Born in Canterbury in 1564, Christopher Marlowe was an actor, poet, and playwright during the reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I. Traditionally, the education that he received would have prepared him to become a clergyman, but Marlowe chose not to join the ministry. After leaving Cambridge, Marlowe moved to London, where he became a playwright and led a turbulent, scandal-plagued life. He produced seven plays, all of which were immensely popular. Among the most well known of his plays are Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, and Doctor Faustus.
Marlowe was a great innovator of blank verse, unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter. The richness of his dramatic verse anticipates Shakespeare, and some argue that Shakespeare’s achievements owed considerable debt to Marlowe’s influence. Doctor Faustus was probably written in 1592, although the exact date of its composition is uncertain. Doctor Faustus is a play of deep questions concerning morality, religion, and man’s relationship to both. England was a Protestant country since the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII.
Sorcery and magic were part of widespread belief systems throughout Europe that predated Christianity. But as Christianity spread and either assimilated or rejected other belief systems, practitioners of magic came to be viewed as evil. In the fifth century CE, St. Augustine, perhaps the most influential Christian thinker after St. Paul, pronounced all sorcery to be the work of evil spirits, to distinguish it from the good “magic” of Christian ritual and sacrament. The view of the sorcerer changed irrevocably. As this new Christian folklore of sorcery evolved, certain motifs rose to prominence.
Once Christ was rejected, a sorcerer could give his soul to the devil instead, receiving in exchange powers in this life, here and now. Numerous Christian stories feature such bargains, and one of the most famous evolved around the historical person Johanned Faustus, a German astrologer of the early sixteenth century. Marlowe took his plot from an earlier German play about Faustus, but he transformed an old story into a powerhouse of a work, one that has drawn widely different interpretations since its first production.
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is first great version of the story, although not the last. In the nineteenth century, the great German writer Johann Wolfgang van Goethe gave the story its greatest incarnation in Faust. Faustus’ name has become part of our language. “Faustian bargain” has come to mean a deal made for earthly gain at a high ethical and spiritual cost, or alternately any choice with short-lived benefits and a hell of a price.
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