Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe does incredible justice to the Faust myth in his own Dr. Faustus. Dr. Faustus is a poem (blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter) about a learned, intellectual, German scholar who sells his soul to the devil in effort to gain ultimate wisdom and the ultimate power accompanying it. This ultimate wisdom and power purchased by Faustus is delivered to him in the form of twenty-four years of service from a devil commissioned by Lucifer called Mephastophilis. The knowledge and power gained through deep exposure to academic disciplines such as philosophy, law, medicine, physics, mathematics, and divinity (theology) are not enough for Faustus. His Ph.D. expertise is not enough. He desires something greater. He has already mastered - to the point of self-conceit and waxen wings (illusion to the myth of Icarus) - all that these academic disciplines have to offer. He wants so much more! He desires to master the universe! He wants to be a god. So, Faustus tragically turns to the magic arts and necromancy. The resultant story is laden with vivid images of Mephastophilis (a devil), Lucifer, good and evil angels, the Seven deadly Sins, a tormented Pope, and the Spirit of Alexander the Great.
Faustus, in the end, cries out to Christ for salvation from the madness, but finally rejects the invitation when it is actually given. The necromancer pushes Christ’s salvation aside and instead embraces the summoned beauty of Helen of Troy. The end of Mephastophilis’ twenty-four years of service then comes to an end and Faustus is carried away to his eternal hell. He vainly tries to repent, but in the end it is far too late.
Faust is a timeless myth pointing directly at the universal truth inherent to our misguided and blasphemous penchant for an ultimate sort of knowledge and power.
The Structure of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus
1. Chorus (Prologue)
2. The Decision (Scene One through Four)
3. The Contract (Scene Five and Six)
4. The Challenge to Religious Authority (Scene Seven: the Pope’s Private Chambers in Rome)
5. The Challenges to Political Power (Scene Ten: The Court of the Emperor)
6. The Reckoning (Scene Fourteen: Sin, Death, and Devil)
Scene Synopsis and Margin Notes
1. Chorus (Prologue): “His waxen wings did mount above his reach!”
The Chorus seems to be one character in the midst of characters. Chorus acts as narrator, akin to historic and/or traditional Greek tragedies. Faustus is introduced by Chorus in this particular scenario. The story is introduced as a tale dedicated solely to the life and plight of the Faustus. The Dr. is characterized as a learned, scholarly, and theologically savvy individual living in Germany. He is also described as an individual “swollen with cunning, of a self-conceit.” His detrimental descent into necromancy in search of ultimate wisdom is also cited. Magic consumes him as he sits in his study.
2. Scenes One - Four: “A sound magician is a mighty god!”
Dr. Faustus is bored and unfulfilled by all that academic adventure has wrought. He foolishly thinks himself a master of all earthly knowledge. He contemplates magic arts and necromancy, but he hasn’t embrace the act. He is tempted. A good and evil angel appear and vie for his agreement. The evil angel wins. Valdes and Cornelius enter the scene and seal the deal by agreeing to become his black arts teachers.
Mephastophilis is conjured. His appearance is too grotesque for the necromancer to bear, so he is ordered to depart and return in the form of a Franciscan Friar.
Wagner learns how to summon devils and work magic by reading his necromantic master’s books. He uses his new found power to unleash two devils upon a poor, local clown in effort to force him into seven years of service. Wagner orders the clown to refer to him as “Master.”
3. Scenes Five and Six: “The God thou serv’st is thine own appetite!”
The necromancer signs his soul over to the devil. He signs in blood, according to the formality required by Mephastophilis. Meanwhile, the good and evil angel appear frequently in an attempt to convert the Doctor to their divergent points of view. An inscription appears on the arm of Faust; it reads: “Homo, fuge!,” or “Man, Fly!”
Faust and Mephastophilis dialogue about the reality of hell. The necromancer begins to regret his decision. The good and evil angels appear once again in an attempt to persuade with repentance and curses. Faust waivers. Lucifer, Belzebub, and Mephastophilis appear and nurture the necromancer back into hell. Lucifer wows Faust by revealing to him the Seven Deadly Sins in their proper shapes. Lucifer also leaves behind a book which explains how to change shape and form. The necromancer’s fate is sealed.
4. Scene Seven: “And by their folly make us merriment!”
Faustus and Mephastophilis appear in Rome, in the Pope’s privy-chamber. Faust commands Mephastophilis to render him invisible so he can torment the Pope with mischievous acts and taunts.
5. Scene Ten: “Thou damned wretch and execrable dog!”
Spirits in the shape of Alexander the Great and his Paramour are summoned in the court of the emperor to substantiate the growing legends of Faust that reached the emperor. A heckling knight’s head was cursed with a pair of horns, which were later removed after sufficient penance.
6. Scene Fourteen: “God forbade it indeed; but Faustus hath done it!”
Three scholars appear with the damned artist of the black arts. They learn of Faust’s decisions and begin to pray for him from the safety of the next room. Their prayers are offered in vain; it is too late. The clock slowly drains and strikes twelve as Faust contemplates the eternal ramifications of a wasted and shockingly short twenty-four years. The scene ends as devils appear and cart the black artist off to an eternal hell.
Terminat hora diem, terminat author opus.