Marlowe: The Sources of Doctor Faustus

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'.

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