Doctor Faustus | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus.

Doctor Faustus | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act 1

Doctor John Faustus is introduced by the chorus, whose role is to both explain and to facilitate transitions in the play. Here the chorus explains that his story is not a sweeping tale of warfare or love at court. It is the tale of a man of lowly birth who in later years is raised by a kinsman while attending school in Wertenberg. The young man proves to be a brilliant religious scholar but, swollen with pride, turns away from traditional areas of study to explore necromancy, or black magic.

As Faustus sits in his study, he pages through various texts on logic, medicine, law, and religion. Dismissing them one by one, he turns at last to a book of magic. The power and authority promised by mastering this art appeals to Faustus. In spite of warnings from the Good Angel that appears, he resolves to study magic. He engages his German friends Valdes and Cornelius to teach him all the basics he needs to know about the "damned art" of necromancy.

Sometime later, in a demonstration of his conjuring skills, Faustus summons up the devil Mephastophilis—"an unhappy spirit that fell with Lucifer," the prince of devils, when God threw him out of heaven. Mephastophilis explains that by dabbling in magic, Faustus risks corruption of his soul. He then warns of the torments of hell that await him if he allies himself with Lucifer. Undaunted, Faustus sends the devil back to his master with an offer: the soul of Faustus in exchange for 24 years of service from Mephastophilis.

Act 2

Mephastophilis returns to Faustus with the news that Lucifer has agreed to the deal, provided Faustus will write and sign the deed for his soul in blood. Faustus proceeds as instructed, but the moment it is done, the words Homo fuge appear like a brand on his arm. Latin for "Fly, O man!" they seem to be a warning. Unsettled, Faustus tries to imagine where he could run—certainly not to God, who would throw him into hell for what he has done. To distract Faustus and strengthen his determination, Mephastophilis showers him with rich gifts and devilish entertainment and then provides all the books Faustus desires on spells and incantations.

A while later, Faustus wavers in his decision and considers renouncing magic and repenting. Then, recalling that he is most certainly damned already, he hardens his heart and begins questioning Mephastophilis on the nature and movement of heavenly bodies. However, when he asks, "Who made the world?" the devil refuses to answer, stirring up Faustus's doubts once more. Just as the doctor calls upon Christ to save his soul, Lucifer appears, accompanied by Belzebub, his companion prince in hell. To draw Faustus back from the brink of repentance, they appeal to his thirst for knowledge and enthrall him with a display of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Act 3

Faustus has studied diligently and now uses his dark powers to travel to Rome, where he visits the pope. Bidding Mephastophilis to make him invisible, he harasses the pope as he entertains guests, flinging fireworks among them, stealing food and drink, and boxing the pope's ears.

Act 4

In the years that follow, Faustus travels throughout Europe, appearing at the courts of kings and earning an impressive reputation for wit and knowledge of the black arts. Eventually Emperor Carolus the Fifth invites Faustus to his court and begs him to conjure up Alexander the Great. While the emperor is duly impressed by the feat, a knight mocks the doctor's skill. In retaliation Faustus gives him a pair of horns on his head, a sure sign that the knight has been cuckolded by his wife.

Continuing his travels, Faustus performs further feats of magic, including a dishonest and cruel prank on a horse-courser (a dealer in horses). Later, he entertains the duke and duchess of Vanholt at court by producing grapes in winter.

Act 5

As the final act opens, Faustus is conjuring beautiful Helen of Troy for a group of admiring scholars. However, the 24 years allotted to the doomed doctor are winding down, and soon it will be time to forfeit his soul. An old man appears and begs him to repent and ask God's forgiveness. Though briefly tempted, Faustus instead reaffirms his vow to Lucifer in blood. Then, to fortify his resolve, Faustus asks Mephastophilis to summon back Helen of Troy to be his lover.

During his final hours, Faustus reveals his fate to three fellow scholars. They implore him to call on God for help, but Faustus insists it is too late. He has rejected God, blasphemed, and been in a pact with Lucifer for too long to expect mercy. Faustus begs the scholars to leave him and is alone when the clock strikes eleven. In mounting terror and despair, Faustus begs Lucifer to spare him or for Earth to bury him and hide him from the wrath of God. But Faustus's destiny is fixed. The clock strikes twelve, and Lucifer's minions appear in order to drag the doctor's soul off to hell.

Doctor Faustus Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 The chorus introduces proud, ambitious Doctor Faustus.

Rising Action

2 Faustus is dissatisfied with accepted branches of knowledge.

3 Faustus determines to study black magic.

4 Pursuing dark knowledge, Faustus sells his soul to Lucifer.

5 Faustus uses his new power to play pranks and gain fame.

6 Faustus rejects every chance to repent and save his soul.


7 Lucifer sends his devils to drag Faustus's soul to hell.

Falling Action

8 The chorus confirms Faustus's soul is damned and fame lost.


9 The chorus warns that imitating Faustus will also end badly.

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