Literature You Should Know: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

Oscar_Taveras_2013As I write this morning, the baseball world is still in shock over the sudden death of 22-year-old Cardinals rookie Oscar Taveras and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, due to a car accident in the Dominican Republic.  Such a loss would be heartbreaking enough even without the baseball connection; they were young, and their families must be devastated.  From all accounts, Taveras was a joyful, friendly guy, and the feature his teammates most recall about him was his smile.  But Taveras had been one of the Cardinals’ top prospects since he was 16 and had the potential to become one of the greats.  Of his four career home runs over eighty games, his first came in his second major-league at-bat, and the last was a game-tying pinch hit in Game 2 of the NLCS.  So it’s inevitable that there has been, and will continue to be, a lot of mourning over a career that might have been.

In some ways, such talk reminds me of Christopher Marlowe, whose career was likewise cut short when he was murdered in 1593 at the age of 29.  His youth and unconventional views make him a romantically tragic figure four centuries later (as Swinburne’s gushing biography from the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica amply demonstrates).  And to this day, critics speculate that Marlowe could have become an even greater dramatist than Shakespeare and lament the works he never wrote.

marlowePerhaps it’s fitting, then, that Marlowe’s best known for his 1588 masterpiece, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, first printed in 1604.  The Faust legend had begun forming forty years earlier, loosely based on the exploits of a real German con artist, Johannes Faust, who had become infamous in the early decades of the 16th century.  Later writers, from Goethe to Dorothy Sayers, each put their own spin on the story, but Marlowe’s, coming only a year after the publication of the original prose version of the tale, is closest to that version both in details and in message.

The tragedy of Faustus is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the tragedy of Marlowe.  When the play opens, Faustus has already had a long and distinguished career, but after mastering all the arts, he’s bored and believes he has yet to reach his full potential.  So he conjures the demon Mephistopheles and eventually agrees to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for twenty-four years of access to all types of arcane knowledge, power, wealth, and the services of Mephistopheles.  He has to sign the contract in his own blood, but his blood refuses to flow for such a purpose until Mephistopheles warms it with hellfire.  Off and on throughout the play, Faustus considers repenting, but appeals to his pride and greed invariably turn him back to his downward spiral, until at last his time runs out and the demons come to take him to Hell.

faustuswoodcutYet the displays of Faustus’ power that Marlowe shows on stage are hardly the stuff of nightmarish necromancy or of the grand dreams of empire that drive Faustus to embrace sorcery.  Rather, once the bargain is struck, Faustus seems more interested in feasting, carousing, and enjoying popularity with nobles and students alike.  He plays childish pranks on the Pope and various rubes who cross his will, conjures ghosts like Alexander the Great purely for the spectacle, takes Helen of Troy as his lover, and has Mephistopheles bring a pregnant duchess a plate of out-of-season fruit.  It doesn’t seem like the kind of life and power that would be worth selling your soul for—and that’s the point.  Whatever Marlowe himself thought on the matter, the story of Faustus has always hinged on one simple question:  “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).

The loss of young talents like Oscar Taveras is a terrible tragedy, especially when the death is a true accident, and we have every reason to mourn.  But sometimes high hopes are disappointed when a prospect’s potential is never quite achieved—and sometimes those hopes put pressure on young people that drives them into Faustian bargains of their own.  We can’t know what might have become of these lives cut too short.  And maybe, in the end, that’s a mercy.

Elisabeth G. Wolfe

Elisabeth G. Wolfe, from Llano, Texas, is an alumna of the 2012 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop. She is also a freelance translator and editor, indie historical fiction novelist, and adjunct professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida.