Thoughts on “Doctor Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe

Marlowe’s version of the Faustian legend is a cautionary tale for those who are obsessed with learning, the occult, and who suffer from pride and arrogance. “It was written sometime between 1589 and 1592, and may have been performed between 1592 and Marlowe’s death in 1593.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Early in the play, Faustus conjures the demon Mephistophilis and asks him a series of questions, including questions regarding Lucifer.

Faustus. Was not that Lucifer an angel once?

Mephistophilis. Yes, Faustus, and most dearly lov’d of God.

Faustus. How comes it, then, that he is prince of devils?

Mephistophilis. O, by aspiring pride and insolence;
For which God threw him from the face of heaven.

(Act I: scene iii)

It is important to note that Faustus also suffers from “aspiring pride and insolence,” like Lucifer. Marlowe is foreshadowing the inevitable tragic fall of Faustus.

As is often the case, it is only when Faustus is faced with his death and eternal damnation that he realizes his mistakes and suffers the pangs of remorse.

But Faustus’ offence can ne’er be pardoned:  the serpent
that tempted Eve may be saved, but not Faustus.  Ah, gentlemen,
hear me with patience, and tremble not at my speeches!  Though
my heart pants and quivers to remember that I have been a student
here these thirty years, O, would I had never seen Wittenberg,
never read book! and what wonders I have done, all Germany can
witness, yea, all the world; for which Faustus hath lost both
Germany and the world, yea, heaven itself, heaven, the seat of
God, the throne of the blessed, the kingdom of joy; and must
remain in hell for ever, hell, ah, hell, forever!  Sweet friends,
what shall become of Faustus, being in hell forever?

(Act V: scene ii)

While it is generally accepted that the legend of Doctor Faustus is based upon an historical figure, Johann Faustus, who lived in Germany from about 1480 to about 1541, I could not help wondering if there was another inspiration for Marlowe’s adaptation of the legend. My first thought was that Marlowe was using the character of Faustus to criticize John Dee, one of his contemporaries who was a well-known magician and practitioner of the occult.

John Dee (13 July 1527 – 1608 or 1609) was an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, teacher, occultist, and alchemist. He was the court astronomer for, and advisor to, Elizabeth I, and spent much of his time on alchemy, divination and Hermetic philosophy. As an antiquarian, he had one of the largest libraries in England at the time. As a political advisor, he advocated for the founding of English colonies in the New World to form a “British Empire”, a term he is credited with coining.

Dee eventually left Elizabeth’s service and went on a quest for additional knowledge in the deeper realms of the occult and supernatural.

(Source: Wikipedia)

While Marlowe could have been writing about John Dee, there is another possibility that I could not avoid considering, and that was that he was writing about himself. Marlowe died shortly after completing the play, and a close reading of the text demonstrates that Marlowe likely had studied occult philosophy. Did he sense that he was nearing his death, and did he harbor any remorse about things he did, or practices he might have engaged in? This is nothing but pure speculation on my part, but I feel that one could make a case.

As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. Have a blessed day.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Thoughts on “Doctor Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe

  1. Hi Jeff. I always learn something when I visit your blog. (Interestingly, that’s a question we always ask our library patrons when they attend our programs – “Did you learn something today?”) I had to look up occult philosophy because I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. So thank you for that and for applying it to your words about Doctor Faustus. I’m always fascinated by how human emotions, traits and weaknesses drive stories and everything we do, just like they did 500 years ago.

    • Hi Barb. I am humbled that a brilliant librarian actually learns something from what I write. Have you read Marlowe’s Faustus? It is very good, although I do prefer Goethe’s Faust. Cheers!

      • I haven’t – I’m sure I read something by Goethe in college – so many years ago!

      • Likely either “Faust” or “Sorrows of Young Werther.” His two most famous works.

      • Oh it was Sorrows if Young Werther – I remember now! I think the class was called Images of Modern Man

      • Nice! I have a hardcover version of that one on my shelves. May be worth re-reading it. It has been a while, and such a great book. Hope you have a great weekend 🙂

      • I actually remember liking that book very much. When I was in college we had to take a bunch of required Philsophy and Religion classes – at least one a year. That was one of them. Another was Values and Institutions in a Changing World.

      • The book was discussed in a college lit class I was in, professor explaining that young people were committing suicide with copies of the book in their pockets. I figured any book that notorious I had to read. 😀 I did like the book a lot.