Scene one

Synopsis of Scene One

This scene introduces the protagonist of the play. In a long monologue, Dr Faustus expresses his frustration because his academic studies seem dry and pointless. All the years of studying law, theology, philosophy, medicine and rhetoric have left him hungry for more: fame, power over Nature and the freedom to satisfy his desires. Faustus decides that only the occult is worth studying and asks his friends Valdes and Cornelius to coach him in the art of magic. There is a supernatural intervention, as two angels, Good and Evil, each encourage Faustus to follow their respective masters. Faustus talks himself into pursuing necromancy; he builds his own argument in order to justify his choices.

Commentary on Scene One

level at the end Consider the aim or goal of the various academic subjects he has studied to discover whether they are worthwhile.

Bene dissere est finis logices (Latin) ‘The purpose of logic is to argue well'. Latin was at that time the universal language of scholarship and learning, and would be familiar to all well-educated people. However, here and elsewhere in the play, Marlowe usually either translates the Latin (and Ancient Greek), or explains the idea it contains for those in the audience who may not understand these ancient languages. More on explaining ideas for the audience?

AristotleAristotle The ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) shaped much of the art and philosophy of early modern Europe. His Analytics is a work that contains his ideas on how to argue a case. Although Marlowe was a Renaissance writer, Faustus often refers to Medieval learning. This focused on:

  • rhetoric - being able to express oneself well
  • logic - the ability to follow an idea, to reason and to challenge arguments with a well thought-out series of points and analogies.

then read no more … wit This is an example of Faustus' pride and conceit in his own intelligence. 

More on pride: Pride was seen as the core sin – the sin that caused Lucifer to rebel against God and the one that prompted Adam and Eve to go their own way in disobeying God. See Proverbs 8:13; Jude 1:6. In contrast, Christians were encouraged to be humble, with Jesus as their example. See Philippians 2:3

On kai me on (Ancient Greek) ‘Being and not being'. A general way of describing the subjects of interest to philosophers.

Galen - Galen lived from 129-199 CE and was a Greek physician who was regarded in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a leading authority on medicine.

Ubi desinit … incipit medicus (Latin) ‘So after the philosopher has finished, the doctor can start.'

Be a physician, Faustus … and be eternised for some wondrous cure Faustus considers the pursuit of medicine, in order to be rich and as famous as Galen.

Why, Faustus … been eased? Faustus expresses his frustration because his prescriptions have not become celebrated for curing thousands of people. Medicine cannot do enough to satisfy his desire for spectacular success in making new discoveries and advancing knowledge.

Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man This is a very important line for understanding what is happening to Faustus. In an age of humanism, Faustus is frustrated by the limits of human understanding and capacity for action. Medicine is limited by human skill and Faustus has no power over life and death – this is reserved for God alone. The audience would recognise the allusion to the biblical story in which Jesus raises his friend Lazarus to life four days after his death: see John 11:1-44.

Justinian - Justinian (482-565 CE) was the Roman emperor who codified the Empire's laws.

Si una … rei, etc ‘If the same thing is left to more than one person, then one person shall have the thing and the other its value in money.'

Exhaereditare filium non potest pater nisi ‘A father may not disinherit his son'. Faustus dismisses both this and the preceding phrase as dealing with petty matters beneath his attention.

When all is done … necromantic books are heavenly This section of Faustus' long soliloquy presents a tendentious argument to justify turning away from the Bible and towards necromancy. He quotes selectively from two of the most challenging verses in the New Testament:

  • The phrase:
    ‘The wages of sin is death' TNIV Romans 6:23
    bluntly explains that the consequence of rebellion against God is the forfeit of eternal life. ‘That's hard,' observes Faustus; but he omits the much more positive conclusion of the sentence:
    ‘but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.' TNIV
  • Faustus then quotes from 1 John 1:8:
    ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.' TNIV
    Once again, however, he omits the second part of the message:
    ‘If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.' TNIV

By presenting the gospel in this unattractive and negative manner and summing it up in the Italian phrase ‘Che serà, serà' (‘What will be, shall be'), he is able to argue that the Christian life is not for him.

Jerome's Bible – the Vulgate version

necromantic books are heavenly The contradiction and contrast here is startling, and presents us with an oxymoron: Faustus is describing the appeal to Satan as ‘heavenly'.

A sound magician is a mighty god Faustus decides to seek power, profit, delight, honour and omnipotence. However, the last item on that list is reserved for God alone.

Good Angel … Evil Angel These terms are not used in the Bible and angels are assumed to be the messengers of God. Evil angels, usually described as demons or devils, are those who followed Satan in his rebellion against God and now serve his purposes. See Angels.

The two angels make arguments that match each other point for point. For example:

  • The Good Angel says that the pursuit of magic puts Faustus' soul in danger, but the Evil Angel points out that it will bring him great power
  • The Scriptures (Bible) are contrasted with the resources of Nature
  • There is a reference to the Christian God and the chief god of classical mythology, Jove.

The two angels seem to present a dualistic view of the universe.

More on a dualistic view of the universe: The presence of the two evenly-matched angels:
  • Establishes the idea that Faustus takes part in a larger perpetual struggle between good and evil
  • Reflects the battle going on within each person, described in Romans 7:19-21
  • Dramatises the competition between the angels to win Faustus' soul; this mirrors the events described in the Bible account of the life of Job.

these elements According to medieval science, the four elements (earth, fire, air and water) were the substances/forces from which everything was made. There were colours and personality types linked to each element. So, to be the ‘Lord and commander' of these elements would be to acquire limitless power.

How am I glutted with conceit of this? Faustus enjoys his fantasies of the power he will enjoy as a magician.

Resolve me of all ambiguities Answer all my questions

desperate Risky.

1595 World Mapsearch all corners of the new-found world At this time, there were frequent voyages from Western Europe to explore and conquer lands that were previously unknown to Europeans. When each place was ‘discovered', there were fruits and plants unknown to Europeans, riches such as gold and products such as tobacco. In addition to their commercial value, these voyages also led to advances in the sciences of navigation and map-making. Therefore, the context for Faustus' desires is a world that seemed to be full of new discoveries. See Writers in context > The world of Shakespeare and the Metaphysical poets > Making sense of the tangible world > Impact of global exploration.

tell the secrets of all foreign kings This line is ironic, as Marlowe was probably involved in espionage (See Author > Fighting, blaspheming and spying: 1590-93). It also shows that, at this stage, Faustus' ambitions include political and military power.

the public schools This probably means the universities, where clothing the students in bright silk would break the convention for serious, sober clothing.

Alessandro Farnesethe Prince of Parma Alessandro Farnese was Spanish Governor of the Netherlands 1578-92: a good example of the play's contemporary ‘feel'.

engines Machines

fiery keel at Antwerp's bridge Another near-contemporary reference: a burning ship was used by Dutch troops to break the Duke of Parma's siege of Antwerp in 1585.

mine own fantasy Faustus acknowledges that his desires are rooted in his own mind rather than deriving from any external temptation.

Gravelled Amazed

Valdes, sweet Valdes … that hath ravished me For the benefit of Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus summarises the argument that has led to his decision. ‘Ravished' is a significant choice of word because it is usually used in the context of sensual pleasure and can also mean ‘rape' – an experience of being overcome against one's will. Faustus' use of it here suggests that he was helpless to resist what the books contain.

Divinity is basest of the three Faustus actually names four areas of study, so he seems to have lost count!

Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vile This is a profound challenge to orthodox views of the Bible and Christian thought.

And I … made all Europe honour him Faustus boasts about his achievements as a gifted scholar.

Musaeus A legendary Greek poet who, when he dies and reaches the afterlife, is surrounded by admirers, as described in the Aeneid by Virgil.

Agrippa Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), a celebrated German magician.

Indian Moors … Spanish lords A reference to Spanish conquests in the New World (South America).

Almain rutters German mounted soldiers.

Lapland giants This is probably derived from an apocryphal traveller's tale about the inhabitants of a country that at that time had received very few visitors.

the Queen of love Venus, the Roman goddess of love; Aphrodite in Greek mythology.

argosies Merchant ships; a contemporary reference to rapidly-expanding trade.

America … the golden fleece In the Greek myth, Jason and the Argonauts4]s set out to find the Golden Fleece; here, America is named as the likeliest source of such fabulous treasure.

old Philip's treasury Philip II (1527-1598) was King of Spain. At the time of the play's first performance, he was indeed old (probably just over 60) by the standards of the late sixteenth century.

the Delphian oracle The oracle of Apollo at Delphi in Greece.

Bacon Roger Bacon (1210/14 - after 1292), a member of the Franciscan order, was an English philosopher and theologian as well as a notable physician and experimental scientist. His interest in the emerging sciences led to his being suspected of heresy and necromancy, for which he spent some time in confinement.

Abanus Pietro d'Abano (c. 1250-c. 1316) was an Italian philosopher, astrologer and physician whose work led to his being brought before the Inquisition on charges of heresy and atheism. He died in prison while awaiting trial. The fates of Bacon and d'Abano ought to be a warning to Faustus, but it is one that he ignores.

the Hebrew Psalter The book of Psalms from the Old Testament.

canvass every quiddity Explore every detail. ‘Quiddity' means the essence of a subject. 

Investigating scene 1

  • What do you think of the way in which Marlowe chooses to open the play and introduce its chief character?
  • Discuss and then make notes on the different techniques he employs to engage the attention and interest of the audience
  • To what extent are modern day readers or spectators likely to sympathise with Faustus at this stage of the play?
    • Do you think your answer would be different for an audience of Marlowe's day?
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