A Review of Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, Limited Editions Club (1966) and Golden Hours Press (1932) editions

{Ed. Note: This is a re-publication of an article first published on Books and Vines on August 25, 2011, though now includes information and pictures of the 1932 Golden Hours Press edition of The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus that was published by Christopher Sandford (he of The Golden Cockerel Press).   It makes a nice comparison with the Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition highlighted in this article and the illustrations are by one of the great British wood-engravers when he was at the height of his powers – Blair Hughes-Stanton. Thanks to Books and Vines contributor Neil for pictures of this Golden Hours Press edition}

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?

{Ed. Note: Pictures of the LEC and Golden Hours Press editions follow the ‘About the Edition’ information. Each of these editions are extremely well done, especially the illustrations done by two of the great illustrators of the 20th century. The Golden Hours Press edition is amazing in that it has ties to The Golden Cockerel PressGregynog Press and Chiswick Press along with Christopher Sandford, F.J. Newbery and Blair Hughes-Stanton — making it a collaboration of the who’s who of early 20th century English fine press.}

About the Limited Editions Club (LEC) 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

About the Golden Hours Press Edition:

  • Planned by Christopher Sandford (of The Golden Cockerel Press) and F.J. Newbery and printed for The Golden Hours Press at the Chiswick Press
  • Illustrations by Blair Hughes-Stanton, by courtesy of the Gregynog Press
  • Type used in Bembo
  • Pure rag hand-made paper
  • By arrangement with the Clarendon Press, the text used is that of the Standard Oxford “Marlowe” edited by C.F. Tucker Brooke following in the main the quarto of 1604, which was almost certainly printed from Marlowe’s original version as acted in 1588-1589
  • 280mm x 212mm and has 66 pages
  • 250 copies made, of which 200 were for sale

Pictures of the Limited Editions Club (LEC) Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided to highlight and visualize the work being reviewed.  A side benefit, hopefully, is encouraging healthy sales of fine press books for the publishers and fine retailers that specialize in these types of books (of which Books and Vines has no stake or financial interest). Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

{Ed. Note: To see pictures of the Heritage Press edition of this LEC, please visit the Limited Editions Club and Heritage Press Imagery website.}

Four Plays (with Doctor Faustus), Christopher Marlowe, Book in Slipcase
Four Plays (with Doctor Faustus), Christopher Marlowe, Front Cover
Four Plays (with Doctor Faustus), Christopher Marlowe, Prospectus
Four Plays (with Doctor Faustus), Christopher Marlowe, Title Page
Four Plays (with Doctor Faustus), Christopher Marlowe, Second Title Page
Four Plays (with Doctor Faustus), Christopher Marlowe, Sample Pages with Text
Four Plays (with Doctor Faustus), Christopher Marlowe, Sample Text and Illustration
Four Plays (with Doctor Faustus), Christopher Marlowe, Second Sample Text and Illustration
Four Plays (with Doctor Faustus), Christopher Marlowe, Colophon

Pictures of the Golden Hours Press Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided to highlight and visualize the work being reviewed.  A side benefit, hopefully, is encouraging healthy sales of fine press books for the publishers and fine retailers that specialize in these types of books (of which Books and Vines has no stake or financial interest). Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, Golden Hours Press, Cover and Spine
The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, Golden Hours Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, Golden Hours Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, Golden Hours Press, Sample Text #1
The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, Golden Hours Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, Golden Hours Press, Colophon

8 thoughts on “A Review of Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, Limited Editions Club (1966) and Golden Hours Press (1932) editions

  1. Bit of a necropost, but I recently acquired a copy of the Golden Hours edition. I must say, it’s an extremely elegant printing.

    My copy is in the remaindered binding of full green buckram over beveled boards, but still lovely. The considerably rarer first binding (done before Sandford sold off the remaining unbound copies and bought the Golden Cockerel Press) is 3/4 tan morocco over marbled cloth, and 3x the price of the buckram binding.

    I can’t help noticing that the pictures in this article show what must be a very fine modern re-binding of the book. I’m curious as to whether this was originally one of the remaindered copies, identifiable by an ‘a’ appended to the copy number on the limitation page, as well as (usually) a tipped-in explanation of the circumstances surrounding the cheaper binding below it.

  2. Sorry about spelling ‘Divine’ as ‘Devine’ in the last comment – ‘John Devine’, sounds like a Scottish C&W singer!

  3. Having bought the book, it won’t be surprising to know that I agree with Dlpthcoracl.

    These illustrations were made around the time that Blair Hughes-Stanton was illustrating, what many regard as his best works, ‘The Revelation of St John the Devine’ and ‘The Lamentations of Jeremiah’ for Gregynog. Those are magnificent books and, unsurprisingly, share many stylistic similarities with ‘Faustus’. Even though those two books are more sophisticated and on a grander scale, I think Hughes-Stanton’s engravings for ‘Faustus’ match them in conveying a visual interpretation of the text in a visceral and spellbinding way.

    The world created by Marlowe is mysterious and dangerous. The review by Chris above gives a great sense of the drama in Faustus. The engravings by Hughes-Stanton don’t only give us scenes from the text; he creates images of the world in which the drama plays out and portrays the key characters in such a compelling fashion that I always see them as Hughes-Stanton has engraved them – whatever version of the drama I read.

    The images above of ‘Faustus Descending into Hell’, ‘The Good and Evil Angels’, ‘Mephistopheles’ and ‘Helen’ have influenced the way I have visualised Faustus since the first time I saw them – particularly his portrayal of Mephistopheles.

    BTW – The copper engravings in the LEC book by Albert Decaris are fantastic as well and, as with all LEC productions, appear in a beautiful book. This review was one of my favourites when I first read it last year – In a review of this length it really gets the essence of Marlowe’s Faustus across.

  4. Indeed, the similarities to Blake are rather startling at times. I have to say that while I think the Hughes-Stanton illustrations are superior works of art, they don’t work for me as illustrations for Dr. Faustus as well as Decaris’ illustrations do. I think if you saw a portfolio of these works, never knowing the connection with the text, you might have a difficult time determining what work they did illustrate. Only the first illustration of Faust in his study tells us to what story the pictures relate.

  5. This edition of ‘The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus’ by the Golden Hours Press is absolutely stunning. Rarely, if ever, have I seen book illustrations that are as perfect for the intended work as these. Blair Hughes-Stanton must have been put on this earth to illustrate this work. If many respects, these illustrations remind me of the thirteen watercolor illustrations William Blake did to illustrate John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (Arion Press and Hungtinton Library).

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