One of the most pondered thought experiments in the history of literature is just how great Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) would have been had he not been killed at the young age of 29. Marlowe wrote six plays and a couple poems, the style of which transformed literature and remains monumentally influential to this day.
Marlowe was the first English author to fully use blank verse (poetry written in unrhymed iambic pentameter), arguably the chief creation of all English literary art. William Shakespeare, who was born within a couple months of Marlowe, was greatly influenced by Marlowe. Shakespeare was to absorb Marlowe’s blank verse and further make it his own. Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Tennyson are all other examples of great poets in the Western Canon that owe a debt of gratitude to Christopher Marlowe.
Marlowe wrote The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus in 1592/1993. The story of a man who sells his soul to the devil is familiar to all of us. It stems from a legend that appeared somewhere between the fourth and sixth century, reaching the Middle Ages in many forms. In the early part of the sixteenth century, the story became identified with a magician named Doctor Faustus. In 1587, the first literary version of the story of Faust was the Volksbuch published by Johann Spiess, which soon appeared in an English translation. Marlowe seems to have used that translation as the basis for his play, which became the first dramatization, and spiritualization, of the Faust legend (followed a couple hundred years later by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous Faust).
In the beginning, Faustus begins by pondering the fate of his life and what he wants his career to be. He has excessive pride, having reached the end of every subject he studied, he starts looking into magic. As the chorus starts the play:
The fitful plot of scholarism graced,
That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name,
Excelling all whose sweet delight disputes,
In heavenly matter of theology;
Till swollen with cunning of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow;
As Havelock Ellis mentions in the introduction to this edition, Marlowe’s Faustus is not impelled by desire of worldly pleasure like the legendary Faustus, nor by the vanity of knowledge like Goethe’s Faust, but by omnipotence, power without bound, desiring “all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.” Faustus himself says:
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires,
O what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence
Is promised to the studious artisan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command…
An evil angel persuades Faustus of great things he would gain by giving himself to Satan. Faustus then tells his friends:
Philosophy is odious and obscure,
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
Divinity is the basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile:
‘Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me.
Mephistophilis, serving Lucifer, comes to Faustus, saying:
For when we hear one rack the name of God,
Abjure the Scriptures and his Savior Christ,
We fly in hope to get his glorious soul;
Nor will we come, unless he uses such glorious 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.
Despite Mephistophilis giving Faustus a pretty harrowing description of hell, Faustus makes a decision to give his soul to the devil, thinking the powers he would gain would be worth more than a lifetime in hell. Faustus says to Mephistophilis:
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 in me;
To give me whatsoever I shall ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand,
To slay my enemies, and aid my friends,
And always be obedient to my will.
After the twenty-four years, Faustus will give his soul to Lucifer and spend eternity in hell. A good angel and evil angel again come to Faustus. The good angel urges him to ask God for forgiveness and break his oath to Lucifer. The evil angel argues against doing so.
GOOD ANGEL: Sweet Faustus, leave that execrable art.
FAUSTUS: Contrition, prayer, repentance! What of them?
GOOD ANGEL: O, they are the means to bring thee into heaven.
EVIL ANGEL: Rather, illusions–fruits of lunacy,
that makes men foolish that do trust them most.
GOOD ANGEL: Sweet Faustus, think of Heaven, and heavenly things.
EVIL ANGEL: No, Faustus, think of honour and wealth.
Faustus continually refuses or is unable to realize he has a path to salvation. This remains the case even after Mephistophilis further describes hell to him as:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is there must we ever be:
And, to conclude, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that is not heaven.
Faustus discounts these warnings. Even after Lucifer presents a personification of the seven deadly sins to Faustus, Faustus still fails to take any steps to avoid his damnation. Finally as time starts to run short, Faustus starts to contemplate his fate.
What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die?
Thy fatal time doth draw to final end;
Despair doth drive distrust unto my thoughts:
Confound these passions with a quiet sleep:
Tush, Christ did call the thief upon the cross;
Then rest thee, Faustus, quiet in conceit.
Late in the story, an old man almost talks Faustus into repentance.
OLD MAN: Ah stay, good Faustus, stay thy desperate steps!
I see an angel hovers o’er thy head’
And, with a vial full of precious grace,
Offers to pour the same into thy soul:
Then call for mercy, and avoid despair.
FAUSTUS: Ah, my sweet friend, I feel
Thy words do comfort my distressed soul.
Leave me a while to ponder on my sins.
OLD MAN: I go, sweet Faustus, but with heavy cheer,
Fearing thy ruin of thy hopeless soul.
Sure enough, Mephistophilis comes and threatens Faustus, and Faustus caves, lusting for a paramour with Helen, of Troy fame.
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
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.
As his time on earth is coming to an end, Faustus fully understands what he has wrought for himself. Faustus seems to want to repent, telling some scholars who try to help him:
On God, whom Faustus hath abjure! on God, whom Faustus hath blasphemed! Ah, my God, I would weep, but the devil draws in my tears. Gush forth blood instead of tears! Yea, life and soul! Oh, he stays my tongue! I would lift up my hands, but see, they hold them, they hold them! …for vain pleasure of twenty-four years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with mine own blood: the date is expired; the time will come, and he will fetch me…The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damned
Marlowe’s Faustus, unlike the legends from which his play was born, cannot or will not bring himself to repent to God.
…all beasts are happy,
For, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolved in elements;
But mine must live, still to be plagued in hell.
His contract with Lucifer is fulfilled. Mephistophilis comes and collects his soul.
A Bit More on Christopher Marlowe
Marlowe was irascible and flamboyant. He knew how to have a good time, and also how to anger people. He had devoted friends and devoted enemies. He is rumored to have been a spy for the queen, he started a duel from which he spent some time in prison, and as a skeptic, was fighting charges of blasphemy in front of the Privy Council. At 10am on May 30, 1593, he was eating and drinking with a couple companions. He got in a fight with one of them, grabbed a dagger and wounded his foe, after which the foe got the dagger and killed Marlowe stabbing him through the right eye. At least that is the official story from an inquest. There are many theories that suggest a more complex ending. In any case, so ended a short literary career that almost certainly would have further altered literary history and given Shakespeare a run for his money in taking the dominant position in the Western Canon.
I must throw in one last pitch for the beauty of Marlowe’s writing, despite the example I am about to give not having anything to do with Doctor Faustus. Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, a fragment of which was completed when Marlowe died, contains one of my favorite verses in all of English literature. Once again, Shakespeare was influenced by this, in fact taking the last famous line for his own use in As You Like It.
It lies not in our power to love, or hate,
For will in us is over-rulde by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win.
And one especially doo we affect,
Of two gold Ingots like in each respect,
The reason no man knowes, let it suffise,
What we behold is censur’d by our eyes.
Where both deliberat, the love is slight,
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?
About the Limited Editions Club Edition:
Besides Doctor Faustus, this 1966 Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition includes Tamburlaine Part I and Part 2, as well as Edward the Second.
Albert Decaris (1901-1988), the illustrator of this edition, is considered one of the best French engravers of the twentieth century. He has illustrated with copper and steel engravings more than 200 books, including Homer, Euripides, Petrach, Shakespeare and Cervantes. I find his work on this book amazing in its detail and execution. The LEC monthly letter gets into details on how the copper engravings for this book were done. It is too long for me to summarize here, suffice to say it is an incredible amount of work.
- Part of the 1966 LEC edition, Four Plays of Christopher Marlowe
- Designed by influential book designer Adrian Wilson (1923-1988)
- Morocco-grain leather on spine with natural linen fabric blind-stamped boards
- Illustrations engraved in copper by Albert Decaris, who also signs this edition
- Engravings hand printed
- Monogram devices, designed by Adrian Wilson, cut in wood by Fritz Kredel
- Edited and Introduced by Havelock Ellis (1859-1839)
- Text and running heads in Bembo type; main title lines in Carolus type
- Made at The Thistle Press in New York, paper by Curtis Paper Company of Newark, Delaware
- Limited to 1500 copies, mine is #505
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