Rereading Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”

“Dr. Faustus” keeps coming back.

Christopher Marlowe’s play, I mean, not Johann Georg Faust.

J. G. Faust lived five centuries back. Give or take a bit. Extracting his biography from folk legends, chapbooks and assorted other retellings? I’ll leave that for someone else.

I haven’t read or discussed “Faustus,” since 2012. So I’ll be rereading the play, looking what I wrote then, thinking about it and sharing the results. Together with whatever else comes to mind as I go along.

“…A Sound Magician is as a Mighty God…”

I’ll say this for Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. He had high self-esteem:

All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this,
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;
A sound magician is a mighty god:
Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.
(“Faustus,” Marlowe (1604) Edited by The Rev. Alexander Dyce)

I figure “hubris” is more accurate. Along with unreasonable expectations.

Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” involves hearty helpings of magic and science: as presented in Elizabethan theater. Since I’m not an Elizabethan Englishman, I’d better talk about how I see magic and all that.


(From Stanley De Brath, John Lobb; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Left, “Supernormal Portrait” taken at the British College of Psychic Science (1924);
right, alleged spirit photography by Thomas Everitt (1909).)

I think magic is a bad idea. And I think magic is harmless entertainment. Or it’s unfamiliar technology. Or something exciting, like “Disney on Ice.”

Which definition applies depends on context. And who’s talking.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
(A. C. Clarke’s Third Law (ca. 1962))

“…’For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe: though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel.’…”
(“The Fellowship of the Ring,” J. R. Tolkien (1954))

Faustus.…How pliant is this Mephistophilis,
Full of obedience and humility!
Such is the force of magic and my spells:
No, Faustus, thou art conjuror laureat,
That canst command great Mephistophilis:
Quin regis Mephistophilis fratris imagine.”
(“Faustus,” Marlowe (1604) Edited by The Rev. Alexander Dyce)


One person’s “sufficiently advanced technology” might be another’s word processor and spreadsheet.

I suspect that uneven distribution of IT skills contributes to my culture’s technophobic undercurrents.

That, and the steep learning curve we’ve been on since upgrades of Edmund Cartwright’s power loom destabilized the weaving industry.

Magic that’s harmless entertainment includes sleight of hand and levitation illusions: the sort of thing Howard Thurston did.1

I’m not sure why his promotional art showed him getting Mephistophelian assistance. Cincinnati’s Strobridge Lithograph company made that “Mr. Kellar Says” poster in 1910.

My guess is that Howard Thurston was appealing to America’s taste for seances, spirit photographs and the like. I wouldn’t be comfortable with his marketing strategy, but I’m not a stage magician trying to make a living.

Sleight of hand, card tricks, prestidigitation and Otis Elevator technology isn’t the sort of magic I think is a bad idea.

Neither is prayer. That might take some explaining.

Prayer isn’t Magic

Lenten chaplet.Prayer is part of being Catholic. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 25582565, 25662567, 25682589, …)

Some of my regular prayers, like the Divine Mercy chaplet,2 involve saying the same words each time.

But the Divine Mercy chaplet isn’t magic.

I’m not making something happen by performing a set ritual. And I’m sure not making God do anything. If I thought that’s what I was doing, I’d be believing in “magic,” superstition. And that would be a bad idea. (Catechism, 2111)

With the Divine Mercy chaplet, I’m asking God to “have mercy on us and on the whole world:” so it’s an intercessory prayer. Or maybe a prayer of petition, since I’m included in “us” and “the whole world.”

Intercession and petition are two of the five varieties of prayer, along with blessing and adoration, thanksgiving and praise. (Catechism, 26232643)

I talked about that last August, in connection with the blast in Beirut. (August 11, 2020)

I figure the Divine Mercy chaplet is a prayer of meditation and contemplation, too; and that’s another topic. Topics.

Reality and Reputation

Tales grow in the telling. Someone said that first, I have no idea who. I figure the idea, if not the exact words, was ancient beyond measure when Sneferu didn’t quite make the first smooth pyramid.

Here are two real people whose biographies became — embroidered.

Albertus Magnus: Posthumous Reputation Based (Loosely) on Actual Events

Liebig's Extract of Meat Company Trading Card, 1929
(From Chemical Heritage Foundation, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
(Albertus Magnus: featured on a 1929 trading card.)

Backing up a bit, technology isn’t bad, or good, by itself. Neither is science. Each of us decides how we use knowledge and tools. Whether they help or hurt depends on us. (Catechism, 22922295)

Technology isn’t “magic,” except in a metaphorical sense. And neither is science.

That didn’t keep St. Albertus Magnus from getting a posthumous reputation for practicing magic. And alchemy.

The “alchemy” prestige, or maybe notoriety, was ‘based on actual events.’

Albertus Magnus studied alchemy: the sort that got rebranded as “chemistry” a few centuries later. (October 18, 2018; January 12, 2018)

Mr. Squibbs and 'tampering with things man was not supposed to know.I very strongly suspect that tales about Albertus Magnus getting help from rogue spirits reflect an uneasiness regarding study of the natural world.

I’ve talked about that before, and will again.

St. Albertus Magnus was a natural philosopher, the sort we started calling “scientists” after William Whewell’s 1834 book review. (July 20, 2019)

The Albertus Magnus in European tall tales is mostly fiction. But St. Albertus Magus was and is real.3

And that, finally, gets me back to “Dr. Faustus.”

“Dr. Faustus:” Based on Actual Stories

Frontpiece from a 1620 printing of 'Doctor Faustus,' showing Faustus conjuring Mephistophilis.Marlowe’s Faustus is fiction. But “Dr. Fausus” is based, loosely, on a real person.

Johann Georg Faust lived, bamboozled and died around 1500. Part of his stock in trade was posing as a magician and/or alchemist.

Think of him as a German Renaissance bunco artist.

He enjoyed a measure of success until someone or something wrung his neck.

Lurid tales of J. G. Faust’s alleged Satanic connections and wretched end eventually inspired Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.”

Faust’s fictional fame didn’t end there. Marlowe wrote his “Dr. Faustus” in 1590, give or take a couple years.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe started writing “Urfaust” between 1772 and 1775. By 1831 he’d finished “Faust. Eine Tragödie” and “Faust. Der Tragödie zweiter Teil in fünf Akten:” “Faust Part One” and “Faust Part Two.”

There’s been no shortage of Faust reboots since then.4 Highlights include:

  • Irving’s 1824 “The Devil and Tom Walker”
  • Wilde’s 1891 “The Picture of Dorian Gray”
  • Mann’s 1947 “Faust” novel

Will The Real Christopher Shakespeare Tudor Please Stand Up?

Don’t get me wrong. I think there’s value in scholarship and academic studies.

One of my kids said that at heart I’m a scholar and a philosopher: and she’s right. She also said I’m eccentric. She’s right about that, too, and that’s yet another topic.

Maybe my respect for scholarship is why I’ve got a short fuse when it comes to academia’s occasional digressions into weirdness.

Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe, by some anonymous artist, maybe showing Marlowe at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were both baptized in 1564.

Shakespeare signed his will and died in 1616.

Christopher Marlowe died in 1593, probably from a stab wound which may or may not have been immediately fatal.

And/or Marlowe was struck down by the wrath of God, with a naughty servant as a vengeful deity’s agent.

Applying 21st century forensic science to the question may be tricky.

Marlowe’s grave is unmarked. That may or may not be due to his death being an assassination ordered by the Queen. Or Sir Walter Raleigh. Maybe some other VIP arranged Marlowe’s demise.

Make that alleged demise. Marlowe-themed alternate histories abound. Maybe Marlowe’s death was faked: the playwright’s way of surviving accusations of atheism. And/or maybe his way of retiring quietly.

“Alternate histories” isn’t quite correct in this context. Scholarly discussions of what ‘really’ happened to Marlowe apparently assume that the ‘what-if’ versions are real.

Oddly enough, I haven’t run across claims that Marlowe’s death was faked by Shakespeare, who had been using “Marlowe” as a nom de plume and/or alter ego.

On the other hand, saying that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare and/or was a secret agent for her majesty have both been in vogue.

And I can see why. “‘Marlowe. Christopher Marlowe,’ said Agent 00¾,” sounds cool.

I don’t know if “everybody wrote Shakespeare except Shakespeare” is still in fashion. My guess is that the notion’s popularity has peaked. Learned statements that Marlowe was homosexual and/or an Elizabethan spy are apparently still current.5

Maybe he was both or either. I take efforts to define someone living in the late 16th century by standards of the 20th and 21st — with a few crates of salt.

But I won’t let that stop me from adding my splinter to the weirdness.

Marlowe Didn’t Write Shakespeare — Marlowe IS Shakespeare!!!

I don’t believe this, but think about it: Marlowe and Shakespeare were (allegedly) baptized the same year. They both lived in England. Both were playwrights.

They even look alike! Same eyebrows, pretty much the same chin.

It’s so obvious! Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare are the same person!!!

Or maybe this sounds less implausible —

Marlowe went to college. Shakespeare didn’t. (That’s real. I’m making up what’s next.)

They both wanted to write plays, but Bill was the one with talent.

Marlowe, on the other hand, had high-society connections. Bill didn’t.

So Chris hired Bill as a ghostwriter, cadging cash from his upper crust buddies.

That went on for years, until Bill got famous and Chris welshed on a loan. Then C. Marlowe was killed, or skipped town, and B. Shakespeare became even more famous.

Or Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were really Queen Elizabeth, who let off steam by dressing up as a playwright. And she had both alter egoes “killed” when folks started asking questions.

No, I really do not believe that.

But after reading enough learned ‘what really happened and who was really what’ papers, I feel like letting off steam. Or, in this case, sharing wildly-improbable nonsense.

Times Change

(From Sotheby’s, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Procession portrait of Elizabeth I of England with her Knights of the Garter. (ca. 1601))

Elizabethan England: a golden age when wisdom ruled and men wore tights.

Life was good for Englishmen. Provided that they didn’t offend their betters and weren’t accused of being insufficiently Protestant.

England’s Elizabeth I inherited Henry VIII’s acquired wealth and lack of living critics.6 Comparative lack, anyway.

Four and one fifth centuries later, England’s upper crust wear loose trousers and don’t vie for a chance to carry the queen on their shoulders.

Times, clothing and customs change. Human nature, not so much.

Which is, I figure, why Marlowe’s “Dr Faustus” enjoys the occasional revival.

Despite, or maybe because of, lines like these:

Chorus.…Excelling all whose sweet delight disputes
In heavenly matters of theology;
Till swoln with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspir’d his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:
And this the man that in his study sits.”
(“Faustus,” Marlowe (1604) Edited by The Rev. Alexander Dyce)

I’ve got more to say about Marlowe’s “Faustus,” but that will wait for another day.

And, finally, somewhat-related posts:

1 Technology and “the most famous magician of his time:”

2 An intercessory/meditative/contemplative prayer:

3 Albertus Magnus, alchemy and all that:

4 The many fictional faces of Faust:

5 Famous Elizabethan playwrights:

6 1509 to 1603, ‘Merrie Olde Englande:’

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Rereading Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”

  1. Peggy Haslar says:

    This SUCH a rich post! I greatly appreciate the research you put into everything you do. I confess I have never read Dr. Faustus, only about the work. I see it’s a must. Love the thoughts and quotes on magic … and IT. I have much to learn from you!

    • 😀 Thank you!
      I don’t know about “a must” – – – but Marlowe’s Faustus has, I think, inspired quite a few of today’s tales. Including, but not limited to, some of our ‘mad scientist’ thrillers.
      I’m having fun with this series, and am (slowly) working on the next installment.

Thanks for taking time to comment!