Study Guide

Doctor Faustus Power

By Christopher Marlowe


Act 1, Scene 1

O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor and omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command. Emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
but his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.
A sound magician is a demigod. (1.1.52-59)

Notice that Faustus isn't asking for just any power: he's asking for power over everything between the poles—In other words, in the whole stinkin' world. This kind of power is not the kind that emperors and kings have, as Faustus makes clear. Of course, only God has that kind of power, which is precisely the point. Faustus believes that "a sound magician is a demigod," or little god. It's ironic that Faustus calls the magician a "studious artisan." The word "artisan," or craftsman, refers to one who creates something (and in this way is like God). But after Faustus achieves his powers, he never creates anything new with them. He is, therefore, not actually like God at all.

I'll levy soldiers with the coin they bring,
And chase the Prince of Parma from our land,
And reign sole king of all the provinces.
Yea, stranger engines for the brunt of war
Than was the fiery keel at Antwerp bridge,
I'll make my servile spirits to invent. (1.1.90-95)

Faustus is quite the nationalist here, focused totally on what his power can get his nation—Germany. Faustus does not like being ruled by an Italian, the Prince of Parma, and it brings out his more violent side. He imagines his spirits inventing war-weapons to rival the burning ship that Dutch forces sent against the Parmese blockade of the Belgian port city of Antwerp in 1585. But when Faustus actually uses his spirits to help him in war, against the forces of Benvolio (in Act 4, Scene 2), it's over an individual matter of honor rather than one of nationalist pride. So his actions fall just a wee bit shy of his ambitions. Okay, a lot shy.

Faustus, these books, thy wit, and our experience
Shall make all nations to canonize us.
As Indian moors obey their Spanish lords,
So shall the spirits of every element
Be always serviceable to us three. (1.1.111-115)

Valdes uses a strange combo of comparisons here to express the power that's waiting in the wings for him, Cornelius, and Faustus. He says that their skills will make the nations "canonize" them. Canonization is a word that describes the declaration of a Catholic saint. He expects that everyone will soon honor and admire them. Yet, he also looks forward to being obeyed as defeated people obey their colonizers. These two expectations are somewhat contradictory: a group of people that has been forced to submit through violence (the colonized) will probably not honor and admire their vanquishers. Nice try, buddy.

Act 1, Scene 3

Had I as many souls as there be stars,
I'd give them all for Mephistopheles.
By him I'll be great emperor of the world
And make a bridge through the moving air
To pass the ocean with a band of men.
I'll join the hills that bind the Afric shore
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributary to my crown.
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate in Germany. (1.3.100-109)

Aw, Faustus wants to bring the whole world together. That's kind of sweet. Oh, wait. This is not some high-minded idea about the value of community. Nope, Faustus is all about having power over all the nations. So sure, he wants to bring the world together, but only under his rule. That's not so warm and fuzzy.

I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live
To do whatever Faustus shall command,
Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere
Or the ocean to overwhelm the world.
I am a servant to great Lucifer
And may not follow thee without his leave.
No more than he commands must we perform. (1.3.34-40)

When Faustus calls Mephistopheles he's all about his expectation of commanding god-like power. But the response from Mephistopheles acts as a reality-check: all power has limits, even that of the spirits. This response should act as a warning to Faustus that what he desires is really out of his reach. He doesn't register that, though. He's too busy daydreaming about gold and far-off places.

Tell me what is that Lucifer, thy lord?
Arch-regent and commander of all spirits.
Was not Lucifer an angel once?
Yes, Faustus, and most dearly loved of God.
How comes it, then, that he is prince of devils?
O, by aspiring pride and insolence,
For which God threw him from the face of heaven. (1.3.60-66)

Are we supposed to believe that Faustus doesn't know who Lucifer is? What, has he been living under a rock? What happened to all that studying he was supposed to have been doing?

Did not he charge thee to appear to me?
No, I came now hither of mine own accord.
Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee? Speak.
That was the cause, but yet, per accidens. (1.3.41-44)

Faustus thinks that something he has done caused Mephistopheles to appear. What Mephistopheles explains to him here is that his speech did cause him to appear, sure, but not because of Faustus's power. Mephistopheles appearance was just a side effect of Faustus's blasphemy. As Mephistopheles explains after this passage, devils always appear when someone rejects God, in the hopes of gaining that sinner's soul. In fact, Mephistopheles' appearance is as a master (Lucifer) hoping to win a slave—Faustus—and not the other way around, as Faustus believes.

Act 1, Scene 4

So, now thou art to be at an hour's warning whensoever and wheresoever the devil shall fetch thee.
Here, take your guilders; I'll none of 'em.
Not I. Thou art pressed. Prepare thyself, for I will presently raise up two devils to carry thee away.—Banio! Belcher! (1.4.28-33)

Robin is not as easily bought as Faustus, who was quick to sign away his soul for the power he believes Mephistopheles can give him. Wagner's use of two devils to frighten Wagner into submission foreshadows Mephistopheles tactics later in the play, when he threatens Faustus with dismemberment by spirits if he renounces his pact with the devil. Even though dismemberment by spirits was always how Faustus's life would end. The moment he signed that contract the deal was sealed.

Act 2, Scene 1

I, John Faustus of Wittenberg, Doctor, by these presents, do give both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East, and his minister, Mephistopheles, and furthermore grant unto them that, twenty-four years being expired, and these articles above written being inviolate, full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus' body and soul, flesh, blood, into their habitation wheresoever. By me, John Faustus. (2.1.99-105)

Faustus's contract with Lucifer is written "in manner of a deed of gift" (2.1.58), a document that assigns ownership of something away from one person to another. Mephistopheles insists that Faustus write the document and then also read it aloud, probably to help give it all the pomp and circumstance needed to make the whole deal legit. Of course we think it's totally not legit. The absurdity of giving away a soul in a deed of gift raises the possibility that other similar transactions—like slavery, for example—are equally absurd.

Act 3, Scene 1
Pope Adrian and Bruno

Pope Adrian, let me have some right of law;
I was elected by the Emperor.
He grows too proud in his authority
Lifting his lofty head above the clouds
And, like a steeple, overpeers the Church.
But we'll put down his haughty insolence. (3.1.125-126, 132-135)

The dispute between Adrian and Bruno is over who has the power to appoint the pope. Pope Adrian believes that this power belongs only to members of the Church, but Bruno argues that a former pope gave the Holy Roman Emperor this same power. This belief is why Bruno claims "right of law," i.e., that he's the lawfully chosen Pope.

Is not all power on earth bestowed to us?
And therefore, though we would, we cannot err.
Behold this silver belt whereto is fixed
Seven golden seals, fast sealed with seven seals,
In token of our seven-fold power from heaven,
To bind or loose, lock fast, condemn or judge,
Resign or seal, or what so pleaseth us.
Then he and thou and all the world shall stoop,
Or be assured of our dreadful curse. (3.1.151-159)

Here the pope claims two powers that Catholics traditionally regarded as belonging to the church, as represented by its priests, cardinals, and/or popes. The first is the pope's power to decree infallibly in his papal office. What does this mean? Whatever he decrees officially, as pope, is totally and absolutely true. The other power belongs to all priests (including popes and cardinals). This is the power to forgive sins, here called the power to "bind or loose, lock fast, condemn or judge." With this power, the church controls an individual's access to salvation, since only when his sins are forgiven by a priest can he hope to enter heaven. Corresponding with this power is the "dreadful curse," meaning the ability to excommunicate someone, prohibiting that person from receiving the sacraments. But the Pope uses this power selfishly, to make the whole world "stoop," when that is presumably not what God intended it for.

Cast down our footstool.
                    Saxon Bruno, stoop.
Whilst on thy back his Holiness ascends
Saint Peter's chair and state pontifical.
Proud Lucifer, that state belongs to me.
But thus I fall to Peter, not to thee.
To me and Peter shalt thou grovelling lie
And crouch before the papal dignity. (3.1.88-95)

The Pope demands a display of submission from schismatic pope Bruno, forcing him to get down on his hands and knees so he can use his back as a step-stool. Talk about humiliating. Bruno only submits, he says, because he respects St. Peter, implying that he recognizes the power of the office of Pope (which Peter represents), but not the power of the man who now fills it.


Upon the bridge called Ponte Angelo
Erected is a castle passing strong,
Where thou shalt see such store of ordnance
As that the double cannons, forged of brass,
Do match the number of the days contained
Within the compass of one complete year,
Beside the gates and high pyramides
That Julius Caesar brought from Africa. (3.1.38-45)

Rome is a place with some major power, huh? This power is symbolized by the "passing strong" castle that guards the bridge into Rome and contains twice as many cannons as the number of days in the year. This palace sits next to gates and pyramids that Julius Caesar brought from Africa, which are a symbol of the glory of the Roman Empire and its ability to conquer the world.