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Doctor Faustus | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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Act 3, Scene 1

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 3, Scene 1 of Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus.

Doctor Faustus | Act 3, Scene 1 | Summary



Doctor Faustus recounts the course of his recent travels with Mephastophilis. He highlights memorable places of beauty or significance: Trier, Germany; Paris and the coast of France; the path of the Rhine River; Naples and Campania, Italy; the poet Virgil's tomb; Venice and Padua, Italy. He then asks if Mephastophilis has brought him to Rome, as commanded. The devil assures Faustus this is so and they are in the pope's private chamber. He then describes the high points of the surrounding city, such as the Tiber River, the four main bridges, the castle, and so on. Intrigued, Faustus eagerly suggests they go off and explore Rome. But Mephastophilis bids him to stay until he sees the pope, promising they'll have some fun. Faustus agrees and, in preparation, asks the devil to make him invisible.

The pope enters accompanied by the cardinal of Lorraine and attendant friars. A banquet is waiting. To the embarrassment of the pope and confusion of all, their conversation is interrupted with snide comments by a disembodied voice. Dishes of food and cups are snatched by invisible hands. The cardinal suggests this is a soul escaped from purgatory, to which the pope agrees. He then makes the sign of the cross, only to have his ears boxed by unseen hands. At the pope's direction, the friars begin a dirge to curse the evil spirit. In response Faustus and Mephastophilis beat them and throw fireworks among them before leaving.


In the true spirit of the Renaissance, Faustus has been on a learning spree, realizing his ambition to gather knowledge of the universe. It has been an exhilarating experience, and Faustus is filled with a heady sense there is more out there, waiting for him to discover. Though he has asked Mephastophilis to bring him to see the pope, the devil's descriptions of Rome make Faustus eager to explore. However, the devil turns the doctor's thoughts from this intellectual pursuit by tempting him with the chance for some wicked fun, specifically the childish torment of the pope. The ease with which Mephastophilis draws Faustus into the scheme highlights a weakness in the doctor's character that will undermine all his lofty dreams. In spite of his intellect and high-minded scholarship, Faustus has a streak of pettiness and love for sensual pleasure that Mephastophilis will exploit to keep him bound to Lucifer and doomed to hell. In this scene Faustus uses the marvels of magical powers to pull mean-spirited pranks. The brightness of his noble aspirations is beginning to darken, and the corrupting influence of unbridled power is beginning to show.

Faustus's attack on the pope is overtly anti-Catholic, which would have delighted playgoers in Protestant England during the Renaissance. The pope is humiliated by Faustus's high jinks, which include grabbing his food and drink and striking him. The monks are portrayed as chanting nonsense that does nothing to stop Faustus's antics: he and Mephastophilis "beat the Friars and fling fireworks among them." Beliefs specific to Catholicism are mocked. These include the existence of purgatory from which a soul might escape. In Catholicism purgatory is a place or state of being in which souls are made pure through suffering before going to heaven. Protestants reject the idea of purgatory, so the cardinal of Lorraine's explanation that there must be a runaway ghost from purgatory in the room would have been amusing to them. They also reject the sign of the cross, such as the pope makes to invoke God's protection from the evil pestering him. This practice involves tracing a cross from forehead to chest and shoulder to shoulder. Protestants of the time viewed the practice as superstitious.

A third ritual, which Faustus refers to as "bell, book, and candle," is the Catholic ritual of excommunication, in which a person may be excluded permanently from the Christian Church. In this ceremony a death bell is rung, sounding the death of the person's soul. Then, the Holy Bible is shut, cutting the person off from the word of God. Lastly, a candle is snuffed out, banishing the person's soul to eternal darkness. Marlowe has made a mistake here by confusing excommunication with exorcism. The correct process for getting rid of evil spirits or devils is exorcism.

The B-Text later expands this scene to exaggerate the unflattering qualities of the pope and his guests. In doing so it reflects the growing antagonism in Protestant England toward the papacy's claims of supreme authority in western Europe.

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