Structure by act and scene

The texts of Doctor Faustus

Title pageThere are such marked differences between the A and B-texts (1604 and 1616) of the play that it is clear that neither is entirely accurate or satisfactory. Accuracy was not necessarily the first concern of those who published play-texts in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. The principal reason for publication was to establish rights over the text for a particular acting company or theatre manager.

The condition of the texts suggests that they were compiled from more than one source:

  • A performance text or texts surviving from the acting company: only the prompter was likely to have a full text, while actors would have only their cues and lines
  • Individual actors recalling their parts in the play, leading to inevitable errors and omissions
  • Sections by authors other than Marlowe, especially in the B-text, where there is a record of a theatre-manager paying for the writing of extra scenes to increase the comic and spectacular elements of the play.

Texts and editors

Neither of the published texts of Doctor Faustus has any formal divisions of the action. This is not uncommon in Elizabethan play-texts, but it is usually fairly easy to work out where scene changes occur:

  • By the exit of one set of characters and the arrival of another
  • By indications within the texts that the action is taking place in a new location
  • By the conclusion of a section with a rhyming couplet.

Numbered divisions by act and / or scene are the work of later editors of the play and if you look at more than one of the available texts of Doctor Faustus you will almost certainly find that the editors have made different decisions as to how to divide the play and number those divisions.

Editions compared

  • The New Mermaid edition (ed. Roma Gill and Ros King, 1989), on which this guide is based, settles for a simple division by scene, following the clear signposts in the text, numbering them 1-13. In the case of the B-text, the additional scenes are numbered 10a, 10b, as appropriate
  • The Norton Critical Edition (ed. David S. Kastan, 2005), divides the text into five acts, which was the basic structure of most Elizabethan plays.
  • The Penguin edition (ed. J. B. Steane, 1969) and the Oxford World's Classics edition (ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, 1995) also follow the five-act division practice.

Whichever text you may be using for your study of the play, it is important to understand the textual decisions the authors have made and their reasons for doing so.

Textual debate

It could be argued that a five-act division is an imposition, not justified by the surviving texts. It is simply designed to bring the play's structure into line with that of other Elizabethan dramas – although the earliest texts of many of those also lack such numbered divisions.

A further argument is that the division by scene is the only one justified by the form of the earliest published texts and that Marlowe's structure is more fluid and flexible than a division by act and scene would suggest.

Mystery and morality plays

Marlowe drew inspiration not only from the theatrical drama of his own time, but also from the medieval Mystery and morality plays (see The theatrical context: Mystery and morality plays) which will have offered him a different sense of structure:

  • In the case of the Mystery plays, this will have included a series of separate scenes passing before the spectator
  • From the morality plays, he adopts the idea of symbolic, representative characters such as the Good and Bad Angels, the Old Man and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Structural contrasts

It could be said that the fast-moving succession of scenes, alternating between the serious and the comic, is a deliberate structural strategy, linked to the speeding up of time as Faustus moves towards his fate. Scenes of discussion and reflection are contrasted with those of comic or farcical action. The latter becomes increasingly undignified as Faustus' use of his powers declines into pranks, trickery and the satisfaction of his sensual appetites.

It could also be argued that the progress of Faustus' aspirations and increasing feelings of regret and despair form the play's most compelling structure, marked by the confrontations between Faustus and Mephastophilis, and, later in the play, by his solitary reflections.

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