Critics are divided in their opinion regarding the date of composition of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Hence it has become a subject of great controversy. But all agree that it is the second play from Marlowe’s pen and must have been written soon after Tamburlaine. Now it has been more or less established that the play was first put upon the stage by Lord Admiral’s company in 1588, but it was not printed during the life-time of Marlowe.

And the first known printed edition of the play is the Quarto edition of 1604. After many reprints another edition came out in 1616, but this one contained some other new scenes—specially the clownage ones, which according to many scholars are nothing but later interpolations. All these gave rise to various controversial opinions. The earlier critics are decided in their opinion that the date of composition should be between 1588-1589. Let us now take up the internal as well as external evidences in favour of the opinion of earlier critics like Dr. Ward and others.

External Evidences
The first external evidence shows that Marlowe wrote the play for Lord Admiral’s company and it was also staged by this company in 1588. And then in the Stationer’s Register for the year 1588-1589 there is an entry of Ballad of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. And the Ballad was definitely based on Marlowe’s play which earned great popularity. Then again Marlowe’s play is mentioned for the first time in Henslowe’s Diary and the date is September 30, 1594. But it has not been recorded as a new play and hence it must have been the revival of a popular play after Marlowe’s untimely death. We also find a close similarity between Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, published during 1590-92. All these external evidences point out that the composition of Marlowe’s play must have been completed before 1590.
Internal Evidences
There are at least two clear references in the play that help us to a great extent for fixing up the date of composition. In the very first scene of Doctor Faustus there is a reference to the Prince of Parma. While dreaming of becoming Lord and Commander of the elements, Faustus feels certain that with the help of the spirits:
“I’ll levy soldiers with the coin they bring,
And chase the Prince of Parma from our land,
And reign sole king of all our provinces”;
Now the activities of the Prince of Parma, the Spanish Governor General of the Netherlands, ended in 1590 and he died in 1592. This establishes that Doctor Faustus must have been written earlier than 1590. Then, in the very same stanza there is the reference to ‘the fiery keel’ at Antwerp’s bridge. And the incident happened during the siege of Antwerp in 1585. This clearly shows that the play was written after 1585. Taking into account all these internal and external evidence majority of the critics and scholars opine that the play is very likely to have been written between 1588-89.
Dr. Boas and the Date of Composition
Dr. Boas has outrightly rejected all the above conclusions by various critics. According to him the date of composition can in no case be earlier than 1592, if we take into account modern researches on this matter. It is an established fact that the main source of Marlowe’s play is the German Historia Van D. Johann Fausten and this was first published in 1587 at Frankfurt. Marlowe never knew German, so Marlowe’s source book must have been the English version, “The Historic of the damnable life and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus, published in 1592. So the play must have been written later than 1592. But again there are some scholars who hold that there might have been an earlier edition of the English version, as the words ‘newly imprinted’ occur in the title of 1592 edition. But some entry in the Register of the stationer’s company on December 18, 1592 has been discovered and has been made public in 1930. And this casts aside above assumptions and assigns the date of writing later than 1592. Then the great difference between the 1604 quarto and Wright’s 1616 quarto edition points out that Wright might have followed some other original manuscript. All these have given rise to a lot of controversies regarding the date of composition as well as the date of publication.
Whatever may be the controversies and the differences of opinion among the scholars, if we accept the inner evidences as more authentic, we may assign the date of composition to some time between 1588 and 1590.
Introduction: Faustus Epic
The evidences so far gathered clearly establish the historical basis of the Faustus legend. And the evidence has been very painstakingly gathered by Dr. Ward in the scholarly introduction to his edition of Marlowe’s play. In his introduction he has mentioned a number of references or supposed references by some of the contemporaries to this far-famed magician. In spite of some minor discrepancies there can be hardly any doubt regarding the actuality of Johannes Faustus. We get various discriptions about him: a Doctor of Medicine and Divinity or a necromant and imposter, or a wandering scholar. He is supposed to have journeyed through ‘all countries, principalities and kingdoms and made his name known by everyone there.’ His birthplace has also been variously given as Knutlingen and as Rhodes. He is also known to have displayed his black art at Wittenberg, Salzburg, Venice and many other different places. It is said that Faustus had dog that always followed him at his heels and the dog was nothing but the incarnation of Devil. A lot of stories had gathered round him during his life-time and these were woven into Faustus legend soon after his death. It is said that he died in 1545 in a village of the Duchy of Wertenberg. The terrible manner of his death has also been related vividly. He was killed by the Devil and was found in the morning with his face frightfully twisted and distorted. Another notable feature is that all the tales of magic that had been handed down through the ages are attributed to him. This is in keeping with the manner of a legend’s growth and the medieval mind quite readily accepted such legendary tales. So naturally the full story of his life passed into literature and was published at Frankfurt-on-the Main in 1587. It should be noted that this was-the first of the Faustbuch and is the origin of all other subsequent versions of the great Faustus story.
Marlowe’s Source
The original German book —Historia Von D. Johann Fausten was translated into English by P.F. Dent in all probability before 1592, as the words ‘newly imprinted occur in the title of 1592 edition of the English History of Dr. Faustus, and this 1592 translation is the earliest yet discovered. So Marlowe might have seen an earlier edition or the manuscript of 1592 edition. And all the critics are one in their opinion that Marlowe has borrowed the theme and plot of his play from the translation from the original German Faustbuch. To justify this we have a very striking piece of evidence. While drawing up the contract in the fifth scene of Doctor Faustus the peculiar phrase used is—‘shall do for him and bring for him whatsoever’; and this phrase strikingly resembles the wording—‘that Mephistophilis should bring him anything and do for him whatsoever’—in 1592 edition of the English History of Doctor Faustus. Scholars, specially Professor Ward, have found other internal and external evidence to establish the point that Marlowe was mainly indebted to the English Faustbuch for the plot and theme of his Doctor Faustus.
The Faust Legend in English ‘Faustbuch’
Before taking up Marlowe’s treatment of the legend, let us have an outline of the story as found in the English Faustbuch. In this English version of the famous German legend we find a magician studying necromancy. He surrenders his soul to Lucifer. The condition is that he will have a familiar spirit fully at his command and he would be allowed to live a life of luxury and mundane pleasures without any limit for twenty-four years. The terms are accepted and Faustus had his own will for the stipulated period. But after the expiry of the above period the Devil’s disciples appear amidst thunder and lightning to snatch away his soul to hell for eternal damnation. So the main theme of the German story deals with the tragic doom that awaits Faustus, the magician, for bartering his soul away to the Devil for enjoyment of sensual and voluptuous pleasures of life just for twenty-four years. A close and comparative study of both the books—Doctor Faustus and the Faustbuch will enable us to understand Marlowe’s dependence upon and departure from his source book.
Transformation of the Legend: Character of Faustus
Marlowe has no doubt based his play on the famous German legend as found in the English Faustbuch, but he has changed many of the details and by lending poetic colour to it has made it more interesting and appealing. He has a new attitude to the story. The German legend gives us a commonplace story of magic, the main source of interest of which is only the extravagant feats of the magician. Faustus, the magician is without any good traits, without the least ambition to seek further knowledge with the help of the devils. He is an example of wickedness and has been shown just as a cunning and wicked magician. But Marlowe’s hero has been painted in bright and dazzling colours. Doctor Faustus of Marlowe is rather an embodiment of the spirit of the Renaissance with its dreams and desires, with its yearning for limitless knowledge and power, with its craving for sensuous and mundane pleasures of life and not just a cunning magician of the medieval age indulging in his miraculous feats. That is why Marlowe’s Faustus bids farewell to Divinity, and to him:
“These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promis’d to the studious artizan:
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command…..”
Then we find that Marlowe’s Faustus has a revolutionary spirit and that is why he challenges God, religion, conventional morality and dogmas of medieval Christianity. The great scholarship and intellectual learning enable Marlowe’s hero to appreciate the songs of Homer and peerless beauty of Helen. But in the German story we find the low appetite of a necromancer whose only pleasure lies in cunning acts and display of cheap tricks. Then the German legend reveals no touch of sympathy and besides its usual sensations and coarse buffoonery, its only appeal lies in its moral that warns its readers against magic. So we find that Marlowe has given a significance much beyond that of medieval magic to his great tragic play. Thus, a crude and sensational tale has been transformed by Marlowe into a great work of art.
Tragic Appeal
In the German legend we find no tragic element, but Marlowe has infused a real tragic vein by making his hero inordinately ambitious to attain limitless knowledge and power and then by showing the frustration and tragic end as he deviated from the right path and sold his soul to the Devil to achieve his end. J.P. Brockbent has rightly said: “Faustus’s passion for knowledge and power is in itself a virtue, but diverted from the service of God it threatens to become totally negative and self-destroying.” Herein lies the tragic appeal of Marlowe’s drama that lifts it up far above a common story full of sensational activities and stale moral preachings.
Inner or Tragic Conflict
Then the spiritual conflict or the psychological struggle in the heart of Marlowe’s hero arouses our sympathy and a sense of veneration. The scenes in which we find the summoning of Mephistophilis, the signing of the contract, the sudden outburst of repentance before the vision of Helen and the poignant death scene reveal Marlowe’s artistic capabilities to depict the inner struggle raging in the soul of his titanic hero. In the German legend greatest stress is laid upon the great wonders of supernatural activities, whereas in Marlowe’s drama such scenes always reflect the spiritual struggle or the inner conflict.
Concentration and Effective Elaborations
In the Faustbuch, the prose chapters dealing with Faustus, signing of the contract is full of elaborate details of the contract alongwith supernatural wonders and lot of moral commentaries. Marlowe in his scene has artistically discarded the unessentials.
Then again in many other scenes we find Marlowe for greater dramatic effect elaborating some casual points. The best example is the scene in which Faustus signs the bond with his own blood. Faustus’s fear at the sight of the warning inscription on his arm and some other points have been very briefly touched in the Faustbuch. But Marlowe has effectively elaborated the points.
Another important feature of Marlowe’s drama is that his devils are not simply the grotesque and funny figures of medieval conception. He has endowed them with some tragic glory of fallen angels.
It is an undisputed fact that Marlowe borrowed the theme and plot of his Doctor Faustus from the English translation of the great German legend, but what Marlowe’s genius achieved is that he could transform a crude and commonplace tale of magic into a magnificent work of art. We may conclude with Harold Osborne’s most illuminating remark on this subject: “Marlowe follows the English Faustbuch very faithfully. His main additions are (1) Faustus’s soliloquy in Act I on the vanity of human science; (2) Good and Bad Angels; (3) The substitution of Seven Deadly Sins for a pageant of devils. In general he carries still farther the tendency of the English translator of the ‘German Historia’ to emphasize the intellectual aspiration and minimize the vices of Faust. His Faust would travel widely in space and in the realms of the spirit, led on by the glamour of knowledge. He is rather tempted by the intellectual excitement of the sense of power than by the baser enjoyments of power. The material allurements of Mephistophilis make little appeal to him except for Helen; for she represents the acme of that well nigh unrealisable beauty of the Greeks, which penetrated Marlowe’s spirit to the depths. Marlowe’s omissions from the English Faustbuch are more significant than his additions. By judicious selections he was able to shape the rather rambling and incoherent story into a dramatic unity, so that Goethe remarked upon the admirable construction of Dr. Faustus even in the mutilated form in which he knew it.”


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