Dr. Faustus Summary

Christopher Marlowe

Dr. Faustus

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Dr. Faustus Summary

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Dr. Faustus is a sixteenth century play written by English playwright Christopher Marlowe and based on an old German folktale. The play, written in five acts, is about a German scholar Faustus who decides to sign his soul over to the devil Lucifer in exchange for twenty-four years of service from his demonic servant, Mephistopheles. At the time it was first performed, the play elicited much controversy for its subject matter. It has since influenced many similar works and parodies.

Faustus, an ambitious German scholar, is trying to decide what subject to focus his studies on. He is not satisfied with studying mundane subjects like theology, law, or medicine and wishes to learn the dark art of magic. He is visited by two angels, Good Angel and Bad Angel. Although Good Angel tries to persuade Faustus to abandon his idea and read the Scriptures instead, he chooses to listen to Bad Angel, who encourages him to pursue magic. He invites his magician friends, Valdes and Cornelius, to dinner. The magicians encourage Faustus and tell him that he could use magic to become rich and famous.

After dinner, Faustus draws a circle and chants an incantation to conjure up Mephistopheles, a devil from hell. When Mephistopheles appears and asks Faustus why he summoned him, Faustus replies that he would like the devil to be his servant for life. Mephistopheles answers that he would have to ask permission from Lucifer, the most powerful devil in hell who Mephistopheles serves before anyone else. Mephistopheles tells Faustus that Lucifer was once one of God’s angels, but fell from grace due to his pride. Faustus offers to give his soul to Lucifer in exchange for twenty-four years of life with Mephistopheles as his servant. Mephistopheles goes back to hell to deliver the message to his boss.

When Mephistopheles returns to Faustus, he tells him that Lucifer has agreed to the deal and wants Faustus to make it official by signing a document in his own blood. Faustus cuts his arm in order to sign the document, but the blood congeals. He wonders whether this is a sign that he shouldn’t sell his soul, but when Mephistopheles brings him some fire to melt the congealed blood, he decides to go through with it anyway. After Faustus signs away his soul, the words “Homo fuge,” or “Flee, man,” appear on his arm.

The two angels visit Faustus again. Good Angel tells him that it is not too late for salvation and urges him to repent, but Faustus doesn’t want to give up his magic. Mephistopheles talks to Faustus about astrology and the planets, but refuses to tell him who created the universe because he does not want to say God’s name. Faustus starts to doubt the course he has chosen, but Mephistopheles calls Lucifer and another devil named Beelzebub to discourage him from repenting. They conjure up the Seven Deadly Sins to entertain him and give him a book that teaches him how to transform himself into any shape he likes.

The devils also take Faustus on a ride in a flying chariot, and he lands in Rome where the Roman Pope Adrian is holding court with the cardinals of France and Padua, and the King of Hungary. A German named Bruno is led before him in chains and claims that he is the rightfully elected Pope of Rome. Adrian commands the cardinals to go to his library and read what the Council of Trent has decided should be Bruno’s punishment for illegitimately claiming to be the Pope. When they do, Faustus tells Mephistopheles to follow them and put them to sleep before they can read the order. Faustus and Mephistopheles then disguise themselves as the cardinals, and return to Adrian. They tell him that the Council has decreed that Bruno be put to death. When the Pope hands Bruno over to them, however, they free him and send him back to Germany on a magical horse. Mephistopheles makes Faustus invisible so he can play pranks on the Pope as he enjoys a feast.

When Faustus returns to Germany, the German emperor and empress thank him for rescuing Bruno and ask him to perform magic for them. At their request, Faustus conjures up the spirits of Alexander the Great and his lover. When Benvolio, a dinner guest, scoffs at Faustus’s magical powers, Faustus retaliates by giving him horns. Later, Benvolio and his friends, Martino and Frederick, ambush Faustus and cut off his head as revenge for embarrassing Benvolio. However, Faustus immediately rises from the dead and orders the devils to drag the three men through a muddy briar-patch. After getting dragged, all three men have horns.

Meanwhile, Faustus’s servant, Wagner, has persuaded Robin, a local townsman, to be his servant for seven years in exchange for teaching him some magic tricks. Robin and his friend Dick try to conjure up free beer from the tavern, but get turned into animals by Mephistopheles for their antics. The two men confront Faustus along with their friend Carter and a horse-trader that Faustus had tricked with his magic, but Faustus charms everyone into leaving him alone.

Wagner tells the other scholars at the university that he thinks Faustus is dying, since he has willed Wagner all of his belongings. The scholars ask Faustus to conjure up Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman who ever lived. He does, and decides to make her his lover. Just before Faustus’s death, the two angels visit him one last time. Good Angel shows him a glimpse of heaven and says that he could have gone there if only he hadn’t gotten greedy. Bad Angel shows him a glimpse of hell and eternal torment. Although Faustus begs not to be taken to hell, the devils arrive when the clock strikes midnight and carry off his soul. When the other scholars find Faustus’s dead body in the morning, they discover it has been torn to pieces. They decide to hold a proper burial for him despite his sinning.

The central themes of Dr. Faustus are the soul, salvation, and damnation. The play is also a moral lesson warning against the dangers of pride, and of sacrificing one’s faith and spiritual goodness for power, wealth, knowledge, and other earthly things. The play is the origin of the term “Faustian bargain,” a deal in which someone trades his or her principles for material gain.