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'Doctor Faustus' is a sixteenth century play by Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's contemporary and closest rival. Based on the German legend 'Faust', this story includes many themes including religion and self-fulfilment, so as you can imagine it makes for great reading at school rather than for pleasure. This is another book I had to learn about for A-level along with 'The Great Gatsby' (reviewed previously), and despite the contrasting differences in setting between then and now I still think this is quite a thought-provoking read.
The titular character John Faustus is a brilliant German scholar in various fields, but after all this mastery he still wants more, so he decides to delve into forbidden necromancy. Through the help of Lucifer's assistant, Mephistopheles, he sells his soul to the devil for 24 years of practising dark magic. The play follows Faustus (ab)using his new powers while time ticks away for him, showing him dealing with the looming threat of being taken to hell within his conscience.
I really love the characterization in this play. Faustus himself is a quintessential tragic hero; on the one hand you do partly understand why he sells his soul to the devil seeing he has achieved everything a scholar can in Medieval Europe. Conversely, once he finally starts using its powers they're used in ridiculous acts with his satanic powers throughout the course of the play, including spectacularly mocking the Pope and, most infamously, conjures up Helen of Troy for his own pleasure. He does struggle with going through with his pact as shown with the conflict between the Good Angel and the Bad Angel, but gives way to wanting more. Compare him to Mephistopheles, the supposed "bad guy" in the play but whom Marlowe portrays as a beleaguered servant; he even tries to convince Faustus not to make the pact early on. In my opinion Mephistopheles is easily the more likeable character here.
Sadly, the actual play itself does require a bit of background knowledge about medieval literature. There is some old English and quite a few Latin quotes (good for me!) scattered throughout which will require notes for their translation. Some scenes also won't have the same impact on a modern reader than they did on medieval audiences. For example making a fool of the Pope was a "take that" to Catholic audiences by the Protestant Marlowe, but nowadays that's the kind of thing you'd see in adult cartoons or on the internet with regularity- somewhat, but not outrageously, offensive. Furthermore there are a few comic scenes interspersed through the tragedy involving two ostlers who want to follow in Faustus's footsteps for their own dirty purposes. The problem is these scenes rely somewhat in slapstick which doesn't translate well with most plays read on paper.
Nevertheless the main plot itself is one that's fairly easy to follow without reading an Oxford companion to get through it- after all, the 'Deal with the Devil' trope has been done in several more works since. It's the characters of Faustus and Mephistopheles, with their attitudes concerning the pact that make this play worth reading for me, and combined with Marlowe's prose and pacing (would you believe that twenty-four years are covered here?) makes for something that is spectacular to see on stage.
Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, written in c.1588-90 is based on the classic German folk-tale of 'Faust'. The plot in its most basic form takes the construct of a scholar (Faustus) who at the 'level of every art' wishes to 'heap up gold' and take up the black arts. Thus the summoning of Mephistopheles in an act of Necromancy occurs. Consequently, in the desperate search for power, Faustus sells his soul to the devil for 24 years of Mephistopheles service.
This play will provide something of a surprise for those who dislike or are new to 16th century drama, as it reads like a modern play, with a really gripping story, humour, horror and a great opportunity for spectacle in the theatre. I would really recommend seeing this, as well as reading this, as the play was intended for spectacle, rather than a work of literary mastery. The play provides us with a great deal of controversial issues, these are largely religious ones but when you consider Marlowe's life they are really interesting to discuss.
In the first scene Marlowe, through Faustus rejects the (then believed) fact that if you repent you go to heaven. Faustus seems to think that his fate is already decided. This hints at Marlowe's accused atheism (which then meant not believing in the dominant religion or just having radical views) he may have been an early believer in pre-destination or Calvinism. Marlowe also challenges the whole concept of God by showing that Faustus although he screams for help and mercy from God, is not saved. However, Marlowe covers this up by hinting also that Faustus has committed 'despair' a sin in which the person believes they cannot be saved and rejects all opportunities to repent.
Conversely, Faustus if interpreted as 'everyman' a representation of the ordinary man could be showing that God is different from the concept in which people in the 16th century were told to believe. This provides us with an interesting point, the people were made to believe, atheism or having a different view was illegal hence Marlowe is arrested for atheism, he was however released. It is no secret that Marlowe worked for Walsingham and his secret service of spies for the monarchy. Also, Marlowe was a part of the night school (where scholars met to discuss controversial topics that were illegal, such as the world being round!) Anyone of these things may have contributed to Marlowe being stabbed in a tavern brawl in Deptford in 1592. Faustus was not published until 1603, eleven years after Marlowe's controversial death.
My opinion of Faustus is that he is 'everyman' and my opinion of the play is that it's really, really good. It's worth reading, worth watching and worth enjoying. It gets 5 stars for comedy mixed in with a serious play that challenged people's views at the time, which was beginning to finally stir up change and independent thought across the nation.
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe was one of the texts that I had to read for my English degree last year and one of only a few that I actually fond myself enjoying somewhat.
Before I picked up the text, which is a play, I already knew quite a bit about because of the allusions made towards it in John Webster's Duchess of Malfi, which I had read the year before. This on its own should be a testimony to the play and the cultural impact that its performance and subsequent publication had. It is however its authors predecessor's (Shakespeare) works that are most well known.
Christopher Marlowe is himself however quite a character. He was born in Canterbury in 1564 and studied at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge achieving an M.A. Degree. He wrote numerous plays many of which are often viewed as being better than those of Shakespeare but unfortunately he died in May 1593 at the age of 29 and so never had the ability to produce the mass number of works that Shakespeare did. His death however is probably the most intriguing because he was stabbed in the eye in a tavern brawl at Deptford 12 days previously a warrant had already been issued for his arrest after Thomas Kyd under torture professed that some heretical documents belonged to Marlowe.
I know that the above may not be relevant per sae to the play but in my opinion it is important to understand the author of a play especially those produced in the Elizabethan era.
Doctor Faustus was first performed in the period between 1592-1589 and was somewhat popular with the audiences that viewed it. The plays religious stance however is often seen as ambiguous and maybe that it why it took such popularity and also why it remains popular today. The play itself tells the story of Doctor Faustus who in return for immense knowledge sells his soul to the devil and therefore undertakes a tragic downfall.
The play begins with the chorus telling us what the play is all about and explaining that this isn't a play about bloody war, courtly love or wide exuberance but about a man born to lower class parents. Even in this introduction however we are given hints as to the final outcome of the tale as the story of Icarus (who flew to close to the sun) is alluded to.
This introduction like the rest of the play is written in blank verse (most of the time) and is easy to follow for most people. Personally I find Doctor Faustus for easier to comprehend and manage than any of Shakespeare's plays and on top of this the play is also in my opinion far more interesting from a literary and cultural perspective.
The rest of the play challenges the ideas of heaven and hell as well as those of knowledge, science and power, which were exceptionally prominent when the play was first performed. The ongoing battle between good and evil is however what prevails over all the other themes, which include sin, death, magic, knowledge and demons. The combination of all these themes gives us a very multi-layered play, which at the time was quite a risk. Few writers besides Marlowe had the courage to tackle such issues in the open air and to depict the downfall of man. After Faustus however many more writers take up the gauntlet and began to write about how easily man can fall.
The play is in my opinion a fantastic piece of literary work and one text that I think should be more widely known than it is. In my respects it encapsulates the thinking of an entire historical period and highlights the many in-head struggles that were ravishing England. If you only read one play in your life then I strongly suggest that it be this one. Shakespeare's plays are good don't get me wrong some are fantastically lyrical to read but for me none of them have the impact of Doctor Faustus.
'Doctor Faustus: 'Gentlemen, farewell. If I live till morning, I'll visit you; if not; Faustus is gone to hell.' (1.14.84-85)
The only reason I actually read Doctor Faustus is because it is required reading for the course I am doing. At first I didn't think it would be very good reading, but I was pleasantly surprised. This is a short play written by the Elizabethan writer Christopher Marlowe.
The play itself was not performed until after Marlowe's death and it was considered by the Catholic Church to be blasphemous.
Most people will know the story, or at least know of Faust. Doctor Faustus, in the story, is a brilliantly clever German doctor who sells his soul to the devil for power and knowledge. He seeks the ability to conjure up what he wants by using magic.
There are scenes portraying Lucifer, arguing evil and good angels, the Seven Deadly Sins and Faustus teasing the Pope and calling up the spirit of Alexander the Great. These are very powerful scenes which are often quite humorous.
The Chorus is a commentary between scenes which tells the reader what is going on in the background and this too is amusing in parts.
In the end Faust tries to repent but gives up his chance of salvation for the pleasures that Helen of Troy offers him.
This play is one of the first true tragedies written in English and it did actually foreshadow Shakespeare's later work. It is dramatic and vivid and the dialogue is poetic and is a wonderful example of Elizabethan drama.
I really enjoyed reading this play and the scene where Faustus torments the Pope made me laugh. I could picture the actors on the stage and Faustus, unseen, making comments.
This is really a good read, although it is not something I would have bought if it hadn't been required reading for me. However, I would certainly recommend it to anyone who is interested in classical plays. The writing and imagery is superb.
This review is an attempt by myself to turn to a more classical subject than Iron Maiden and Pot Noodles, and as there were no reviews written for this play I decided to try my hand. You can rest assured that all the observations are not taken straight from websites, as I studied this play for AS-level English Literature and my book is full of scribbled notes. This early 17th century play was written for the stage but not performed widely until after the author Christopher Marlowe's death. Its themes of heaven, hell and damnation were common to a lot of the plays of the time, but it was also deemed inappropriate and blasphemous in places by the heavily Protestant Elizabethan audience. Still often regarded as blasphemous even today, the attraction about this play for me is the way the main plot and secondary, seemingly-irrelevant storylines can become linked as they are thought about. I was also surprised that something so old could be so easily understandable, and in structure not too dissimilar to modern books and television shows. The fairly simple plot follows a tripartite structure: first there is contact with the devil, travel and conjurings and finally regret and damnation. The protagonist, Doctor John Faustus, is the embodiment of a Renaissance scholar; his unsatisfied and inquisitive nature reflects the feelings of many intellectuals in the 'age of exploration,' however Marlowe makes it clear that it is over-ambition that causes Faustus' downfall. The play begins with Faustus finishing his studies and conjuring the demon Mephastophilis from Hell. Believing himself to be in full control of the situation, Faustus offers his soul for twenty-four years of superhuman powers and abilities, with dreams of becoming as powerful as a god. Once he is granted this exchange however, Faustus very quickly finds himself manipulated by his constant companion Mephastophilis into attacks against the Church. As the years pass, Faustus
does not recognise the truth that he has not achieved anything he set out to do; although his name is now widely known, Faustus has resorted to simple conjuring pranks to keep himself amused. As his death grows near, he is visited by an Old Man who tries to persuade him to beg for forgiveness, and Faustus realises that he has made a huge mistake. Conjuring an image of Helen of Troy, Faustus realises that there is no salvation for him and he waits for Lucifer to collect him. Interspersed between this plot are a number of comedy scenes which mirror Faustus' actions. One of the most interesting aspects of the play is the relevance of characters Robin and Rafe. At first, these two stable workers seem to offer irrelevant comic relief and little in the way of plot advancement, but as the play progressed I realised that their foolish jokes performed with Faustus' book, and base sexual desires, foreshadowed Faustus' deterioration until he is much like them. Faustus' apprentice Wagner also appears at several points in the play, and his character seems to show the corruptible nature of such 'dark magic' as Faustus is using. Marlowe also uses irony a number of times, most notably when the Seven Deadly Sins are paraded before Faustus by Mephastophilis prior to the start of Faustus' contract; by the end of the play, the character has been guilty of all seven. While the play is certainly not as relevant to a modern audience, for example the scene in which an invisible Faustus plays havoc with the Pope and his dinner guests which would have been greatly enjoyed by the anti-Catholic Elizabethan audience, Doctor Faustus can provide an enjoyable reading experience. The play is not particularly long, and while some scenes are uninteresting there are many more which can prove borderline-funny. The characters are also surprisingly well-written in most places, considering the essential purpose of such characters in Shakespeare and other conte
mporary plays was to embody a typical trait of some nationality or occupation. I hesitate to recommend this book, but it certainly has 'classic' status and is widely known, but most of the appeal does come from the fact that this book was written in a very different time for a very different audience. My study of Doctor Faustus has ensured that I am not put off by Medieval and classical English Literature topics at University, as I now welcome this experience. But remember that I have only read this book because I was required to; old English literature is not usually my preferred reading taste.
A scholar who trades god-like powers for his soul with the devil learns the downside of impulse buying. From the sixteenth century writer, Christopher Marlowe.