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Doctor Faustus | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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Doctor Faustus | Context


The Renaissance

In the 1300s European civilization began its transition out of the church-dominated Middle Ages into a period that embraced a secular, more humanistic view of the world. This period, called the Renaissance, was a cultural, intellectual, and artistic movement beginning in Italy and spreading across western Europe over the next few hundred years. It ended with the religious Thirty Years' War in central Europe (1618–48). The era's passion for classical-based art and learning was sparked by rediscovery of the literature of Greece and Rome.

The Renaissance reached England around 1550 and hit its peak during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603) and King James I (1603–25). Christopher Marlowe was born in the early years of the English Renaissance. His life and work were profoundly influenced by its historic wave of new ideas and discoveries in science, art, religion, and philosophy. He became a Free-Thinker, part of a group of intellectuals—noblemen, courtiers, and commoners—who formed an underground club, the School of Night, that embraced new ideas and rejected old ones. Passionate in pursuit of knowledge often dangerously in conflict with church dogma—for example, pointing out inconsistencies in the Bible—the Free-Thinkers were labeled atheist and targeted for suppression and death. Doctor Faustus was written in and for this time, reflecting this darker side of the period's boundless pursuit of knowledge. In the spirit of the Free-Thinkers, Faustus is a skeptic and intellectual who goes too far to acquire forbidden knowledge, violates heaven's laws, and is damned for it.

The Religious Climate

Doctor Faustus reflects contemporary controversies over religious faith. During the Renaissance in Europe, there was a great upheaval within the Roman Catholic Church called the Protestant Reformation. Throughout the Middle Ages (5th century to the Renaissance), the Catholic Church governed the lives of people throughout western and central Europe. The calendar year revolved around religious rituals and observances, and church teachings were the sole guide in matters of ethics, the meaning of life, and what to expect in the afterlife. Heresy, or disagreement with church teachings, was dealt with harshly.

However, in the swiftly changing world of the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church struggled to maintain a stable and unifying framework for people's spiritual and material lives. Individuals within the church were questioning certain practices and doctrines. Among the most outspoken and influential was a German theologian named Martin Luther. He was deeply troubled by church doctrine that accepted money in exchange for traditional acts of penance performed by a sinner as atonement. These exchanges were called indulgences. In 1517 Luther tried to spur debate on the issue in his famous document the Ninety-five Theses. To spread his ideas, he made clever use of a new device: the printing press. Unexpectedly, his protest against church doctrine snowballed into a zealous call for reform that split the church into warring factions: Protestants and Catholics.

In Marlowe's England this split was keenly felt by the majority of people. Catholicism had held sway in England until 1534, when King Henry VIII launched his own religious revolution, broke with the Roman Catholic Church, and established himself as the head of the Church of England. Between Henry's death in 1547 and Elizabeth I's rise to the throne, England first tilted violently toward Protestantism and then as violently toward Catholicism. At last Queen Elizabeth cast the church as an independent, "middle-ground" entity. It leaned toward Catholicism in structure but blurred the doctrinal lines between Protestantism and Catholicism and recognized the monarchy—not the pope in Rome—as its leading authority. As a result, numerous plots were hatched, backed by Rome, to dethrone the queen by force. This included excommunication from the church by the pope in 1570—a grave step that made supporters of the papacy automatic enemies of the queen.

Reflecting England's religious climate in the latter part of the 16th century, Doctor Faustus takes humorous aim at Catholicism and the pope. Most notably, in Act 3, Scene 1 Faustus visits Rome—seat of the Roman Catholic Church—after selling his soul to Lucifer for limitless power and knowledge. The doctor proceeds to use magic to torment the pope, which would have delighted his Protestant audience.

Doctor Faustus also explores the weighty consequences of rejecting religious beliefs and the merits of holding fast to conventional values. Despite Queen Elizabeth's attempt to establish a religious middle ground upon which all English Protestants might stand, religion was not exempt from the spirit of skepticism at the heart of the Renaissance. Though, questioning religious doctrine often invited accusations of blasphemy. In his pursuit of knowledge, Faustus rejects reliance on earlier, accepted authorities, including the Bible and divine revelation. He strikes out on his own, to discover dark, hidden knowledge. However, in the play's closing moments, Faustus realizes that his skeptical questioning of sacred doctrine and rejection of religion have damned him to a fate he cannot escape.

Also woven into the play is the issue of human free will versus predestination—a hot subject of religious debate, advanced by Protestant theologian John Calvin (1509–64). Calvin preached that salvation comes through divine grace alone and that, for each person, the outcome is predetermined by God. An individual's choices and actions merely fulfill what has already been divinely fixed. In the character of Faustus, Marlowe hints at the possibility that the doctor is unable to choose a different path, that his God-given nature shapes his choices and actions. For example, in Act 2, Scene 3 the Evil Angel states with certainty, "Faustus never shall repent." Yet Marlowe keeps the fundamental question open by inviting sympathy for a man who may have chosen his own wicked path but refuses to repent. He states in the epilogue, "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight."

Magic and Religion

Religion was eventually banned from the Elizabethan stage because of its sensitive nature. Doctor Faustus was the last play from this period to deal directly with a religious topic. However, as the play demonstrates, Elizabethans blurred the line between religion and magic. Religion involves faith or belief in the supernatural and the existence of good and evil. In Elizabethan England, as well as in much of Europe, this went hand in hand with the belief in witches and witchcraft. Renaissance interest in alchemy, astrology, and magic tended to support this belief. Furthermore, the first printed books were religious in nature, and many circulated ideas about witches, deals with the devil, and magical abilities. In parts of Europe witches were hunted, tortured, and killed by the thousands. The hysteria did not reach these heights in England, though Queen Elizabeth passed a harsh witchcraft law in 1562. The character Doctor Faustus, who makes a pact with a devil and becomes a magician, was seen as a witch by Elizabethan audiences. Yet his downfall and fate were viewed in light of redemption, salvation, and eternal damnation, all of which are Christian ideas.

The Real Doctor Faustus

The legend of a man selling his soul to the devil comes out of Wittenberg, Germany, in the early 1500s. John Faustus—an English version of the name Johann Fausten—was a self-proclaimed magician and wizard. This bold claim was made at a time when witchcraft was feared and condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike. The punishment was death by burning at the stake. During his lifetime, Faustus was denounced by his contemporaries Martin Luther and German Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon.

When he died, the rumor swiftly spread that he had been killed by the devil. A manuscript account of Faustus's life and death was published by Johann Spies in 1587. The Historia von Johann Fausten became a best seller. A year or two later, a translation appeared in England. This English Faust Book (also known by the more lengthy title The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus) provided the basis for tragic scenes in Marlowe's play, while its comedic scenes appear to have been freshly invented.

Mephastophilis's Name

Mephastophilis, also spelled Mephostophilis or Mephistopheles, is a devil in medieval German mythology. The character appears in Marlowe's English-language play with the name spelled Mephastophilis. German author Johann Goethe, inspired by Marlowe's and other Faustus stories, gave the evil spirit to whom Faust sells his soul the name Mephistopheles in his play Faust (1808–1832). Noting that the names of devils in the Middle Ages were often based on Hebrew words, a Goethe scholar believes the name is made up of the Hebrew words mephitz, meaning "destroyer," and tophel, meaning "liar."

Performance and Reception

The first known record of Doctor Faustus is an entry in the Stationers' Register, a British record book. Before the existence of copyright laws, this register allowed stationers, or publishers, to document their legal right to publish a book, play, or other written work. Doctor Faustus was registered in December 1592. However, all London theaters, including the Rose—the playhouse most associated with productions of Marlowe's plays—had been closed since June, due to a plague epidemic. With the exception of a short-lived reopening in 1593, the Rose was closed until January 1594. By that time Marlowe was dead.

The first record of the play's performance is during London's 1594–95 theatrical season, when it was performed at least a dozen times by the Admiral's Men, an acting troupe. Over the next two years, the play enjoyed a continuous run of performances, as well as a revival in 1602. Beginning in 1604, printed versions of the play were steadily published and distributed. Nevertheless, as the century progressed, the play's stage popularity began to wane. By 1642 all theaters in England were closed and remained so for the next 18 years.

Over time Marlowe and Doctor Faustus might have been forgotten but for a compiled volume of the playwright's works published in the late 1700s. Interest in Doctor Faustus was gradually revived. During the 1800s it came to the notice of the Romantics, with whom its theme of intellectual overreaching resonated. This was followed by several revivals of the play in the 20th century, during which Faustus's internal struggle with the dark side mirrored the century's fascination with the pitfalls and rewards of individuality and self-determination.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus has been widely influential. Several authors have written their own variations on the Faustus legend. These include German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who developed it into a much longer two-part play (completed in 1832) that ends with Faustus going to heaven rather than hell. English author Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) features scientist Victor Frankenstein, who becomes obsessed with bringing the dead back to life and produces a monster as a result of his excessive ambition, which results in disaster. Thomas Mann, also German, wrote a novel called Doktor Faustus (1947) set in modern times in which an artist makes a deal with the devil to enhance his artistic genius and winds up losing his mind.

From amateur and professional stage performances to operas, radio plays, and film versions, Doctor Faustus continues to fascinate audiences with the mythic appeal of its story of power and temptation, high-flying ambition, and self-destruction. More recent stage productions, which remain especially popular in England, have included English actors Jude Law as the doctor (2002) and Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones fame in the leading role (2016).

A Note about the Text

Two distinct forms of the play Doctor Faustus survive, designated as the A-Text and B-Text. The A-Text was first published in 1604, more than 10 years after Marlowe's death. The B-Text was first published in 1616. The B-Text is significantly longer than the A-Text, with additions, including characters, by two playwrights commissioned to revise the play. Experts generally agree that the shorter A-Text is the text most representative of Marlowe's intention. All editions of the play derive from either of these two texts.

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