Dr. Faustus

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

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Mephistopheles, played by Arthur Darvil, in the Globe’s first production of Dr. Faustus in 2012.


Disillusioned with life and frustrated due to the limited scope of man’s knowledge, Dr John Faustus decides to sell his soul to Lucifer in order to obtain power over the demon Mephistophilis. Through this demon, Faustus is able to travel far and wide, as well as learn and perform different types of magic. Faustus’s soul payment is due 24 years after he signed the contract, and he spends the majority of that time using his powers to his own amusement and advantages. Faustus is faced with the decision to repent, thereby saving his soul, throughout the play, and comes close to doing so an a few occasions, but never actually does it. The play ends with Faustus being dragged off to Hell by a group of demons.

Historical Context

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Dr. Faustus was first published in 1604. This title page is from the 1616 edition of Marlowe’s play.

Marlowe’s major dramas are stories about heroes who seek power: Dr. Faustus is no different. Written in 1592, the play was not published until 1604, many years after Marlowe’s death. Dr. Faustus exists in two forms (Norton Anthology). The A text (1604) is considered Roma Gill’s edition and is found in the Norton Anthology. The B text (1616) is much longer and incorporates additions by other people. These additions may have been subject to the severe censorship statues of 1606.
Unlike Marlowe’s other plays, Faustus’ ascent to power is brought about with darker means. Faustus, the play’s main character, makes a deal with the devil in order to gain short-term. The idea of an individual selling his or her soul to the devil in order to gain knowledge is developed from and old motif from Christian folklore.Today, a “Faustian bargain” is considered any deal made for a short-term gain with costs in the long-run. Faustus’ fall, caused by pride and ambition, is considered to be similar to what happened in the Garden of Eden. Faustus turns to black magic and turns his back on God, similar to Adam and Eve.



Exposition incarnate. Serves no other purpose in the play than to tell the audience things which have happened off-stage or things which are about to happen.

Dr John Faustus

The protagonist and title character of the play. Continually goes back and forth between repenting and not repenting throughout the play. Uses the 24 years and powers he is given essentially for his own amusement.


Faustus’s apprentice.

Valdes and Cornelius

Two colleagues of Faustus who teach him the ways in dark magic and necromancy.

Seven Deadly Sins

Pride, Covetousness, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lechery. Personifications of the seven deadly sins from Christian doctrine. Used to help Lucifer convince Faustus that Hell is actually kind of fun.


The fallen angel and prince of Hell who holds the contract for Faustus’s soul. He holds dominion over all devils.


The demon given to Faustus by Lucifer in exchange for his soul.


The head of the Catholic church. Resides in Rome in the Vatican. Faustus pranks him and ends up boxing his ears for crossing himself three times.

Robin and Rafe

Two fools who have gotten their hands on one of Faustus’s books and attempt to use it for their own means. Mephistophilis turns Rafe into a dog and Robin into an ape.

Good Angel

An angel who comes to Faustus throughout the play. The Good Angel represents Faustus’s conscience and repeatedly tries to get the scholar to turn away from the dark arts and to repent so his soul may be saved from eternal damnation.

Evil Angel

An angel who comes to Faustus throughout the play. The Evil Angel represents Faustus’s pride and ambition and instigates him to stay on his current path, assuring him that God doesn’t care and to think his soul can be saved is a foolish notion.

Important Concepts in Dr. Faustus

Faustus as an Overreacher

Dr Faustus is a well-educated man who is not satisfied with his life and decides that he wants to practice with higher powers, like magic. He is convinced with magic, he can accomplish great things, and that he needs nothing else in life. After an emotional tug of war with a Good Angel and an Evil Angel, he choose to practice the “dark arts.”
Faustus wanted to experience a world that was larger than life and delve into the supernatural. This was his hubris, and lead to his own demise. His desire to be an overreacher and his discontent with earthly knowledge is a presentation of the story of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve became curious about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil because God told them to not eat from that tree. Meanwhile, the serpent, representing the devil, tempted them into eating from it. For Dr. Faustus, his curiosity outweighed his moral compass, and because of this curiosity of the dark arts, all three of these people were bound to an eternity in hell. Just like Dr. Faustus, Adam and Eve gained too much knowledge from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and through this eye opening experience, their knowledge lead them to become tainted.
Dr. Faustus is written during the English Renaissance, a time when people were testing human limits and challenging religious values. People did not just take religious teachings as gospel anymore, and felt the need to challenge beliefs with science and further evidence of certain phenomenon. However, not everyone was so keen on this new way of teaching. For some, the religious teachings was not something that should be analyzed. One was supposed to take biblical teachings as gospel and not challenge them. Marlowe exposes the risks that people were taking in challenging their beliefs, as well as the profound effect that it had on the evolution of society as a whole.

In Scene I, there is the discussion that Dr. Faustus has with the Good Angel and the Evil Angel regarding whether or not he should practice the dark arts. In the end, he decides to practice them, but this did not happen without an internal struggle. Dr. Faustus was an overreacher and this was shown through the portrayal of the emotional battle that he had with the two angels.

In Scene XIII, Dr. Faustus is dying, and ends up going to hell because it is too late for him to repent for his sins of wanting to be involved in the dark arts. Religion is built off of repentance, and the idea that if someone does something that is wrong, by asking for forgiveness, he or she will receive it. For there to be no repentance for Faustus is a representation of the depths that he sunk to in being an overreacher. There was no redemption for him, which is a demonstration that Marlowe was trying to make regarding the risk that Dr. Faustus was taking in being an overreacher and challenging current beliefs.

The Notion of Performance in Faustus

In Scene III, Dr. Faustus conjures up Mephastophilis and requests that he return to him in the shape of a friar. The significance in this is that Faustus could make Mephastophilis into whatever he wanted to see. He gave up his own soul for the purpose to perform dark arts. The entirety of the play is a performance of both Mephastophilis and Faustus, and after a while, what’s real and what’s not become intermingled until there comes a point where there is no redemption. Faustus has sealed a contract with his own blood and he can no longer repent and go back to the way things were. Reality has set in, and the reality is eternal hell.
The irony of it is the fact that reality is still being warped even after the contract has been set. Mephastophilis explains to Faustus that they are in hell, which is still in the natural world. According to Mephastophilis, hell is a state of being, and not a location. Faustus does not see the difference between the two, making his decision to transform over to the dark side all the more dangerous. The performance becomes real life.

In Scene III as Dr. Faustus stands in the middle of a magical circle he unknowingly puts on a performance for Lucifer and four devils.

In Scene V Dr. Faustus struggles with his decision to sell his soul and by the end he begins to beg Christ for mercy. In this moment Lucifer, Belzebub, and Mephastophilis arrive along with the Seven Deadly Sins in attempt to stop Dr. Faustus from turning to God. The Sins perform a sort of show for Dr. Faustus in which they each give him a speech, just the sight of the Sins alone excites Dr. Faustus and he stops worrying over his decision to sell his soul.

In Scene IX Dr. Faustus encounters the German Emperor Charles V who asks for Dr. Faustus to conjure up Alexander the Great. Dr. Faustus can not do this but can create an illusion of Alexander the Great among other things. Later in Scene XI we find our main character in the court of the Duke of Vanholt where he continues to conjure up various illusions for others amusements, which he gets rewarded for.

In Scene X Dr. Faustus is sleeping and the horse-courser, who he sold his horse to just a bit earlier, tries to waken him and when his first attempt fails he pulls on Dr. Faustus’ leg, which falls right off. Dr. Faustus wakes up screaming, the horse-courser runs away, and Dr. Faustus begins laughing as his leg heals revealing it was all just a joke. This is significant because it shows Dr. Faustus further decline away from his earlier prestige.

Temptation and the Faustian Bargain

In an attempt to gain the knowledge and powers he wanted, Faustus considered making a deal with the devil. Previously, Faustus spent years learning about the bible. He studied what is acceptable and what is a sin. The Good Angel and the Evil Angel coaxed Faustus and tried to persuade him to their respective sides. Finally, Mephastophilis convinced him to give up his soul to Lucifer with a contract written in Faustus’ blood. Even though he understood his fate, Faustus picked a life of sin that would lead to eternal damnation. The theme of temptation is integral to the understanding.
The selling of one’s soul to the devil is known as a Faustian Bargain. Faustus was willing to give up anything to satiate his limitless need for power and knowledge. His want for magic stemmed from his lack of satisfaction he had for what he already possessed. “Philosophy is odious and obscure,/ Both law and physic are for petty wits:/ Divinity is basest of the three,/ Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile,” expressed Faustus (II.106-109). He has almost limitless knowledge, however”‘Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me,” (II. 110). Valdes and Cornelius make good arguments for the dark arts. Valdes exclaims that Faustus has the potential to be known throughout the world. Cornelius echoes that Faustus will be able to perform miracles with magic, something that he cannot do with mere knowledge alone.

Productions of Dr. Faustus

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Arthur Darvill and Paul Hilton in Doctor Faustus at the Globe.

In the UK alone there have been at least 49 amateur productions, and at least 59 professional theatre productions including:
– 2011: Directed by Matthew Dunster, staged at Shakespeare’s Globe and stared Arthur Darvill as Meshistopheles and Paul Hilton as Dr. Faustus.
– 2015 Directed by Andrei Begrader by the Classic Stage Company
There has been 14 radio productions from 1923 to a 2007 production done by BBC Radio 3
Four film adaptations
-1967 produced by Columbia Pictures and stared Elizabeth Taylor as Helen of Troy
-1947, 1958, 1961 all produced by the BBC

Works Cited

Arthur Darvil Picture:
“Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Globe, Review.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Greenblatt. Norton Anthology, English Literature, Volume 1 9th Edition. W.W Norton & Co. INC
“Doctor Faustus-Stage History.” Warwick Arts- Center for the Study of the Renaissance. University of Warwick. Web. Date of Access: Decemeber 5, 2015.
“Doctor Faustus (2011).” Discovery Space-Previous Productions. Shakespeare’s Globe. Web. Date of Access: Decemeber 5, 2015.
Meshistopheles Picture:
“The Globe: Doctor Faustus.” – FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology). N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Title Page Picture:
“Dr. Faustus Title Page.” — Kids Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.