Doctor Faustus: Books, words and form

By Professor Lisa Hopkins



Within a week of the UK first going into lockdown in March 2020, a group of actors, led by Rob Myles, had formed a company called The Show Must Go Online doing Zoom productions of Shakespeare. In 2021, they branched out into Marlowe, including a version of Doctor Faustus which raises interesting questions about the play as both text and performance script. 

We first see the actor playing Faustus at a desk laden with books; later, books are apparently passed between Zoom screens as Faustus himself becomes a kind of living book as ink marks appear on his forehead and under his eyes. This is apt because Marlowe’s audiences would have heard a pun that we do not in the Prologue’s reference to ‘The form of Faustus’ fortunes’. The idea would have been underscored by assonance because the original pronunciation was Forstus (the change to Fowstus came in the wake of Goethe’s Faust). 

The play is fascinated by books. In any production, there is a suggestive choice to be made when Faustus, who already has a book that will let him control the weather, asks Mephistopheles for three more: one about spells, one about astronomy, and one about plants (Act II Scene 1, pp. 162–80). Does Mephistopheles hand him three further books, or is there only one? In this production, as in many (but not all) others, there is only one: either the devil has access to an early form of an encyclopaedia, or it contains less knowledge than Faustus expects. There is a similar ambiguity playing around Faustus’s conviction that a magician’s dominion ‘Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man’ (Act I Scene 1, p. 63); is that a grand Renaissance statement about illimitable human potential – or should we remember that when it comes to it, Faustus’s own mind stretches no further than taking a tourist trip to Rome and playing a few silly tricks?

One book mentioned in the play seems to be unequivocally identified: Faustus says, ‘Jerome’s Bible, Faustus, view it well’ (Act I Scene 1, p. 38). Again, though, there is ambiguity. If the Bible is the ‘Word of God’, what does it mean that it is also the work of Jerome, and how does his Bible differ from others? For modern readers, there is a similar choice to be made between the A and B texts of Doctor Faustus, with the only thing we can be sure of being that neither represents the play as Marlowe first wrote it. That may seem to be a problem, but it enables us to empathise with the play’s first audiences, who were constantly told that the choice between Protestantism and Catholicism was all-important but who could never know for sure which was right.

All this is part of the play’s interest in language. The magic which Faustus is so eager to learn is underpinned by the idea that spoken words can have concrete physical effects, whether through uttering spells or through games with words such as ‘Jehovah’s name, forward and backward anagrammatised (Act I Scene 3, pp. 8–9), and in The Show Must Go Online production, the idea that words have power is neatly underlined by the fact that Mephistopheles gags whenever he says ‘God’. Any play, though, speaks a physical as well as verbal language: scenery, props and lighting may all be significant. Scenery is hard to achieve on Zoom, but the lighting is used to good effect: many of the actors have one or more lit candles visible behind them, and the British Sign Language translator who appears in every scene has an abundance of candles (and skulls) on her desk. 

The production also uses other light-based effects: Faustus summons Mephistopheles with a flaming pentacle, and in the scene with the Seven Deadly Sins there is a Zoom square showing constantly changing woodcuts with flames silhouetted behind them. This emphasis on light echoes the devil’s name of Lucifer (‘bringer of light’ in Latin), but it also reminds us that while the play is interested in form in the sense of printing press, it also never forgets that its own form is drama, and very exciting drama at that. In one early performance, the actors panicked because they thought there was an extra, real devil on stage with them; Edward Alleyn, the first actor to play the part, always wore a cross around his neck. Only by watching it can we fully experience the form of Faustus’s fortunes. 



Lisa Hopkins

Professor Emerita of English, Sheffield Hallam University.  

Lisa Hopkins co-edits The Journal of Marlowe Studies, Arden Early Modern Drama Guides, and Shakespeare, the journal of the British Shakespeare Association.