Introduction: The Tragic Hero
All the tragic heroes of Marlowe are towering figures of superman size rising head and shoulders above all other minor characters of the plays and completely dominating over them. By the side of these titanic characters the minor ones look like tiny Lilliputians moving around towering Gulliver.

Marlowe seems to have conceived his titanic heroes more or less in keeping with Aristotle’s conception of a tragic hero. The hero should essentially be a superior person and according to Aristotle he must have some ‘tragic flaw’—that is some great defect-which ultimately brings about his ruin and disaster. His destiny or choice is to go down fighting rather than submit to insurmountable odds and thus to pluck a moral victory from a physical defeat. So in Doctor Faustus also we find Marlowe concentrating all his powers of delineation of character on Faustus. Mephistophilis may get a little bit of care but all other characters pale into insignificance before Faustus’s dazzling and dominating personality. “Each and all of these subordinate characters are dedicated to the one main purpose of expressing the psychological condition of Faustus from various points of view.”

Doctor Faustus and His Tragic Flaw
Before the drama opens we know from the Chorus that Faustus was born in a town in Germany and his parents were ‘base of stock’. We also come to know that he got his higher education at Wittenberg and got his degree of doctor of Divinity from there. He also excelled all those who liked to take part in discussions relating to theology. The Chorus also tells us that he became puffed up with pride for his vast knowledge and scholarship and started indulging in black art of magic to attain super-human powers. As a result he was destined to have a great fall just like Icarus who tried to fly too near the sun with ‘his waxen wings’.
So in the very first scene of the drama we find that Faustus is disappointed with all branches of knowledge that he has so far mastered. Physic, Philosophy, Law and Divinity—all are absolutely inadequate for his purpose. In spite of mastering all these great branches of knowledge
“Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a Man.
The soul of Faustus is afire with inordinate ambition yearning for limitless knowledge and with a craze for superhuman powers and supreme sensuous pleasures, he utters these memorable lines:
…………“Divinity Adieu:
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly:
O’ what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artizan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command;
A sound magician is a mighty God:
Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.”
So herein lies the great tragic flaw in his character: he wants ‘to gain a deity.’ In spite of all his greatness and other humane qualities we sadly witness how this great flaw or drawback in his character brings about his ultimate doom and destruction. He perfectly knows that to achieve his purpose he will have to abjure God and the Trinity. He was also not void of conscience and that is why we find the Good Angel and the Bad Angel, the symbols of virtue and vice in his soul making their first appearance just after Faustus’s final decision in favour of cursed necromancy. In spite of all scepticism and atheistic bias of Faustus—and Faustus is decidedly a self-portrait of Marlowe, his emotional attachment to the medieval doctrines of Christianity is too deep to be rooted out. So the Good Angel, his voice of conscience, urges him to shun ‘that damned book’ and to read the scriptures. But the Evil Angel, the voice of his passion, scores a victory by luring away Faustus with the assurance that by mastering the black art of magic Faustus will be:
“Lord and commander of the elements.”
Then at the end of third scene of Act I we find Faustus telling Mephistophilis that he has already abjured the Trinity of his own will and has firmly made up his mind to sell his soul to the Devil to gain limitless powers with the help of Mephistophilis as his abject slave and ‘to live in all voluptuousness’ for twenty-four years. Then in the first scene of Act II we find Faustus finally surrendering his soul to the Devil and writing the bond with his own blood. It may be noted that Marlowe was a child of the Renaissance with its dreams and desires and Faustus expresses the ideas and aspirations of his creator quite faithfully.
Spiritual or Inner Conflict
Before accomplishing the object act of surrendering his soul to the Devil, Faustus experiences the trick of conscience and the two angels appear again to externalise the spiritual conflict in his soul between vice and virtue, between will and conscience. And henceforth, we find that the entire action of the play is fluctuating between the weak and wavering loyalties of Faustus to these two opposing forces. Generally this inner conflict takes place when a man is faced with two alternatives one of which he must have to choose but finds himself pulled in opposite directions. And Nicoll has rightly observed: “In Doctor Faustus Marlowe attempted something new, the delineation of struggle within the mind of the chief figure. This struggle is certainly somewhat primitive in its expression but it is a foretaste of those ‘inward characteristics’ towards which drama in its development inevitably tends. Faustus in this respect is unquestionably the greatest tragic figure in sixteenth century literature outside the work of Shakespeare.” In fact there is very little external action in this play—the delineation of a psychological or spiritual conflict in the mind of the hero is the chief thing. And with what great dramatic skill Marlowe has depicted this spiritual struggle, these waverings and vacillations in his mind! To gain limitless power and pelf, Faustus may discard godly order, may denounce the doctrines of Christianity and may take to necromancy.
Faustus may discard and denounce God and the Trinity, but he is definitely attached to them emotionally. So a guilty conscience dogs him from the beginning to the end. And the heart of Faustus turns out to be the field where the forces of good and evil are trying to overwhelm each other. We can follow this tragic conflict and troubled career of Faustus to its terrible end.
Eternal Damnation
In the closing scene of the drama the spiritual conflict of a doomed and dejected soul reaches its climax and then culminates in an overwhelming catastrophe. Faustus realises to his utter dismay that he is doomed to eternal damnation with the least hope for redemption. The poignant soliloquy of Doctor Faustus starting just before an hour of his final doom reveals in a very forceful manner the deep agony of a horror-struck soul facing its impending doom. His last minute frantic appeal to the ‘ever-moving spheres of heaven’ to stand still or to the ‘Fair Nature’s eye’ to rise again to make perpetual day—‘That Faustus may repent and save his soul’—is absolutely of no avail—
“The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.”
And when the final hour strikes, there is thunder and lightning and the Devil’s disciples come and snatch away the trouble torn soul of Faustus to hell to suffer eternal damnation.
To conclude we may quote the very relevant remarks of E.A. Baker regarding this great tragedy:
“This great symbolic tragedy deals with a theme which was part, not only of the author’s inner experience but of the very stuff which nourished the Renaissance spirit. The pride of intellect by which both the Faustus of Marlowe and the Lucifer of Milton fell, was the most subtlest and dangerous temptation of the age. After wandering for centuries through the mists of ignorance, man found himself once more before the tree of knowledge. There, within his reach, burned ‘like a thousand lamps the coveted fruits of his desire; but there, too, coiled about the roots, lay the old serpent, still unconquered, still thirsting for his soul’s blood.”
Role and Significance of Dr. Faustus in the Play
It has already been mentioned, that on Faustus, however, Marlowe concentrates all his attention and all his powers of subtle character-portrayal. He has achieved the very difficult task of laying bare Faustus’s mind at some extraordinary and critical moments. The play opens with Faustus in his study, taking stock of his accomplishments and considering the plans he should pursue in the future. Seeing one by one the books in the shelf before him, Faustus realises how logic, law, physics and divinity which have yielded up their treasures to him, have not been able to quench his intellectual thirst. They have proved to be but feeble instruments for the display of the forces of his will, and afforded him no opportunity of surrounding himself with beaming manifestations of the transcendent might of his own will. Dissatisfied with mere knowledge and philosophy, Faustus (in the first scene) is in the mood of a man, “who wakes from a dream of mountain tops to find himself still in the plains, or of a man who, having reached the mountain-top, is more than ever oppressed by his earth-bound nature and by the mocking distance of the skies towards which he had seemed to be climbing; yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.” Faustus recognises the power of magic—‘a sound magician is a mighty God.’ And it is magic, that ravishes him; and nothing shall daunt his determination to command all things that move between the quiet poles-with the help of the metaphysics of magicians and heavenly necromantic books. Valdes and Cornelius, professed magicians, are sent for by Faustus to help him in his efforts at mastery of magic. Meanwhile the Good Angel and the Bad Angel—‘who dramatically objectify the double impulses of appetite and conscience’—appear on the scene, the one discouraging and the other encouraging his resolve. Valdes and Cornelius serve the purpose of inflaming Faustus further, ‘with the splendid pictures of material pomp and sensual delights’ they present. They lend him books and instruments of magic with instructions for their proper use at the proper time.
At night, in a solitary grove, Faustus begins his incantations to conjure forth Mephistophilis. As the spirit appears, Faustus realises the virtue in his heavenly words, the efficacy of his spells and the force of magic. His vanity is inflated, and he hails himself as a conjurer-laureate who can command great Mephistophilis. For ‘letting him live in all voluptuousness’, and for the unconditional service of Mephistophilis during this period of time, Faustus brushes aside the timely warnings of conscience and enters into a compact with the Devil, signing the bond with his own blood.
Faustus takes the utmost possible advantage of the service of Mephistophilis. It is this fallen angel with his sinister sincerity and unaffected frankness that resolves for Faustus the doleful problems of damnation, and indirectly helps to heighten the intrepidity of the sin-steeped scholar and his spiritual arrogance. It is Mephistophilis that clears Faustus’s doubts in astronomy and cosmography, helps him to ride triumphantly in a chariot round the world, scanning the planets in the firmament and the Kingdoms of the earth. It is with the help of Mephistophilis, the embodiment of his dearly purchased power, that Faustus surfeits his sense with carnal pleasures, not coarse delights, however, but highest and deepest enjoyments. His longing is for the fairest maid of Germany, for the beauty of Helen that makes man immortal with a kiss. He chooses no other song but that of Homer, no music but that shaken from Amphion’s harp. He uses sweet pleasure to conquer deep despair. Faustus’s mind is delighted with the dumb-show of Devils that Mephistophilis presents before him. Even the repulsive masque of the Seven Deadly Sins attracts and soothes him for the time being.
Travelling far and wide, Faustus displays his new-won power. He fools the Pope and the Friars to the top of his bent, calls up the Spirits of Dead Alexander and his paramour before the Emperor, and plays a practical joke on the horse-courser. In the midst of all this, however, the horror of damnation seizes him every now and then. It increases with the passing of years and the drawing near of the end. He is unable to take advantage even of the last chance that is given to him by the Old Man. He would well have listened to the advice of the Old Man, repented for his sin and rectified his character, but the pull of the evil forces with which he had associated himself for long, is too much for Faustus to resist. Moreover, Mephistophilis is there near at hand threatening—
Thou traitor, Faustus, I arrest thy soul
For disobedience to my sovereign lord;
Revolt, or I’ll in piecemeal tear thy flesh.
Faustus’s own pleasant vices turn into instruments to plague him. The last scene in which Faustus is torn between conflicting feelings, is the best of its kind, the most memorable in Marlowe’s plays, the most poignant in English tragedy. The Good Angel and the Bad Angel— ‘Faustus’s own thoughts objectified’—do their duty for the last time. Faustus spends the last hour in bursting out in a powerful soliloquy—counting the minutes by the ‘sand-grains of his agony.’ He implores the ‘ever-moving spheres of heaven to stand still’ calls upon the sun to rise ‘and make perpetual day.’ But what do they care for his prayers and pathetic appeals?—
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
One is always alone in suffering. Faustus’s fate is not different. No response is there to his cries of anguish and his appeals for mercy. He longs to leap up to Heaven, but where are the wings to his spirit? In the heat of his anguish, he beholds Christ’s blood streaming in the firmament. One drop of that blood, he realises, will save him. But then his heart is rent by the Devil for the very naming of Christ.
‘A threatening arm, an angry brow’ torment his mind. He appeals to the hills to hide him, to the mountains to fall on him, to the earth to harbour him, to the stars to save him. He curses himself, his birth, his parents, and Lucifer. There is no more salvation for him, only damnation. As the clock strikes twelve, Faustus is borne away to hell by the devils and we recall his words: The reward of sin is death: that’s hard.’ And we listen to the Chorus who speaks the epilogue and points the moral.
Faustus is a tremendous figure of terrible tragic stature as delineated by Marlowe. The well-versed Wittenburg scholar rises to be the ally of Lucifer and the enemy of God. Insatiable hunger for knowledge and the power that knowledge gives is the dominant passion of Faustus. And this becomes as fatal a passion as the consuming lust of power is in the case of Tamburlaine. “Faustus is the Paracelsus of Marlowe. Over the soul of the Wittenburg doctor the passion for knowledge dominates, and all influences of good and evil, the voices of damned and of blessed angels reach him faint and ineffectual as dreams, or distant music or the suggestions of long forgotten odours, save as they promise something to glut the fierce hunger and thirst of his intellect.” It is interesting to note how in Faustus, the scholar never disappears in the magician. He is ever a student and a thinker. He wants all ambiguities to be resolved, and all strange philosophies explained. Even in the last scene, when the two scholars take leave of him, Faustus retains about him an ‘atmosphere of learning, of refinement, of scholarly urbanity.’ Faustus is made of the stuff of which heroes are made. He has an unbridled passion for knowledge infinite, a limitless desire for the unattainable, a spirit of reckless adventure and a tremendous confidence in his own will and spirit. And, too, he has dignity, tenacity, patience, profundity, and a vein of unsuspected humanity and tenderness. But all these are thrown into the background by the isolation of his position and the horror of the course he pursues. He weaves the threads of his tragedy with his own hands, signs his own death warrant. Himself the battlefield for one of the greatest mental conflicts of man, Faustus creates in us a feeling of loss and a sense of waste. What abiding wonders would he not have achieved in the realms of the mind had he pursued pure scholarship and legitimate studies. Missing the honour of a master-mind, he has only the recognition of a magician. He would have been a scholar-prince, but he chose to be a conjuror-laureate.


Early Life of Faustus
Faustus had been born of base stock in Rhodes, Germany. In his maturity, while living with some relatives in Wittenberg, he studied theology and was called a doctor. However, Faustus was so swollen with conceit that, Daedalus-like, he strove too far, became glutted with learning, conspired with the devil, and finally fell, accursed.

Merits and Demerits of Different Subjects of Study
At the outset of his downward path Doctor Faustus found himself complete master of the fields of knowledge which men at that time studied. As a medical doctor he had already achieved huge success and great renown. But after obtaining good health for men no challenge remained in medicine except immortality. Law, Faustus concluded, was nothing but an elaborate money-making scheme. Only divinity remained, but theology led to a blind alley. Since the reward of sin was death and since no man could say he was without sin, then all men must sin and consequently die.
Necromancy greatly attracted Faustus. Universal power would be within his reach, the whole world at his command, and emperors at his feet, were he to become a magician. Summoning his servant Wagner, Faustus ordered him to summon Valdes and Cornelius, who could teach him their arts.
Lure of Necromancy
The Good Angel and the Evil Angel each tried to persuade Faustus, but Faustus was in no mood to listen to the Good Angel. He exulted over the prospects of his forthcoming adventures. He would get gold from India, pearls from the oceans, tasty delicacies from far away places; he would read strange philosophies, cull from foreign kings their secrets, control Germany with his power, reform the public schools, and perform many other fabulous deeds. Eager to acquire knowledge of the black arts, he went away to study with Valdes and Cornelius.
Scholars’ Lament
Before long the scholars of Wittenberg began to notice the doctor’s prolonged absence. Learning from Wagner of his master’s unhallowed pursuits, the scholars lamented the fate of the famous doctor.
Mephistophilis Explains
Faustus’s first act of magic was to summon Mephistophilis to assume the shape of a Franciscan friar. The docile obedience of Mephistophilis elated the magician, but Mephistophilis explained that magic had limits in the devil’s kingdom. Mephistophilis claimed that he had not actually appeared at Faustus’s behest but had come, as he would have to any other person, because Faustus had cursed Christ and adjured the Scriptures. Whenever a man is on the verge of being doomed, the devil will appear.
Interested in the nature of Lucifer, Faustus questioned Mephistophilis about his master, the fallen angel, and about hell, Lucifer’s domain. Mephistophilis was wary. He claimed that the fallen spirits, having been deprived of the glories of heaven, found the whole-world hell. Mephistophilis urged Faustus to give up his scheme, but Faustus scorned the warning, saying that he would surrender his soul to Lucifer if the fallen angel would give to Faustus twenty-four years of voluptuous ease, with Mephistophilis to attend him.
Good Angel and Evil Angel
While Faustus indulged in a mental argument concerning the relative merits of God and the Devil, the Good Angel and the Evil Angel, symbolic of his inner conflict, appeared once again, each attempting to persuade him. The result was that Faustus was more determined than ever to continue his course.
Lucifer Accepts his Terms: Contract Signed
Mephistophilis returned to assure Faustus that Lucifer was agreeable to the bargain, which must be sealed in Faustus’s blood. When Faustus tried to write, however, his blood congealed and Mephistophilis had to warm the liquid with fire. Significantly the words, “Fly, man,” appeared in Latin on Faustus’s arm. When Faustus questioned Mephistophilis about the nature of hell, the devil claimed that hell had no limits for the damned. Intoxicated by his new estate, Faustus disclaimed any belief in an after-life. Thus he assured himself that his contract with Lucifer would never be fulfilled, in spite of the devil’s warning that he, Mephistophilis was living proof of hell’s existence.
Faustus Wavers: Lucifer Consoles
Faustus, eager to consume the fruits of the devil’s offering, demanded books that would contain varied information about the devil’s regime. When the Good Angel and the Evil Angel came to him again, he realized that he was beyond repentance. Again, the opposing Angels insinuated themselves into his mind, until he called Christ to save him. As he spoke, wrathful Lucifer descended upon his prospective victim to admonish him never to call to God. As an appeasing gesture Lucifer conjured up a vision of the Seven Deadly Sins.
At the Palace of Pope and the Emperor
Faustus travelled extensively throughout the world, and Wagner marvelled at his master’s rapid progress. In Rome, at the palace of the Pope, Faustus, made invisible by his magic arts, astounded the Pope by snatching things from the holy man’s hands. Like a gleeful child Faustus asked Mephistophilis to create more mischief. When Faustus returned home the scholars questioned him eagerly about many things unknown to them. As his fame spread, the emperor invited him to the palace and asked him to conjure up the spirit of Alexander the Great. Because a doubtful knight scoffed at such a preposterous idea, Faustus, after fulfilling the emperor’s request, spitefully placed horns on the head of the sceptical nobleman.
Return to Wittenberg
Foreseeing that his time of merriment was drawing to a close, Faustus returned to Wittenberg. Wagner sensed that his master was about to die when Faustus gave his faithful servant all his worldly goods.
The Old Man and Faustus: Vision of Helen
As death drew near, Faustus spoke with his conscience, which, assuming the form of an Old Man begged him to repent before he died. When Faustus declared that he would repent, Mephistophilis cautioned him not to offend Lucifer. Faustus asked Mephistophilis to bring him Helen of Troy as a lover to amuse him during the final days of his life.
Tragic End
In his declining hours Faustus conversed with scholars who had loved him, and the fallen theologian revealed to them his bargain with Lucifer. Alone, he uttered a final despairing plea that he be saved from impending misery, but in the end he was borne off by a company of devils to hell for eternal damnation.


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.”


This drama should be regarded as a skeletal structure of the play written by Marlowe, for the surviving manuscripts are so interspersed with comic scenes and the lines themselves so often revised according to whims of the actors that the original writing must be culled out of the surviving version.

Even so, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is worth reading and study because of the many remaining examples of the poet’s skill it contains. In addition to the adulterated poetry in this play there is also the problem of the tainted characterization and symbolism; for a while the personality of Mephistophilis is often caricaturized and while the exploits of Faustus are frequently rendered pure low comedy, still the Marlowe version of the two principal characters is evident in the sober and more consistent moments of the play. As an added contribution to existing Faustian literature, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is an artistic effort, although not comparable in-depth or scope to the treatment given to this theme by Goethe.

Eternal Significance
There is evidently more than what meets the eye in Doctor Faustus, otherwise, its story-element which is too brief and simple, has not by itself the power of creating a lasting impression and an abiding appeal. The play may have had an immediate interest to the people of the Renaissance age because it was written in and for that age, and also because Faustus typifies the genuine Renaissance passion for infinite knowledge. The play, it is true, is a typical Renaissance rendering of the story upon which it is based. But the fact that it is still a favourite of every reader of English drama in spite of three-and-half centuries of changing tastes and temperaments, proves that Doctor Faustus has its greatness not as a mere typical Renaissance play but as a play embodying eternal significance.
Central Figure of ‘Dr. Faustus’
Faustus, the chief and central figure of Marlowe’s play, stands not for a character, not for a man, but for everyman. The grim tragedy that befalls him is not a personal tragedy, but one that overtakes all those who dare ‘practise more than heavenly power permits.’ The terrible conflict that rages in his mind is not peculiar to him alone, but common to all who waver between truth and delusion. The play presents not the conflict between man and man, but the eternal battle between the world-old protagonists—Man and Spiritual Power. And the battle takes place not in any known battlefield but in the invisible and limitless region of the mind. And the object of fight—not sceptres and crowns, not kingdoms and empires, but the knowledge of man’s final fate!
Conflict in Dr. Faustus
The mystery of life is an alluring and impenetrable one. Innumerable have been the attempts of scholars and scientists, poets and prophets, to pluck out the heart of this mystery. Yet baffling one and all, it continues to be a mystery. Part at least of this mystery is due to the perpetual conflict between good and evil—a conflict without beginning and end. The conflict is terrible, but in that very terror there is an irresistible fascination. It is such a fascination that the play of Doctor Faustus exercises on its readers. Faustus, the Teutonic and medieval sceptic, personifies disbelief in all its strength and weakness. Tired of what he calls barren knowledge, he deliberately seeks to learn and practise magic, magic that has been practised since the beginning of the history of thought by those who have chosen the wrong road. Blind in his blind determination, Faustus becomes deaf to the counsels of good that are constantly whispered into his ears by the Good Angel. Such is the power of Evil that when once it takes a man by the throat, it will not leave him until it strangles him. This kind of crucifixion which carries with it its own moral, cannot but make an appeal to the mind of man in all ages and countries. Sin working out its own nemesis, brings the catastrophe of the play into vital relation with human conduct. And who can resist its appeal?
Fascinating Appeal: The Attempt to Acquire Forbidden things and the Attempt to Secure Martyrdom
And too, there is ever present in man an irrepressible temptation to reach that which is beyond his grasp, to conquer the infinite, to touch the impalpable, to see the invisible, to attain the impossible. In spite of examples from history, in spite of warnings and threats, man never gives up this instinct of his, never rests contented with what he has. He is forever eager to follow the dubious trail of some melting mirage of the mind and ready to stake his all, if necessary, in its pursuit’. Doubtful though of his success, he still throws his red gauntlet in the face of fate, defies chance and circumstance, and hopes to reach his goal. May be the roses of reward will not be his, but his surely will be crown of martyrdom. And both the attempts—the attempt to acquire forbidden things and the attempt to secure martyrdom have their fascinating appeal. And Faustus, as we know, is both the hero and martyr of forbidden knowledge.
An Interesting Story
The story of Doctor Faustus may be synoptically stated thus. There was once a German scholar, John Faustus by name. He was a Doctor of Divinity—excelling all ‘whose sweet delight disputes in heavenly matters of theology.’ Not satisfied with ‘learning golden gifts’, he took to the study of cursed necromancy. He was convinced that ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’, and that if he became one, all things that move between the quiet poles will be at his command. So he decided to enlarge his sphere of knowledge by cultivating magic. He conjured up Mephistophilis, servant to great Lucifer—‘arch-regent and commander of all spirits.’ Mephistophilis told Faustus that he could not serve him without Lucifer’s permission. Faustus then voluntarily offered to surrender his soul after twenty-four years, if during that period Mephistophilis promised to be his slave and did his biddings. Lucifer agreed, and demanded a promise executed in Faustus’ blood. Faustus did so and set out in quest of knowledge and pleasure, travelling about invisible. He had an aerial flight ‘seat in a chariot burning bright’, and visited Trier, Paris, Naples, Campania, Venice, Padua, Rome. By way of demonstrating his power and superiority, Faustus fooled the Pope, called up the spirits of Alexander and his paramour, provided grapes to the Duchess of Vanholt in mid-winter and, at the request of his scholar-friends, summoned the spirit of Helen of Troy—Helen whose face ‘launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium.’ At times Faustus was seized by the desire for repentance but the exhilaration of pleasure was too great, and the powers of Evil too strong. Finally, as the period of contract expired, Faustus made frantic appeals to God and Christ: but precisely at the stroke of twelve, he was borne away by the Devils to his everlasting doom.
Plot of ‘Doctor Faustus’
As already mentioned Doctor Faustus consists only of scenes, of fourteen short scenes. Marlowe never cared to arrange them in Acts and Scenes according to the traditional manner. Some of the recent editors, have, however, attempted to do so. According to this arrangement the First Act consists of the first four scenes. The next two scenes constitute the Second Act. The seventh, eight and nineth scenes, with the Chorus preceding it, is the Third Act. Scenes ten, eleventh and twelveth with Bologue are marked off as the Fourth Act. The last two scenes form the Fifth Act.
Whatever argument we like and follow, the fact remains that the interest and appeal of the play does not in the least depend upon its division into Acts and Scenes, or Movements or Episodes. Lacking as it does structural unity and technical perfection, the play has the greater merit of unity of character. It is the dominating figure of Faustus that holds the play together and imparts to it such dramatic quality and emotional appeal as can never belong to it by any other method. As in Hamlet, so in this drama, the central personality himself is the play, a living play with living acts and scenes, and incidents and episodes. His adventure itself in the realm of knowledge is full of dramatic possibilities; and the conflict in his mind between his allegiance to the Devil and his desire to repent for it and seek God’s pardon is, of course, dramatic in the extreme.
Characterisation of ‘Doctor Faustus’
Characterization in Doctor Faustus is, in general, weak and shadowy. Marlowe concentrates all his power of character delineation on Faustus. Mephistophilis too, gets his share, though to a much less degree. But all the other characters are faint and feeble. In fact, Marlowe seems to have designed these minor characters, Valdes and Cornelius, the scholars, the Old Man, the Good and the Evil Angels, in such a manner as to heighten the character of Faustus by contrast. “Each and all of these subordinate characters are dedicated to the one main purpose of expressing the psychological condition of Faustus from various points of view—the perplexities of his divided spirits, his waverings of anguish and remorse, the flickerings of hope extinguished in the smoke of self-abandonment to fear, the pungent pricks of conscience soothed by transient visions of delight, the prying curiosity which lulls his torment, at one moment, the soul’s defiance ‘yielding to despair, and from despair recovering fresh strength. To this vivisection of a ruined man, all details in gloomy scene contribute. Even the pitiful distractions—pitiful in their leaden dullness and blunt edge of drollery—with which Faustus amuses his worse than Promethean leisure until the last hour of his contract sounds, heighten the infernal effect.”
Despite defects Doctor Faustus is a great play and a great tragedy. A close examination will reveal to us how wonderfully Marlowe has succeeded in producing a work of art from the chaotic Northern and Teutonic Faustiad. The most striking thing that endows the play with a tragic unity is the character of the hero—whose mind is a battleground between the forces of curiosity and conscience. Marlowe’s indisputable merit consists in delineating with great tragic power the figure of a great tragic hero. Marlowe’s Faustus, scholarly and sceptical, defiant and desperate, combines in himself the characteristics of a medieval rebel and a Renaissance adventurer. It is the psychological study of this character that Marlowe draws with great mastery, and it is this that makes Doctor Faustus more a dramatic poem than a drama proper. The mental conflict of Faustus is presented with great tragic intensity, enhanced every now and then by the whispers of the Good and Bad Angels. We witness the course of this conflict with alternating moods of fear, pity, sympathy, and awe, till in the final scene when Faustus cries out his very soul, we just watch incapable of having any one particular feeling. Plot or no plot, Doctor Faustus engulfs the reader in the waves of tragedy that fret and foam in its serious scenes. 


Silhouetted against the crowded and rather confused literary firmament of the pre-Shakespearean age, Christopher Marlowe shines with singular scintillation. Standing in the shadow of Shakespeare without being overshadowed by him, Marlowe, of all the Elizabethan dramatists, is next only to him in poetical status.

A master-idealist, Marlowe is one of the foremost representatives of the Elizabethan artistic movement, a writer who lived in and for his art. Possessed by his art rather than holding it in possession, he made his literary work not a mere episode in his life but his very life itself. Revelling in a reckless, quick and passionate Bohemian life, he had yet the strength and the good fortune to stand at the centre of renascents of English national life—a life conscious of a new-found power, a life that galvanized the nation into a living body self-organised around splendid objects of common interest, pride and admiration. Somewhat without balance, immoderate and extravagant, he was yet a great, ardent and aspiring spirit. With a hunger for the unattainable, a thirst for knowledge infinite and a fertile imagination hallowed by its own fiery energy. Disregarding with sublime indifference the grand notoriety of insolent atheism that was heaped upon him by some of his contemporaries on account of his ever-enthusiastic yearning for lawless pleasure and forbidden fruits, Marlowe lived the life of a typical artist, in outlook and utterance. His was the enviable privilege of discerning the authentic gem or art lying concealed in the labyrinthine mass of unmastered possibilities and of perceiving the capacities for noble art inherent in the “Romantic Drama.” It was he and no other who effected a magic transfiguration of dramatic matter and dramatic metre, moulded a new type of heroic and tragic character, designed tragedies on a magnificent scale and elevated them to heights as yet unapprehended in his days made the instrument of language produce rolling thunders and whispering sighs, and draped his plays in the purple robes of his imperial imagination. What wonder then that Marlowe was ‘in that age thought second to none’ and that his name has become ‘Fame’s Marlowe is to be remembered and valued not as a mere impulse-giver and path-finder who paved the way for the typical English tragedy, not merely as the wielder of blank verse as a noble poetic instrument, a master of the ‘mighty line.’ He was an unconscious artist whose mind forever voyaged through strange seas of thought, alone. With a god-like curiosity and daring ebullience worthy of the foremost Elizabethan adventurer, Marlowe sought to conquer Africa from the quadrangle of a Cambridge college. Drawing his inspiration mostly from abstract ideas and not from the concrete characters of men, he longed for spectacular action, titanic passion and the quick march of life. Indubitably born a poet, he was the proud possessor of a magnificent and matchless poetic force. His wonderful freshness, energy and emotion transmuted themselves into raptures—‘all air and fire,’ Having in him ‘those brave translunary things that the first poets had’, he created types of the Lusts unlike others who made types of the Virtues. With his ‘fine madness’, he is an admirable painter of the human passion, of the ‘Impossible Amour’—‘the love or lust of unattainable things: beyond the reach of physical force, of sensual faculty, of mastering will; but not beyond the scope of man’s ever-craving thirst for beauty, power and knowledge.’ Standing ‘upto his chin in the Pierean flood’—he revealed himself as a rapturous lyrist of limitless desire and infinite aspiration.

Marlowe appeared differently to different sections of his contemporaries. There were those who regarded him as an individual with violent passions and obstinate questioning, of dangerous opinions and haughty cynicism, as one who took a morbid delight in playing the role of an intrepid iconoclast of cherished idols without offering the solace of any substitute. Others there were who looked upon him as a sort of Lucetius exhorting men to be fearless of fear, to see with unhooded eyes the errors and hypocrisies and the ignorance that is the breeding ground of all sin, as one who was indiscreetly pitiless in his portrayal of these things. Still others admired him as a man of powerful intellect and fertile imagination, of indomitable courage and invincible confidence, as a poet of wonderful vision and voice, of peerless beauty and lustrous intensity and as a supreme master of his own gifted mind, of golden thought and silver speech. To yet others he was the young Apollo of his age and the glorious Titan of the stage.
Marlowe blazed a new trail both in thought and technique, —in matter as well as manner and in its footsteps a new perfection tread. Not his the familiar domain of men’s manners and habits, customs and conventions, but his concern was with the needs and necessities of human souls. Not man’s relation to man but man’s relation to God and to the universe was the theme dear to Marlowe. The element that is eternal in man, the spirit that is significant of man—this element and this spirit which have the potency of arraying themselves against the universe if necessary—these were his sole concern as a playwright. He sought the cause and explanation of that searching-out of man’s spirit towards a truth which can be apprehended but never expounded. And thus he leads us to a realization that dazzles and stupefies by its absoluteness and its finality: ‘Marlowe lost himself as it were, in case less isolated reveries of experiments in the power of the mind.’ Inspired by his own lofty idealism and daring enthusiasm, he was like a hardy explorer voyaging on endless uncharted seas fondly believing in the existence of some yet undiscovered possibility, eagerly hoping to arrive at the white foaming shores of some yet unknown island where he could plant the flag of his unique triumph. He belonged to the race of Admiral Drake and Walter Raleigh.
Marlowe was one who was loved by the gods. Hardly twenty-rune years did he live when he was invited to join the chorus of the inheritors of unfulfilled renown. Had he lived longer he would surely have achieved greater name and fame and proved himself to be a serious rival to Shakespeare. As it is, he remains a poet of fiery promise, but which mere promise excells the achievements of any other but one among the Elizabethan poets. He is the companion and comrade-in-arms of Collins, Chatterton, Shelley, Keats and Rupert Brooke. Like them, he too strove to shatter ‘the dome of many coloured glass’ and catch a glimpse of the ‘white radiance of eternity.’ And as in their case, not so much the possession of the prize as the rapture of the race was his. Maybe Marlowe’s work is fragmentary: may be the expression of some of his ideas is imperfect. Yet the authenticity of his ultimate vision is beyond doubt or dispute. As one Marlowe-admirer has appropriately observed: “Whatever men are preoccupied with the ‘Why?’ rather than the ‘How?’, in whatever periods of history thought turns back to question the nature of man’s being and the part he plays in the universe, there the thought of Marlowe will be found to be at heart of Man’s most vital experience. Whenever fundamental instincts and intuitions have been overlaid by convention, superstition or hypocrisy, until it becomes necessary to question again the purpose of life in order that life may again be sane, there Marlowe’s trenchant and fearless mind will be found warning men ‘not to be afraid of bug bears.’ He is the Lucretius of the English language, and though he does not accompany men closely in their daily lives, as does Shakespeare, his poetry and his aspiration will be heard in times of doubt and confusion, of disillusionment and corruption, when more familiar and better-loved voices are silent.”
Three and a half centuries have not lessened the importance of Marlowe in English drama, nor have they dimmed the glorious lustre that was his in his own day. With everything mighty about him, he shines for us across the span of the centuries in the blaze of his own marvellous gifts. ‘A boy in years, a man in genius, a god in ambition’, Marlowe has carved for himself an abiding niche in the Temple of Fame. And the dear nightingale of his poetry survives still and shall long survive in Apollo’s laurel boughs making music to enchant the ears of man and send his spirit winging into the topless towers of thought.


The balance-sheet of Marlowe’s merits and demerits as a dramatist cannot be correctly understood and justly estimated without an idea of the condition of English drama at the time that he arrived in London as a literary adventurer.

The origins of drama have always and everywhere been deeply rooted in simple piety and religious instinct. In England too, the cradle of the drama rested on the altar of the Church. In the very ritual of the Church, in the Mass itself and in the festivities of Christmas, Easter and Michaelmas, were inherent occasions and themes for dramatic development. The clergy who were obliged to find some method of teaching and explaining to the ignorant and illiterate masses the doctrinal truths of religion, took advantage of the gospel stories which they illustrated by a series of living pictures, generally called pageants or dumb-shows. These early church entertainments which were spiritual and not secular yielded place in course of time to humanistic development. In this second stage, the scope of the dramatic productions gradually extended in respect of subject-matter, accommodation and participants. The actors spoke as well as acted and Mysteries (stories taken from the Scriptures) and Miracle plays (dealing with incidents in the lives of saints and martyrs) became common. In the third stage, the serious and light elements which were interwoven in the earlier period were bifurcated and Moralities and Interludes supplanted the Mysteries and Miracle Plays. The Moralities were didactic, abstract, serious, allegorical, whereas the Interludes were light entertainments, full of gaiety and humour. In the fourth stage of development which was reached by the middle of the 16th century, Tragedy and Comedy established themselves as definite and separate branches of drama. Gorboduc (1561) by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton has the distinction of being the first regular English Tragedy, while in the field of comedy the honour goes to Ralph Roister Doister (1541) by Nicholas Udall.

At the time that Marlowe unfurled the banner of his dramatic career, the theatrical repertory consisted of tragedies on the model of Seneca, comedies like those of Plautus and Terence, historical plays, romances, court comedies and dramatised episodes of private life. English drama, thus, was in a somewhat chaotic condition, struggling between a well-formed chill and a structureless enthusiasm. ‘The classicists had form, but no fire; the popular dramatists had interest, but little sense of form.’ J.A. Symonds observes: “There was plenty of productive energy, plenty of enthusiasm and activity. Theatres continued to spring up and acting came to rank among the recognised professions. But this activity was still chaotic. None could say where or whether the gem of a great national art existed…..Scholars despised the shows of mingled bloodshed and buffoonery in which the populace delighted. The people had no taste for dry and formal disquisitions in the style of Gorboduc. The blank verse of Sackville and Hughes rang hollow: the prose of Lyly was affected; the rhyming couplets of the popular theatre interfered with dialogue and free development of character. The public itself was divided in its tastes and instincts; the mob inclining to mere drolleries and merriment upon the stage, the better vulgar to formalities and studied imitations. A powerful body of sober citizens, by no means wholly composed of Puritans and ascetics, regarded all forms of dramatic art with undisguised hostility. Meanwhile, no really great poet had arisen to stamp the tendencies of either court or town with the authentic seal of genius. There seemed a danger lest the fortunes of the stage in England should be lost between the prejudices of a literary class, the puerile and lifeless pastime of the multitude, and the disfavour of conservative moralists.” It was at such a critical time that Marlowe arrived on the scene with his poetry and his passion, his intellectual vigour and his academical training. It was as though Marlowe was specially destined to save English drama from a perilous landslide by discerning in the existing chaotic and conflicting elements the real and vital seed of art, and set its flowering beyond all risks of accident by his singular and significant achievement.
Marlowe’s Reform of Theme and Language
Marlowe’s Tamburlaine Part I appeared on the stage with a haughty, almost insolent trumpet note of revolt both against the conventional theme of the dramatists and their language. In the very first lines of the Prologue to the play, Marlowe proclaims his bold programme of reform:
“From the jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We’ll lead you to the stately tent of War,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high astounding terms.”
Thus he announces that he will break the conventions in two important directions: “With the jigging veins of rhymesters are contrasted the Scythian’s ‘high astounding terms’, while his heroic exploits are similarly set off against the mere ‘conceits of clownage.’ These bold reforms, in simple language, are in the direction of versification and subject-matter. He boldly adopted for use in the popular drama the blank verse, so long used by his contemporaries only for dramas on the classical model. He was the first to feel rightly that for adequate dramatic expression in serious subjects the vehicle of rhymed lines and stanzas was ridiculously inadequate. Some of his contemporaries had indeed used the blank verse in their tragedies of the Senecan school; but these dramas were meant for scholars only and courtly audiences. “To dissever it from these associations/and submit it on the boards of the public theaters to the rough-and ready verdict of the groundlings, might well have seemed a hazardous experiment. Yet it received instant success. Similarly, in subject- matter the almost farcical, or weakly sentimental themes which went by the name of comedy were replaced by themes which almost burst with passion and high feelings. It is true that Marlowe could contribute almost nothing to the genuinely comic side of the drama, nor to the grace and loveliness of prose dialogue. But he gave strength, force and vigour to the drama which once for all turned its career for both greatness and stability. He lifted the drama into the sphere of high literature. The English stage in his time was in great need of intensity. Grace, sentiment, wit, fancy had been communicated to the English drama by various talents of the age, communicated with reckless and very often ridiculous excess; but the vigour, dash and animation which only can make a drama as a whole a living, pulsating expression of life were the gifts of Marlowe alone. The wits of the age, even some of his close collaborators might mock at his ‘spacious volubility of a drumming decasyllable’ or at his ‘bragging blank verse’; serious, critical-minded dramatic talents might find fault with his extravagant one-man show, but all the same they all had to fall in line with him to give their own productions life and vigour.”
The Gift of Stability and Direction
Before the year 1587 in which Marlowe’s Tamburlaine Part I was put upon the stage and the young dramatist rose suddenly to giddy heights of fame and popularity, English drama was in a chaotic condition—groping its way to a much-desired stability but pulled in different directions. “It is not necessary”, as Boas pointedly remarks, “to deprecate the tentative efforts of earlier Elizabethan playwrights in order to recognise that they had failed to point with certainty to a glorious dramatic future.” There were the learned, scholarly playwrights writing for the Court, or the Inns of Court, or the Universities. These neo-classicists insisted on form, decorum and dignity even with artificiality and rigidity. On the other hand, there were popular playwrights holding to the native tradition of formlessness but giving much of vivacity and vigour to the presentation. Senecan models in tragedy and imitations of Terence and Plautus in comedy, both in the courtly dramas and those for the public stage, confused the issue. As medium of expression, rhymed lines and stanzas of various sorts still held their away, though the first blank verse tragedy had been produced as early as 1562 and prose had occasionally been used in some comedies. “The age, however”, as Nicoll remarks, “obviously wished for no trammels upon the theatre. Freedom, action, passion, the audiences desired, and these they found in the work of the romantic playwrights.” And Marlowe, when he first appeared on the stage more than fulfilled this popular desire for “freedom, action, passion.” His successive dramas were wonderful, almost overwhelming, embodiments of the spirit of Renaissance. All the four plays from his pen were indeed exemplary of the tragic art in dramatic poetry. But they were enough to give a permanence and stability to the drama. The comedic art was being perfected by other masters of the age, particularly by Greene and Lyly. It was passion, vigour and poetry that the populace thirsted for and these were exactly the gifts that Marlowe brought to the drama.
Gift to Poetry and Lyricism
Marlowe was a born poet, the greatest poet and lyricist of the Renaissance before Shakespeare. Marlowe not only reformed the dramatic blank verse—by infusing variety, vigour and spontaneous flow and cadence—but made it the aptest vehicle for the poetry of high passion and imagination. He breathed into the blank verse the animation and life-spirit of high lyricism. It has been truly remarked that “all his heroes are essentially poets in their nature, for they are all reflections of Marlowe’s personality.” Imbued with the Renaissance thirst for unlimitable power, infinite knowledge and unbounded ambition without any moral inhibition, Marlowe communicated his spirit to the heroes of his dramas. Tamburlaine speaks high poetry of unquenchable aspirations in the most melodious resounding verses; he gives clear utterance in poetry to Marlowe’s love of the impossible. So also Barabas in The Jew of Malta speaks in high poetry of his ambition for boundless wealth not for power which wealth brings but for the joy of the greediness in wealth. Faustus is shaped in a similar mould: “With him the passion takes the form of a desire to conquer the secret of nature but his words have the glow of enthusiastic rapture. Even Mortimer in Edward II and Edward himself are poets, given as they are the dreams of the endless joy of living a life of ease, splendour and power. Marlowe is not only a poet but a poet of passion. Tamburlaine’s raptures over the beauty of his wife Zenocrate at her dying moments, Faustus’s rhapsody over Helen’s beauty, Edward’s passionately pathetic self-pity-all these gave to the English dramatic verse the passion and emotion which go with high poetry. In this connection, Schelling’s remark is worth quoting: “Marlowe gave the drama passion and not poetry; and poetry was his most precious gift. Shakespeare would have never been Shakespeare had Marlowe never written or lived. He might not have been altogether the Shakespeare we know.
Gift of Individuality: Machiavellian Ideal
Marlowe had not indeed the dramatic capacity of presenting a character by the portrayal of its development through clash and conflict. It may be said with reasonable justification that each of his four great dramas centres round a single character of the superbly heroic type and it is not all mobile. It is ready-made from the beginning and ends as it began. The whole theme only illustrates the ready-made character. This is certainly a defect in a master dramatist. But in the case of Marlowe as a pioneer in that age of experiment it is a credit that he gave a superb individuality to his characters,—the heroes of his tragedies. In fact, Marlowe was too much under the influence of the Renaissance conception of greatness as taught by the great Machiavelli. On this point we can do nothing better than quote at some length from the illuminating observation of A. Nicoll: “We may note the influence of Machiavelli…..Most heard of him by report, and took him as a symbol of all that was atheistical, immoral and corrupt. His Prince is merely a summing up of regular Renaissance ideals of conduct; it is the culmination of that individualism which marks off the newly awakened Europe from the anonymity and communal ideals of the Middle Ages. Machiavelli had made a god of virtue, that quality in man which drives him to find free and full expression of his own thought and emotions. It is this virtue on which Marlowe has seized, not without some tremors of conscience in spite of his liberated mind. So he presents his heroes, Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus and Barabas, over-riding the ordinary moral codes of their times in order to find the complete realisation of their particular ideals; in the Jew of Malta he brings Machiavelli forward in person to speak the prologue to his tragedy:
“I count Religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.”
One important result of this insistence upon virtue must be noted. Call it what we please, virtue, ambition, will, tends to overlook class, and accordingly the dramas of Marlowe break away slightly from the more ancient medieval plan. For the Middle Ages tragedy was a thing of princes only; for Marlowe it was a thing of individual heroes. Thus his Tamburlaine, King though he may be by the end of the drama, is born a peasant. The Jew is but a Mediterranean money-lender, and Faustus an ordinary German doctor and an alchemist. The medieval conception of the royalty of tragedy is here supplanted by the Renaissance ideal of individual worth. It is the union of the two which gives us the majesty of Macbeth and Lear. This is one of Marlowe’s most outstanding contributions to the development of a truly august type of English tragedy. His main conception of serious drama—Renaissance virtue battling on to success and then falling unconquered before fate—is at the root of all the great seventeenth century tragic activity; only Shakespeare made his figures more human and stressed more on the fatal flaw in the greatness of their characters.
Marlowe’s Gift to the Historical Drama
Edward II coming last in the series of Marlowe’s major dramatic productions marks a development in several aspects. It is the best of the English chronicle plays of the time. Though there is a wide gap between it and even the immature chronicle plays of Shakespeare like Richard III and Richard II, yet it marks a development in Marlowe’s power of characterization. The central character of the unfortunate King is not very attractive but is so portrayed that the pathos of his end is calculated to draw the sympathy of the audience. The subordinate characters are sketched with some individualities and there is an attempt, not unsuccessful, of evolving something like a plot. “Edward II, in the matter of plot and construction, stands on a different level from any of the author’s previous works. Instead of being a collection of unconnected episodes, or the tantalisingly imperfect fulfilment of a great design, it is a complex and organic whole, working up by natural stages to a singularly powerful climax. In style also, from the dramatic point of view, it marks an advance. The ‘high astounding terms’ of the earlier period have almost entirely disappeared, though there is still a plentiful supply of the unreasonable classical allusions which had so irresistible a fascination for Elizabethan playwrights. Otherwise the language is of chastened simplicity, verging at times on baldness but full, for the most part, of silvery charm and grace…..But it is above all in the power of characterisation that the play shows most distinctive evidence of growth. Marlowe’s earlier dramas are dominated by the commanding figure of the hero, which overshadows and dwarfs the other personages, robbing them of all interest on their own account. (In Edward II this fault is avoided, and while the King stands clearly out as the central character, we have other well-defined types in Gaveston and Mortimer, to whom, though of inferior interest, may be added the young Spenser and the Queen.”
Marlowe: The Poet of Passion
Marlowe is undoubtedly the poet of passion par excellence. It is passion that heaves in his poetry at every turn. Yet it has other striking characteristics too, especially three marked ones—pictorial quality, ecstatic quality and vitalising energy. The pictorial richness of Marlowe’s poetry reminds us of the intense and quivering colour effects that we come across in the poetry of Keats. Lines like these:
The pavement underneath thy chariot wheels
Turkey carpet shall be covered.
And cloth of arras hung about the walls;
Fit objects for thy princely eye to pierce,
A hundred bessoes clothed in crimson silk,
Shall ride before thee on Barbarian steeds,
And when thou goest a golden canopy
Enchas’d with precious stones…..
which are powdered over, as it were, with glittering silver and gold and scarlet, are akin to the rich-hued and picturesque veined passages in The Eve of St. Agnes. As Frederick Boas observes: “Never again, till the coming of Keats, did the sensuous imagination that glories in the lust of the eye and the pride of life speak in tones so full and rich.” The ecstatic quality is well exemplified in Faustus’s apostrophe—
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss;
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies
Come, Helen, come give me my soul again
Here will I dwell, for Heaven is in these lips;
And all is dross that is not Helen
and in the speech of Barabas on regaining his lost treasure—
                O my girl,
My gold, my fortune, my felicity,
Strength to my soul, death to mine enemy;
Welcome the first beginner of my bliss;
O Abigail, Abigail, that I had thee here too
Then my desires were fully satisfied;
But I will practise thy enlargement thence;
O girl: O gold: O beauty; O my bliss;
The ecstatic quality of Marlowe’s poetry reveals his easily excitable moods which are moved to exuberant expression by certain appeals to the imagination such as the appeal to beauty. Marlowe, the wistful visionary that always followed the trail of adventure in life as well as in literature, lived in a self-wrought world of beauty and wonder. The vitalising energy of Marlowe’s poetry is evident in all his four great tragedies—Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus. The Jew of Malta and Edward II. It is this pervading energy that redeems these plays from many an absurdity and endows them with compelling beauty and elevating power. Not satisfied with vague descriptions, Marlowe often actualises his theme—as in the pageant of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ in Dr. Faustus. Such a thing is native to Marlowe’s genius and is the out flowing of a virile and vital imagination. It is this vitalising energy that imparts to the young poet’s eloquence a vibrant music that compels the reader’s admiration.


To say that Marlowe was “the most individual, the most talented of the pre-Shakespeareans” does not, of course, mean that his dramatic works taken together had in them the hallmark of perfection.

Certainly he did very great things for the popular drama of the time which deserve high recognition as his merits; and these merits must be summarised in a few lines before we proceed to point out his drawbacks as a dramatic artist. He reformed and we may say, reshaped the blank verse to be a mighty vehicle of passion and vigorous romanticism, of ambitions, of soaring ideas; he made poetry the hand-maiden of dramatic expression. He gave to each of his dramas the stamp of the great personality of a death-defying hero, ‘single-minded individual’. In Dr. Faustus Marlowe may be said to lay the foundation of the conception of tragedy as due to internal conflict-the conflict being delineated in the struggle within the mind of the chief character. “Faustus, in this respect is unquestionably the greatest tragic figure in sixteenth century literature outside the work of Shakespeare.” In the art of plot construction, characterization and natural evolution, Marlowe gave at least some signs of promising comprehension in his chronicle drama of Edward II. “Whether because Marlowe’s genius had developed or because the exigencies of historical drama obliged him to self-effacement, this play has qualities which are properly dramatic—progress in character-study is also evinced, over a numerous and diversified cast.”

Let us now come to consider certain drawbacks in the make-up of Marlowe’s temperament as a dramatist, always remembering that these drawbacks perceptible in his plays are mainly of the negative sort and as such they do not minimise the merits by their intrusion as in the case of his less capable contemporaries.
(i)   Unimportance of Minor Characters
The inevitable consequence of making the central a colossus representing one great passion is that the other figures lose their individuality—they are almost non-existent. In the words of Nicoll, “all his heroes, by their very greatness, stand alone. We have the feeling that they have no moral force to fight against. They are lonely figures in a world of Lilliputians. This may be, to a certain extent, a characteristic likewise of the Shakespearean tragedy, but always Shakespeare has given more of individuality to his lesser figures than has Marlowe. Horatio, Cassio, Banquo and Kent have independent existence such as Meander and Wagner never could have.”
(ii)  Absence of Women
Marlowe’s pre-occupation with the overmastering central character, who is always a male, gives no scope to introduce women. Perhaps there was something in his temperament which made him unable to study women. The gentle grace, feminine loveliness, the warmth of devoted love, the softness and charm of womanly care-all these seem to lie beyond the range of Marlowe’s limited comprehension. While Peele, Greene and Lyly in their romantic comedies or pastoral dramas were holding forth charm and grace of feminine love and devotion, Marlowe’s Zenocrate in Tamburlaine plays a shadowy part; her beauty is celebrated by the mighty Scythian but we have no acquaintance with her personality. So also in The Jew of Malta Abigail remains always in the background. (Only Isabella in Edward II is something of a woman; but her womanliness is less prominent than her part in inflicting the tragic death of her husband). Helen in Dr. Faustus appear only as a vision. The poetry in which the magician turns to her is noble and sublime but there is no touch of her character.
(iii) Disproportion in Dialogue
Still another consequence follows this one in the direction of dialogue. Marlowe’s craze for high-flown, deep-sounding verse and well-turned echoing phrases blinds him to the artistic need of suiting the dialogue to the mouths of different characters. Very often the insignificant, ordinary characters in his plays speak in the high-brow swaggering manner of the main character.
(iv) One-man Show
Each of the three main tragedies of Marlowe Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta and to a great extent his chronicle play of Edward II may be spoken of as a one-man show. The central character of the hero so much dominates the play from beginning to end that his towering personality overshadows everything. “With Marlowe we are in the presence of a distinctly passionate but unbalanced genius, a man lacking the serenity and the calm-eyed power which gave to Shakespeare a large part of his greatness.”
(v)  Want of Humour
Another deficiency in Marlowe as a dramatist lies in his utter lack of humour. His plays are too serious; there is no comic relief as there is even in the most serious of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth in the Porter Scene, or Hamlet in the Grave-diggers Scene. The comic scenes in Dr. Faustus are so inapt and incongruous with the tragic sombreness of the main theme that they shock the sense of artistic propriety of even a sympathetic critic of Marlowe like Wynne who is forced to remark, “Marlowe must be blamed for the utter incongruity of so many scenes with high tragedy. The harmony which rules the construction of Tamburlaine, giving it a lofty coherence and consistency, is lamentably absent from Dr. Faustus.”
(vi) Lack of Patriotism
Though Tamburlaine and to some extent Dr. Faustus with their passionate declaiming swelled the English heart with dreams of distant conquests, limitless power and mastery of the world, it is remarkable to note that in none of them, not even in the chronicle play of Edward II, Marlowe breathes any spirit of national patriotism. There is no note of exaltation of England which we find so blatant in Peele’s Arraignment of Paris, as Diana pronounces her eulogy on England and of course, there is nothing of the spirit of patriotism which Shakespeare puts in the mouth of John of Gaunt in Richard II.