Historical Context in Doctor Faustus
Marlowe based the The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, commonly called Doctor Faustus, off of the German legend The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. Though the source text shares a very similar story of a scholar selling his soul for knowledge and power, Marlowe complicates his story by incorporating contemporary debates about faith, power, and the pursuit of knowledge. The Renaissance, a movement that began in Italy and valued education, human interests, and the individual rather than theological concerns, coincided with the Protestant Reformation, a religious movement that challenged Catholic doctrine in places such as Germany and England. Both movements challenged the social, religious, and political frameworks that shaped the medieval world. Humanism, a cultural and intellectual movement that rejected medieval scholasticism in favor of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, is particularly important to understanding Doctor Faustus. Like Shakespeare and other contemporaries, Marlowe includes numerous allusions and references to ancient Greek and Roman literature.
Versions of the Text: While originally composed between 1588 and 1592, Doctor Faustus was not printed until 1604. This version of the text is referred to as the “A Text.” The “B Text” was published in 1616. It is significantly longer and altered to comply with censorship laws that were passed in 1604. Additions to this text reference people and events that occurred after Marlowe died. Thus, the “A Text” is considered to be closer to Marlowe’s original.
Historical Context Examples in Doctor Faustus:
Chorus 1 3
"Chorus..." See in text (Chorus 1)
In Early Modern theater, a "Chorus" was a single actor reciting a prologue to the audience. The prologue either introduced the Act, the Scene, or the entire play. Sometimes the Chorus would return to deliver the play's Epilogue as well. This character is reminiscent of a chorus in Greek tragedy in which a group of actors would use song, dance, and recitation to comment on the main action of the play.
"Wertenberg..." See in text (Chorus 1)
Wertenberg is the university where Martin Luther, an influential figure in the Protestant Reformation, was educated. In this allusion, Faustus is implicitly equated with radical theological thought.
"Carthaginians..." See in text (Chorus 1)
In this context, "mate" means to join. Carthage, a once great empire in the Mediterranean, once rivaled the Roman Empire for power in the region. In 217 B.C. the Carthaginians and their leader Hannibal defeated the Romans in an epic battle at Lake Thrasimene.
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"Ubi desinit Philosophus, ibi incipit Medicus:..." See in text (Scene 1)
This Latin phrase means "where the philosopher leaves off the physician begins." Galen was the ancient authority on medicine and his theories were the foundation of Early Modern medicine. Having dismissed philosophy as below his level of wit, Faustus begins to contemplate pursuing medicine.
"Bene disserere est finis logices..." See in text (Scene 1)
Analytics is the title of Aristotle's treatise on logic. This phrase in Latin means "to carry on a debate well is the end or purpose of logic." Notice that Faustus kind of misses the point of this phrase when he translates it to mean, "arguing is the point of logic" when Aristotle is instead talking about debating, discussion fueled by opposing positions.
"Albanus'..." See in text (Scene 1)
Pietro d'Abano was a 13th century alchemist. Alchemy was the medieval practice of trying to transform matter, specifically valueless stones like granite into precious materials like gold. It was a seemingly mysterious process in which people were thought to magically create something out of nothing.
"Bacon's..." See in text (Scene 1)
Roger Bacon was a Franciscan friar, philosopher, and a scientist in the 13th century. He is now remembered for his use of empirical science and Aristotle's scientific method, however, in the Early Modern period, he was thought to be a wizard who engaged in black magic.
"Delphian Oracle..." See in text (Scene 1)
The Delphian Oracle was the most powerful and famous priest in ancient Greece who was able to communicate with the gods. This oracle originated to worship Gaea the goddess of the earth. But it soon passed to Apollo. The site of the oracle became one of the most famous shrines to Apollo in the summer and Dionysus in the winter when Apollo was absent.
"Philip's treasury..." See in text (Scene 1)
Here, Valdas compares Prince Philip of Spain's treasury, rich with silver and gold from the New World, to the Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Jason and his band of Argonauts went on a quest to find the Golden Fleece because it was a symbol of authority and kingship. King Pelias sent Jason to find it so that he could claim rightful kingship to the throne of Iolcus and was only able to complete his mission with the help of Medea.
"CORNELIUS..." See in text (Scene 1)
Cornelius could be an allusion to Cornelius Agrippa, a German author who wrote The Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences. He was believed to have the power to call shades or shadows back from the dead.
"Musaeus..." See in text (Scene 1)
Musaeus was a legendary singer and the son of Orpheus. He was looked up to by other souls in Elysian, and featured in Virgil's Aeneid.
"Agrippa..." See in text (Scene 1)
Agrippa was a Roman statesman and close advisor of Octavian. He is remembered for his military prowess in battles against Antony and Cleopatra, and the renovation of Rome. He repaired the aqueducts, and provided public services for every social class. He also created multiple baths, porticoes, and the Pantheon.
"Prince of Parma..." See in text (Scene 1)
The "Prince of Parma" was the Spanish governor general of the Low Countries, modern Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of Germany, from 1579-1592.
"Jove..." See in text (Scene 1)
Jove is the Roman god also known as Jupiter. He was the god of the sky and father of all of the gods, much like Zeus in the Greek tradition. Notice that the Evil Angel invokes Pagan imagery, then considered sacrilegious, to convince Faustus to keep going.
"Jerome's Bible..." See in text (Scene 1)
Jerome's Bible, or the Vulgate Bible, was a Latin translation of the Bible by Saint Jerome in the 4th century. Faustus's final consideration is theology after he has dismissed all other disciplines.
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"phlegmatic..." See in text (Scene 2)
The power of the four humors was a major medical philosophy in the Early Modern period. It was believed that four bodily fluids, phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile, determined a person's disposition. "Phlegmatic" was a condition of the four humors that made someone unemotional and generally calm.
Scene 3 7
"four and twenty years..." See in text (Scene 3)
Faustus sells his soul for 24 years of power, magic, and living in excess. While this seems like an incredibly short time to exchange for an eternity in hell, the average life span for someone in Marlowe's time was 42. Faustus, who is presumably in his late twenties or early thirties since he has a doctorate would have essentially been doubling his time left on earth.
"Elysium;..." See in text (Scene 3)
In the pagan tradition, Elysium was a conception of the afterlife that was separate from Hades. Elysium is where mortals related to the gods, heroes, great philosophers, and other figures chosen by the gods. It was a blessed and happy place of indulgence and enjoyment. Faustus imagines Hell as Elysium, where he will be rewarded for his actions rather than punished and tormented as in Christian Hell.
"Franciscan friar;..." See in text (Scene 3)
Franciscan friars were a mendicant order in the Catholic Church. The mendicant orders were Christian religious groups of priests that adopted a life of poverty to travel to different urban centers in order to preach and baptize people, especially the poor. They adopted many of the habits of monks, but abandoned the removed lifestyle of remaining and working in a monastery. Instead, they relied on the goodwill of the people they preached to in order to survive. Faustus asks Mephistophilis to return dressed as a Friar to both visual depict the demon as dependent on him and to mock Christianity's most pious practitioners.
"Mephistophilis...." See in text (Scene 3)
Mephistophilis is a demon from German folklore that is featured prominently in German folklore. Unlike other conniving demons that represent evil incarnate, Mephistophilis is a more complex character. He is trapped in his own hell and punishment serving the devil. He does not use trickery to capture righteous souls but rather collects souls that are already damned. His presence in this tale demonstrates Faustus's damnation from the beginning of the play.
"Belzebub,..." See in text (Scene 3)
In the Christian tradition, Belzebub is a high demon Hell's heriarchy. He is the chief lieutenant of Lucifer, the Lord of the Flies, and one of the seven princes in Hell. In some Biblical sources, Belzebub is another name for the Devil himself.
"Demogorgon,..." See in text (Scene 3)
Demogorgon is a pagan demon that came from the underworld. It was envisioned as beast so powerful it's very name was dangerous to say. Notice that in his incantation, Faustus conflates mythology from all of the religions, not just Christianity.
"Gehennam..." See in text (Scene 3)
In the Jewish tradition, Gehennam is the cursed land outside of Jerusalem's old city. Kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire in this valley and made it a cursed land akin to Christian hell. It was a place where the wicked were sent.
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"Swowns..." See in text (Scene 4)
Swowns, or Zounds, is a euphemistic abbreviation of "God's Wounds." It references the injuries that Jesus endured on the cross. Since it was considered a sin to take the lord's name in vain this euphemism negated the sin by making subject God's wounds instead of God himself.
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"March-beer..." See in text (Scene 5)
"March-beer" was a rich ale made only in March. It was a very desirable beverage in Early Modern England.
"Peter Pickleherring and Martin Martlemas-beef..." See in text (Scene 5)
These are both types of salted meat that is preserved in the winter with salt. Martinmas is November 11, the day in which meat was salted in order to keep it fresh during the winter.
"old leathern bag..." See in text (Scene 5)
In Shakespeare's time, coin money was ubiquitously used instead of paper money. Money was carried around in leather pouches attached to one's belt. Covetousness arose out of this "leather pouch," or wallet.
"COVETOUSNESS..." See in text (Scene 5)
Covetousness is avarice, greed, or the extreme desire for material wealth or monetary gain. Notice that by using this word instead of "greed," Marlowe makes a direct parallel with the Biblical language; the Seven Deadly Sins are directly contrary to piety.
"cloth of arras..." See in text (Scene 5)
"Arras" was a find cloth export from Flanders that was generally used to make tapestries. Pride claims that it cannot talk until it is standing on this fine cloth after boasting that it can get into every crevice of a woman's body. Notice that the characteristics of this sin, Pridefulness, limit Pride's ability.
"Seven Deadly Sins..." See in text (Scene 5)
The Seven Deadly Sins are seven vices that are thought to give rise to all other vices. Engaging in pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, or sloth was thought to demonstrate one's lack of grace or virtue, and cause either damnation or a cause for repentance.
"think of the devil, And of his dam too...." See in text (Scene 5)
The "devil and his dam" was a common expression in this time. "Dam" can either mean something's mother, as to dam is to give birth to, but it can also mean wife. Since women were considered the lesser of the two sexes, this expression means the devil and something worse than the devil.
"aspects..." See in text (Scene 5)
In this context, "aspects" is an archaic word used in astronomy to refer to configurations of celestial bodies in relation to each other. "Aspects" were used at this time astrologically as well since they were thought to influence human affairs.
"How many heavens, or spheres, are there?..." See in text (Scene 5)
Notice that Faustus moves directly away from understanding the divine reasoning behind the movement of the spheres and returns to asking questions about the mechanics of their movements. This suggests that when Mephistophilis confirms that there is an angel moving the spheres this frightens Faustus who claims he does not believe in divine punishment or salvation.
"intelligentia..." See in text (Scene 5)
An "intelligentia" is the angel or higher being believed to be responsible for the motion of each sphere. Faustus brushes off Mephistophilis's initial explanation of planetary movement as basic, since he presents a widely known theory at this time, and instead wants to understand the why behind the theory. Faustus wants to know more than the philosophers, and astronomers he has studied.
"situ et tempore..." See in text (Scene 5)
By this Faustus means "in position and in time." Mephistophilis presents a Renaissance theory of astronomy in which all of the plants and stars in the sky were part of a fixed sphere that rotated together. This theory was called the Celestial Spheres.
"erring stars..." See in text (Scene 5)
The erring or wandering stars were the nine planets. Unlike the rest of the stars, which appeared unmoving, the wandering stars were thought to be attached to the closer spheres that rotated around Earth.
"celestial bodies..." See in text (Scene 5)
By celestial bodies, Faustus refers to the theory of astronomy developed by Plato, Eudoxus, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Copernicus. This theory held that planetary, lunar, and stellar movement was the result of fixed rotating spheres. Rather than the modern concept which understands plants moving on relative paths through empty space, this theory believed that planets, stars, and moons were embedded in spheres made out of "quintessence," a fifth element. Mephistophilis elaborates on this concept in the following lines.
"he that built the walls of Thebes..." See in text (Scene 5)
In Greek mythology, Amphion was the son of Zeus and Antiope. He is famous for building the walls of Thebes by playing harp music so beautiful that it charmed the stones into place.
"Oenon's death..." See in text (Scene 5)
According to mythology, Oenon was a nymph with healing powers who became Paris' first wife. After Paris left her for Helen of Troy, Oenon became vengeful and angry. When Paris was wounded during the Trojan War, Oenon refused to heal him and he died. She then committed suicide out of grief.
"Alexander's love..." See in text (Scene 5)
Alexander is another name for Paris, one of the Trojan heroes of the Iliad. He eloped with Helen, the queen of Sparta, and caused the Trojan War. "Alexander's love" means Paris's dangerous love for Helen that sparked the war which caused Troy to collapse.
"Homer..." See in text (Scene 5)
Homer was the author of the epic and famous tales the Iliad and the Odyssey. He is believed to be the first or one of the first epic poets and remains central to the Western canon. He was rumored to be blind so that divine inspiration could flow through him to compose these great epics.
"Saba..." See in text (Scene 5)
Saba was the Queen of Sheba. She traveled to Jerusalem to present King Solomon with presents and question him to test his wisdom. He was able to solve all of her riddles. She is remembered as an extremely wise and cunning woman.
"Penelope..." See in text (Scene 5)
Penelope is a character from Greek mythology. She was Odysseus's wife who is famous for remaining chaste and loyal to her husband during the Trojan War and his extended absence after the war ended.
"A plague on her for a hot whore!..." See in text (Scene 5)
Mephistophilis cannot produce a wife for Faustus because marriage is one of the seven sacraments. In Catholic Church doctrine, Jesus entrusted seven sacraments, visible rites of passage or events in one's life, that demonstrated the grace of God in a righteous person. The sacraments are Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. Faustus cannot get married because he does not have the grace of God.
"Rather illusions—fruits of lunacy,(20) That makes men foolish that do trust them most...." See in text (Scene 5)
The Evil Angel recites Calvinist philosophy to mock the Good Angel's proposition of prayer. Calvinists believed in predestination, that some were born damned while others were born saved. Thus to them, prayer for salvation was an illusion because one could not reverse the condition of their nature. Notice that Marlowe mocks Calvinism by putting this philosophy in the mouth of the Evil Angel: it is the manipulative speech of an evil being rather than a respected doctrine.
Chorus 2 1
"Peter's feast,..." See in text (Chorus 2)
Saint Peter's feast is June 29th. It is a Catholic ceremonial day that honors Saint Peter and Saint Paul, who were both martyred for preaching the word of Christ. Notice how Faustus's story is still positioned within the Christian calendar and defined by Christian events.
Scene 7 8
"purgatory,..." See in text (Scene 7)
In Christian theology, purgatory was a place a soul went to after its physical death where it would undergo punishment to cleanse it of the sins it had committed on Earth. The soul would remain in purgatory until it had been redeemed by prayer, penance, or its family's monetary contribution to the church on Earth. After the soul was cleansed it would be allowed to go to heaven.
"Phlegethon..." See in text (Scene 7)
Phlegethon was one of the five main rivers in the Underworld of Greek mythology. Plato defined it as a stream of fire that flowed around the earth and into the depths of the underworld. It lay parallel to the River Styx.
"Acheron..." See in text (Scene 7)
The River Acheron is one of the five main rivers of the Underworld in Greek Mythology. It was the river of woe in which souls were cleansed of their earthly sins.
"Styx..." See in text (Scene 7)
The River Styx is the boundary between the Earth and the Underworld in Greek mythology. It is one of the five main rivers in the mythological underworld that converge on the great marsh, also sometimes referred to as Styx. Newly dead souls would cross this River to reach the Underworld and signify their departure from the world of the living.
"Ponte Angelo..." See in text (Scene 7)
Ponte Angelo is a bridge in Rome that was built in AD 134. The bridge is lined with marble statues of angels and is a walking footpath to get to St. Peter's Basilica.
"Julius Cæsar..." See in text (Scene 7)
Julius Caesar was a Roman politician and leader from 49-44BC. His military and political campaigns were critical to transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. Through a series of wars, Caesar expanded Rome's territory to the English Channel and the Rhine, then invaded both Britain and Germany by crossing both great rivers.
"Maro's golden tomb..." See in text (Scene 7)
Maro's golden tomb refers to the tomb of Virgil, the poet who wrote the Roman epic the Aeneid. In medieval legends, it was believed that Virgil was a a magician who was able to cut a tunnel in the rock surrounding his tomb in Naples.
"Maine fall into Rhine..." See in text (Scene 7)
The Maine River is one of the largest tributaries of the Rhine, Germany's largest river in Germany. It was the boundary of the Roman Empire and a convenient, vital trade route. for both the Romans and the Germans. Faustus is using this list of what he did in order to show that he has seen the wonders of the world.
Scene 8 1
"O nomine Domini!..." See in text (Scene 8)
This Latin phrase means "In the name of the Lord." This phrase, and the two Ralph and Robin say following this were common in church mass and a part of the vernacular. Unlike the imitation spells that Robin comically fails to read, these phrases would have been understood by the low characters and the audience members.
Scene 9 3
"Diana turned me to a stag!..." See in text (Scene 9)
Diana is the Greek goddess of chastity and hunting. In Ovid's Metamorphosis, Diana turns Actaeon, a young hunter, into a stag when he comes across her bathing naked and watches her for too long. Actaeon is then torn apart by his own hunting dogs. The Knight mocks mythology here with this allusion by comparing Faustus's magic with Diana's mythological ability to turn a man into a stag.
"beauteous paramour,..." See in text (Scene 9)
A paramour is a lover, especially an illicit adulterous partner. Marlowe never specifies who this paramour is, but it has been suggested that the woman is Thais, a famous courtesan who accompanied Alexander the Great on multiple military campaigns. She is remembered for inciting the burning of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. However, other scholars have argued that the woman is Roxana, Alexander's wife.
"Alexander the Great..." See in text (Scene 9)
Alexander the Great was the King of Macedonia, a kingdom in ancient Greece, from 336-323 BCE. He is remembered as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, and spent the majority of his years as a ruler leading military campaigns into Asia, India, and Northern Africa. He created the largest empire in the ancient world and was undefeated in battle. The Emperor traces his linage to this great commander from Greece.
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Scene 12 8
"Arethusa's..." See in text (Scene 12)
Arethusa is a nymph from Greek mythology. When Alpheus, the river god, saw her bathing naked, he became infatuated with her and began to pursue her all over the world. Arethusa, desiring to remain chaste, prayed to Artemis, the goddess of chastity, to save her. Artemis turned Arethusa into a stream to save her from the lecherous god. Notice again that Faustus gets this story wrong. He calls chaste Arethusa "wonton," suggesting that he does not know the story or he intentionally mistakes it.
"hapless Semele..." See in text (Scene 12)
In Greek mythology, Semele was one of Zeus's lovers. When his jealous wife Hera discovered the affair she disguised herself and befriended Semele. Hera pretended not to believe Semele about her lover, and convinced the young mortal to doubt her beloved. When Semele demanded that Zeus reveal himself to her, he was bound to an oath forced to give her anything she desired. Semele burst into flames as mortals cannot stare upon the gods. Zeus rescued their unborn son Dionysus before he burned with his mother.
"return to Helen for a kiss..." See in text (Scene 12)
Faustus gets this part of the story wrong as Paris never returns to Helen. He is killed in battle, and with his death Helen is either returned to Menelaus or in some accounts ascends to Olympus. This suggests that Faustus either does not know the story, which is unlikely, or that he is intentionally rewriting the story to fit his means.
"Achilles..." See in text (Scene 12)
Achilles was a Greek hero and the central hero of Homer's The Iliad. He accomplished great military feats during the Trojan War, including killing Hector, Troy's greatest hero, in hand to hand combat. He was invulnerable because as a child his mother had dipped him in the River Styx, holding on to him only by his heel. It was this one weakness that led to Achilles's downfall. At the end of the Trojan war, Paris shot Achilles through the heel with an arrow and killed him.
"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,..." See in text (Scene 12)
This is the most famous line from Doctor Faustus, and has been so widely quoted that it became a common expression to indicate beauty. The "face that launched a thousand ships" is the mythological Greek character, Helen of Troy. Her seduction and subsequent abduction by Paris, the Prince of Troy, from her husband, Menelaus the king of Sparta, caused the Trojan War and brought about the downfall of Troy.
"Faustus now will come to do the right..." See in text (Scene 12)
By this Faustus means kill himself. In the Christian tradition, suicide was considered blasphemous; whoever committed suicide was thought to go straight to Hell. Mephistophilis hands him a dagger so that he can end his life and fulfill his promise to Lucifer to suffer in Hell.
"OLD MAN...." See in text (Scene 12)
Doctor Faustus exists in two very different Early Modern versions. The 1606 A Text, from which Owl Eyes took its material, and the 1616 B Text. The B Text is much longer and has been altered by other writers to comply with censorship standards and elaborate on some of the characters. The most markedly different scene in the B text, besides the added material that was not in the original, is Faustus's exchange with the Old Man. In the A Text, the Old Man's tone is severe and he acts as another sign of Faustus's damnation. In the B Text, the Old Man urges Faustus to repent and treats him with a sympathetic tone.
"Helen of Greece..." See in text (Scene 12)
Helen of Greece, also known as Helen of Troy or Helen of Sparta, was considered the most beautiful woman in all of the world in Greek mythology. She was the daughter of Zeus and a mortal and the wife of Menelaus, the King of Sparta. Paris, the Prince of Troy, seduced and then abducted Helen and caused the Trojan War.
Scene 13 1
"Pythagoras' metempsychosis..." See in text (Scene 13)
"Metempsychosis" is Pythagoras's doctrine that believes in the transmigration of souls, another term for reincarnation. Pythagoras was a mathematician and philosopher from about 580 to 500BC.
"Terminat hora diem; terminat auctor opus...." See in text (Epilogue )
In Latin, this means "The hour ends the day, the author ends his work." This signature comes from the bottom of the final page in the 1604 print edition of this text. It was probably added by the printer to mark the text as coming from a certain print shop, much like a modern day logo.