by Christopher Marlowe
Doctor Faustus Introduction
In A Nutshell
This one's got it all, folks: devils, damsels, and dastardly deeds. Doctor Faustus is the story of a great scholar who decides a little magical mojo will cure his ennui. The catch? He has to sign his soul over to the devil in order to get that mojo workin'.
The legend of Faustus was already well-known in Europe by the time Christopher Marlowe turned it into a play in 1594. It had been making the rounds as a folktale in Germany since the early 1500s, and was translated into English and published in England in the 1590s as a chapbook (that's the Renaissance version of a pulp paperback) entitled "The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death, of Doctor Iohn Faustus." So Marlowe had all kinds of sources to draw from when it came to bringing the devil to life.
And boy did he ever bring him to life. We know Doctor Faustus was immediately popular with audiences because it was actually published in 1604. That's something that only happened if people were really clamoring for a printed version of their favorite play. Apparently Doctor Faustus struck a chord or two in the hearts and minds of its renaissance audience.
That might have something to do with its uniqueness. Doctor Faustus stood out from the crowd by combining things we associate with medieval drama (like allegory) to explore what we now think of as modern questions: What form should knowledge take? What is the nature of true power? Should we believe in fate or free will?
At the time that Marlowe was writing, a Protestant church reformer named John Calvin had developed a theory about human salvation called Predestination. This theory said that each human being was fated from the beginning of his or her life to be damned or saved. It raised questions about exactly how much control a person had over his or her own salvation.
Faustus grapples with this same question at the beginning of the play, and eventually arrives at the shaky conclusion that he's damned no matter what he does. The way he handles this belief is the subject of the rest of the play. All along characters like the Good Angel and the Old Man try to convince Faustus that he does have a choice; they insist that he can repent and turn to God again. Are they right? That's a question only you can answer, because Marlowe is annoyingly coy.
So dig in to Doctor Faustus, and tackle the big questions. Then get back to Shmoop to give us the skinny.
Why Should I Care?
John Faustus, an elite scholar who has already reached the limits of human knowledge in the traditional academic disciplines, longs to "ransack the ocean for orient pearl, / And search all corners of the new-found world," to probe "strange philosophy" and "the secrets of all foreign kings" (1.1.81-82, 84-85).
That all sounds like a grand ol' time, right? Right. There's just one problem. In order to ransack, search, and discover all that awesome knowledge, Faustus has to make a deal with the devil. And we know those never end well.
Now, a modern person like you might say that knowledge is always a good thing, and that seems to be what Faustus believes, too. But what Marlowe's Doctor Faustus forces us to consider is that knowledge almost always comes at a price.
Sure, we don't usually get (spoiler alert) torn limb from limb (like Faustus does) when we learn something we shouldn't. And we don't get handed a one-way ticket to the underworld like the one the not-so good doctor receives from his buddy Lucifer. So the price of knowledge in Doctor Faustus might seem exaggeratedly steep.
But the price itself might be beside the point. The point of Doctor Faustus seems to be that knowledge can be so seductive, so desirable, that we often don't consider the cost—whatever it may be—until it's too late. So really, it's the question that matters most: how far are you willing to go to know what you want to know?