"No Elizabethan play outside the Shakespeare canon has raised more controversy than Doctor Faustus. There is no agreement concerning the nature of the text and the date of composition...and the centrality of the Faust legend in the history of the Western world precludes any definitive agreement on the interpretation of the play....
The powerful effect of the early productions is indicated by the legends that quickly accrued around them. In Histriomastix, his 1632 polemic against the drama, William Prynne records the tale that actual devils once appeared on the stage during a performance of Faustus, "to the great amazement of both the actors and spectators." Some people were allegedly driven mad, "distracted with that fearful sight." John Aubrey recorded a related legend, that Edward Alleyn, lead actor of The Admiral's Men, devoted his later years to charitable endeavors, like the founding of Dulwich College, in direct response to this incident.
The 1616 version omits 36 lines but adds 676 new lines, making it roughly one third longer than the 1604 version. Among the lines shared by both versions, there are some small but significant changes in wording; for example, “Never too late, if Faustus can repent” in the 1604 text becomes “Never too late, if Faustus will repent” in the 1616 text, a change that offers a very different possibility for Faustus's hope and repentance.
The relationship between the texts is uncertain and many modern editions print both. As an Elizabethan playwright, Marlowe had nothing to do with the publication and had no control over the play in performance, so it was possible for scenes to be dropped or shortened, or for new scenes to be added, so that the resulting publications may be modified versions of the original script.
The 1604 version is believed by most scholars to be closer to the play as originally performed in Marlowe's lifetime, and the 1616 version to be a posthumous adaptation by other hands. However, some disagree, seeing the 1604 version as an abbreviation and the 1616 version as Marlowe's original fuller version. Bucchianeri proposes both versions were performed, i.e. that Marlowe redrafted the A Text after its debut c. 1589, accounting for the B Text, which Bucchianeri speculates was performed later in 1592.
Some scholars believe that Marlowe developed the story from a popular 1592 translation, commonly called The English Faust Book, of an earlier, unpreserved, German edition of 1587, which itself may have been influenced by even earlier, equally unpreserved pamphlets in Latin, such as those that likely inspired Jacob Bidermanns treatment of the damnation of the doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus (1602). Whatever the inspiration, the development of Marlowe's play is very faithful to the Faust Book of especially in the way it mixes comedy with tragedy.
The play is in blank verse and prose in thirteen scenes (1604) or twenty scenes (1616). Blank verse is largely reserved for the main scenes while prose is used in the comic scenes. Modern texts divide the play into 5 acts; act 5 being the shortest. As in many Elizabethan plays, there is a chorus who does not interact with the other characters but rather provides an introduction and conclusion to the play and gives an introduction to the events that have unfolded at the beginning of some acts.
He calls upon his servant Wagner to bring forth Valdes and Cornelius, two famous magicians. The good angel and the bad angel dispense their own perspective of his interest in Magic. Though Faustus is momentarily dissuaded, proclaiming "How am I glutted with conceit of this?", he is apparently won over by the possibilities Magic offers to him. Valdes declares that if Faustus devotes himself to Magic, he must vow not to study anything else and points out that great things are indeed possible with someone of Faustus' standing.
Faustus' absence is noted by two scholars who are less accomplished than Faustus himself. They request that Wagner reveal Faustus' present location, a request which Wagner haughtily denies. We can see Wagner as a person who thinks very highly of himself. The two scholars worry about Faustus falling deep into the art of Magic and leave to inform the head of the university.
Faustus summons a devil, under the presence of Lucifer and other devils although Faustus is unaware of it. After creating a circle and speaking an incantation, a devil named Mephostophilis appears before him. Faustus is unable to tolerate the hideous looks of the devil and commands it to change its form to that of a Franciscan friar, a shape which "suits a demon best", an ironic statement used to mock religion. Faustus, in seeing the obedience of the devil (for changing form), takes pride in his skill. He tries to bind the devil to his service but is unable to because Mephostophilis already serves Lucifer, the prince of devils. Mephostophilis also reveals that it was not Faustus's power that summoned him but rather anyone that abjured the scriptures would result in the devil coming to claim one's soul.
Mephostophilis introduces the history of Lucifer and the other devils while indirectly telling Faustus that hell has no circumference and is more of a state of mind than a physical location. Faustus' inquiries into the nature of hell lead to Mephostophilis saying: "Oh Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, which strikes a terror to my fainting soul."
Using Mephostophilis as a messenger, Faustus strikes a deal with Lucifer: he is to be allotted twenty-four years of life on Earth, during which time he will have Mephostophilis as his personal servant. At the end he will give his soul over to Lucifer as payment and spend the rest of time as one damned to hell. This deal is to be sealed in Faustus' own blood. Interestingly, at first his blood congeals, leading to second thoughts by Faustus. After cutting a second time, Faustus finds the congealed blood on his arm has formed a Latin inscription instructing him to run away. Despite the dramatic nature of this obvious divine intervention, Faustus disregards the inscription with the presumption that he is already damned by his actions thus far, therefore left with no place to flee to. Mephostophilis brings coals to break the wound open again, and thus Mephostophilis begins his servitude and Faustus his oath.
Faustus begins by learning much about the sciences. He has an interesting debate with Mephostophilis regarding astronomy and the "nine spheres". Two angels, one good and one bad, appear to Faustus: the good angel urges him to repent and revoke his oath to Lucifer. This is the largest fault of Faustus throughout the play: he is blind to his own salvation. Though he is told initially by Mephostophilis to "leave these frivolous demands," Faustus remains set on his soul's damnation.
Lucifer brings to Faustus the personification of the seven deadly sins. Faustus recognizes these as detestable, but ignores the echo of his own 'detestable' life.
From this point until the end of the play, Faustus does nothing worthwhile, having begun his pact with the attitude that he would be able to do anything. Faustus appears to scholars and warns them that he is damned and will not be long on the earth. He gives a speech about how he is damned and eventually seems to repent for his deeds. Mephostophilis comes to collect his soul, and Faustus' dismembered body is found by his friends and colleagues.
The text leaves Faustus' final confrontation with Mephostophilis offstage, and his final fate ambiguous. The scene following begins with Faustus' friends discovering his body parts strewn about the stage: from this they conclude that Faustus was damned. However, his friends decide to give him a due burial, a religious ceremony that hints at salvation. It should be noted that the discovery of the body parts is a scene present only in the later 'B text' of the play -- the earlier version of the play, in offering no direct evidence of Faustus' fate, is more ambiguous.
"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,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack'd;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear'd to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!"
Excerpts from this speech appear in the film Shakespeare in Love and the Star Trek episode "The Squire of Gothos"; it also served as inspiration for the title of Volume 1 of the popular Age of Bronze comic book.
Another well-known quote comes after Faustus asks Mephostophilis how he is out of Hell, to which Mephostophilis replies
"Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?"
This quote comes from a translation of Saint John Chrysostom, and implies that Mephostophilis has both a deep knowledge of God and a desire to return to heaven.