‘Doctor Faustus’ by Christopher Marlowe – “Why This is Hell, Nor Am I Out of It”

 

‘Doctor Faustus’ by Christopher Marlowe   (1592) – 69 pages

 

Christopher Marlowe is one of the great Might Have Beens in literary history.  Besides being a successful playwright, Marlowe was apparently a street brawler and a government spy and was also arrested for blasphemy in his writings just thirteen days before he was stabbed to death at the age of 29.  Had he lived, Marlowe would have been a worthy competitor to William Shakespeare as a playwright.  As it was, Marlowe’s completed plays greatly influenced Shakespeare.  Shakespeare emulated Marlowe in writing his plays also in blank verse which is a metrical pattern consisting of lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter.

‘Doctor Faustus’ was Marlowe’s last play.  The main character John Faustus is a learned doctor from Wittenburg, Germany, but like Icarus he aspires for so much more.  He takes up magic.

“So much he profits in divinity
That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name,
Excelling all, and sweetly can dispute
In th’heavenly matters of theology;
Till swoll’n with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow.”

Along with Doctor Faustus and a few other human characters including a Pope or two, the devil’s representative Mephistopheles and the old devil Lucifer himself and the Seven Deadly Sins are all characters in the play.  I am Pride, I am Covetousness, I am Wrath, I am Envy, I am Gluttony, I am Sloth, I am Lechery.  You see, the learned Doctor Faustus sells his body and soul to the devil in exchange for having Mephistopheles as his servant and at his command for twenty-four years.  Doctor Faustus partakes of all seven of these sins; nothing can hurt him during those twenty-four years.

“Mephistopheles: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?” 

During this entire time a Good Angel and an Evil Angel spar verbally for Doctor Faustus’ soul apparently not knowing of the agreement he has already signed in blood.  The years pass quickly, and, spoiler alert, Doctor Faustus meets a bad end.

“All beasts are happy,
For, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;
But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell.
Curs’d be the parents that engender’d me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer
That hath depriv’d thee of the joys of heaven.”

Unfortunately Christopher Marlowe was not given twenty-four years in his adulthood.  Compared to ‘Doctor Faustus’, Shakespeare’s plays, even the wild ones like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, are realistic and down to earth. However, based on ‘Doctor Faustus’, the plays of Christopher Marlowe would have been more philosophical, more allegorical, more willing to take things to their logical or illogical extremes.  It would have been interesting if they both had at the same time been writing plays which competed for an audience on the English stage.

 

Grade:   A

 

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Absolutely loved this when we did it at uni. I saw it performed just once, and it was superb:)

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Hi Lisa,
    This is my first encounter with the Faust legend. I knew someone had sold their soul to the Devil, but I did not know who. This play is much different from those Shakespeare did.

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  3. i have a copy of this but haven’t read it (I find reading the texts of plays difficult). I’d much prefer to see a production if possible

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    • Hi Booker Talk,
      I can see your point that it is better to see a play than read it, but I would never have gotten through so much of Shakespeare if I I waited always for a play version. I find audio a good medium for plays, and they do have a fair number of plays on Audible.

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      • couldnt agree more with you – some plays hardly ever get staged anyway and then, when they do, the cost of a seat is prohibitive. Fortunately the National Theatre does broadcast of some performances to local cinemas which is brilliant

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  4. I saw an amazing RSC production of this at the Swan in the 1980s with Gerard Murphy and Richard McCabe. Loved it, but like Karen, I don’t think I could read it on the page due to the language, unlike a modern play. Audio would be the solution I agree.

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    • Hi Annabel,
      I do see there is a movie version of Doctor Faustus from 1968 starring Richard Burton available on Netflix. IMDB doesn’t give it a very good rating – 5.7. Frequently with Shakespeare and other major playwrights I will find a movie version to watch as well as read the play.

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  5. Love this text. I did it at A level and parts of it have always stayed with me, particularly the speech you use as the title to this piece.

    Re the angel and demon battling for him, the point there is that the contract means nothing. It’s merely another trick. All he has to do is ask forgiveness and he will be saved, the contract cannot stand against redemption. His pride prevents him. He says the demons hold down his hands so he cannot raise them in prayer, but in truth he doesn’t repent his deeds.

    It’s part of the tragedy. Even at the end his pride damns him. The contract is an excuse for his own refusal to ask for help.

    Such a great play.

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    • Hi Max,
      Thanks for explaining the roles of the Good Angel and the Evil Angel, because I figured Dr. Faustus had already made the deal so why were they still arguing about it. But as you say, he could have repented at any time and the deal would be off.
      Fortunately I resisted the temptation to use that title line in connection with our new US President, though I really wanted to. 🙂

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