The Faustbuch


The main source Marlowe used when writing his play was an English translation of the Faustbuch (‘Faust Book’), a collection of stories in German. The English version is titled The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, and the earliest known edition is dated from 1592. The Faustbuch relates the semi-mythical tales surrounding a real-life German scholar and magician, Georgius of Helmstadt, also known as Georgius Faustus. The three-part structure of the Faustbuch also underlines the foundation of Marlowe’s play. First there is a bargain with the Devil and scientific investigation, then traveling and conjuring, and finally death, regret and damnation. The play was later rewritten and expanded to form the B-text, with additional episodes of magic inserted from the Faustbuch. However, the three-part structure was kept intact.

The Faustbuch presents a simple tale of recompense for sin; Marlowe, on the other hand, creates a tragedy in which Faustus makes an informed choice for reasons the audience can empathize with.

Morality Plays

The morality plays were extremely popular from the early 1400’s to the 1580’s, continuing to impact upon the Early Modern period through to about 1630. References to typical Morality Play characters and events gives some indication of how familiar and widespread they were.

Each play has a common basic narrative structure underlining it. The central character is an ordinary person with whom the audience can identify - Everyman, or the mankind figure. He has obligations, works hard, becomes bored with his life, and tired. Tempters, known as Vice and his vice-crew, then enter and suggest he takes a break and accompany them for food and drink. Following their lead, Everyman’s life gradually goes into decline, deserting his responsibilities for debauchery and recklessness.

Various well-meaning characters attempt to get Everyman to reform, reminding him of the need to live a life of virtue. He obeys until the vice-crew returns once more, and the good characters are scorned and made fun of. This pattern is repeated throughout until the mankind figure realizes that he has wasted his life and is in danger of despair. In Christian doctrine this sin is defined as losing one’s belief in God’s capacity to forgive. It was considered to be the worst, because irretrievable. In relation to the story of Faustus, his failure to repent is as culpable as his pact with the devil. Suicide was seen as the result of despair. It was treated seriously not because it was seen a type of murder, which would be forgiven by God, but because it indicated loss of faith in God. It was also regarded as a type of Pride, wanting to take decisions about one’s destiny out of God’s control. This explains why Mephastophilis offers Faustus a dagger in Scene 12. In the morality plays, the vice-crew offer to help Everyman commit suicide. At the last minute an advisor appears to drive off the evil crew and the mankind figure returns to embrace God. Whether he dies or not, the audience knows that he will go to heaven.

The narrative pattern of Doctor Faustus clearly resonates with that of the Morality Plays. A central character falls into evil ways but continues to regret his actions and consider repentance. The devils’ flamboyant tactics in distracting Faustus from returning to God, as well as the presence of good and evil advisors, is evident of the influence of the Morality Play. And as mentioned above, Mephastophilis’ attempt to assist Faustus in suicide is reminiscent of this tradition.

However, while Doctor Faustus resembles the Morality Play form quite distinctly, the two are also considerably different. Almost all the characters in Marlowe’s play have names, whereas in the Morality Play the characters are given allegorical names such as ‘Everyman’, ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Mercy’. But Marlowe also revised the morality play form in a more radical way. The mankind figure was meant to learn as he grew older, but Faustus obviously doesn’t. He continues to behave youthfully even as he nears death. Old age and death were supposed to propel an individual towards prayer and pious thought, but Faustus opposes this in his rejection of the Old Man in Scene 12. The most obvious departure from the form, though, is in Marlowe’s decision to let Faustus be damned at the end. It could be argued that he is not an ‘Everyman’, but then all people have been tempted to rebel against authority and act in a self-important

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