Study Guide

Doctor Faustus The Supernatural

By Christopher Marlowe

The Supernatural


For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now with learning's golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy.
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss. (Prologue.22-26)

It's interesting that the Chorus describes Faustus as "surfeit[ing] upon cursed necromancy." Near the end of the play, the Scholars remark that Faustus's problem is probably a "surfeit," or excess, of something in his blood, which was thought to cause disease. Faustus responds that it's a "surfeit of deadly sin" (5.2.36-37). Sin, magic, and disease are all linked by that word—"surfeit." The description of Faustus as "glutted," and magic as "sweet," also links Faustus's pursuit of magic to the sin of gluttony. He just wants too much of everything.

Act 1, Scene 1

These metaphysics of magicians
And necromantic books are heavenly.
Lines, circles, letters, and characters –
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires. (1.1.48-51)

Describing "necromantic books" as "heavenly" is more than a little ironic considering the fact that these books will actually cause Faustus to turn away from heaven, and toward hell. Oh Faustus, don't you hear yourself?

Valdes, sweet Valdes, and Cornelius,
Know that your words have won me at the last
To practice magic and concealèd arts.
Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physic are for petty wits.
'Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me. (1.1.98-103)

We're just gonna address the elephant in the room: Faustus's creepy obsession with magic is almost erotic. He says that magic has "ravished" him, as though he were a maiden being taken by a powerful man. How could philosophy, law, or medicine hope to compete with an attraction like that?

Act 1, Scene 3

Within this circle is Jehovah's name
Forward and backward anagrammatized,
Th'abbreviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs and evening stars,
By which the spirits are enforced to rise.
Then fear not, Faustus, be resolute
And try the utmost magic can perform. (1.3.8-15)

Faustus draws a complicated diagram here to summon a devil familiar. The names of the saints are abbreviated, which may be a sign of disrespect for them. In script, they are made "less" than the name of Jehovah, or the devil, which is written out twice in its entirety.

Act 2, Scene 1

[Enter Devils, giving crowns and rich apparel to Faustus. They dance, and then depart. Enter Mephistopheles.]
What means this show? Speak, Mephistopheles.
Nothing, Faustus, but to delight thy mind
And let thee see what magic can perform.
But may I raise such spirits when I please?
Ay, Faustus, and do greater things than these.
Then, Mephistopheles, receive this scroll,
A deed of gift of body and of soul,
But yet conditionally that thou perform
All covenants and articles between us both. (2.1.81-89)

Here it is: the Big Moment. This delightful little show is what tips the scales in Mephistopheles's favor, convincing Faustus to hand over the scroll on which he's signed over his soul to the devil. The delights, though, are nothing more than rich clothing and a show of worship. Big whoop. Although Mephistopheles tells Faustus he can do "more" if he chooses, the tricks he gets up to with his magic rarely amount to more than this, which means this moment foreshadows the rest of the play.

Act 2, Scene 3
Dick and Robin

Do but speak what thou'lt have me to do, and I'll do't. If thou'lt dance naked, put off they clothes, and I'll conjure thee about presently; or, if thou'lt go but to the tavern with me, I'll give thee white wine, red wine, claret wine, sack, muscadine, malmsery, and whippincrust—hold, belly, hold—and we'll not pay one penny for it.
O, brave! Prithee, let's to it presently, for I am as dry as a dog. (2.3.26-31)

The comedic conjuring among the peasants parodies the scenes between Faustus and Mephistopheles. Instead of using magic to gain power and wealth, Robin offers Dick a lot of booze for free. These scenes make us think about what Faustus is doing with his powers, and whether it's really so different from what the peasants do with them. Bet that never occurred to Faustus.

Act 3, Scene 1

Go, haste thee, gentle Mephistopheles,
Follow the cardinals to the consistory,
And, as they turn their superstitious books,
Strike them with sloth and drowsy idleness,
And make them sleep so sound that in their shapes
Thyself and I may parley with this Pope,
This proud confronter of the Emperor,
And, in despite of all his holiness,
Restore this Bruno to his liberty
and bear him to the states of Germany. (3.1.112-121)

Here, Faustus uses magic to do something that actually has an impact (beyond entertainment). He rescues a schismatic Pope, Bruno, from the punishment of the Roman Pope, who's more than a little ticked off. Faustus's characterization of the books of the cardinals as "superstitious" shows that he has a typically Protestant attitude toward Catholicism, which means he thinks Catholicism is just a bunch of superstitious nonsense.

Act 3, Scene 2

Faustus, thou shalt, then kneel down presently,
Whilst on they head I lay my hand
And charm thee with this magic wand.
First, wear this girdle; then appear
Invisible to all are here.
The planets seven, the gloomy air,
Hell, and the Furies forkèd hair,
Pluto's blue fire and Hecate's tree,
With magic spells so compass thee
That no eye may thy body see.
So, Faustus, now, for all their holiness,
Do what thou wilt; thou shalt not be discerned. (3.2.14-25)

Mephistopheles's magic spell lumps the powers of Hell in with the powers of Pagan deities, which makes sense when you consider the belief some folks held that Greco-Roman paganism was simply a manifestation of the Christian Satan. But this fancy spell is all in the name of the rather anticlimactic trick of turning Faustus invisible, just so he can have a little fun at the Pope's expense. Compared to Faustus's rescue of Bruno, this isn't exactly the most exciting, or most noble of feats.

Act 3, Scene 3
Dick and Robin

Dick, make me a circle, and stand close at my back, and stir not for thy life. Vintner, you shall have your cup anon. Say nothing, Dick. [Chants.] 'O' per se 'O'; Demogorgon, Belcher, and Mephistopheles!
          [Enter Mephistopheles] (3.3.29-32)

Dick's use of magic to help him steal a cup from the local tavern-keeper occurs just after Faustus has stolen a valuable crown, but also some food and dishes, from the Pope. Once again, the scene reminds us that at the end of the day, the well-educated and ambitious Faustus's goals are pretty similar to those of some simple peasants. At the same time, the ease with which they conjure suggests that Faustus's abilities might not be so rare or special after all.

Act 4, Scene 1

[To Emperor.] My lord, I must forewarn your Majesty,
That when my spirits present the royal shapes
Of Alexander and his paramour
Your Grace demand no questions of the King,
But in dumb silence let them come and go.
These are but shadows, not substantial. (4.1.90-94, 101)

Oh so Faustus's powers do have limits: he isn't able to conjure the real Alexander and Darius—just their shadows. So then what's the point of giving the gift of conjuring to these guys if their figures can't be questioned or even touched? Is the point just to delight and entertain? Is that really worth handing over your soul?

My gracious lord, not so much for injury done to me as to delight your Majesty with some mirth hath Faustus justly requited this injurious knight; which being all I desire, I am content to remove his horns. Mephistopheles, transform him. [Mephistopheles removes the horns.] (4.1.153-157)

Faustus is being quite the suck-up here, brownnosing the Emperor by claiming that everything he does is for his delight. We know that Faustus's giving Benvolio horns is as much for petty vengeance as for anything else. But even if it is just to amuse the emperor, is that an honorable reason to humiliate someone?

Act 4, Scene 3

Know you not, traitors, I was limited
For four-and-twenty years to breathe on earth?
And had you cut my body with your swords,
Or hewed this flesh and bones as small as sand,
Yet in a minute had my spirit returned,
And I had breathed a man made free from harm. (4.3.71-76)

It's interesting that Faustus characterizes himself as "limited" to twenty-four years of life, especially when the argument he wants to make is really about how powerful he is. Maybe Faustus is finally realizing just how much his pact with the devil is going to cost him.

Act 4, Scene 6
Dick and Robin

Do you remember, sir, how you cozened me and eat up my load of –
[Faustus charms him dumb.]
Do you remember how you made me wear an ape's –
[Faustus charms him dumb.]
You whoreson conjuring scab, do you remember how you cozened me with a ho –
[Faustus charms him dumb.]
Ha'you forgotten me? You think to carry it away with your "hey-pass" and "re-pass." Do you remember the dog's fa –
[Faustus charms him dumb.] (4.6.109-115)

Honestly, Faustus is a big fat jerk. When the peasants accuse them of magical misdoing, does he defend himself? No, he just does more magical misdeeds and makes them unable to speak, so no one will know the wrong he's done. While the scene is meant to be funny (and don't get us wrong, it totally is), it also reflects rather poorly on Faustus's character.