Marlowe: The Fortunes of Doctor Faustus

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

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