Dr. Faustus

Marlowe's main tragedies- 'Tamburlaine', 'The Jew of Malta' and 'Dr. Faustus' are of characters  obsessed with power- of rule, of money, and in Dr. Faustus' case- of knowledge.
For the latter, Dr. Faustus is determined to sell his soul to the devil. Thus for eternal damnation he is granted the knowledge and power of occult art, black magic and necromancy.
It's possible that in Elizabethan times such a pact with the devil would have been taken quite literally.

Dr. Faustus originates from a German legend with historic roots.
A certain Doctor Georgius Sabellicus Faustus Junior (c. 1480-1540) who makes a pact with the devil by selling his soul for 'universal knowledge'. It has been reinterpreted several times, notably also by Goethe (c. 1790).

In Marlowe's play there are also veiled stabs against Roman Catholicism, which would be in keeping with the sensitive period when England still regarded its influence as a threat towards the English Monarchy.

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was born only two months before Shakespeare.
In 1580 he attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, a scholarship usually awarded to students who aspire to ministerial positions. Instead of this, Marlowe began to write plays.
When he made known his intention of going to Reims in France, the university sought to deny him his Master of Arts degree because Reims was then the centre of Catholic intrigue and propaganda against Queen Elizabeth. The Privy Council however, intervened in Marlowe's favour, as apparently he had performed certain duties for the queen as some sort of diplomat or secret agent, and finally this led to his being awarded his degree.

In 'Tamburlaine' which was a very successful play written before he left Cambridge, Marlowe makes an interesting reference to the laws of nature (perhaps also to human nature) when one of Tamburlaine's victims accuses him of sanguineous cruelty.
Never before that epoch had the English theatre heard such rhetorical and effective blank verse :

Nature, that framed us of four elements
Warring within our breast for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds;
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every planet's wondering course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

Christopher Marlowe was later to be accused of atheism and treason by the playwright Thomas Kyd. Tragically his life ended prematurely when in May, 1593, at only 29 years of age he was stabbed to death over an argument about a bill, at the Widow Bull Inn, Depford.

Here's a short, selected excerpt from Dr. Faustus, from Scene 3 :

I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live,
To do what ever Faustus shall command,
Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere,
Or the ocean to overwhelm the world.
I am a servant to great Lucifer,
And may not follow thee without his leave;
No more than he commands must we perform.
Did not he charge thee to appear to me?
No, I came now hither of mine own accord.
Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee? Speak!
That was the cause, but yet per accidens°             °immediate, not final cause
For when we hear one rack° the name of God,     °torture
Abjure the scriptures, and his saviour Christ,
We fly in hope to get his glorious soul,
Nor will we come, unless he uses such means
Whereby he is in danger to be damned:
Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring
Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,
And pray devoutly to the prince of hell.
So Faustus hath already done, and hold this principle:
There is no chief but only Belzebub,
To whom Faustus doth dedicate himself,
This word damnation terrifies not him,
For he confounds hell in Elysium:
His ghost be with the old philosophers.°                  °hell- Elysium of philosophers
But leaving these vain trifles of men's souls,
Tell me, what is that Lucifer thy lord?
Arch-regent and commander of all spirits.
Was not Lucifer an angel once?
Yes Faustus, and most dearly loved of God.
How comes it then that he is prince of devils?
O, by aspiring pride and insolence,
For which God threw him from the face of heaven.
And what are you that live with Lucifer?
Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,
Conspired against our God with Lucifer,
And are for ever damned with Lucifer.
Where are you damned?
In hell.
How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think'st 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!°             °great torment of hell- loss of God
O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.
What, is great Mephastophilis so passionate
For being deprived of the joys of heaven?
Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude,
And scorn those joys thou never shall possess.
Go bear these tidings to great Lucifer,
Seeing Faustus hath incurred eternal death
By desperate thoughts against Jove's deity:
Say, he surrenders up to him his soul
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I shall ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand,
To slay mine enemies, and aid my friends,
And always be obedient to my will.
Go, and return to mighty Lucifer,
And meet me in my study at midnight
And then resolved me of thy master's mind.°            °his decision
I will Faustus.
Had I as many souls as there be stars
I'd give them all for Mephastophilis.
By him I'll be great emperor of the world,
And make a bridge through the moving air
To pass the ocean with a band of men;
I'll join the hills that bind the Afric shore,
And make that land continent to Spain,
And both contributory to my crown,
The emperor° shall not live but by my leave,        °the Holy Roman Empire
Nor any potentate of Germany.
Now that I have obtained what I desire
I'll live in speculation° of this art                              °contemplation
Till Mephastophilis return again.

Source- The Norton Anthology English Literature, with grateful thanks. 
Text and composite image © Mirino. April, 2011

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