The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

From Academic Kids

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is a play by Christopher Marlowe, based on the Faust story, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for power and knowledge.

Missing image
Title page to a 1620 printing of Doctor Faustus showing Faustus studying and a demon rising through a stage trap door.

Two versions of the play exist, one dated to 1604 and the other to 1616. The second text shows considerable editing and extension and seems to have been posthumously extended by other hands. It is believed to have been the second of Marlowe's plays given a public performance, and also the first dramatic reworking of the Faust tale.

It is probable that Marlowe developed the story from a popular translation, The English Faust in short title [1], of 1592 from a German edition of 1587. The development of the play is very close to the book, especially in the mix of comedy and tragedy.

The play is in blank verse and prose in thirteen scenes (1604) or twenty scenes (1616). Blank verse is largely reserved for the main scenes while prose is used in the comic scenes. Together with Faustus, the main characters are Faustus' servant Wagner, Mephistopheles (also spelled "Mephistophilis"), the demon with whom Faustus deals, a set of clowns in a mocking subplot, a host of simplified and allegorical figures, and a Chorus.


Plot Summary

As the play begins, Doctor John Faustus of Wittenberg, after contemplating several possible career paths and finding them all disagreeable, decides to pursue sorcery. He calls upon two colleagues, Valdes and Cornelius, both infamous magicians, to teach him the art of conjuring. Faustus, after being instructed by Valdes and Cornelius, attempts to summon a demon on his own.

The demon he calls, unfortunately for him, is Mephistophilis, second-in-command to Lucifer himself. Using Mephistophilis as a messenger, Faustus strikes a deal with Lucifer: that he is to be allotted twenty-four years of life on Earth, during which time he will have Mephistophilis as his personal servant, and, at the end of which, he will give his soul over to Lucifer as payment and spend the rest of time as one of the damned in hell. This deal is cemented in the form of a contract scribed in Faustus' own blood, and Mephistophilis begins his service.

Faustus trifles away his dear-bought time by performing minor tricks and entertaining the hangers-on at the court of German Emperor Charles V. Indeed, he eventually becomes a mere grape-fetcher for the irritable Duchess of Anholt.

Unlike later adaptations of the legend, notably that of Goethe, Marlowe's Faustus pays the price of his diabolical deal and is irrecoverably damned.

Famous Monologues

Found in Faustus is a monologue best known to contemporary audiences from a scene in the motion picture Shakespeare in Love. The actual speech, addressed to the summoned shade of Helen of Troy, appears in Act V, scene i. Here it is as found in the Gutenberg project e-text of the 1616 quarto (with footnotes removed).


Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?--
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.--
[Kisses her.]
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!--
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack'd;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear'd to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!


  1. The History of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor Iohn Faustus by P.F. Gent. The book is often described as a chapbook, this refers only to its method of sale - it was distributed by itinerant pedlars called chapmen.

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