As I mentioned in my post on May’s reading and my plans for June, I have challenged myself to read the three plays on my Classics Club list this month. They are The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, and this one, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.
I had several reasons for including this particular play on my list for the Classics Club, not least because it is one of the few plays (apart from the complete works of Shakespeare) that I actually have a copy of on my shelf. Not having studied English Literature at university, I feel there are whole areas of literature I’ve missed out on; I have read very few plays (again apart from Shakespeare) and almost no Elizabethan literature (yet again, apart from Shakespeare). It was obvious that I needed to venture away from Shakespeare! Also, and this may seem a silly reason, having come across Marlowe several times as a character in historical fiction I thought it was time I actually read some of his work.
Marlowe’s play, written in blank verse, is based on the German legend Faust which is about a man who sells his soul to the devil. Doctor Faustus is a scholar who believes he has reached the limits of all traditional types of knowledge – logic, law, medicine and divinity. When a friend tells him “The miracles that magic will perform Will make thee vow to study nothing else,” he decides to turn his attention to magic instead and begins by summoning the demon Mephastophilis. Through Mephastophilis, Faustus makes a deal with the devil Lucifer, the “arch-regent and commander of all spirits”: he will allow the devil to claim his soul in return for twenty-four years of service from Mephastophilis.
Having gained the powers he has dreamed of, Faustus fails to put them to good use, wasting them on practical jokes and frivolous magic tricks instead. Despite his pact with Lucifer the opportunity for repentance is still there, but Faustus repeatedly rejects the chance of salvation…until the twenty-four-year time period begins to draw to a close. Has he left it too late to be redeemed?
Doctor Faustus is thought to have first been performed in 1594 and published ten years later in a form now referred to as the A Text. A second version, known as the B Text was published in 1616 with extra lines and altered wording. It seems that there has been some controversy as to which is the closest to the play as originally written by Marlowe; the book I read (a New Mermaids edition) uses the A Text but also includes the additional scenes from the B Text as an appendix.
There are obvious lessons to be learned from Doctor Faustus – the corruption that can come with power, the dangers of wishing for what we do not have and seeking knowledge beyond our limits – and throughout the play we hear the thoughts of a Good Angel and an Evil Angel who fill the roles of the two conflicting sides of Faustus’ conscience. It’s also quite an entertaining story, although you have to remember that it was written to be performed and I think it’s probably a play that I would have enjoyed watching more than I enjoyed reading. There are some scenes, such as the one where the Seven Deadly Sins appear to Faustus, that I found difficult to visualise just from the text.
I’m not going to attempt a deep analysis of Doctor Faustus here, but will leave that to others who are more familiar than I am with Marlowe’s work and more comfortable discussing plays (novels are definitely my own comfort zone, which you may have guessed from my blog title). I’m pleased, though, to have finally read something by Marlowe – and such an important and influential play. As a side note, I hadn’t realised that the famous description of Helen of Troy as “the face that launched a thousand ships” came from this play.
My June play-reading project is off to a good start! I hope to have another one to tell you about next week.