Articles for ‘Marlowe’

Glutted – Of This

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

Doctor Faustus as you never imagined it: Raphael Lyne introduces a special film made for Cambridge Authors by Jeremy Hardingham and Ollie Evans.

The Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio, which is found in the basement of the English Faculty building, is used for rehearsal and performance by many different groups in the university. It is also a place where theatrical practice and literary criticism are brought together as part of teaching and research in the Faculty. When we decided to feature Doctor Faustus in the Cambridge Authors project, it seemed a good idea to include some video of the play in performance. Jeremy Hardingham, the Drama Studio Manager, agreed to put something together. We’re delighted with the result, but it’s nothing like we expected. He and Ollie Evans have transformed hints in the play into a series of scenes incorporating mime, movement, puppetry, unexpected movements – but no script. If you’re new to experimental theatre this will be an eye-opener, but the more thought you give it, the more it will pose questions about the play. On this page you can find the video, but also a viewer’s guide making a few suggestions, and saying what it made me think about. At the end you’ll also find an interview I did with Jeremy where he gives his take.


Movie goes here.

Viewer’s Guide

As I see it, there are eight parts to the film. I have given them titles, and I have said what I think is important in each one, and what it seems to be addressing in Doctor Faustus. You might feel completely different about it – and look out for Jeremy’s view further down the page.

1. 'Rehearsal’ (0.00 – 2.00)

In strange lighting, with ghostly cloths hanging above (the blue one on the right looks quite demonic), the two actors seem to be preparing for something. Jeremy (in a suit) watches the camera anxiously and fusses over his clothing, as if he does not feel clean.
This feels to me like preparations for performance rather than something deriving from the play itself. I liked the way the actor seems suspicious of the camera – Marlowe’s play is a theatrical spectacle, but it might have felt risky to watch such demonic activity when it was first performed; perhaps it still does.

2. 'Puppet’ (2.01 – 7.18)

Ollie’s little puppet – a strange white human figure – reads a book, then brings a match to see it better, and finally takes up a spoon as if to eat the words.
As well as admiring the skill in the puppetry here, I thought this seemed to pick up on some crucial things in Doctor Faustus:
(i) The puppet is a controlled figure who makes no choices: Faustus wants devils to do his bidding, but he is the real puppet. I felt sympathy for the puppet here, but I also felt estranged from it, as something enough like me to be troubling, but not enough like me to be familiar – perhaps that’s one way of responding to Faustus himself.
(ii) Books are so important in the play: they are the sources of conventional and devilish wisdom for the scholarly central character. Here I thought the book seemed a strange thing, vulnerable when the flame went near, but powerful when it seemed to be providing physical nourishment.

3. and 4. 'Lightbulb’ (7.19 – 13.50)

There is a bright lightbulb between us and Jeremy. He obviously wants to touch it, and to mark it in some way; he even seems to want to eat it. Eventually he eats some tissue wrapped around it.
The light exerts a lot of power here – it is obviously very tempting. What does it stand for? In Doctor Faustus the hero is tempted first by the knowledge and power he might get from a pact with the devil, and later by the prospect of repentance. Either of these might shine attractively, but they can both appear dangerous. This section of the film suggests an insight into Faustus’s private moments, where he is drawn towards things that will cost him a great deal.

5. 'Head’ (13.51 – 14.44)

Here the puppeteer of section 2 (Ollie Evans) stares impassively outwards, before taking off his hood.
This seems like a bridging section to me, preparing for the much stranger headshot of section 6.

6. and 7. 'Cross’ (14.45 – 16.57)

At first, watery visual effects make it hard to make out what we are seeing. Then (through mist) we see a man with a whitened face holding a plank. The image is reminiscent of pictures of Christ carrying the cross. The plan actually has a cross drawn on it, and the words 'do not use’.
You can find images of Christ and the cross easily on the web. The one that seems most pertinent to me is by Hieronymous Bosch and it’s in the art museum at Ghent. It is actually one of several he painted on the theme.
Faustus thinks a lot about Christ as the play comes to an end. He seems at times to want to reach out to his mercy and suffering, and thus to find salvation. Perhaps he also views himself as a kind of Christ-like figure, struggling nobly. It seems telling, then, that the 'cross’ here is a plank, that the suffering face is obviously created with make-up, and the words 'do not use’ remind us that Faustus never gets saved.

8. 'Finale’ (16.58 – 25.12)

This is the same scene as in section 1. Now the actors are speeded up and in a frenzy of activity. We recognise numerous things from the rest of the film, but here things are quite chaotic, with slapstick humour and general frenzy.
This part of the film reminded me most of the lines which gave it its title:

How am I glutted with conceit of this!
Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please,
Resolve me of all ambiguities,
Perform what desperate enterprise I will? (1.1.78-81)

This part of the film seemed more about 'desperate enterprise’ and feeling 'glutted’ than about having any ambiguities resolved. There are moments in the play where all Faustus’s power seems to enable him mainly to do tricks, and these can’t stop time passing, and his end coming nearer. The accelerated action of this section, leading nowhere, might make us think of the empty excitement of devilish powers.

The Performer’s Viewpoint

Here you can find a conversation I had with Jeremy Hardingham. If you're interested in the film and how it came to be, then he has a lot to say about it here. I found it particularly thought-provoking that he emphasised how their performance took its initial motivations from Marlowe's play, but then developed along its own, often spontaneous, pathways. This often led to reflections on the meaning of performance, acting, designing, and directing, all of which are relevant to Faustus.

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Over To You

When we read plays we are often tempted to imagine them in performance. Questions like 'how would this be acted?’ and 'how would this look on stage?’ often provide insights into lines, speeches, scenes, and characters. Why not think about how some key scenes in Doctor Faustus could be performed? But don’t just limit yourself to the usual ways we see plays performed in theatres. Why not consider something more adventurous? This is a challenging piece of work, and perhaps challenging forms of drama fit it best.

1. Early in the play Faustus has a long speech where he dismisses all the usual kinds of university learning and chooses magic instead. It might just be a declamation – a formal piece of public speaking in which he shows off his wide reading. Maybe it needs props, or movement, or some less predictable way of capturing how he is abandoning acceptable studies in favour of forbidden things. How would you do it?

2. Faustus and Mephistopheles act like intimate friends, as co-conspirators, as master and servant, as deceiver and deceived. How would you capture one or more of the twists and turns in their relationship? In 'Glutted – Of This’ the puppet seemed like it could become a powerful way of depicting Faustus. What do you think would be an interesting and unexpected way of presenting him and his devilish advisor?

3. When Faustus is in his final agonies he frenziedly cries out to Christ, quotes poetry, complains and exults. Should this be done in a tragic style, or should it seem melodramatic and strangely conceited? What should be happening around him – the fires of hell? Think of an interesting way of making this scene take an unpredictable turn.

And please tell us what you think about 'Glutted - Of This' in the comments section below.

Marlowe: The Sources of Doctor Faustus

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

In this essay undergraduate Lizzie Davis looks at the story behind Marlowe's play. Although it contains many of the key elements, it approaches its central character in a very different way. It helps us see how Marlowe's creation of a tragic Faustus makes a big difference to the moral character of the story.

Modern yet medieval, contentious yet conservative, tragic hero or tyrannical villain: both play and protagonist of Christopher Marlowe's infamous Doctor Faustus present the audience with a maze of contradictions which have divided critics since its first performance. The Dr Faustus we encounter in Marlowe's play is a Renaissance scholar with the ambition of Icarus ('His waxen wings did mount above his reach'). The plot itself, however, is not Marlowe's own: the story existed in a German work, the Faustbuch from 1587; Marlowe's play has been called of this tradition. In taking a German story and using it as material for an English play, Marlowe transposed the legend into a startlingly different context with the result that this famous play posed some awkward questions to contemporary audiences, as it still does for modern audiences today.

The Real Dr Faustus

Though long a point of contention with historians, the existence of a real Dr Faustus is now accepted as fact. Having died around 1540 in Germany, the real Dr Faustus is recorded in contemporary sources (such as University records, letters and diaries) as being well-travelled and knowledgeable: some sources even report that he referred to the Devil as his 'Schwager', meaning 'crony'. Though sources differ on various points, contemporary writers are at pains to mention Faust's evil reputation: for example, in a note written by a junior mayor of Ingolstadt instructing that city officials 'deny free passage to the great and Doctor Faustus'. According to Wikipedia (we haven't been able to check this, though) the original letter is held by the Ingolstadt city archive and it is dated 27 June 1528.

The Faust legend

To fully appreciate the complexities of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (1588-89), you have to look at his source: the Faustbuch (1587). Although Marlowe encountered the legend in an English translation (known as the Faust Book) the work itself is German and very much . The Faust Book was very much a moral treatise and a warning to the reader to obey God's will. Marlowe's play is equally a product of post-Reformation England, but it was also written in the context of - a movement (only given this label many years later) which placed a great deal of importance on the potential of the human, the perfectibility of the human and as such, an aspiration to improve was central to this system of belief.

Perhaps surprisingly for a modern reader, the Faust Book condemns Faust as much for practising the disciplines of mathematics, astronomy and astrology as his 'magic'. We can guess one reason for this from , an informer's account of Marlowe's beliefs, which was handed to the English authorities to try and get him arrested for his unorthodox views. Whether the opinions recorded in the note were ever held by Marlowe is impossible to tell, but it does give us an indication of what was considered controversial during the Elizabethan period. The note claims that Marlowe held that 'the Indians and many authors of antiquity have assuredly written of above sixteen thousand years agone, wheras Adam is proved to have lived within six thousand years'. A claim such as this, perhaps arrived at through the studies of mathematics or astrology as well as literature, undermines the story of Genesis and, by extension, the whole Bible: any field of study which questioned or had the potential to question the Christian story was not only considered controversial but even evil.

Unlike Marlowe's work, the Faust Book devotes hundreds of words to praising, explaining and justifying the Christian religion: nothing is contentious and every opinion stated chimes exactly with that of the ruling orthodoxy - the book even ends with a prayer. The main purpose of the Faust Book is to preach and echo the teachings of the church. Marlowe has a different agenda: by removing the overt moral teaching, Marlowe forces the audience to judge Faustus on their own.

To Wonder at Unlawful Things

In both versions, Faustus's actions stem, at least partly, from a desire to know more: 'had not I desired to know so much, I had not been in this case' (all quotations from the Faust Book are from the text online at the Perseus Digital Library). The author of the Faust Book does not hesitate to condemn Faustus, spelling out his evil nature in no uncertain terms: 'Faust forgot the Lord his maker, and Christ his redeemer, became an enemy unto all man-kinde'. The Faust Book warns through Faust's example of the perils of pursuing knowledge too far, and advocates instead a life of obedience and prayer.

In the prose form of the Faust Book, the reader's reaction to Faustus is openly steered by the narrator who occasionally allows us to hear Faust's own words but always provides a commentary afterwards. Marlowe's character, by contrast, stands in front of the audience without any visible author. As in one of Faust or Mephistopheles' own illusions, an actor takes the form of Faustus and makes us believe it is truly him. For example, as Faustus speaks the words 'I do repent!' in Marlowe's play, we can take him at his word. The same words from the same character in the Faust Book, however, give rise to this explanation by the narrator: 'In this perplexitie lay this miserable Doctor Faustus... never falling to repentance truly, thereby to attaine the grace and holy spirit of God againe'. There can be no room for misunderstanding when dealing with a subject as important as the Devil and damnation.

The Moral

Mimicking the fable form of the Faust Book, Marlowe encloses his play with a prologue and epilogue, emphatically marking the boundaries between play and reality. There is an uneasiness in the closing lines which echoes back through the whole work: 'To practise more than heavenly power permits' might suggest not a just and loving God but an unreasonable omnipotent tyrant shrouded in anonymity. In spite of Marlowe's fidelity to the Faust Book's plot, by removing the authoritarian narrator, his Doctor Faustus has been seen to question, rather than reassert, the reigning orthodoxy and even Faust/us' 'evil' nature.

The Tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare

The original title page for Marlowe's play describes it as The tragicall historie of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. Marlowe places Faustus in the role of tragic protagonist and in doing so transforms the 'evil' of the Faust Book into a classic . Faustus himself is highly conscious of his status as a character, referring obsessively to himself in the third person. From the outset he is intent on creating a spectacle, a drama worthy of the tragic hero he believes himself to be.

Marlowe's most celebrated contemporary is Shakespeare and though Shakespeare never wrote a play explicitly on the Faust legend, there are parallel figures strewn through his plays. Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, and the central character, Prospero, have some startling parallels with Doctor Faustus. Not only are both plays concerned with magic and conjuring but - perhaps not coincidentally - both works have central characters deeply concerned with spectacle. Prospero and Faustus both want to control people like puppets. In fact, the Faust legend was actually used extensively, after Marlowe, for material for puppet shows - akin to Punch and Judy - as Romany and Lindsey point out in their introduction to the play: 'The story told in Marlowe's play, in fact, is well on the way to its 'degeneration' in the next two centuries into the popular media of ballads, farces and puppet shows' (Complete Plays, p. xxii). Shakespeare's play opens with a storm (the tempest of the title) whipped up by Prospero himself, and he can make himself invisible at will. Like Marlowe's Dr Faustus, Prospero does have a magical helper in the form of the sprite Ariel:

All hail great master! great sir, hail! I come
To answer thy best pleasure. Be't to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds, to thy strong bidding task
Ariel and all his quality. (Act 1, Scene 2, 189-93)

The biggest difference between the two powerful enchanters is that at no point in The Tempest is there any explicit suggestion that the source of Prospero's powers is evil, whereas Faustus' powers unequivocally spring from his relationship with the Devil. Prospero is never called upon to repent nor has he had to sacrifice something as vital as his soul to acquire them - he does, however, have to give them up at the end of the play in order to return to the world of ordinary humans. This renunciation allows Prospero a happy ending, while neither Marlowe nor Faustus can avoid their final tragedy.

Further Reading

  • Doctor Faustus, in The Complete Plays, Christopher Marlowe, ed. Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey (London: Penguin, 2003); also introduction pp xi-xxxiii
  • Philip Mason Palmer and Robert Pattison More, The Sources of the Faust Tradition: From Magus to Lessing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936)
  • Faust Book, accessed at:
  • Information about the real Doctor Faustus and more about Faust legends (interesting, if not a definitive reference resource) can be found at

Further Thinking

The connection between this play and Shakespeare is fascinating and there are often sharp ambiguities. Do you think that any of the devilish quality of Faustus' magic can be found in The Tempest? What about A Midsummer Night's Dream, the other great magical play in Shakespeare? In a very different way, Macbeth is a descendant of Faustus, who works with evil forces for his own gain. Do you think Shakespeare is rethinking Marlowe's play as he portrays that character?

Lizzie Davis suggests that we can take Faustus 'at his word' when he says he repents. Do you agree? It might be difficult to know whether to trust him.

This is the term used in Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays, ed Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey (London, 2003), introduction, p. xxi.
The word literally means someone who practises black magic, but it is often used interchangeably with necromancer, and can mean someone who summons spirits from Hell
The word should strictly describe someone who commits the sin of Sodom, destroyed by God in the Old Testament. Although that sin is not specified in the Bible, the term sodomy is often used to describe homosexual intercourse. In Marlowe's time, however, it could be used for any sexual activity deemed unnatural by society at the time.
See The Complete Plays, ed. Romany and Lindsey, p. xxii
A term used to describe an important set of scholarly activities in the Renaissance. Italian scholars in the 14th and 15th centuries were the pioneers, and in northern Europe humanism flourished in the 16th century. As well as the idea of human perfectibility mentioned here, humanists were involved in the study of Latin and Greek literature, in reforming education and philosophy, and in applying the lessons of their learning to practical matters. Some became counsellors to Kings and Queens. Not all people we'd now call 'humanists' shared the same beliefs, and (it is worth re-emphasising) did not think of themselves as 'humanists' by name.
This can be read in many modern works about Marlowe, including The Complete Plays, ed. Romany and Lindsey, pp. xxxiv-xxxv.
The 'tragic flaw' is a very significant idea in the theory of tragedy, that goes all the way back to ancient Greece and Aristotle's Poetics. Tragic heroes were thought to be great men who fell to disaster as a result of a flaw. Aristotle's term for this was 'hamartia'.

Marlowe: The Fortunes of Doctor Faustus

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

In this essay undergraduate Stephanie Derbyshire looks at the changing fortunes of the play between its first performances and the present day.

Critical and popular opinion of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus has a chequered history. A popular play when first performed, its reputation gradually waned, and by the late seventeenth century it was barely known. Interest revived towards the end of the eighteenth century, and during the Victorian era the play provoked new literary and critical responses. From the twentieth century on the play was eagerly sought after by perfomers and attracted several famous actors to play the title role. Over 400 years after it was first written and performed, Dr Faustus still continues to fascinate new generations of actors, writers, critics, and above all, audiences.

The Admiral's Men and Histriomastix

Nobody is quite sure exactly when Dr Faustus was written, or even when it was first performed. All we do know is that the first performances were probably during Marlowe's lifetime, although the actual text was published in 1604, eleven years after his premature death in May 1593. Unfortunately for Marlowe (who didn't get to watch) the best-documented run of performances was also posthumous, as an outbreak of plague forced theatres to close between 1592 and 1594. The first mention of the play is in December 1592, just months before Marlowe's death, when it is entered in the . The first recorded performance, however, is not until 1594, when an actors' company called The Admiral's Men put it on after the re-opening of the theatres. In the 1594-1595 season, Dr Faustus was performed at least twelve times by the Admiral's Men, second only to another play by Marlowe, Tamburlaine, and the anonymous Wise Men of Westchester.

Doctor Faustus was perfomed consistently until 1597, and rapidly became the subject of superstition and legend. Marlowe had famously been arrested for atheism and for some spectators this became exaggerated into necromancy and sorcery of the kind portrayed in the play itself. This overlap between real and stage magic reappears later, in another legend recorded by the William Prynne, attacking the theatre in his 1632 anti-theatrical diatribe Histriomastix. He claimed that in one performance real devils appeared on stage 'to the great amazement' of actors and the audience, sending people mad with distraction at the 'fearful sight'.

Pepys and Malone

Doctor Faustus was steadily reprinted, with varying degrees of accuracy, throughout the early seventeenth century. It had first been published in a version in 1604, attributed to 'Ch. Marl.', but in 1616 a second edition came out, about a third longer and containing several extra comic episodes. This version is often known as the B-text.

Despite this reprinting, interest in Marlowe and Faustus waned dramatically throughout the seventeenth century. Samuel Pepys saw it with his wife Elizabeth at the Red Bull on May 26th 1662 and was far from complimentary: he thought it was 'so wretchedly and poorly done, that we were sick of it'. Their distaste is indicative of a general loss of interest in Marlowe and his works: he gradually disappeared both from the stage and from the writings of literary critics and journalists. He was not included in Thomas Fuller's Worthies of England (1662), Dryden did not mention him, and even Dr Samuel Johnson remained uncharacteristically quiet on the matter.

Still, eventually the tide once again began to turn in Marlowe's favour. Edmund Malone (1741-1812), a friend of Dr Johnson and an active scholar of Shakespeare, compiled a volume of Marlowe's works, piecing the texts together and adding notes and annotations. Despite some remaining errors of attribution, this was a definite step towards preserving Dr Faustus and Marlowe's other works and bringing them to the notice of the Victorians.

Charles Lamb and Frankenstein

One of the most important critics of Marlowe, who probably went the furthest towards restoring his reputation in the nineteenth century, was Charles Lamb. His Specimens (1808), which was much more respectful of Marlowe than previous writers like Pepys, strongly influenced later approaches to Marlowe. Lamb notes Marlowe's obvious enjoyment of dabbling in the controversial ('[Faustus and The Jew of Malta] are offsprings of a mind which at least delighted to dally with subjects...') and praises the way he creates tension in Doctor Faustus:

The growing horrors of Faustus are awfully marked by the hours and half hours as they expire and bring him nearer and nearer to the exactment of his dire . It is indeed an agony and bloody sweat.

The Faustian theme of intellectual overreaching recurs in Gothic writing in the nineteenth century, particularly in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The connection is obvious: both Faustus and Frankenstein have a desire for knowledge and power beyond the human realm, which they both pursue with the best science of their day. Significantly, they are both linked to the same country and even to the same town. Shelley writes that Frankenstein learnt his black arts at university at Ingolstadt, in Germany: this is also where the earlier Faust legend, on which Marlowe drew, was centred. Where Faustus had sought knowledge through alchemy, Frankenstein actually tries to create life using electrochemistry. Each text is also haunted by the absence of a wife. Faustus asks Mephastophilis to get him a wife, but the devil refuses and will only bring him prostitutes:

Tut, Faustus, marriage is but a ceremonial toy
If thou lovest me, think no more of it.
I'll cull thee out the fairest courtesans
And bring them every morning to thy bed.
She whom thine eye shall like, thy heart shall have. (Act 1, Scene 5, 153-7)

Echoing this, Frankenstein's monster asks his creator for a wife for company. Frankenstein initially agrees, but abandons the task halfway through in disgust, leaving the monster alone.

Fame and Hollywood

In the last century, Dr Faustus enjoyed numerous revivals, many of which featured famous actors. Indeed, part of the play's popularity in performance is due to the vast scope for the two lead roles of Faustus and Mephastophilis. Michael Billington, writing in the Guardian in 2002, argues that the play '[attracts] heroic performers who seem to find in it a self-fulfilling prophecy of destruction', mentioning in particular Orson Welles's 1937 Broadway version. Welles also staged a version in Paris, featuring music by legendary jazz pianist Duke Ellington. Likewise, when in 1967 Richard Burton did both a stage and a film version starring Elizabeth Taylor as Helen of Troy, many people drew parallels between Burton's career and his role. Several reviewers, including Billington, have argued that the famous actors portraying the Doctor add an extra layer of irony to a performance because of their own success and the binding nature of Hollywood contracts: the temptation of fame and fortune is often seen by theatre-goers and critics as mimicking Faustus's own temptations. Other celebrity Faustuses include Sir Ian McKellan, who played the part in 1974 for the Royal Shakespeare Company and, most recently, Jude Law in 2002 at the Young Vic Theatre.

What Makes Faustus Worth Watching?

For many people, one of the things that makes Faustus such an endearing play is the impish delight that Marlowe takes in evoking his hero of the dark arts. Minions of Hell appear on stage - something that deeply affected audiences at the time - at Faustus's request, as do a pair of good and evil angels:

Sweet Faustus, leave that execrable art.

Contrition, prayer, repentance, what of these?

Of, they are means to bring thee unto heaven.

Rather illusions, fruits of lunacy,
That makes men foolish that do trust them most.

Devils dress up as women, Faustus has a false leg torn off, Lucifer and Beelzebub 'ascend from Dis', hell is through the stage and Helen of Troy 'passeth over the stage' flanked by Cupids. Marlowe pokes fun at all the standard Catholic figures of authority, as Faustus and Mephastophilis play elaborate pranks on cardinals and even the Pope. It is no wonder that audiences enjoy Faustus: it is impossible not to be drawn into the wild extravagance of the play as theatre, whilst still feeling the tragedy of human overreaching.

Further Reading

Michael Billington's article about Faustus on the stage can be found on the Guardian site:

  • Other sources can be found in Marlowe: The Critical Heritage, 1588-1896, ed. Millar Maclure (London: Routledge, 1995).
  • Most of Samuel Pepys's diary is now online and can be read at

Further Thinking

Do you think Dr Faustus has qualities that make it more likely than most to come into and out of fashion? Are there things about it that seem to be particularly in tune with new developments in modern society? Might some aspects of it be losing their sharpness?

Stephanie Derbyshire ends by saying it is 'impossible not to drawn into the wild extravagance of the play'. Do you think we are supposed to fight against this? Or does the attraction of the play tell us something about our weaknesses?

In the 16th century there was no copyright law. Ownership of published materials was regulated by one of the London guilds, the Company of Stationers. Stationers (whom we would call Publishers) asserted their right to print something by entering the details in the company's Register. The surviving Register has proved very useful to scholars as it can tell us about books that were written but never printed, or books which were printed but do not survive, and so on.
A name given to several sorts of religious radicals in the 16th and 17th centuries. Typically they were protestants of strong conviction who were opposed to the established church hierarchy, and often attacked the licentiousness of society. One thing they strongly criticised was the theatre - in return, they are often satirized in plays.
Quarto refers to a size of book. Sheets of paper (the usual standard size was similar to modern A3 paper) were folded once to make prestigious 'folio' books, and then twice for cheaper 'quartos'.
Interdicted means 'forbidden'.
Compact means a contract or agreement.
TRAP-DOOR - one of the features of the theatres of Shakespeare and Marlowe was a trap-door in the stage. This could be used in a number of ways, and representing Hell was one of them

Marlowe: Faustus and the Puritans

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

In this essay undergraduate Kirsten Nyborg describes the religious and intellectual atmosphere of Cambridge University when Marlowe himself was a student. Some of the controversies and practices of radical students of that time find their way into Dr Faustus, and Kirsten argues that this is a 'student play' in several key ways.

The Reformation

Christopher Marlowe attended Cambridge near the end of the sixteenth century, in the wake of the English Reformation. Fifty years earlier the Church of England had declared its independence from the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope in Rome. The conflicting beliefs which led to this division continued to be debated for the rest of the century (and after), and have clearly left their mark on Doctor Faustus. Some of the most important issues to bear in mind when reading the play are:

Salvation: During the Reformation Martin Luther argued that God's forgiveness could not be 'earned' by good behaviour or by observing the rites of the church, but instead could only be given by God as a gift - 'grace' - to true believers.

Predestination: The question of whether good works are important in man's salvation continued to be debated among Protestants throughout the sixteenth century. John Calvin influentially argued for the concept of 'predestination', that good works are meaningless because God has pre-destined everyone to either salvation or damnation. This theory led to debate among Protestants about whether man has free will, the ability to choose and act autonomously.

The Word: Calvin had also emphasised the importance of individual study of the Bible, the Word of God. At the time Doctor Faustus was written, there was a debate in the Church of England about the relative benefits of individual study and prayer (generally, this was the preference of the ) versus collective, ritualised worship.

Thomas Cartwright's first attack on Whitgift appeared in 1573, from a clandestine puritan press probably based in Hemel Hempsead, near London.


Marlowe attended Cambridge in the decade after the famous Cartwright/Whitgift controversy. In the spring of 1570, Thomas Cartwright, a staunch Puritan, delivered a series of lectures claiming that the early church, as modelled in the book of Acts in the Bible, provided no basis for the hierarchy of authority figures (such as bishops) in the contemporary Church of England. Instead Cartwright argued that the Church should be modelled like a 'presbytery', a more democratic structure with fewer hierarchical distinctions, and also more like the way in which Cambridge University itself was governed. (At the time, the voting power within the University lay in the hands of a large number of recent graduates, the 'Regent Masters'; see A History of the University of Cambridge (under Further Reading below), p.69.)

Cartwright's lectures also dug up recent controversy over the use of the , and other , which were increasingly seen by Puritans as unacceptable remnants of Catholicism. The Puritan viewpoint was mostly held by the younger generation at Cambridge, the Regent Masters and students. The older generation, who tended to be more conservative Protestants, eventually ousted Cartwright, and successfully petitioned the crown for a change in the statutes of the University. They shifted voting power away from the younger Puritans and placing it in the hands of the older, more conservative 'heads of houses.' These heads then elected John Whitgift as 'vice-chancellor,' a kind of executive-in-chief of the University. This was a sore point for Cambridge Puritans: as recently as 1565, Whitgift had defended a Puritan doctoral thesis, claiming that the Pope was the Antichrist, and had supported Puritan students who resisted the use of the surplice in chapel services. On achieving power, Whitgift abandoned his early Puritan beliefs and aligned himself with the conservatives. During Marlowe's time at Cambridge, the Puritan students saw themselves as rebels fighting for more radical Protestantism against a powerful conservative establishment

Cartwright's second reply to Whitgift was published in 1575, as the controversy boiled on.

Faustus and the Cambridge Puritans

Given this atmosphere among the students during Marlowe's time at Cambridge, it is significant that the student Faustus is led astray by his own intellectual pursuits: 'To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess'. Young Faustus takes part in the same kind of group discussion for which Cambridge Puritans were famous:

Come, German Valdes and Cornelius,
And make me blest with your sage conference;
Their conference will be a greater help to me
Than all my labours, plod I ne'er so fast         (Act1, Scene 1, lines 100-1, 70-1).

was a common activity for Puritan students at Cambridge and here Faustus studies magic as if it were the Bible, in company. 'Disputation', group debate about religious questions, was also popular with the young Puritans and Marlowe links 'disputes / In heavenly matters of theology' with Faustus' fall:

... swoll'n with cunning of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.
For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted more with learning's golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy.... (Prologue, 20-5)

Could there be a connection between this warning against intellectual pride in Doctor Faustus and Marlowe's experience of Puritan students at Cambridge?

Mocking the Puritans

There are passages in Doctor Faustus which seem to mock the Puritans openly. Wagner's attack on Puritans seems historically located: 'I will set my countenance like a and begin to speak thus... And so the Lord bless you, preserve you, and keep you, my dear brethren, my dear brethren' (2. 26-32). The Puritan students are shown living as gluttons, 'at supper with such belly-cheer / As Wagner ne'er beheld in all his life,' and gossiping about women (13. 6-7). This suggestion of hypocrisy is one of the ideas behind Faustus' fall. The study of divinity is no match for the sins of the flesh, and Faustus abandons theology for the demonic vision of Helen of Troy. Another comment on the Cambridge Puritans?

Individual Study in Doctor Faustus

Part of Faustus' downfall is his desire for knowledge: 'I gave them my soul for my cunning' (392). In part Faustus' fall replays the basic Christian story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but it also seems to be rooted more specifically in the Protestant habit of discovering truth through Bible study. Faustus' reliance on the books of magic could then parody Protestant dependence on the Bible. As Faustus laments his studies:

O, would I had never seen , never read book! (391)

Doctor Faustus and Predestination

Faustus illustrates the worst-case scenario of the doctrine of predestination. He originally decides to pursue magic after convincing himself that he is doomed be damned:

Why then belike we must sin,
And so consequently die ...
What will be, shall be...
Divinity, adieu!

In choosing to sin, he then guarantees that his prediction will come true: the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. The play raises the problems inherent in the Calvinist theory of predestination:

(i) When is Faustus damned?

(ii) Was it predestined, or the result of his free choice?

(iii) Is he denied grace by a harsh Calvinist God, or does he deny himself the possibility of forgiveness by refusing to ask for it?

Marlowe ends the play with a reference to a Biblical quotation that was often used in debates about the role of good works in salvation: 'Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire' (Matthew 7:19):

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burned is Apollo's laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learned man.
Faustus is gone; regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits.        (Epilogue)

The ultimate cause of Faustus' fall, the question at the heart of the play, is rooted in the 'forward wits' of Marlowe's Cambridge.

Further Reading

Lots of the key facts about Cambridge in this essay come from A History of the University of Cambridge, Vol II, by Victor Morgan and Christopher Brooke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Patrick Collinson, formerly Professor of History at Cambridge, has written several books on the Elizabethan Puritans, one of which - the classic The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971) - was useful in preparing this essay.

Further Thinking

Kirsten Nyborg connects Faustus' desires and mistakes with things done by radical students in his own time. Do you think that we might end up thinking of Dr Faustus as a conservative play, exposing those who sought to question the establishment? Or is it actually sympathetic to the outlook represented on both sides, that doesn't want to be limited by convention?

As Kirsten shows, the doctrine of predestination does not combine easily with tragedy. If it is all predestined, how can we appreciate the hero's moment of choice, or the climactic recognition? This is an issue in Dr Faustus and in lots of other tragedies of the period. Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth are good examples, as is Marlowe's Tamburlaine (both parts). Do you think the two things seem to be reconciled? Or do you think they end up co-existing awkwardly?

Puritan was a name given to several sorts of religious radicals in the 16th and 17th centuries. Typically they were protestants of strong conviction who were opposed to the established church hierarchy, and often attacked the licentiousness of society. One thing they strongly criticised was the theatre - in return, they are often satirized in plays.
A white tunic worn in the Roman Catholic tradition that symbolized the white garment received at baptism.
I.e., clothing associated with the Catholic Church, of which the Pope is the leader.
This was the name for the method of biblical study first perfected by Protestant humanists in Zurich, Switzerland. It was a method of searching out the true meaning of the Bible by discussing it at length together.
Someone who observes rules precisely, i.e. strictly. This term was used of Puritans.
The town in Germany where Martin Luther nailed his '95 Theses' to the door of All Saints' Church, sparking off the Protestant Reformation across Europe. It is surely no coincidence that Marlowe's character, like Shakespeare's Hamlet, studies there.

Marlowe: Doctor Faustus and Magic

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

In this essay undergraduate Stephanie Bain looks at the tradition of occult magic in Marlowe's time. Dr Faustus has things in common with high-minded philosophy aiming to extend the potential of human beings, but it also has things in common with forms of witchcraft that were feared and condemned in the period. In the end, Stephanie wonders whether Marlowe may be making a rather sharp point about how people who thought they knew about magic and witchcraft probably knew very little indeed.

A Storm At Sea

The title page from James VI and I, Daemonologie (London, 1603). The work was first printed in Edinburgh six years earlier.

The title page from James VI and I, Daemonologie (London, 1603). The work was first printed in Edinburgh six years earlier.

In 1590 King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) was travelling home from a winter in Denmark when he was caught in a violent sea storm. By the time he eventually reached the shore of Scotland, he had apparently become paranoid about his own mortality and convinced of a supernatural plot against him. A number of Scots were interrogated and subsequently found guilty of treason for melting a wax effigy to raise the storm. Three hundred 'witches' were accused of plotting to kill James. James' interest in witchcraft was sparked by private fears and suspicions, but in publishing a tract called Daemonologie in 1597 he attempted to harness these personal demons in the name of contemporary scholarship. He can be credited with making and raising of spirits a hot topic at the end of the sixteenth century, when the theatres became filled with ghosts, witches, and devils. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was first performed in 1594, followed by William Shakespeare's Macbeth (c. 1605) and Thomas Middleton's The Witch (c. 1613). Ben Jonson's early for the Stuart court, The Masque of Queens (1609), featured a dance of witches who appear with snakes and rats on their heads. Putting evil spirits on stage ensured commercial success, and this theatrical popularity also increased interest in a very different concept of Renaissance magic.

Occult Philosophy

The fantastic visions of witches and demons imagined by James VI and others were not the only kind of magic on offer. Renaissance occult philosophy was an established branch of intellectual thought, which drew together with .

The occult philosophers believed that through rigorous study man could realise his full potential and unite with the mind of God. He could then practice what was known as theurgic magic. Theurgic magic was basically seen as 'good' or 'white' magic, involving communion with the divine and the conjuring of angelic spirits to produce wonderful effects. In Doctor Faustus, Marlowe's protagonist has been particularly associated with one of the leading occult philosophers, Cornelius Agrippa. In Act 1 of Doctor Faustus the similarities between Faustus' desires and ideas presented in Agrippa's De occulta philosophia (On occult philosophy), can help us to see the philosophical basis of Faustus' conjuring.

The title page of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, De occulta philosophia libri tres (1551).

The title page of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, De occulta philosophia libri tres (1551).

In De occulta, Agrippa sets out strict guidelines for the type of man suited to occult investigations: he must have a good grasp of philosophy, mathematics and theology. Faustus shows himself to be qualified in his first speech. He shows an awareness of Aristotle (philosophy), Galen (medicine), Justinian (law) and Scripture (theology) and at the end of the speech he wants to move beyond this learning:

All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces
Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that does excel in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man: (Act 1, Scene 1, 56-61)

When researching this topic I was struck with the similarity between these lines and the catalogue of feats attributed to occult philosophers in De occulta. Agrippa and his followers believed that an experienced practitioner of magic could conjure spirits to command the elements. The last line shows Faustus thinking of magic, like Agrippa, as a way for man to explore the utmost limits of his potential.

However, the occult philosophers gave a strict warning against conjuring without adequate learning or correct motivation. This is particularly important in the play, as Faustus is such an ambiguous figure. His interest in the occult is encouraged by Valdes and Cornelius, who represent ideal occult philosophers (one of whom shares Agrippa's first name), but Faustus misunderstands the basic tenet of Renaissance magic: the goal of communion with the divine.

Philosophy is odious and obscure,
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
Divinity is basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vile.
'Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me. (Act 1, Scene 1, 106-110)

His rejection of Divinity shows that the 'magic' that has 'ravished' Faustus is not the intellectual philosophy of the Neoplatonists, but a different notion of bad or black magic - the type that terrified James VI. Here the play seems to veer off almost into a different genre. Devils appear on stage and the play becomes a comic , close to the rat-wearing witches of Jonson's Masque of Queens. The arrival of Mephastophilis is followed by Faustus' transformation into prankster and conman, a shift typical of sensationalist supernatural drama of the period. Witchcraft, although initially frightening, is revealed to be merely ridiculous and no more threatening than petty crime.

Diagrams from Agrippa's De occulta philosophia libri tres.

Diagrams from Agrippa's De occulta philosophia libri tres.

Different Kinds of 'Spirit'

I noticed that this split, between serious 'philosophy' and comic 'witchcraft', is accompanied by a change in the the language of the play, especially in the use of the word 'spirit'. Neoplatonic philosophers recognised different types of spirit. Angelic or planetary spirits could be conjured and controlled by the skilled philosopher through theurgic ('good') magic. The opposite might happen, however, and an inept practitioner could become controlled by malignant spirits. Faustus, of course, experiences both. The first appearance of the good and evil angels follows Faustus' long speech which ends:

A sound magician is a mighty god,
Here Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity (Act1, Scene 1, 62-63)

The first line suggests Faustus' misunderstanding of magic and a desire to surpass God, yet the second line could refer to the use of occult philosophy to unite with the mind of God. This ambiguity is dramatized in the dialogue of the two angels. The first dialogue between the angels ends in Faustus' exclaiming:

Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please
Resolve me of all ambiguities,
Perform what desperate enterprise I will? (Act 1, Scene 1, 79-81)

As we have seen, the ability to command spirits was among the abilities of the good occult philosopher and at this point Faustus appears also to have an goal to his desires: he wishes to resolve all ambiguities and understand all that is possible to know. The scene ends with his intention to 'canvas every quiddity' (165). Many of Faustus' other desires, however, resemble the kind of fantastic plans found in witch trials from the 1590s onwards, like flying to India or drying up the sea.

The second time Faustus appears, after the philosophers Valdes and Cornelius have disappeared from the play, Marlowe makes a subtle change from 'spirit' to 'devil', as Faustus prepares to conjure Mephastophilis:

Faustus begin thine incantations
And try if devils will obey thy hest. (Act 1, Scene 3, 5-6)

The good spirits of the occult philosophers are replaced by the devils of the witchcraft texts. From this point 'spirit' and 'devil' are used interchangeably to refer to evil, non-human beings. If you are able to watch a production of Dr Faustus you will notice that as the play continues the stage becomes increasingly populated by these 'devils'. Faustus himself becomes a spirit, Alexander, his paramour and Helen are all spirits. It is with Helen that the two concepts of magic are recombined. Faustus prepare to embrace his fantasy woman with the famous line:

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss ,
Her lips sucks forth my soul, see where it flies! (Act 5, Scene 12, 83-84)

By presenting Helen as a communing with Faustus, Marlowe stages one of the most horrifying features that appeared in witchcraft confessions: sexual intercourse with demons. Critics such as Walter Greg have suggested that it is this that marks the moment of complete damnation for Faustus. However, I find it very intriguing that at this moment, Marlowe's language reaches back to occult philosophy. 'Make me immortal with a kiss' is unusual because the Cabbalists described the mystical union of human soul with God as 'the death of the kiss'.

So Is The Play Confused?

The finger is not pointed at Agrippa.

The finger is not pointed at Agrippa.

I've presented the play as veering from a personal tragedy of ambition and misunderstanding, to a comic burlesque on a fashionable theme and then back to philosophical tragedy again. I've suggested that Marlowe combines two completely opposite concepts of magic. This all sounds a bit muddled, but is it possible that Marlowe is doing something quite subversive? James VI intended his Daemonologie to be a serious contribution to occult philosophy. Similarly Faustus can be seen not as a qualified occult philosopher but as a bumbling amateur. He is a man driven by his intellectual aspirations, but without the required rigorous application he falls subject to his own fantasies. The finger is pointed, not at Cornelius Agrippa and his followers, but at the soon to be king of England. Dr Faustus, like Macbeth, shares the excitement embodied in James' demonology obsession, but it represents much more than Marlowe pandering to that interest. Instead, the power is placed in the playwright's pen.

Further Reading

  • Henry Cornelius Agrippa, De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three Books of Occult Philosophy), trans James Freake, ed. Donald Tyson (St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn, 1993). This is huge and quite a lot of it sounds like nonsense today, but it is useful to dip into this primary source to get an understanding of the ambition and aims of the occult philosophers. Book 3 Part 4 is most relevant to Dr Faustus, particularly 'Of Natural Magick' and 'Of Theurgrie'. There are a number of readable versions online.
  • W. W. Greg, 'The Damnation of Faustus', Modern Language Review, 41 (1946), 97-107. This is a crucial text in Dr Faustus criticism. Greg considers Helen's demonic kiss to be the key to Faustus' damnation. He explores this idea by paying close attention to Marlowe's language.
  • Frances A. Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge, 2001). This fascinating book gives a detailed overview of magic and occultism in Renaissance thought. It gives clear explanations of the way Neoplatonic ideas combined with notions from Christian cabbala and profiles of key figures such as Agrippa and John Dee. Yates also relates her ideas to a number of literary texts of the period, including Dr Faustus.

Further Thinking

Stephanie Bain's mention of 'burlesque' draws attention to the fact that many of the things achieved by Faustus' magic are rather farcical. How do you think the audience is meant to react to these moments (e.g. the humiliation of the Pope)?

At the end of her essay Stephanie suggests that Faustus might be a 'bumbling amateur' rather than a profound philosopher or a devilish monster. What difference does this make to your sense of the play as a tragedy?

A form of fortune telling by summoning the dead. 'Nigromancy', derived from 'niger' (black), suggests the practice was understood as 'black magic' which achieved its effects through evil spirits.
A kind of entertainment performed at the royal court which combined music, dance and poetry and usually involved elaborate costumes and backdrops.
A form of philosophy developed in 3rd century AD by a thinker called Plotinus who adapted some ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato. The basic idea is that everything that exists comes from one world source and that the aim of the soul is to reunite with this 'One'. In the Renaissance some Neoplatonic thinkers believed that magical practices could aid the soul's development towards this goal.
Renaissance scholarship increased access to previously unknown Greek and Hebrew texts. Thus some Renaissance thinkers became intrigued by the mystical aspects of Jewish texts (Kabbala was originally a form of Jewish mysticism), particularly with the emphasis on personal religious experience through conversion, miracles or meditation. They attempted to apply the concepts to Christian doctrine.
BURLESQUE - a comic imitation of a serious subject matter or artistic form, as occurs when the tragedy gets waylaid by Faustus tricking the Pope
Relating to the theory and acquisition of knowledge.
A female demon that drains the energy out of men to the point of death. There is a sexual aspect to this exchange and some believed that the demon may actually metamorphose into a beautiful woman in order to seduce her victim.

Christopher Marlowe

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Christopher Marlowe was probably born in 1563 or 1564, the son of a Kent shoemaker. The family were not well off: he attended King's School Canterbury on a scholarship and when he went to Corpus Christi College Cambridge in 1580 it was also on a scholarship, for students intending to study divinity. His bills for food and drink from the College Buttery show that, beginning in 1585, he was often away, and had more spending money than before. This, together with a Privy Council note of 1587 discussing his stay at the English Catholic college in Rheims, suggests that he may have been working for the government as a spy. While he was at Cambridge he began to translate Greek and Latin poetry and may also perhaps have written his play Dido Queen of Carthage (published in 1594).

Marlowe graduated in 1587 and moved to London, where he began writing plays: the two parts of Tamburlaine the Great (performed 1587); The Jew of Malta (performed 1592); The Massacre at Paris (1593); Edward II (printed 1594); and Doctor Faustus (first printed 1594 but probably perfomed earlier.) He also wrote poetry, including 'The Passionate Shepherd' and Hero and Leander. In 1589 Marlowe was arrested for his part in a brawl when a man died. He was arrested again in the Netherlands for counterfeiting in 1592, and in the same year in London he was taken to court for two separate incidents (one assault). In the last months of his life, he was repeatedly accused of being an atheist and a traitor. By May 1593 he was forced to report to the Privy Council daily and that month the Council received a note alleging a number of heresies and treasons against him. He was stabbed to death on 30th May in a tavern in Deptford: according to the inquest, because of a dispute about the bill. He was Shakespeare's most important dramatic predecessor, and in numerous works Shakespeare is sometimes thought to be responding to Marlowe. For example, Richard II tells the story of a deposed king, as does Edward II; Macbeth features a bargain with evil powers, as does Doctor Faustus. His short, violent, and mysterious life, combined with his complex plays, which always seem to challenge expectations, continue to fascinate readers (and conspiracy theorists) today.

Textual scholarship on Doctor Faustus has stressed the importance of major discrepancies between the two early editions of Marlowe's play; it's crucial to read from an edition that provides both the so-called A- and B-texts. An accessible and reliable paperback edition edited by David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen is available from the Oxford World's Classics series. This edition also includes texts of both parts of Tamburlaine, Marlowe's bio-epic of the rise and fall of the ruthless tyrant of Samarkand, and The Jew of Malta, a fascinating, generically elusive, and disturbing chronicle of the successful defence of Malta against Ottoman invaders. If you are looking for an edition of Doctor Faustus that provides more focused critical and historical notes, and an introduction, try Ros King's edition of the play for the New Mermaids series (published by Methuen).

The resources for Marlowe on this site focus on his most controversial play, Doctor Faustus. They place it in relation to religious and political ideas of the time, and consider both its origins and its afterlife. Using the menu on the left you can also find your way to a film, Glutted of This, a theatrical performance inspired by, and reflecting on, the play.