Review :: Doctor Faustus

And now for something completely different!*

Not quite in keeping with the Harry Potter theme, but magic is involved here. Oh yes! Hold on to your broomsticks and sorting hats!

A review of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus


Doctor Faustus is a play by Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe.

The brilliant Doctor Faustus, bored with the unchallenging (and, presumably, unrewarding?) practices of medicine, law, and other academic endeavours, starts meddling in dark magics and sells his soul to the devil for knowledge and power. Obvious shenanigans ensue.

Fun Fact I: Although it was first published in 1604, the play was first performed in 1592.

Fun fact II: This is the first play I’ve read since high school (eight years ago…!)

• • •

Before starting, I was intimidated by whether the language would be too lofty or ‘olde’ for me to appreciate the story, but it was far more readable than I expected.

Till swoln with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspir’d his overthrow

Translation: Faustus got too full of himself and haughty and bit off more than he could chew so the powers that be knocked him down to size. The poetry was best read aloud because you can hear the rhythm and meaning of it all better I think.

Faustus is a perfect tragic hero. His flaw – the lust for knowledge and power – dooms him to an afterlife of eternal suffering. In the first place, he enters his deal with the devil because he doesn’t believe that hell exists even when Mephistophilis[sic] tells him (upon being asked why he [Mephistophilis] is able to leave hell to converse with him [Faustus]):

[w]hy 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?

Mephistophilis occasionally offers other matter-of-fact comments to the effect of “No, trust me, Faustus. Hell is totally real. And you’re going there when this is done”. But Faustus ignores the impending consequences of his choice not for any profound desire to better mankind at the cost of his own life, but for short-term material pleasures. While weighing up the pros and cons of such a heavy decision he forgets himself at the mention of wealth and calls on Mephistophilis to help him play tricks on people and acquire power. Oh, and he chats with Mephistophilis about the universe and asks about some burning cosmological questions. Childish, really. (Except the cosmological questions part.)

Our dear Faustus also seems to enjoy speaking in the third person. Something of a ‘royal we’ to show his megalomania? Perhaps. No one else ever does this though. Not even the Pope or Emperor who both appear in the play.

Faustus is a total coward (or caitiff to use the language of the time), but more importantly, despite his formidable intelligence, he is incredibly short-sighted. Every so often he gets scared at the idea of being tortured forever in hell and wants to repent but by then it’s too late for the easy way out and it’s either keep going on the downward stairway to hell where eternal damnation awaits him or suffer demons ripping his mortal flesh to pieces in retribution for breaking his contract with them but (possibly?) go to heaven to live happily ever after. So what does our tragic hero do? He puts off the short term bad (despite the long term pay off) for short term pleasure and he suffers for it. Eternally. Good call, Faustus.

Doctor-Faustus-with-the-DevilI am not the least bit religious. But I find religious lore (from all cultures and religions, not just Anglo-Saxon Christian ones) really interesting and enjoyable. This was no exception.

Yet, I don’t really know what to rate this. I feel like anything from 3 to 5 will do. I really enjoyed it, but that may have been, in part, because it was so fun to read and so much more manageable than I’d expected. I genuinely enjoyed the experience of reading it and I now have the urge to see the play performed live as I’m sure it would be a great experience. I feel like all that positive emotion warrants a 5! …But maybe objectively it deserves less stars? I don’t know. I’m truly lost on that front. Seeing as the considered range is “anything from 3 to 5” I’ll stick with 4 stars.

So, if you’re feeling intimidated by the thought of trying a play or reading something from the 1600s or need to fulfil a specific reading challenge slot and don’t know where to start, maybe pick up Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (not to be confused with Goethe’s 19th century epic, Faust, based on the same myth). It’s short and fun and I certainly recommend it.

*brownie points for anyone who gets that reference

rating: ★★★★☆
genre: play, fiction, olde school (16th century)
publisher: ???
source: free via Kobo app which is available (also free) on most devices
date read: 8 January 2015
recommend for: Shakespeare/Elizabethan era fans, those wanting to try ‘ye olde’ plays that aren’t too intimidating
pros: fun read; good as an introduction to old plays
cons: predictable; no explanation of who characters are (beyond their names)/their relation to anyone else so can feel a bit esoteric at times (like missing cultural cues/connections from the time)

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3 Responses to Review :: Doctor Faustus

  1. Pingback: Ebook Inventory | Bitches With Books

  2. I had so much fun reading this review, as I’ve barely thought about Doctor Faustus since I read Marlowe’s play in University. It was really rather enjoyable, and I’m so happy you reminded me to take another look at it sometime! Deal with the devil stories – even in modern fiction – set up for some great drama and spiritual angst. (Some angst more entertaining than others.) I think I loved the first and last bits of the play best, when I read it. All that tricking the pope stuff probably seemed much funnier when performed on a stage, and with a real Elizabethan audience. But the end, though predictable as you say, makes quite an impression.

    Have you ever heard Dylan Thomas’s recording of Faustus’s final speech? He practically yelps “I’ll burn my books!” It’s great.

    • Nicole says:

      Oh good! I’m glad I’ve encouraged you to consider a re-read! It was so fun! Especially dramatically reading it aloud hahah
      I completely agree about the Pope-pranking. I feel like I can’t fault the play for my ignorance as that’s the bit I got the impression was primarily sort of an Elizabethan inside/cultural joke that I might have appreciated more had I known more about the time…

      I haven’t heard the Dylan Thomas recording, but I’ll definitely look for it. (Dylan Thomas is sort of a name in my household – what with my dad being Welsh and all! haha)
      I’ve been looking for live stage performances to go too since I’m sure it’d be a brilliant show! Turns out there was a showing at The Globe Theatre in London in 2011!? I think it’s time for a revival!…..PLEASE!? :’)

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