BOOK REVIEW – CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE – DOCTOR FAUSTUS. 1606. Routledge Press editions. 1965.
The story of Faustus (or Faust) had been told many times, in the years before Marlowe’s masterpiece of Elizabethan drama, and it would be told many times more, notably by Goethe and Thomas Mann in the centuries to follow.
The plot is straight forward enough. Faustus, a leading German academic, tired of studying the material knowledge offered in the humanities and Divinity studies of academia, starts to seek a more occult arcane knowledge and he is willing to sell his soul to Satan in return for such wisdom.
Two angels, a good angel who beseeches him to stay in the bosom of God, and a bad angel, who encourages him to go ahead with his evil pact, visit Faustus. This is possibly the earliest version of the now clichéd vision of a man torn between two competing states of consciousness. Faustus, though a little troubled by the scale of what he plans to do, nevertheless sells his soul to Satan by signing a contract in his own blood, though even now he is advised that it is not too late to repent and recover his place in Heaven.
Faustus is given a demonic guide, Mr.Mephistopheles, who tells him that he will get just twenty-four years of life and guaranteed riches and near unlimited power. Mephistopheles accompanies Faustus on his various adventures. They even go to Rome and interfere heavily in Catholic, Vatican politics. This was a particularly dangerous piece of writing for Marlowe, at the height of Elizabeth’s Protestant Reformation, and scourge of Catholicism.
Various agents of Heaven and Hell visit Faustus. He sees a parade of the incarnations of each of the seven deadly sins, from Pride to Lust. He also uses his demonic powers and indestructibility to mess with people’s heads. Having his own head and leg severed by killers, he regains them and carries on regardless in his antics. He sells a horse to a farmer, advising him not to let it cross a river. When the farmer disregards this, the horse turns into a bale of hay in midstream, plunging the man into the water.
All too soon, the twenty-four years end, and Faustus meets his now inevitable nemesis. He is given a terrifying vision of the Hell awaiting him. He enjoys a final pleasure – sexual congress with Helen Of troy, or some demonic incarnation in her form, and then he is destroyed. A great story, moving from horror to high comedy and back again, and showing Marlowe’s own irreverence for authority and learning throughout. It is no wonder that the work spawned so many later versions. Arthur Chappell
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