Faustus: last minute A Level revision guide

June 27, 2018

Plot Summary

 

Prologue

The Chorus, a single actor, enters. He says the play will involve neither love nor war, but instead will trace the “form of Faustus’ fortunes”. Faustus was born to lowly parents in the small town of Rhode, came to the town of Wittenberg to live with his kinsmen, and was educated at Wittenberg, a famous German university. After earning the title of doctor of divinity, Faustus became famous for his ability to discuss theological matters. Faustus has begun to practice necromancy, or black magic. 

 

Scene One

Faustus is seated in his study.

In a long soliloquy, Faustus reflects on the most rewarding type of scholarship. 

He first considers logic, but notes that disputing well seems to be the only goal of logic, and, since Faustus’s debating skills are already good, logic is not scholarly enough for him. 

He considers medicine, and decides that medicine, with its possibility of achieving miraculous cures, is the most fruitful pursuit—yet he notes that he has achieved great renown as a doctor already. 

He considers law, but dismisses law as too petty, dealing with trivial matters rather than larger ones. 

Divinity,the study of religion and theology, seems to offer wider vistas, but he quotes from St. Jerome’s Bible that all men sin and finds the Bible’s assertion that “[t]he reward of sin is death” an unacceptable doctrine. He then dismisses religion and fixes his mind on magic, which, when properly pursued, he believes will make him “a mighty god”.

Wagner, Faustus’s servant, enters. Faustus asks Wagner to bring Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus’s friends, to help him learn the art of magic. While they are on their way, a good angel and an evil angel visit Faustus. The good angel urges him to set aside his book of magic and read the Scriptures instead; the evil angel encourages him to go forward in his pursuit of the black arts. Faustus imagines sending spirits to the end of the world to fetch him jewels and delicacies, having them teach him secret knowledge, and using magic to make himself king of all Germany.

Valdes and Cornelius appear. They agree to teach Faustus the principles of the dark arts. 

 

Scene Two

Two scholars come to see Faustus. Wagner tells them that Faustus is meeting with Valdes and Cornelius. Aware that Valdes and Cornelius are infamous for their involvement in the black arts, the scholars leave with heavy hearts, fearing that Faustus may also be falling into “that damned art” as well (2.29).

 

Scene Three

That night, Faustus tries conjuring. Four devils and Lucifer, the ruler of hell, watch him from the shadows. Faustus renounces heaven and God, swears allegiance to hell. The devil Mephastophilis then appears before Faustus. Faustus demands his obedience, but Mephastophilis says that he is Lucifer’s servant and can obey only Lucifer. 

Faustus quizzes Mephastophilis about Lucifer and hell and learns that Lucifer and all his devils were once angels who rebelled against God and have been damned to hell forever. Faustus declares that he will offer his soul to Lucifer in return for twenty-four years of Mephastophilis’s service. Mephastophilis agrees to take this offer to his master and departs.

 

Scene Four

Wagner converses with a poor clown/beggar and tries to persuade him to become his servant for seven years. Wagner conjures up two devils, who he says will carry the clown away to hell unless he becomes Wagner’s servant. Seeing the devils, the clown becomes terrified and agrees to Wagner’s demands. After Wagner dismisses the devils, the clown asks his new master if he can learn to conjure as well, Wagner agrees.

 

Scene Five

Faustus begins to waver in his conviction to sell his soul. The good angel tells him to abandon his plan, but he dismisses the good angel’s words, saying that God does not love him. The evil angel convinces him that the wealth he can gain through his deal with the devil is worth the cost. 

Faustus then calls back Mephastophilis, who tells him that Lucifer has accepted his offer of his soul in exchange for twenty-four years of service. Faustus asks Mephastophilis why Lucifer wants his soul, and Mephastophilis tells him that Lucifer seeks to enlarge his kingdom and make humans suffer even as he suffers.

Faustus decides to make the bargain, and he stabs his arm in order to write the deed in blood. However, when he tries to write the deed his blood congeals, making writing impossible. Mephastophilis goes to fetch fire in order to loosen the blood. Faustus wonders if his own blood is attempting to warn him not to sell his soul. 

When Mephastophilis returns, Faustus signs the deed and then discovers an inscription on his arm that reads “Homo fuge,” Latin for “O man, fly”.

At Faustus’s request for a wife, Mephastophilis offers Faustus a she-devil, but Faustus refuses. Mephastophilis then gives him a book of magic spells and tells him to read it carefully.

 

Scene Six

He then begins to ask Mephastophilis questions about the planets and the heavens. Mephastophilis answers all his queries willingly, until Faustus asks who made the world. Mephastophilis refuses to reply. 

The good and evil angels enter once more, and the good angel says it is never too late for Faustus to repent.

Faustus cries out for Christ to save him, and at this moment, Lucifer himself appears. Lucifer reminds him that he is breaking his promise by thinking on Christ. He tells Faustus that he has brought some entertainment to divert him.

The seven deadly sins — pride, covetousness, wrath, envy, gluttony, sloth, and lechery — appear before Faustus in the representation of their individual sin or nature. Faustus is delighted with the show.

After everyone leaves, Wagner appears and says that Faustus has gone to Rome to see the pope.

 

Scene Seven

Meanwhile, Robin, a stablehand, has found one of Faustus’s conjuring books, and he is trying to learn the spells. He calls in an innkeeper named Rafe, and the two go to a bar together, where Robin promises to conjure up any kind of wine that Rafe desires.

 

Chorus 2

Wagner takes the stage and describes how Faustus traveled through the heavens on a chariot pulled by dragons in order to learn the secrets of astronomy. Wagner tells us that Faustus is now traveling to measure the coasts and kingdoms of the world and that his travels will take him to Rome.

 

Scene Eight

Faustus describes the trip over the Alps and the various cities on the way to Rome. 

Mephistophilis tells Faustus that he has arranged to enter the pope's private chamber. Mephistophilis makes Faustus invisible. When the pope and a group of friars enter, Faustus plays tricks on them by snatching plates and cups from them. Finally, he boxes the pope on the ear. The friars begin to sing a dirge to re-move the evil spirit, but Mephistophilis and Faustus begin to beat the friars and fling some fireworks among them.

 

Scene Nine

Robin the ostler, or stablehand, and his friend Rafe have stolen a cup from a tavern. They are pursued by a vintner (or wine-maker), who demands that they return the cup. They claim not to have it, and then Robin conjures up Mephastophilis, which makes the vintner flee. Mephastophilis is not pleased to have been summoned for a prank, and he threatens to turn the two into an ape and a dog. The two friends treat what they have done as a joke, and Mephastophilis leaves in a fury, saying that he will go to join Faustus in Turkey.

 

Chorus 3
The Chorus enters to inform us that Faustus has returned home to Germany and developed his fame by explaining what he learned during the course of his journey. The German emperor, Charles V, has heard of Faustus and invited him to his palace, where we next encounter him.

 

Scene Ten

Emperor Carolus tells Faustus that he has heard reports of his magical powers.

He asks Faustus to bring Alexander the Great and Alexander's paramour back to life. A knight questions his abilities. At Faustus' request, Mephistophilis leaves and returns with two spirits in the shape of Alexander and his paramour. After the emperor inspects a mole on the paramour's neck, he declares that the two spirits are real. Faustus asks that the sarcastic knight be requested to return. When the knight appears, he has a pair of horns on his head. At the emperor's request, Faustus releases the knight from the spell and the horns are removed. 

The emperor thanks Faustus for the conjuration and promises to reward him bounteously.

 

Scene Eleven

Faustus begins to be concerned that the end of his allotted time is drawing near. Suddenly, a horse-courser enters and wants to know if Faustus will sell his horse. Faustus willingly agrees to sell his horse but warns the horse-courser that he must never ride the horse into water.

Faustus falls asleep. The horse-courser returns. He thought the horse had some magical quality, so he proceeded to ride the animal into a pond. The horse then turned into a pile of hay. 

Mephistophilis cautions the horse-courser to be quiet because Faustus has just fallen asleep for the first time in eight days. The horse-courser pulls on Faustus' legs, awakens him, and demands that Faustus pay him back his money. He is astounded when Faustus' entire leg comes off. 

Wagner enters to tell Faustus that the Duke of Vanholt desires his company, and Faustus agrees to see him.

 

Scene Twelve

Robin and Rafe have stopped for a drink in a tavern. They listen as a carter, or wagon-driver, and the horse-courser discuss Faustus. The carter explains that Faustus stopped him on the road and asked to buy some hay to eat. The carter agreed to sell him all he could eat for three farthings, and Faustus proceeded to eat the entire wagonload of hay. The horse-courser tells his own story, adding that he took Faustus’s leg as revenge and that he is keeping it at his home. Robin declares that he intends to seek out Faustus, but only after he has a few more drinks.

 

Scene Thirteen

At the court of the duke of Vanholt, Faustus asks the duchess if she has a desire for any special dainties. Although it is January, she desires to have a dish of ripe grapes. Faustus sends Mephistophilis after them. Faustus explains that he sent his spirit to India for them. The duchess exclaims that the grapes are the best she has ever tasted. The duke promises Faustus that he will reward him greatly for this favor.

 

Scene Fourteen

Wagner enters with the news that Faustus is soon to die because he has given all of his goods and properties to his servants. 

Faustus enters with scholars discussing who is the most beautiful woman in the world. The scholars think it is Helen of Troy. Faustus promises to raise her from the dead and let the scholars see her in all her pomp and majesty. Music sounds and Helen passes across the stage. The scholars exclaim wildly about her beauty and thank Faustus for allowing them to see this "paragon of excellence."

As an old man enters, the scholars leave. The old man prevails upon Faustus to repent of "thy most vile and loathsome filthiness" so he can come under the grace and mercy of God and be saved. 

Mephistophilis then threatens Faustus for disobedience to Lucifer, and Faustus agrees to reaffirm his contract to the devil in blood again. After he writes the second deed, he tells Mephistophilis that he desires Helen for his own paramour. When she appears, Faustus decides that Helen's beauty shall make him immortal and thus, he will not need salvation.

After Faustus exits with Helen, the old man re-enters and expresses his disappointment in Faustus, but he also sympathizes with him because he too has been tempted but has won victory by turning to God.

 

Scene Fifteen

Faustus declares to the three scholars who accompany him that he is in a dejected state because of what is about to happen to him. 

One of the scholars volunteers to stay with Faustus until the last minute, but Faustus and the others admit that no one will be able to help him. He must face the final moments alone.

After the scholars leave, the clock strikes eleven, and Faustus realizes that he has only an hour left before eternal damnation. As the clock strikes half past eleven, he pleads that his doom not be everlasting. As the clock strikes twelve, he cries out for God not to look so fierce upon him. Thunder and lightning flash across the stage and the devils arrive to take him away.

 


Themes: 

 

Sin, Redemption, and Damnation
Insofar as Doctor Faustus is a Christian play, it deals with the themes at the heart of Christianity’s understanding of the world. First, there is the idea of sin, which Christianity defines as acts contrary to the will of God. In making a pact with Lucifer, Faustus commits what is in a sense the ultimate sin: not only does he disobey God, but he consciously and even eagerly renounces obedience to him, choosing instead to swear allegiance to the devil. In a Christian framework, however, even the worst deed can be forgiven through the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, God’s son, who, according to Christian belief, died on the cross for humankind’s sins. Thus, however terrible Faustus’s pact with Lucifer may be, the possibility of redemption is always open to him. All that he needs to do, theoretically, is ask God for forgiveness. The play offers countless moments in which Faustus considers doing just that, urged on by the good angel on his shoulder or by the old man in scene 12—both of whom can be seen either as emissaries of God, personifications of Faustus’s conscience, or both.

 

Each time, Faustus decides to remain loyal to hell rather than seek heaven. In the Christian framework, this turning away from God condemns him to spend an eternity in hell. Only at the end of his life does Faustus desire to repent, and, in the final scene, he cries out to Christ to redeem him. But it is too late for him to repent. In creating this moment in which Faustus is still alive but incapable of being redeemed, Marlowe steps outside the Christian worldview in order to maximize the dramatic power of the final scene. Having inhabited a Christian world for the entire play, Faustus spends his final moments in a slightly different universe, where redemption is no longer possible and where certain sins cannot be forgiven.

 

The Conflict Between Medieval and Renaissance Values

 

Scholar R.M. Dawkins famously remarked that Doctor Faustus tells “the story of a Renaissance man who had to pay the medieval price for being one.” While slightly simplistic, this quotation does get at the heart of one of the play’s central themes: the clash between the medieval world and the world of the emerging Renaissance. The medieval world placed God at the center of existence and shunted aside man and the natural world. The Renaissance was a movement that began in Italy in the fifteenth century and soon spread throughout Europe, carrying with it a new emphasis on the individual, on classical learning, and on scientific inquiry into the nature of the world. In the medieval academy, theology was the queen of the sciences. In the Renaissance, though, secular matters took center stage.
Faustus, despite being a magician rather than a scientist (a blurred distinction in the sixteenth century), explicitly rejects the medieval model. In his opening speech in scene 1, he goes through every field of scholarship, beginning with logic and proceeding through medicine, law, and theology, quoting an ancient authority for each: Aristotle on logic, Galen on medicine, the Byzantine emperor Justinian on law, and the Bible on religion. In the medieval model, tradition and authority, not individual inquiry, were key. But in this soliloquy, Faustus considers and rejects this medieval way of thinking. He resolves, in full Renaissance spirit, to accept no limits, traditions, or authorities in his quest for knowledge, wealth, and power.
The play’s attitude toward the clash between medieval and Renaissance values is ambiguous. Marlowe seems hostile toward the ambitions of Faustus, and, as Dawkins notes, he keeps his tragic hero squarely in the medieval world, where eternal damnation is the price of human pride. Yet Marlowe himself was no pious traditionalist, and it is tempting to see in Faustus—as many readers have—a hero of the new modern world, a world free of God, religion, and the limits that these imposed on humanity. Faustus may pay a medieval price, this reading suggests, but his successors will go further than he and suffer less, as we have in modern times. On the other hand, the disappointment and mediocrity that follow Faustus’s pact with the devil, as he descends from grand ambitions to petty conjuring tricks, might suggest a contrasting interpretation. Marlowe may be suggesting that the new, modern spirit, though ambitious and glittering, will lead only to a Faustian dead end.

 

Power as a Corrupting Influence
Early in the play, before he agrees to the pact with Lucifer, Faustus is full of ideas for how to use the power that he seeks. He imagines piling up great wealth, but he also aspires to plumb the mysteries of the universe and to remake the map of Europe. Though they may not be entirely admirable, these plans are ambitious and inspire awe, if not sympathy. They lend a grandeur to Faustus’s schemes and make his quest for personal power seem almost heroic, a sense that is reinforced by the eloquence of his early soliloquies.


Barbara Njau



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