RENAISSANCE:Theatre and Dr. Faustus

Introduction to Theatre during the Renaissance

The rebirth of the theatre in Europe took on at least two directions. The first direction was based upon the recreation of the past in a movement we call Neoclassicism. Theatre arts under this era resembled the perspective paintings of the time. Theatre like the other arts needed to follow the rules of the ancients as interpreted by the moderns.

The other direction of the theatre was more focused upon the words and scenarios of the Elizabethans and Spaniards. The theatre of England was the most prolific in the works of Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlow and others. Spanish Theatre resembled Elizabethan theatre in its presentation but relied more upon religious subject and medieval conventions rather than upset the strong religious influence of the church and government. Theatre was here to stay for the most part and would continue to grow into new forms as the countries it would reside in would change their political, moral, and social beliefs and would be influenced by others.

The principal countries and their approaches are listed below;

  • Italy
    • Commedia dell'Arte
    • The Neoclassic Era
  • England
    • Elizabethan Drama
  • Spain
    • The Spanish Golden Age
  • France
    • The Neoclassical Era



Theatre during the Renaissance

Renaissance and Baroque Architecture: Architectural History 102



Italian theatre

Renaissance Italian theater developed in the courts of the nobility in settings that differed radically from those of the past. The invention of perspective painting in the 14th and 15th centuries led to painted scenery that attempted to create the illusion of reality. The most influential theatrical work of the Renaissance was the Second Book of Architecture, by Sebastiano Serlio (1545; Eng. trans., 1611), which proposed three basic perspective scenes--tragic, comic, and satiric--to correspond with the work performed. The scenes consisted of a painted backdrop and three pairs of angled side-wings-- freestanding units that masked the space on either side of the stage.

    Serlio's scenes were permanent, but as court productions became more elaborate it became necessary to change scenery during a performance. Movable scenery evolved over a 200-year period and was a major innovation of the Renaissance theater.

    The first practical system was introduced about 1600. Known as flat-wing and groove, it consisted of a series of flats--canvas -covered frames on which scenery was painted--set in grooves on the stage floor. Flats could be pulled offstage to reveal a second set. The major disadvantages of this arrangement were the number of stagehands required and the difficulty of coordinating changes. This problem was solved in 1645 by Giacomo Torelli (1608-78) with the chariot-and-pole system. Flats were mounted on poles that passed through slots in the floor to rolling wagons, or "chariots," beneath the stage. These, in turn, were attached to winches by a system of ropes and pulleys. Changes of scenery became so fascinating that they were frequently made during a performance for no dramatic reason.

Monumental scenic design was made possible in the 17th century by the use of multiple perspective. Although sets still fostered the illusion of reality, they created the illusion that the world of the stage was of a larger scale than that of the audience, thereby reinforcing the sense of distance between stage and auditorium. The mythical and allegorical content of the plays was aided by complex machinery, especially flying apparatus such as chariots and "cloud machines." Grandiose Italianate design reached its peak with the Bibiena family, whose designs were popular throughout 18th-century Europe.

    Renaissance architects attempted to re-create Greek and Roman theaters, but because their information was often ambiguous or incomplete, the result was a new style of theater architecture. Serlio adapted the Roman form to rectangular palace halls, but no building specifically designed as a theater was constructed until the 1530s. The oldest surviving Renaissance theater is Andrea Palladio's Teatro Olimpico.

    The major development in Renaissance theater architecture was the proscenium arch--a curved or rectangular frame enclosing the stage--which is found in many modern theaters. The first theater to use the proscenium arch was the Teatro Farnese (1619) in Parma, Italy, designed by Giovanni Battista Aleotti (1546-1636). The proscenium arch masks the offstage space and aids scenic illusion by separating the stage and auditorium; the audience must look through the opening onto the stage. The U-shaped seating area for the audience in the Teatro Farnese also influenced theater design and is now a common feature of European theaters and Opera Houses. The Teatro Farnese was the first theater designed for the use of movable scenery and one of the first to use a curtain in front of the proscenium arch. Its steeply banked seating tiers held an audience of 3,500, who came to see the fabulous spectacles that only a theater of this size and complexity could mount: not only opera, ballet, and drama, but--on the spacious orchestra floor separating the audience from the stage--extravaganzas and ceremonials of all kinds.
 The Commedia dell'arte

The origins of Commedia dell'Arte are not clear. Historians have several theories. Yet, all agree that commedia emerged during the Renaissance in Tuscany, Italy around 1545 and continued until the middle of the eighteenth century. One popular theory is that commedia is traced back to the Roman farce, Atellan., of the 3 century BC. Fabulae atellanae were short, largely improvised plays based on everyday situations and mythology. Many times one character would mime as another narrated. It had four principle characters, each with a fixed costume and mask: Pappos, a silly old man, Bucco, a comic know-it-all, Maccus, the fool, and Dossenus, a sly hunchback. Therefore, many historians link this to the vecchi and the two zanni, Pulcinella one of them, of commedia.

Other scholars trace Commedia to the takeoffs of he comedies of Plautus and Terence or the Italian commedia erudita (learned comedy performed by amateurs). Plautus used varied poetic meters, witty jokes, and thrived on farce. Terence introduced more complex plots and combined more than one story line. Then, of course, there are the fairs, marketplaces and the famous Carnival in Rome and Venice where street performers prevailed. No theory has been proven or refuted. More than likely Commedia dell'Arte was developed by result of a conglomeration of many influences. No matter the source, by 1600 commedia had spread throughout Europe, becoming a popular for of entertainment loved by all classes of societies.




Elizabethan Drama

The Immortal Bard

The Elizabethan Age in England showered the world with a burst of brilliant playwrights. Four of the most well-known of early Elizabethan playwrights were John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene, and Christopher Marlowe. John Lyly’s most famous work is “Endimion, Man in Moon.” Thomas Kyd is the author of “Spanish Tragedy.” Robert Greene is best known for “Friar Bacon Friar Bungay.” Many people think that Christopher Marlowe was the greatest of early Elizabethan writers. His most well-known play is “Doctor Faustus.” This play is about a man named Faustus who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power on earth. Christopher Marlowe was born shortly before William Shakespeare. He was supposed to be a shoemaker. The Archbishop of Canterbury offered him a scholarship to Cambridge University, but Christopher avoided becoming shoemaker to enter the theater. He started writing plays for an acting company called the Admiral’s Men. His major literary works were tragedies, as lots of Elizabethan dramas were. Other than “Doctor Faustus”, his other two greatest works were “Tamburlaine” and “Jew of Malta.” Marlowe’s major literary achievements are the use of refined blank verse, spiritual drama, dramatic action, and the Rennaisance hero. He loved learning and hated ignorance. This was apparent in many of his literary works. Marlowe was a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, even though records show that Marlowe was not gentleman. Christopher Marlowe’s roommate accused him of atheism and treason, which were crimes in that time. Records show that he was involved in two tavern brawls. In one of the brawls, a man lost his life. In the other brawl, Marlowe was stabbed in the eye. He died three days later. Conspiracy has been suspected about his death. Marlowe, Lyly, Kyd, Greene are known as the University Wits. They defined the London Theater.

William Shakespeare wrote in the middle of the Elizabethan Period, and he is the most famous writer in the era; maybe the greatest of all time. His plays have very good plots, characterization, and backgrounds. Other than tragedy, which was the most common drama of the time, Shakespeare wrote great comedies, tragicomedies, and histories. His characters come alive, and they are admired and even envied by people. His plots are full of action. “Hamlet” was the most popular of his tragedies. Shakespeare’s most successful comedy was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Perhaps his most famous tragicomedy was “The Tempest”. “Richard III” and Henry V” are two of Shakespeare’s histories that have been made into motion pictures. Shakespeare combined the best aspects of Elizabethan drama with classic drama. This enriched his imagination and humor. The age of Shakespeare was a great time in English history.

There are many important events that occurred during the Elizabethan Period. In approximately 1477, Caxton set up a printing press, and he printed the first books in England. Around 1500, “Everyman”, a morality play, was written and performed. In 1533, John Heywood’s “The Play of the Weather” was performed. A poetry collection called “Tottle’s Miscellany” was published in 1557. This work included Wyatt and Surrey’s sonnets. Besides drama, the sonnet is the epitome of literature in the Elizabethan period. In 1564, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were born. “The Theatre”, the first permanent structure for plays in England, was constructed in 1576. Christopher Marlowe directed his first play, “Tamburlaine”, in 1587. In 1590, Shakespeare directed his first play, “The Comedy of Errors.” Christopher Marlowe wrote “The Jew of Malta”a year later. He was killed in 1593. Shakespeare wrote “The Merchant of Venice” in 1597. In 1599, the Globe Theater was constructed. Shakespeare wrote “Macbeth” in 1605. He died in 1616.

Another very important aspect of Elizabethan Drama were the audiences. The audiences were always large and very excited at plays. The common people payed an equivalent to one penny to sit in the front fo the theater. Unless it was raining, these people had the best seats in the theater. The audience would participate in the play by cheering, hissing, or even throwing rotten vegetables. The audience would know that plays were about to be performed by a flag that rose over the theater.

The theater played an important role in this era. Without theaters, there would be nowhere for the play to be performed. There were two types of theaters: indoor and outdoor. Outdoor theaters were public theaters. “The Theatre” is an example of an outdoor theater. Indoor theaters were private theaters. Elizabethan Actors were all male. Females were not allowed to act in the theater. All female parts were played by men whose voices had not changed yet. Actors had to have good memories, strong voices, and the ability to fence. Actors also had to have the ability to sing and dance. The costumes that the actors wore were very elaborate, but not historic. Many special effects were used in the theater. Death scenes were very gory and realistic. To show an eye falling out, a grape would fall to the floor. Animal organs were used to show scenes where organs fell out of actors’ bodies.

The stage was the center of the theater. It had several levels. The lowest level of the stage was used for a number of things. Devils, ghosts, graves, and ditched are a few of them. The second level was the main stage. This is where the most important scenes were. The third level of the stage was a balcony. It was used for a number of things such as mountains or city walls. The fourth level of the stage was a series of pullys where angels, birds, and thunderbolts could be sent down from the main stage. The highest level was a room where the musicians were. There is one aspect of Elizabethan Drama that still remains a mystery. Vocabulary in the Elizabethan Era was very different than it is now. Modern historians are not sure about all of the word meanings. This is why some of the phrases used are hard to understand. Elizabethan Drama is a very important addition to the literature world and also to England. Drama is part of England’s heritage, and helps make them who they are.

Elizabethan Drama










The Spanish Golden Age

The Spanish Golden Age (the Siglo de Oro in Spanish) was a period of high artistic activity and achievement that lasted from about 1580 to 1680. During this time period, El Greco and Velázquez painted their masterpieces, and Cervantes wrote his famous, satirical novel Don Quixote. The theatre also enjoyed a golden age in acting and playwriting, producing plays to rival those of the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists who were writing at the same time.

Theatre historians used to claim that the plays from the Golden Age were too traditional and too concerned with a narrow code of honor to appeal to a wide audience, but recent scholarship has proven that the plays are as exciting, challenging, and relevant as the works of most English and French playwrights of the time period. In fact, the plots for many seventeenth-century English and French plays were taken from Spanish drama.

The most famous plays of the period are the philosophical drama Life Is a Dream by Calderón, the historical play Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega, and The Trickster of Seville (about the legendary lover, Don Juan) by Tirso de Molina. There are also great comedies, religious dramas, farces, and tragedies by these and other playwrights. Comedies by female playwrights (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Ana Caro, María de Zayas, and Angela de Azevedo) have recently been discovered and translated, as well.

The three major forms of Golden Age theatre are the comedia, the auto sacramental, and the entremés. Autos sacramentales are one-act religious allegories, and entremeses are one-act farces originally performed between the acts of a full-length comedia. Comedias are three-act dramas written in verse, which mix comic and serious elements in complex plots that often emphasize intrigue, disguises, music, and swordplay.



Le Balet Comique De La Reine: An Analysis

This study of Le Balet Comique de la Reine may be accessed in two ways. Owing to the numerous links embedded in the Analysis, either choice will enable the reader to access all the material in the study.

  • Readers who feel comfortable browsing the material hypertextually may do so via the Table of Contents.
  • Others wishing greater structure may explore this research more traditionally, through an essay divided into Part I, an analysis of the performance and Part II a commentary on the philosophical ideas of the 16th century which underlie the balet and its production.





French Neoclassicism

The 17th century in France, the age of the sun-king Louis XIV, witnessed the rise of the neoclassical ideal and, with it, France's three greatest masters of the drama: Corneille, Moliere, and Racine. Following the decline of religious drama in the mid-16th century, the French theater had been slow to develop. At the turn of the century, however, France's first professional playwright, Alexander Hardy, paved the way for neoclassicism in the public theaters, with tragicomedies and pastorals loosely based on classical models.

It was Pierre Corneille's enormously popular tragedy Le Cid (1636) and the controversy it aroused that set the standards for the rest of the century's dramatic development. Although today it appears thoroughly classical--a lofty drama of a national hero, his noble lover, and their struggle with conflicting claims of honor--to the newly formed Academie Francaise it violated certain Aristotelian precepts. Despite this adverse judgment, Corneille went on to create a string of tragedies--among them Horace (1640), Cinna (1641), and Polyeucte (1642)--that are still mainstays of the French repertoire.

Jean Racine experienced his first success with the tragedy Andromaque in 1667. Three years later, when his Berenice proved more popular than Corneille's dramatization of the same story, his success eclipsed that of the master. Whether his settings were Greek, as with Phedre (1677), Roman, as in Britannicus (1669), or Oriental, as in Bajazet (1672), his major tragedies all delve beneath the classical surface to probe the irrational, fierce, sometimes uncontrollable emotions occasioned by the onset of love.

Jean Baptiste Poquelin, who took the stage name of Moliere to spare his family embarrassment when he became the manager and leading actor of a struggling theatrical troupe, began his career by adapting Italian farces for the French stage, imitating the improvisational style and character types of the commedia dell'arte. When finally he branched out from farce to write his own comic satires, he both delighted and scandalized his Parisian audiences. His satire was by no means tender; Tartuffe (1664) attacked false religiosity, and the darkly philosophical Don Juan (1665) provoked a number of powerful enemies. Yet his comedies of character, such as The Misanthrope (1666), The Miser (1668), and The Imaginary Invalid (1673), together with the neoclassical comedy Amphitryon (1668), the comedy-ballet The Bourgeois Gentleman (1670), and his continuing output of farces established him as France's leading comic playwright, a position that has gone unchallenged to this day.


Christopher Marlowe

Marlowe, Christopher, 1564–93, English dramatist and poet, b. Canterbury. Probably the greatest English dramatist before Shakespeare, Marlowe was educated at Cambridge and he went to London in 1587, where he became an actor and dramatist for the Lord Admiral's Company. His most important plays are the two parts of Tamburlaine the Great (c. 1587), Dr. Faustus (c. 1588), The Jew of Malta (c. 1589), and Edward II (c. 1592). Marlowe's dramas have heroic themes, usually centering on a great personality who is destroyed by his own passion and ambition. Although filled with violence, brutality, passion, and bloodshed, Marlowe's plays are never merely sensational. The poetic beauty and dignity of his language raise them to the level of high art. Most authorities detect influences of his work in the Shakespeare canon, notably in Titus Andronicus and King Henry VI. Of his nondramatic pieces, the best-known are the long poem Hero and Leander (1598), which was finished by George Chapman, and the beautiful lyric that begins “Come live with me and be my love.” In 1593, Marlowe was stabbed in a barroom brawl by a drinking companion. Although a coroner's jury certified that the assailant acted in self-defense, the murder may have resulted from a definite plot, due, as some scholars believe, to Marlowe's activities as a government agent.




The Faust Legend

Also called 'Faustus' of 'Doctor Faustus', the story of the German necromancer and astrologer who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power is one of the most durable legends in western folklore. There was an historical Faust, possible even two, one of whom more than once alluded to the Devil as his 'Schwager', or crony. One (or both) died around 1540, leaving behind a tangled tale of sorcery and alchemy, astrology and sooth-saying, studies theological and diabolical, necromancy and excess. Contemporary sources indicate that he was widely travelled and fairly well-known, but all commentators testify to his evil reputation. Humanist scholars of the day dismissed his 'magical feats' as pretty and fraudulent, but the Lutheran clergy, including Martin Luther himself, took his activities seriously. Ironically the relatively obscure Faust came to be remembered in legend as the representative of an age which produced such occultists as Paracelsus and Nostradamus.

Faust owes his enduring notoriety to the anonymous author of the first 'Faustbuch', a collection of tales of the 'Magi' (wise men skilled in science and the occult) which had been told since the Middle Ages and featured such renowned 'wizards' as Merlin, Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon. In the 'Faustbuch', these stories were retold, this time with Faust as the central character. They were crudely narrated and supplemented with clumsy humour at the expense of Faust's victims.It was less the stories themselves and more the author's graphic and unflinching descriptions of hell and the state of his hero's mind which inspired unquestioning belief among readers. Indeed, some of the passages were used verbatim by Thomas Mann for his 1947 novel 'Doktor Faustus'.

The 'Faustbuch' was swiftly translated and read throughout Europe. An English prose translation of 1592 was the likely inspirations for Marlowe's famous play which, for the first time, invested in the Faust legend with a tragic dignity, although, in spite of magnificent scenes of dramatic poetry, such as the summoning from the Underworld the manifestation of Helen of Troy, Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus' retained much of the clowning and comic buffoonery of the source text. This blend of high tragedy and coarse burlesque remained as inherent part of subsequent 'Faust' dramas and puppet plays which held sway during the following two centuries. Yet, despite the comic antics of 'Caspar the Clown' and other grotesques, Fautus's ultimate damnation remained awash with lashings of high drama and epic poetry.

There was even a lucrative trade in do-it-yourself magic books bearing Faustus's name, complete with instructions on how to avoid the pact with the Devil or, if necessary, how to break it. The most famous of these works, 'Magi Naturalis et Innaturalis', was to be found in the grand-ducal library in 'Weimar' and would certainly been known to the German intelligentsia.

The German writer Gotthold Lessing undertook to bring Faustus to salvation in an unfinished play (c. 1784). Lessing, an enlightened rationalist, saw Faustus's pursuit of knowledge as a noble obsession and arranged for a reconciliation with God. This theme was pursued by the outstanding chronicler of the Faust legend, J.W. Von Goethe. His 'Faust' (part 1, 1808; part 2 1832) made of the story a profoundly serious yet highly ironical commentary on the diverse potentialities of Western society's cultural heritage. The poem contains a wide range of epic, lyical, operatic and balletic elements, exploiting an assortment of poetic styles, to present an immensely varied commentary which included elements of theology, philosophy, political economy, science, aesthetics, music and, of course, literature. In the end, God saves Faust by bringing about his purification and redemption.

Hector Berlioz was inspired by a French version of Goethe's work to create his own dramatic cantata, 'The Damnation of Faust', which was first performed in 1846 and is still regularly staged as an opera. Gounod's 'Faust', premiered in 1859, was based on part 1 of Goethe's epic.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, many other writers sought, with limited success, to emulate Goethe's salvation of Faust's soul, while others retained Marlowe's grim finale. In recent times, some have seen in the legend an equation of the dangers of seeking absolute knowledge and power in a nuclear age which possesses absolute destructive capability. An earlier 'collage' production of 'Doctor Faustus' by Charles Marowitz compared Faustus to the architect of modern atomic weaponry, J. Robert Oppenheimer, giving expression to the widely-held fear that the Faustian spirit of insatiable scientific enquiry has been given an all-too evident modern expression.




Summary of Doctor Faustus

Faustus was born into lowly circumstances. He studies hard and masters all the knowledges known to man, but he is still dissatisfied. Faustus determines to study magic, the one knowledge that can break the limits of all others. He engages two master magicians to teach him. While he awaits their arrival, a good and an evil angel appear. The good angel urges him not to go through with his plans, but Faustus is determined. He learns quickly and for his first act calls up Mephistophilis, Satan's messenger. Faustus is very pleased, thinking he has control over the forces of evil, but Mephistophilis says he only showed up because Faustus had rejected God. Faustus offers to give his soul to Lucifer if Mephistophilis will wait on him for twenty-four years. Lucifer agrees.

Faustus is not troubled by this pact because he does not believe in eternal life. With Mephistophilis' help, Faustus makes a great career for himself. He amazes the Pope by becoming invisible and stealing things from his hands. He calls forth the spirit of Alexander the Great for the Emperor. As his twenty-four years draw to a close, he begins to fear Satan and nearly repents. Instead, he asks Mephistophilis to bring him Helen of Troy to be his lover in his final moments. Just before his end, he reveals to his fellow scholars how he gained his powers. He is then carried off by a group of devils.



About Doctor Faustus

Classics versus moderns

There are those who maintain that the Greeks are closer to us than the Elizabethans. 'Thucydides is more modern than Sir Walter Raleigh', writes Matthew Arnold, comparing two historians, one from 400 BC and the other, 2,000 years closer to us in time, from 1600 AD. The Greeks certainly seem more humane, more natural and spontaneous, than many bombastic, bigoted witch-hunting types from the Middle Ages and from more recent periods - and I am not just thinking of Dr Ian Paisley and the IRA. The question of whether and how Greek culture, Greek values, Greek art can be transposed into a modern environment is one which has occupied and preoccupied many thinkers from the Renaissance onwards. But we would do well to begin by remembering that the Greeks and Romans were very different from later generations in three important respects:

  1. They worshipped a plurality of deities, and seemed to have no difficulty in believing that the 'gods' were a disorderly group of scoundrels who could harm as well as help individual human beings for reasons that were not always clearly discernible. (Why is Oedipus punished so dreadfully? Why is the noble Achilles, the pacifist among the warring Greeks, slaughtered despite his great strength and the protection of the immortals? Why is crafty Odysseus rewarded, as virtually the only Greek warrior to return home unscathed after the Trojan War?) These gods not only acted arbitrarily, but required frequent sacrifices to be made to them.

  2. Greece and Rome were slave-owning societies. Some moderns argue that slaves were little worse off than Victorian servants, reasonably well fed and well looked after. Not all slaves were exploited, some were teachers and craftsmen. The Romans, unlike the Greeks, would tend to free their slaves after a few years. But the conditions in which most of them worked were squalid; the galley slaves on the ships, the slaves in the Athenian silver mines being particularly crass examples of ruthless bondage, degradation and exploitation. Such conditions were not widespread in Europe after the Middle Ages. They are particularly disturbing, because they do not accord well with the Greeks' lofty ideals on the dignity of life and the need for humane principles of conduct.

  3. The sexual behaviour of Greeks and Romans was very different from that of the post-classical nations. In ancient Greece, homosexual love was widespread, and what we nowadays call child abuse was accepted and even regarded as character forming. Marriage was not seen as either 'romantic' or as indissoluble; and the keeping of mistresses and concubines was accepted, if not exactly encouraged. Prostitution was a fact of life and there is little evidence of the existence of the sexually transmitted diseases that were to plague Europe from the 16th century onwards.

With our next tragedy, Christopher Marlowe's Tragicall History of D. Faustus, we enter the world of the late Middle Ages. In fact, the MA are over, but superstitions linger on, magicians are rumoured to practise their black arts, the Church has a dominating role in the lives of all individuals. They may all style themselves Christians, but their understanding of Christianity is very different from our own. In the 16th century, people believed literally in the existence of Hell and in the physical reality of the Devil. You may say that Christians nowadays haven't completely relinquished such beliefs; many, if questioned, would affirm that they recognise Hell and the Devil as real. But there are few who would go so far as to maintain that an otherwise good person, who had by chance failed to be baptised, or had omitted to confess a sin, or had used swear words or not abstained from meat during Lent would, as a punishment, be burnt in real, terrifyingly painful fires for the rest of eternity, i.e. for ever and ever and ever. One could easily argue that Christianity as understood and practised in Luther's time was as distinct from modern Christianity represented by Archbishop Carey and Pope John Paul as modern Christianity is from Islam or Judaism. Even articles of faith central to the Christain creed (such as the resurrection of the flesh) are now viewed sceptically by many practising Christians.

The tragic potential of a tale of sinfulness within a Christian moral framework is obvious. The sinner is damned to an existence even worse than anything that could have befallen the ancients (unless you happened to be Tantalus or Sisyphus). The theme of Hell and its torments seems tailor-made for a tragic catastrophe; there is one little problem only: to be certain that the sinner will indeed go to Hell, s/he must be truly evil - otherwise there is, even in the narrowly dogmatic view, the potential of forgiveness and redemption. So will we get a 'tragic hero' who can hold his own in a post-classical moral context? The case of Doctor Faustus, part fiend, part superman, provides some tentative answers.

Source of the material: The Chapbook of Dr Faustus

Whether a 'Doctor Faustus' ever lived will never be known. There are around 500 references to doctors of the black arts, some of whom styled themselves 'Faustus' ('favoured one'), popping up in various parts of Europe during the first half of the 16th century. Typically, Doctor Faustus would cast horoscopes, foretell ill luck, or sell magical potions. It was often rumoured that Doctor Faustus was in league with the devil. Whether this was a sales gimmick on the part of the magician or an attempt to defame him on the part of the church remains uncertain. But the references are fragmentary and inconsistent. In 1532, the council of Nuremberg decreed that 'The great sodomite and necromancer Doctor Faustus was to be denied safe conduct' (Doctor Fausto dem grossen Sodomitten und Nigromantico zu furr, glait ablainen). Yet a few years earlier, the bishop of Bamberg paid Doctor Faustus 10 guilders for a horoscope. The original receipt, dated 1520, can be admired in the Bavarian State Archives. People have speculated endlessly about the magician's provenance and movements, but there is no certainty. Several towns in Germany have a 'Faust-House' or a 'Faust Museum' (Knittlingen), but the associations are tenuous, often the products of 19th century neo-Romantic fantasies. Two dates stick out:

  • 1505 a student called 'Johann Faust' from 'Simmern' matriculates at the University of Heidelberg;

  • 1540 references to Doctor Faustus cease; this is the presumed (approximate) date of his death.

See also: E.M. Butler: The Fortunes of Faust (Cambridge 1952) and The Myth of the Magus (Cambridge 1948); P.M. Palmer and R.P. More: The Sources of the Faust Tradition from Simon Magus to Lessing (New York 1936); Dorothy L. Sayers, 'The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil', Publications of the English Goethe Society (1946), pp. 1-20.

We are on safer ground when we consider the first published account of Doctor Faustus's life: a volume entitled Historia of D. Johann Faustus, published anonymously in Frankfurt in 1587. We know nothing about its author. The publisher, John Spies, claims that the manuscript had been sent to him 'by a good friend in Speyer'. It is a typical Volksbuch (chapbook) of a type popular in sixteenth-century Europe. It tells a story, punctuated by anecdotes and sermonising, and culminates in a series of deadly earnest warnings not to imitate the actions of the central character. Most other chapbooks either retold biblical episodes, classical myths and fables or mediaeval epics, or related the pranks of some more or less comic modern folk-hero (Owlglass). But what is truly remarkable is that the tale of Doctor Faustus depicted a 24-year 'relationship' between a man and a devil. This had never been attempted before: hence the immense success of the work. Within a couple of years, its fame had spread across Europe; Empson describes it as 'one of the first international best sellers'. In six years it had appeared in six languages, and in 1592 it was translated into English by P.F. Gent (or 'P. F., gentleman'). It is here that Christopher Marlowe found the material for his play on the subject.

Extract from the English version of 1592

Then Faustus said vnto him, I am not able to resist nor bridle my fantasie, I must and will haue a wife, and I pray thee giue thy consent to it. Sodainlie vpon these words came such a whirle-winde about the place, that Faustus thought the whole house would come down, all the doores in the house flew off the hookes: after all this, his house was full of smoke, and the floore couered ouer with ashes: which when Doctor Faustus perceiued, he would haue gone Vp the staires: and flying Vp, he was taken and throwne into the hall, [page 11] that he was not able to stir hand nor foote: then round about him ran a monstrous circle of fire, neuer standing still, that Faustus fried as hee lay, and thought there to haue been burned. Then cried hee out to his Spirit Mephostophiles for help, promising him hee would liue in all things as he had vowed in his hand-writing. Hereupon appeared vnto him an ougly Diuell, so fearefull and monstrous to beholde, that Faustus durst not looke on him. The Diuell said, what wouldst thou haue Faustus: how likest thou thy wedding? what minde art thou in now': Faustus answered, he had forgot his promise, desiring him of pardon, and he would talke no more of such things. The diuell answered, thou were best so to doe, and so vanished.

After appeared vnto him his Frier Mephostophiles with a bel in his hand, and spake to Faustus: It is no iesting with vs, holde thou that which thou hast vowed, and wee will performe as wee haue promised: and more than that, thou shalt haue thy hearts desire of what woman soeuer thou wilt, bee shee aliue or dead, and so long as thou wilt, thou shalt keepe her by thee.

These words pleased Faustus wonderfull well, and repented himselfe that hee was so foolish to wish himselfe married, that might haue any woman in the whole Citie brought to him at his command; the which he practised and perseuered in a long time.

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Doctor Faustus as a seeker of knowledge

Later generations have treated the story of Doctor Faustus as the tragedy of the knowledge-seeker. Like King Oedipus, Doctor Faustus wants to find out more than it is good for him to know. It is therefore only right that he should be a university don. He teaches at Wittenberg, the university most closely associated with Martin Luther. But unlike Luther, he goes against the Bible. Doctor Faustus is not only a seeker after knowledge, he is a seeker after secular knowledge, which in the view of the time is associated with witchcraft, is forbidden, and is also somehow linked with the study of the classics (Doctor Faustus begins by reading Aristotle and ends up desiring Helen of Troy). From a Christian point of view, he is 'damnable' for rejecting the Bible - and in the 16th century many churchmen saw the study of classical authors as tantamount to casting away the scriptures and immersing oneself in the necessarily sinful writings of pagan authors.

We could of course decide to view Faustus through more modern eyes, particularly through the eyes of those who, in the eighteenth century, used him as an example of a positive thirst for knowledge, as a 'striver', as someone who anticipates the Age of Reason and tries to stand on his own two feet and work out his own salvation, be it through necromancy. But there is one problem with this view: Christopher Marlowe's Faustus is motivated, largely, but not perhaps entirely, by a desire for pleasure. Hedonistically, he wants the spirits, once in his service, to

[…] fly to India for gold,
ransack the ocean for orient pear,
and search all corners of the new found world
for pleasant fruits and princely delicates. (1:82-85)

In his aspirations, he mixes a desire for knowledge with a no less strong desire for pleasure, power, and the rape of overseas provinces, which were beginning to be colonised and exploited at the time. There is something of the rude soldier of fortune in him: 'As Indian Moors obey their Spanish lords' (Valdes, 1:121) draws a specific analogy between the quest for hidden knowledge and the brutal activities of the colonial powers (ironically claiming to ensure the spread of Christianity!).

The structure of Doctor Faustus

Since the first published version of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus dates from eleven years after the author's death, and people in those days were not over-scrupulous in passing on the poet's words in the way they had been written down; since laws were being enacted governing what people might and might not say on stage, it is hardly surprising that many have disputed that any of the texts that have come down to us is an exact record of what Marlowe wrote. McAlindon and others speak of 'a cathedral hit by a bomb'; but there is uncertainty as to what is rubble and what is part of the original edifice. A certain amount of cherry-picking has taken place, with critics like F. D. Covella arguing that Marlowe should be credited with the 'covenant' or 'pact' scenes, and with the 'punishment' scene at the end, but that the scenes in between, particularly the humorous adventures of Faustus, were written by others (Studies in Engl. Literature 1500-1900 26 (1986), 201-215). The Chorus, attributed to Wagner, supplies the 'fulcrum' between the two halves. Empson implies that the good parts of Doctor Faustus are very good and that the bad parts are a mystery. We do have a written record confirming that two men, William Byrde and Samuel Rowle, were paid in 1602, for supplying 'adicyones' to the text of 'docter fostes'. It is usually assumed that these will have consisted of the more light-hearted parts. However, there is another complicating factor, which is that although our surviving 'A Text' dates from 1604, there is a written record that suggests that book was first published in January 1601.

It does not take long to realise that two conflicting elements are juxtaposed here: scenes focusing on Faustus's pursuit of knowledge and evil, and the battle for his soul (I, III, V, VII/1, IX, XI, XII), alternate regularly with instances of low-life tomfoolery, in which either his assistants attempt to mimic him (II, IV, VI, VIII) or Faustus himself plays a trick on some unworthy opponent (VII/2, X). Scene XI provides an explanation of sorts for how the 'magic' works (a speedy messenger produces grapes from the other side of the world). The first part of Scene VII returns to the 'gazetteer' function of the source, which contained instructive material designed to educate or to reinforce knowledge: 'Know that this city stands upon seven hills' (VII, 29). The relationship between the humour and the serious theme has given rise to various interpretations.

Tragedy versus comedy

The critics divide into two groups: those who feel that given the seriousness of the topic, Christopher Marlowe could not (or should not) have written the comic scenes himself. Particularly the anti-Papal sections involving the Pope (in both texts) and the papal pretender Bruno (in the B text) were felt to detract from the earnest purpose of the plot, in which Doctor Faustus's immortal soul is at stake. Empson and others claim that such scenes have 'practically nothing to do with Faust' (p. 40). There is a sense of outrage that after sensitively written, profound verses, 'one is dropped abruptly into bilge, as through a trap door'. Empson claims that Marlowe's greatest fault (if Marlowe's it is) is that he shows indifference to the feelings of the audience: 'all through the middle of the play Faust is assumed to be a popular character, a great source of fun, and yet his enormous punishment at the end is accepted as a matter of routine.' (Empson, loc. cit.)

There are a number of objections one could raise at this point. One is that Marlowe's audiences might have looked for comic ingredients with greater enthusiasm than for moral edification. Secondly, Elizabethan audiences had a penchant for receiving great tragedies with a liberal dash of humour and even, on occasions, slapstick. The combination of the two ingredients appears to have been attractive to them. Thirdly, Empson is patently wrong when he argues that such episodes have 'practically nothing to do with Faust'; the chapbook in its original form was a compendium of material from many sources: the Bible, travelogues, elementary science manuals and, not least, joke books. Many of the stories in this book were rude and based on stereotypes, such as the 'hypocritical monk' or the unkind (often Jewish) moneylender. The horse-dealer of Scene X is one such type that Marlowe adapted for his play. But my fourth and final point is the most important one and the most often overlooked: the Faust-chapbook of 1587 was essentially a piece of anti-Catholic propaganda. Faustus is not allowed to marry (attack on celibacy of Catholic clergy); Faustus can't repent and be forgiven at the end of his life (the sacrament of confession is ineffective), and Faustus consorts with prelates, bishops and the Pope, in Marlowe's source, for the purpose of exposing their gluttony, avarice and especially their hypocrisy. Therefore the scene with the Pope is of central importance rather than an add-on provided by an incompetent collaborator.

A Text versus B Text

Each has its supporters. The A Team claim that Christopher Marlowe wrote a short digest of the chapbook, which was expanded after his death by groups of players who needed a full evening's programme and commissioned some hack to produce some extra padding. The B Team claim that the opposite happened; Marlowe produced a play that was of the same length as some of the shorter Shakespearean dramas, but after his death it went on tour and had to be shortened (Walter Greg, Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus' 1604-1616, 1950). One of the flaws in this argument is that if the B text is older than A, it would have to have been preserved for 23 years after the poet's death, then unearthed and - most importantly, a publisher would have needed to be persuaded that the presumed 'original' was more worthy of printing than the current version that was being performed at the time. I therefore side with those who see A as closer to the author's work than B - despite the problem of its brevity. It would not have satisfied the relatively sophisticated London audiences of the time.


Many scholars find it impossible to accept that Christopher Marlowe, a free-thinking individual often thought to have been a double agent and therefore uncommitted to either of the main Christian denominations of his time, should have composed a play which seems to endorse orthodoxy and end, conventionally, with the magus ignominiously condemned to hell fire. Marlowe is in the curious position of being reprimanded both for his light-heartedness (the slapstick deemed intrusive) and for his serious moral purpose, which is out of tune with the spirit of the modern, secular age. Empson comes up with an almost incredibly contorted hypothetical account of what the play looked like before the censor, whom Empson blames for the truncations, got his teeth into Marlowe's original text:

"To explain the original story, Marlowe supposes a Middle Spirit who is a quisling or rather a double agent, professing to work for the devils, and actually inducing them to grant their powers to Faust, but on condition that Faust gives his immortal soul beforehand to the quisling. Faust is at first delighted by the results but before long the intense experience becomes too much for his nerves; he decides to repent, supposing he may yet go to Heaven. Meph regards this as a cheat, and counters it by saying that he really is a devil, so that Faust has really sold his soul. To prove it he calls up the Devil and his whole court, at the end of act II (they are a charade put on by his Middle Spirit friends). Faust, after a brief crisis of horror, decides to live bravely for his time on earth, and the play mentions that he does grand things that are useful for his countrymen (compare A: 1408 f.), but he only feels at peace when playing practical jokes (incidentally this also satisfies the devils, who imagine he is carrying out his promise to be an enemy of mankind). But at the end, when Meph has succeeded in bringing him to the agreed hour of death without having repented, so that Meph gets his immortal soul, nothing happens except that his old friend advances upon him with open arms and a broad smile. The last two words of Faust are 'Ah Mephastophilis', and the censor could not rule how the actor was to speak them. He dies in the arms of his deceitful friend with immense relief, also gratitude, surprise, love, forgiveness, and exhaustion. It is the happiest death in all drama." (Empson, 121 f.)

In this view, the play ceases to be a tragedy; nay, it becomes 'the happiest death in all drama'. Why it should have been billed as a tragedy is a bit of an unresolved mystery; but wherever there is evidence of dislocations or non-sequiturs in Marlowe, Empson immediately blames the hand of the Queen's censor, a certain Edmund Tilney. He insisted on cutting out vital bits that would have revealed the poet's true intentions. It's a rather cheap (because unprovable) argument.

But Empson does touch on a number of questions that have perplexed modern readers. Why does Mephastophilis give Faustus ample warning about the perils of entering into a pact with him, if he is indeed an evil spirit desirous of corrupting his victim? Why does Faustus play tricks on the Pope, if he is truly wicked? Surely to have seen through the corruption of the Pope's court is a positive achievement, one that would endear him to an overwhelmingly anti-Popish audience? Empson uses all these details as evidence that it never was Christopher Marlowe's intention to damn Faustus: 'One should remember that the anathema of the Pope would give the audience strong reason to feel that he could not really go to Hell in the end' (p. 147). These are interesting and in some ways compelling arguments which it is not easy to refute. I will try to make a few suggestions as to how these inconsistencies can be resolved:

1. Mephastophilis is not 'THE DEVIL'. He is an evil spirit, a kind of negative angel. Just as angels are not God, evil spirits (popularly called devils) are not the Devil. Mephastophilis is a particular kind of evil spirit: one that encourages people to go after forbidden knowledge: the thinking person's devil (?).

2. Mephastophilis does not warn Faustus out of any innate goodness of heart. He is a fallen spirit, and in pain, suffering because of his separation from God (3:78 ff.). Like the spirits in hell, he repents of what he has done, but not sufficiently to be forgiven. Therefore, he alternately warns and gloats over Faustus.

3. Faustus's exploits are, as we saw, past history. He is assumed to have lived in the early 16th century, and was born into a world that was entirely under the sway of the Catholic Church. Therefore his pranks betoken irreligiosity, but without the zeal of the would-be reformer. His attacks on the Pope are a source of laughter, not an instrument of salvation. The 'marriage-wish' in scene 5 is positive, and Mephastophilis mimics the Catholic church in refusing to let Faustus marry, but instead of persevering (which might have earned him redemption), Faustus is easily distracted by a string of concubines.

4. Faustus is a true tragic hero: he has good qualities beside his evil aspirations. He dutifully provides grapes in mid-winter for the Duke of Vanholt (Anhalt?), generously bestows his worldly goods on Wagner, punishes an uncouth knight at the Emperor's court, and obligingly undoes the punishment again. At times he regrets what he has done - this evidently heightens the tragic effect, but does not make him a good person. The fact that even Mephastophilis counsels him to desist from the pact does not prove Mephastophilis's goodness but rather emphasises Faustus's blindness and arrogance:

Thinkst thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss! (3:78-81)

5. Another fact that ought not to be overlooked is that many of the inconsistencies, including the farce, the pulled-off leg (scene 10), the buffoonery in Rome and elsewhere, and even the self-deconstruction of Mephastophilis, as an evil spirit who sees through his own evil, are found in the original chapbook, which is a compendium of much incongruous material. But these by-products of the story are mere interludes and do not imply that the story is something other than a tale of arrogance and awesome folly.

Theological content

Some critics have assumed that the author of the original chapbook must have been a Catholic. Why would Doctor Faustus be associated specifically with Luther's home university (Wittenberg), if not to expose Wittenberg as a hot-bed of heresy? Why the references to holy relics (Longinus's spear) in the 'travelogue' section, if the author was a Protestant who would not have believed in such things? And it is of course true that criticisms of monks and of other often abused malpractices, such as the rule of celibacy, were sometimes heard from within the Catholic church.

Nonetheless, the central ethical content is in line with Luther's teaching. The devil is real, he is the fiend who must be shunned, the Catholics are under his influence, they believe that a man can be as sinful as he likes, if only he repents at the end; Faustus demonstrates that this is not the case. A man's whole life must be repentance (Luther's 95 theses). Could the 'Old Man' who advises the doctor to repent (12:26 ff.) be a representative of Lutheran values? Faustus is too blind to recognise that genuine contrition that comes from the heart would help towards his salvation.

But it would be unwise to read the play or its source entirely along Lutheran lines. G.M. Pinciss (Studies in Engl. Literature 1500-1900 33 (1993), 249-264) has shown that Cambridge was one of the battlegrounds between continental Protestantism (along Calvinist lines) and the English variant, which derived from Cranmer's 42 articles (later 39). William Perkins was a lecturer and university fellow who propounded a rigorous form of Calvinism; contemporaries say 'he was able to make his hearers [sic] hearts fall down and hairs stand upright'. Perkins describes the sin of witchcraft as peculiar to those 'not satisfied with […] knowledge, wit, understanding, memory' (p. 254) and Pinciss portrays Marlowe as engaging directly with these controversies.

While it may be rash to trace the content of Doctor Faustus to the influence of a single preacher, particularly as Marlowe is re-working material that predates his entry to Cambridge, there is one aspect of the play to which Pinciss does rightly draw our attention. That is the influence of the university environment on all versions of Doctor Faustus. Faustus is the product of a university, he is a scholar, he knows Latin and Greek, he has studied law, medicine, theology and other subjects - and it is this knowledge that has made him vulnerable. There is little doubt that, while lashing out at Catholic malpractices in the chapbook, the anonymous author also wished to impugn the 'scholars' of his age for being dissatisfied with conventional learning, with the Bible, and wishing to go further. One of the doctor's misdeeds is to rescue the missing comedies of Terence and Plautus - something many a scholar has longed to do; another is to reawaken Helen of Troy. An excessive interest in the classics (in that very world that gave us tragedy!) produces a tragedy of a more modern kind - the damnation of an individual, immortal soul.

The Pursuit of Classicism

Does it matter whether Marlowe shared the Christian belief in the damnation of the soul? Perhaps not, because he has given the story an entirely new twist. The university is satirised, not because it's a hotbed of heresy, but for other reasons. Marlowe the Cambridge graduate paints a satirical picture of an overblown don who quotes semi-intelligible chunks of Latin (3:16-22, etc.), whose fawning assistant mimics him without being able to fathom him out, and who 'disputes' with the diabolical emissary as though he were in a tutorial. Uncouth hangers-on like Rafe and Robin imitate him, but like the sorcerer's apprentice, the magic runs away with them.

So we have on one level, a satire of university life for its own sake. On another, we have the world of classical antiquity, which Faustus tries to bring to life. This is a very complex issue, which we can only briefly hint at. Faustus is the product of an age (the Renaissance) that was deeply torn between whether to follow the Greeks and Romans or to abandon them and follow only the Bible. The Humanists were urging the former, the radical reformers wanted to destroy the legacy of the past and to base their lives on the scriptures alone. Many great thinkers were caught in the cross-fire (Erasmus). They tried to use reason, while at the same time not dismissing the revealed scriptures out of hand. One might argue that the outcome of such an endeavour cannot be other than tragic. The central question that Doctor Faustus asks is: is Faustus damnable because he goes against God, or is he damnable because he fails as a scholar to understand what he is meant to be teaching? Is his greatest flaw that he parades the spirits of Alexander and Helen around as though they were trophies, instead of learning something from them about the value of harmony and humanity? This type of hamartia would be in keeping with the pretentiousness of some of his earlier utterances (the incantation). Is his sensual love for Helen a sign of sensitivity and emotion ('make me immortal with a kiss', 12:83), or an aberration, in which he falls for the superficial, sensually exciting charms of classical beauty, but fails to appreciate its deeper qualities?