‘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.