poetic intensity of acts 1 and 2, the prosy, episodic, so-called problematical middle of Doctor Faustus that so flagrantly violates the classical principle of tragic decorum has been apologized for by denying Marlowe’s hand in its creation. These must be the scenes, the persistent argument runs, that hacks added to the more majestic and pro-found existential tragedy that Marlowe first devised. The play’s descent into slapstick and somewhat tiresome farce has been interpreted as a remnant of the medieval religious drama that mixed the profane with the sacred, as well as evidence of pandering to the unrefined taste of the Elizabethan audiences who required comic diversion along with their profundity. A case can be made, however, that the ludicrousness of what Faustus makes of his damnable skills makes an effective thematic point underscoring Faustus’s spiritual and aspirational decline after exchanging his soul. If the high drama of Faustus’s quest is parodied by the low comedy characters in acts 1 and 2, Faustus joins in their horseplay in acts 3 and 4 with his acquired limitless power shown to be little more than silly trickery. The play makes clear that the cost far exceeds the worth of the prize, as the final reckoning that closes the drama powerfully demonstrates.
Faustus regains his dignity in Act 5 in the terrifying enactment of his final moments of life, and the play returns to the eloquent and intense poetry of the first two acts. Pity and terror are extracted in Faustus’s climactic realization of the consequence of his bargain. Having first conjured the spirit of Helen of Troy for the delectation of his scholarly friends, Faustus recalls her for his own physical delight as his “paramour” with the most famous lines that Marlowe ever wrote:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul. See where it flies.
Ironically, Faustus’s mating with the shadowy succubus Helen (“Was this the face” not “Is this the face”) does ensure his immortality, but as one of the damned, as the righteous Old Man who makes a final appeal for Faustus to “leave this damnèd art” makes clear:
Accursèd Faustus, miserable man,
That from thy soul exclud’st the grace of heaven
And fliest the throne of his tribunal seat!
The scene makes clear that even after signing his soul away, Faustus freely chooses his fate, that he is not simply a helpless victim of a poorly considered legal contract. Faustus thereby retains his status as a tragic hero. In his final soliloquy he counts down his last hour on earth, reversing the conclusions of his opening soliloquy. To escape from an eternity of damnation in a “vast perpetual torture-house,” the existence of which he finally acknowledges, Faustus now craves extinction and denies the humanity that he had previously exalted: “O soul, be changed to little water-drops,/And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found!” His final words reach an intensity and sublimity equaled on the English stage only by Shakespeare, as Faustus mounts the ultimate existential battle to comprehend the limits and the nature of the human condition in the last grip of mortality and morality. The chorus, Marlowe’s borrowing from classical drama that helps to frame the play’s tragic dimension, is given the final word on Faustus’s fall and its lesson:
Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bough
That sometime grew within this learnèd man.
Faustus is gone. Regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness does entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits.
In language that combines both the Christian and classical cosmogony, Marlowe has synthesized the allegorical religious drama of salvation with the classical tragedy of the hubris of the exceptional hero who tests the limits of existence and humanity’s deepest aspirations and darkest fears. Doctor Faustus is the only great religious drama of the Elizabethan period and anticipates the staging of the most profound human questions to follow by the only playwright who could rival the grandeur and terror of Marlowe’s dramatic conceptions, William Shakespeare.