Structure by time

Some plays take place in ‘real time', with their action representing a period of time no longer than it takes to perform the drama. In most cases, however, the action of a play covers a longer period than the performance, so the playwright must create the illusion of time passing.

Twenty-four years

The action of Doctor Faustus occupies twenty-four years and a great deal of Faustus' experiences during those years is necessarily omitted:

  • The scenes with the Pope in Rome, the visit to the Emperor and the tricking of the Horse-courser are therefore to be seen as representative of how Faustus spends his time
  • Choruses 2 and 3 narrate other incidents and activities, including the less dramatic dimension of his growing reputation as a scholar
  • In Scene 12, Wagner anticipates his master's imminent death. This is signalled by Faustus' gift to his servant of his possessions and his ‘farewell feast' with the scholars
  • Later in Scene 12, the conjuring up of Helen of Troy seems like a final, elegiac exercise of Faustus' powers. It is as if he hopes to enjoy some transcendent pleasure that will lift him above the thought of his imminent damnation

Elastic time

Time is, therefore:

  • Telescoped and speeded up - what must be periods of years are covered in a single Chorus speech
  • Played in something approaching ‘real time' - during the encounters between Faustus and Mephastophilis, the audience can witness the detail of their exchanges as Faustus makes his decision
  • Encapsulated in Faustus' soliloquies - these represent the outcome of much longer periods of reflection
  • Seeming to slow down - the scene with Helen of Troy is lingered over.

The final sixty minutes

The final hour of Faustus' life extends over fifty lines in Scene 13. The passing of time is a matter of theatrical illusion, since the scene could be played in a matter of minutes. Here, though, Marlowe is applying psychological realism: Faustus dreads the arrival of midnight and, in spite of all his pleadings, time seems to pass very quickly. (See Imagery and symbolism > Imagery in the final scene > Time).

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