Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Doctor Faustus

If Shakespeare had died at the age Marlowe died, there would have been no question that Marlowe was the leading figure in English Renaissance drama”—I found this on the back of my copy of Marlowe’s The Plays. I have only read Doctor Faustus, so I could not fairly justify, but comparing Faustus with Shakespeare’s other non historical tragedies I have read so far, I must admit that (for me) Marlowe is in the lead.

I always feel Shakespeare’s humour was a bit tacky, while Marlowe’s was more elegant. Marlowe’s tragedy (again, I only read Faustus) is full of reflection, while Shakespeare’s are more dynamic. For people who like only to watch drama for amusement, Shakespeare’s would be more pleasant to watch. Marlowe’s is a bit darker and tends to make us think deeper. Maybe Marlowe’s are more suitable for reading.

Faustus is a learned man (he’s a Doctor anyway), and after having learned various sciences, he is not yet satisfied. So he learns necromancy and magic, with which he believes he could have limited power over the universe. He is guided by one of Lucifer’s servants, Mephistophilis, who promises him his unlimited service if he agrees to serve Lucifer. Despite of warnings from his own conscience and the good angel, Faustus blood-signs an agreement with Lucifer to swap his soul with power, knowledge, and pleasure.

Doctor Faustus is a reminder for us all how human fall to sin. Greediness is perhaps the seed of all sins; it is when man wants more than what he deserves to get. Faustus is provided for learning every science he wants, but it’s not enough for him. At this point the devil can easily buy him. But the fall of men to sin is usual story; the true tragedy lies in Faustus’ stubbornness in repentance, though God has offered His mercy.

There are two version of Doctor Faustus exists, the A-text (published in 1604) and B-text (1616), and it’s still on debate, which one (or both?) was really written by Marlowe. I decided to read both; so I started with the whole of A-text first; then continued on B-text but skip the same parts, only focusing on the alternate. I must say in the end that the B-text is slightly better. I loved particularly the ending in B-text, when the scholars found Faustus’ body ‘all torn asunder by the hand of death!’ . Maybe the A-text is more dramatic because, I imagine, were it performed on stage, Faustus’ last anguish shriek when he was brought by Mephistophilis would be heard as a hollow echo when everybody exited, before the chorus closed the play by announcing the horrific tragedy: ‘Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight’. But the scholars’ scene in the B-text allows us to feel the horror more intensely, although I think it would be too eerie to be performed on stage. But the best addition of the B-text is perhaps Scene 6 Act 4; the comical scenes of Robin and Dick, and Faustus and the horse-seller. It’s not as slapstick as Shakespeare’s, but it helped reducing a bit the dark atmosphere; funny but witty.

Interestingly, Marlowe put a historical figure in the play: Pope Adrian VI, who is dealing with his rival, Pope Bruno, whom was more favored by the Emperor. Only later did I learn that Pope Bruno was fictional character. I still did not understand why the Pope should be put here, other than became a ‘toy’ whom Faustus could chaff and play using his new power of magic (a symbol of how low Faustus has sinned, that he dared ridiculing a Pope?) . Or was Marlowe mocking or criticizing the political power of Catholic Church then?

Anyway, Doctor Faustus is a great tragedy from one of Renaissance greatest dramatists: Christophe Marlowe. The spirit of learning new things which colored the Renaissance era reflected in Faustus’ passion in knowledge. He has studied philosophies like many his contemporaries, but also economy, physic, law, and theology—which he finally put aside as they weren’t as tantalizing as necromancy. Play-wise, there was still trace of Greek plays in Doctor Faustus, i.e. the chorus at the start and the end. Besides that, Marlowe’s style was more freely flowing than Greek. His chaffing on Pope Adrian and the Church officials was perhaps reflecting how Renaissance era began to shake off the dominant power of the Church in Medieval era.

Five stars for Doctor Faustus, or originally The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.


I read the Wordsworth Classics paperback edition

This book is counted as:


  1. Impressive read. I was actually planning to read this, but couldn't find it at my library. I am thankful to be able to get a bit of a sneak peek through your review though!

    1. Glad of having been of service to you, Susanna... ;)

  2. Great review! I must admit, I didn't like Faustus as much as Marlowe's other play, The Jew of Malta, but they are both fascinating texts. I kind of feel like he may have been criticising the Catholic Church in the play. There were certainly rumours around at the time that Marlowe was an atheist, and in general he seems like a bit of a rebel, the sort of person who really questioned authority and contemporary power structures.

    1. Yes, I sensed that too.
      I must continue on with Jew of Malta. Very soon.

  3. Yay! I'm so glad you enjoyed this! I absolutely love Marlowe!...and for me Shakespeare has never come close. You have put my feelings into words very well in the first paragraph with regard to the two. I have often found it hard to appreciate Shakespeare the way scholars and literary folk say he should be appreciated. I like him well enough...respect greatly for his tragedies, but find him vulgar and uncouth otherwise. As I was telling my sister the other day, Shakespeare wrote to entertain, and that is rather obvious in his works. On the other hand, entertainment was not Marlowe's goal.

    As regards to your question about Marlowe bringing in the Pope...this was a great time for discovery and exploration. Many renaissance folk found themselves questioning the Church....those who did so were called heretics and atheists. Marlowe was one such person.

    1. Oh finally! I thought I'm the only one who regard the Bard as vulgar.

      And I think you're right about Shakespeare wrote rather to entertain; somehow he lacked Marlowe's deepness.

  4. Ok, you convinced me to seek out Dr. Faustus. My only exposure to Marlowe was "Hero and Leander" from a college course years ago and I don't remember liking it very much. In fact, I don't remember much about it at all. This play, on the other hand, sounds pretty sinister and I can definitely see its influence on the horror genre.

  5. Great to know it's not so scary as I thought it would be. I haven't even watched the opera, so..

    Considering Marlowe's background, I am not surprised he didn't have much respect for the Catholic or Christian world in his time.

    Marlowe should have lived. He could have been Shakespeare's greatest rival ever. But in a sense, his plays are so different with Shakespeare's. Shakespeare cares more about seeing human beings in their nakedness. He was never loyal to any view at all. It's like seeing the world in everybody's shoes. And yes, he wrote for the money as well.

    But Marlowe's plays feel like, "the world is such a wretched place."

    Anyway, now that I know it's not that scary, I'll read Faustus one day.

    1. The 'horror' is only in the last scene, when Faustus' body were found by his friends (it only appeared in B-text). But maybe, thinking about hell itself is the real horror. Maybe if it is performed, the last shriek would give you goosebumps... ;)


What do you think?