Making Sense of the Primary Source of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

First published in Essays in Theatre / Études théâtrales 15.1 (November 1996): 108-10.

Review of The English Faust Book: A Critical Edition Based on the Text of 1592, ed. John Henry Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)


When the German magician, humanist, alchemist, astrologer and fortune-teller known variously as Georgius Sabellicus Faustus, Doctor Georg Faustus “the great sodomite and necromancer,” or more simply as Faustus or Faust, expired some time around 1539, neither he nor his contemporaries could have imagined that within fifty years a wildly sensational (and wholly fictive) account of his life would become a best-seller across much of north-western Europe. The Historia von D. Johann Fausten, first published in 1587, went through fifteen or sixteen editions before the end of the century, and by 1611 had been translated from the original German into six other languages. One of these translations, The Historie of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus, commonly referred to as the English Faust Book, was to have an impact far beyond all of the rest: it became the principal source of Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, and at the same time inspired a competing prose narrative of the English magician Roger Bacon which Robert Greene, in one of his attempts to outdo Marlowe, promptly dramatized as The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Since the magical attributes of Shakespeare's Prospero, two decades later, closely resemble those of this legendary Roger Bacon, the English Faust Book is indirectly linked to Shakespeare's Tempest as well.

John Henry Jones's The English Faust Book is, perhaps surprisingly, the first critical edition of this important text. Basing his text upon the unique surviving copy of Thomas Ortwin's 1592 printing, Jones offers a close analysis of textual filiations, along with collations of the editions of 1608 and 1610, which he shows to be derived from a different manuscript source. The text of the present edition is modernized and lightly annotated, with an eye mainly to permitting the reader to assess the translator's very interesting and sometimes quite extended deviations from the original. Passages in the English text that differ significantly from the sense of the 1587 German edition that the translator used are helpfully printed in bold type.

However, the most remarkable feature of this edition is its introduction, which makes several significant contributions to scholarship. One of these is to propose, on the basis of exhaustive archival work, that the P. F. Gent. who translated the Faust Book can be plausibly identified as one Paul Fairfax, who claimed to hold a medical degree from the University of Frankfurt on the Oder and from June until late September 1588 practised medicine in London, selling a distilled “Aqua Coelestis,” along with “other divers potions and pills,” for the cure of dropsy and headaches. Fairfax was fined, and on refusing to pay his fine, was imprisoned by the Royal College of Physicians, which declared his credentials “vehemently to be suspected,” and thought the man himself to be “very weak in the substance of all kinds of good learning and rather to be pitied for his fantastical conceits, and well weening of his own ignorance, than in any wise to deserve toleration in so dangerous a function...” (31-32). P. F.'s expansions of those chapters of the Faust Book that recount Faustus's Grand Tour give evidence, Jones argues, of personal knowledge of parts of Germany, Poland and Italy—and according to the College of Physicians, Fairfax was likewise “a travelled man,” and one who by travel “seemeth to have got some kinds of language...” (31-32). As Jones suggests, this is the sort of person who might well have composed the interpolation in which Mephostophiles urges Faustus to let his heart “be inflamed like the fire to mount on high” (114-15), or the passage in which an unmistakably authorial voice naively makes itself heard in a letter purportedly written by Faustus himself: “Yea Christian Reader, to the glory of God and for the profit of thy soul, I will open unto thee the divine opinion touching the ruling of this confused chaos, far more than any rude German author, being possessed by the devil, was able to utter...” (125-26).

However, Jones's speculations about authorship are a mere sideline when compared to the labour of textual and bibliographical scholarship with which he establishes the probable intertextual relations between the English Faust Book, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, and Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Scrupulous analyses of the bibliographical evidence and f external evidence, including records relating to the quarrel of two London printers over copyright to the English Faust Book in 1592, as well as early allusions in England to the Faustus story, lead Jones to argue that the translated Faust Book was probably first printed in late 1588, and that Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was written and produced during the following year. From a comparison of textual and structural parallels he concludes that the prose romance of Friar Bacon, though known to us only from seventeenth-century editions, “was written in direct imitation” of the English Faust Book (71)—and in early 1590, since external evidence shows Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay to have been written and produced in the same year.

Certain omissions must be mentioned. Complaining that the achievement of the author-translator of the English Faust Book “in rendering and modifying his German source has not been fully appreciated” (ix), Jones neglects to mention E. M. Butler's very perceptive analysis of precisely this issue in her book The Fortunes of Faust (1952): it is distinctly puzzling that he should cite the two preceding volumes of Butler's Faust trilogy, which have not aged very well, while showing no awareness of the one volume in the series that contains material of direct relevance to his project. Jones is likewise unaware of my own 1991 edition of Marlowe's play: a reading of its introduction could have permitted a more generously contextualized account of the Faustus legend than he offers here.

Despite such cavils, this book will be indispensable to Marlowe scholars, and of value to anyone interested in the tangled connections that link Marlowe's Doctor Faustus to other plays and prose fictions of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.