FAUSTUS. When I behold the heavens, then I repent,
And curse thee, wicked Mephistophilis,
Because thou hast depriv'd me of those joys.
MEPHIST. Why, Faustus,
Thinkest thou heaven is such a glorious thing?
I tell thee, 'tis not half so fair as thou,
Or any man that breathes on earth.
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was written during the height of classic English drama and Christopher Marlowe was at the time the most competent playwright. He was born in 1564 and probably died 1593. Who was this charismatic figure?
Little is known about Marlowe apart from myths which only sometimes are supported by facts. He came from a middle class family and attended Cambridge University. Men of the middle classes who rose to prominence were typical of the Renaissance. Marlowe was a freethinker. Many theories say he was a spy for the English spy network. England had a second to none spy network at the time. This was built to counter the threat from Catholic countries.
He was a part of a group of young English free thinkers who were educated at Cambridge. Marlowe began his career as a playwright after university and became successful. The free thinking eventually provoked society. This led to persecution and a couple of Marlowe’s friends were accused and executed for heresy. Marlowe was taken to the Privy Council for hearing in 1593. Not much is known about Marlowe after this. He was killed a couple of days later in a bar brawl. The person who allegedly killed him had close contacts with Walshingham, a spy master in England. Walsingham was a friend of Marlowe. Marlowe might have died in a bar brawl. There are scholars who believe the bar brawl was an arrangement for him to escape trial. He might have been killed by order of Walshingham. Some even suggest he continued to write under the pseudonym of William Shakespeare. The person who killed Marlowe was pardoned.
Doctor Faustus contains many of the most radical thoughts in the English society at the 1500s. The main character is an academic who wants to do more than is humanly possible. Doctor Faustus feels he already knows everything that is possible and only magic can show him more. This makes him call on the devil.
The idea of heaven and hell was extremely alive at this time. Many of the scandalous thoughts in the play represent a small group of educated men who discussed atheism under the protection of powerful lords. This was among the most dangerous things you could do at the time. This was only possible because of the reformation in England and the tolerance of the regime. English society was at the time very unstable and threatened by other countries. The crown feared for the fate of the new faith. Theatres were supported to help create an English culture. This made new thoughts possible but it also meant that the state needed stability. The crown had to be firm against radical new ideas and thoughts if they were discussed publicly but it tolerated it in the form of a play.
England was trying to survive as a Protestant country among hostile countries. Usually when a struggle like this happens there is a move towards religious hatred. The marvel of this struggle was that it did not give rise to religious extremism but a new support of culture. This climate of openness seems to have opened a small window towards individual freedom and the modern world.
Here is one of the most famous quotes in theatre:
FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium--
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.--
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips
Marlowe (1604), The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/779
The Marlow Society (2012), http://www.marlowe-society.org/
Encyclopaedia Britannica, (2012) “Marlowe” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/365890/Christopher-Marlowe
Wikipedia (2012), “English reformation” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Reformation