The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

Not to be confused with Johann von Goethe’s Faust (Books One and Two), or with Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, or with dozens of other theatrical, musical and literary reworkings of the story, this play is inspired by the same real life persona (sources differ on which one it is): Dr. Johann Georg Faust of the 15th century. The basic gist is that Faust is a learned scholar who becomes dissatisfied with all he can learn and do with human knowledge, and turns to alchemy and “dark knowledge.” It’s not so much the fascination with the dark magic that forms the crux of these tales, but rather the lengths to which a person’s soul will go to obtain that beyond his/her reach and what s/he does when s/he obtains it. One should probably elaborate on that further, but first I wanted to address the short summary on the back of my edition of the 1604 Quarto:

Marlowe was an English poet, dramatist and translator [no Oxford comma!] in the Elizabethan period. Faust is the famous story of a man selling his soul to the devil for power and knowledge. On a deeper level man’s decay from choosing material things over the spiritual is depicted.

I don’t think this is a bad summary of the play or the story. It’s not inaccurate and captures the main idea of the story pretty well. Faustus’s main goal is to gain knowledge and power after he has achieved the highest levels of learning in science, medicine, philosophy and theology. He wants more knowledge because it grants him, to some extent, more power. I see his greatest vice as being pride, with a close second as gluttony, but this does not contradict the summary. Where I find the summary lacking is the supposed “deeper level” of the play. I don’t think material wealth over spiritual is the main point at all. I see this interpretation weakly when the “Good Angel” and “Evil Angel” enter for the first time:

GOOD ANGEL. Sweet Faustus, think of the heaven and heavenly things.

EVIL ANGEL. No, Faustus, think of hounour and of wealth.

Clearly, the reader is introduced to two opposing forces here. Yet the struggle cannot be so deep when the one thing is as a “thing” while the other is tangible and strikes the desires more closely. I think the struggle lies even deeper, and to understand where I think one should look at where Faust is first tempted to repent. It happens right after Faustus  asks Mephistophilis about heaven and who created the earth. Mephisto explains how there are nine heavens and spheres, but will not tell Faustus who made the world. It is “against our kingdom.” Denied this knowledge, Faustus wants to repent and the Good Angel and Bad Angel enter again.

However, why did Faustus want to know? And why wasn’t he told? And why would not being told and still not knowing make him want to repent? I think this has to do with the nature of knowledge and the deeper struggle at work here. It does not have to do with wealth so much as with faith and the ability to accept that there are things unseen and unimaginable. Thus, it is humility that I think Marlowe tries to teach the reader with his play, not so much a particular religious message that spiritual wealth is better.

This interpretation is fueled in part by my knowledge of Marlowe’s other play, The Jew of Malta, which also walks fine lines between religious beliefs, tolerance, and stereotypes, but in the end questions other values.

Mephisto is always my favorite character. He’s neither good nor bad (I mean, why else would he speak in favor of the poor farmer who wants to buy Faustus’s horse?), but he’s more of a joker figure. Plus, when Arthur Darvill plays him, it’s only better.

So, while I appreciate what I got from this play through Marlowe, I still like Goethe’s better. In Goethe’s works, the moral ambiguity is more strongly portrayed and Faust isn’t irrevocably damned. He is able to redeem himself. Maybe I’m just a sucker for happy endings, I guess.


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