Book Review: Doctor Faustus

“Hell is just a frame of mind.” –Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

Title: Doctor Faustus
Author: Christopher Marlowe
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Signet Classics
Publication Date: February 1, 2001
Source: My local public library


Faustus, a brilliant scholar, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for limitless knowledge and powerful black magic, yet remains unfulfilled. He considers repenting, but remains too proud to ask God for forgiveness. His indecision ultimately seals his fate.

Faustus’ story serves as a warning to those who would sacrifice righteous living for earthly gain. But Marlowe’s play is also a deeply symbolic analysis of the shift from the late medieval world to the early modern world—a time when the medieval view that the highest wisdom lay in the theologian’s contemplations of God was yielding to the Renaissance view that the highest wisdom lay in the scientist’s and statesman’s rational analysis of the world around them. Caught between these ideals, Faustus is both a tragic fool destroyed by his own ambition and a hero at the forefront of a changing society. In Doctor Faustus, Marlowe thoughtfully examines faith and enlightenment, nature and science—and the terrible cost of the objects of our desire.

–From Goodreads

My Thoughts:

Chances are you’ve probably heard the phrase “he sold himself to the devil” or “he made a Faustian bargain,” but have you ever wondered where that saying originated? If you don’t already know, it has its origins in the life of Dr. Johann Georg Faust, upon whom Historia von D. Johann Fausten (published 1587) is based. This work was translated from its original German to English in 1592 as The English Faust Book, and it is likely that Christopher Marlowe used this work as the basis for his famous play. Despite not appearing on “The Big Read” list, I have always been eager to read this work since it is referred to countless times in the literature and pop-culture alike (Damn Yankees anyone?!). I eagerly dove into my copy when I checked it out from the library and was not disappointed in what I found.

As mentioned in the synopsis, the play opens with Faustus’s search for a profession worthy of his talent (and ambition). After rejecting the traditional options (law, medicine, philosophy), he chooses instead to become a magician and learns to practice black magic. One of the first spells he casts is a summoning charm, which he uses to summon the devil Mephastophilis. Using Mephastophilis as a proxy, Faustus makes a bargin with Lucifier in which he (Faustus) will receive 24 years of service from Mephastophilis in exchange for his (Faustus’s) soul. Faustus eagerly agrees–during those 24 years he imagines he will be a god among men.  From here the story follows Faustus’s aimless wanderings throughout his remaining 24 years, which include his repeated opportunities and attempts to repent. At the climax of the story, he finally accepts his fate.

You know I can actually emphasize with Faustus to a certain extent. He was a bright, thoughtful scholar who wasn’t born with silver spoon in hand. Faustus knew he was a man who would have to make his own luck. But instead of choosing an honorable profession, he chooses to take the easy way out. His is the ultimate case of “selling out,” and similarly the pays the ultimate price. The worst part is that he has several chances to redeem himself, but he is never quite able to. To me, Faustus is the embodiment of the divided nature of man–he is constantly battling the good and evil forces in the outside world and within himself.

The big question I walked away with was: is it REALLY worth it? Once Faustus has ultimate power at his fingertips he doesn’t really DO anything with it. Sure, he learns a few bits of knowledge from Mephastophilis and plays practical jokes on kings…but his lofty ambitions go right out the window the moment he comes into power. He’s like politicians who make big promises during election season and back out on them after being elected into office. They say absolute power corrupts, and in this case I’d have to agree. I’ve often wondered since I finished this play how I’d react in a similar situation…assuming I was offered ultimate power and didn’t have to sell my soul for it of course. I hope I wouldn’t rest on my laurels, but I guess you never really know how you will react in a situation until you are in it.

Overall I would definitely recommend picking up a copy of this classic play. Despite it’s dark subject matter, it actually has plenty of lighthearted moments and is a very quick read. For those of you who like to do a little extra research on the books you are reading, I highly recommend checking out the very controversial history of this work as well. I actually felt like I learned more by reading up on Christopher Marlowe and the two surviving versions of the play than I did by reading the play itself.

What Others Had To Say:

*Let me know if you have a review published and I’ll add a link to it!

My Review In Four Lines:

  1. Rating: 4/5 stars
  2. What I liked: Reading this classic play, and learning more about its controversial history
  3. What I didn’t enjoy as much: Trying to pick the best version to read…the market is saturated with options.
  4. I would recommend this book for: People who want to read the original “sold his soul to the devil” story


Linking up with Blonde…Undercover Blonde for Book Club Friday.

Note: I did not receive any compensation whatsoever for this book review.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Shoshanah
    Sep 16, 2012 @ 10:27:40

    I feel like there are so many classic works that I just haven’t read that it’s a little embaressing. Espeically since I think if I actually started reading them, I would enjoy them.


    • exlibrisheather
      Sep 16, 2012 @ 11:54:18

      I know what you mean! Sometimes starting is the hardest part! That’s part of why I started participating in Classics reading challenges…makes me more motivated to pick them up!


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