Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

The power of books in Doctor Faustus

 Doctor Faustus draws upon early modern ideas of the supernatural – including ties between books and the devil…

5 minute read

In Gutenberg in 1455 one Johann Faust helped bring the first printed books into the world. For the first time, words were printed and bound together in (near) identical copies, line for line, word for word. For some, the process was so extraordinary that it was considered divine and miraculous; for others, it was a sign of darker magic. ‘The learned Divines, not being able to comprehend the Thing,’ Daniel Defoe would later write in his History of the Devil, ‘concluded it must be the Devil, that it was done by Magic and Witchcraft, and that in short, poor Faustus (who was indeed nothing but a mere Printer) dealt with the Devil.’

An actor dressed in red stands with their arms outstretched, as two figures with skull masks lurk behind them.

The process of printing and binding books was so extraordinary, it was considered a sign of darker magic. Photographer: Keith Pattison

Some years before the emergence of the Faustian legend as we know it (stories first make their way into publication around 1548), the name ‘Faust’ had associations with the supernatural. While this is not the John Faustus with whom Christopher Marlowe concerns himself, Faust the printer and Dr Faustus the ‘conjurer-laureate’ overlap regularly in the early modern imagination, sharing a name that neatly combines two of the central powers in Marlowe’s play: books and the Devil.

An actor holds a book on fire, while another actor watches on.

Books, in Doctor Faustus, have an extraordinary power that renders them both magical and potentially diabolic. Photographer: Keith Pattison

Books, in Doctor Faustus, have an extraordinary power that renders them both magical and potentially diabolic (Mephistopheles announces Faustus’s library as a space indistinguishable from hell: ‘why, this is hell, nor am I out of it’). Perhaps the most significant book in Faustus’s history is the English translation of Germany’s bestselling Faustbuch (1587), which tells the legend of astrologer and necromancer Johannes Faustus (c. 1488–1541) who sold his soul to the Devil. Marlowe follows the book closely when he comes to write his Doctor Faustus a year or so later, and placing the texts side by side reveals how heavily the playwright mined his source. Like his protagonist who pores over books in his study, this particular text captured Marlowe’s attention.

Belief in, and fear of, the Devil was widespread in early modern culture. As we see in Doctor Faustus, devils didn’t appear in a set form, but could assume whatever shape they pleased. Such shape-shifting prowess, along with a capacity to play tricks on their victims and ensnare their souls, made the Devil a central figure of fear. ‘There is’, wrote English cleric Thomas Becon in 1594, ‘no ravening wolf that so earnestly seeketh greedily to devour his pray as the enemy of mankind’: the devil ‘hunteth and studieth every moment of an hour how he may destroy and bring to everlasting damnation mortal men’. Not only could the Devil snatch your soul after death, but in life as well, by enticing you to witchcraft or black magic.

As James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) outlines in his Demonologie, the process for making a deal with the Devil varied depending on whether the would-be necromancer was a witch or a magus, and contracts were formed in different ways. Broadly speaking, female witches sealed their diabolical pact with sexual intercourse and allowed demonic spirits (usually in animal form) to suck their blood, leaving a devil’s mark on their bodies. A male magus signed an official contract in his own blood. These contracts were not always binding, however. While Marlowe’s Faustus honours his bargain, other versions of the Faustian story end with humans mastering the devil – some cheating the devil through trickery, others devising ways to get out of their deals on technicalities.

An actor wearing a white shirt and hose is horrified and alarmed as a group of actors covered in blood crouch around him, attacking him with bloody dolls.

Devils didn’t appear in a set form, but could assume whatever shape they pleased, making them all the more terrifying. Photographer: Keith Pattison

The overwhelming presence of devils in Doctor Faustus extends into the play’s early performance history, which yields a number of anecdotes that speak to its diabolic potential. Contemporary playwright Thomas Middleton reported how a loud crack heard during the play in a London theatre ‘frighted the audience’, while Puritan writer William Prynne recalled ‘the visible apparition of the devil on the stage… in Queen Elizabeth’s days’. Elsewhere, in Exeter, a tale unfolds of a stage populated by one devil too many:

Certain Players at Exeter, acting upon the stage the tragical story of Dr. Faustus the Conjurer; as certain number of Devils kept everyone his circle there, and as Faustus was busy in his magical invocations, on a sudden they were all dashed, everyone harkening other in the ear, for they were all persuaded, there was one devil too many amongst them; and so after a little pause desired the people to pardon them, they could go no further with this matter; the people also understanding the thing as it was, every man hastened to be first out of doors. The players (as I heard it) contrary to their custom spending the night in reading and prayer got them out of town the next morning.

Something about this play and its flirtation with theological danger seems to have incited genuine fear in actors and audience alike: whether or not we take these rumours as truth, they hint at a desire for Marlowe’s drama of the devil to offer a glimpse of the real thing. And so when Mephistopheles announces from the stage that ‘this is hell’, there lies, for an early modern audience at least, a terrifically terrifying possibility that that might just be true.

Two actors wearing Elizabethan dress, one a rich red, the other a rich green, stand in the shadows of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, lit by candlelight. Figures representing a good angel and bad angel watch on from the Musician's Gallery.

Doctor Faustus has incited genuine fear in actors and audience alike: with some recalling a visible apparition of the devil on stage. Photographer: Marc Brenner


Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, with Paul Hilton as the arrogant, power-hungry Faustus and Arthur Darvill as the sardonic Mephistopheles, directed by Matthew Dunster, is available on DVD from our Globe Shop.