The contemporary critical reception of Doctor Faustus

The nature of contemporary comments

  • Theatre reviewing did not exist in Elizabethan times, so any information we have about the contemporary reception of Marlowe's play is very limited and is often to be found in passing remarks in books or documents written for other purposes
  • Furthermore, no printed edition of Doctor Faustus was published until 1604 (the A-text), to be followed by a second version in 1616 (the B-text), so anyone wishing to write about the play would have to rely on their memory of attending one or more performances
  • Also, many of the comments made about Marlowe in the years after his death were less concerned with his plays than with the various mysteries and alleged scandals surrounding his personal life:
    • His work as a government agent
    • His supposed atheism and homosexuality
    • His sudden and violent death.

Nonetheless, Doctor Faustus continued to be a popular and successful play:

  • It was more or less continuously in the theatrical repertoire in the years immediately after Marlowe's death
  • It was still being performed in London into the early 1640s
  • The printed version ran through at least nine editions between 1604 and 1631.

Examples of contemporary comments

Here are just a few examples of what survives of contemporary opinions of Doctor Faustus. As you will see, all the comments concern what was clearly a notable feature of the play in production – the frequent appearances of a number of devils, with full special effects:

  1. A devil's haircut

    He had a head of hair like one of my Devils in Doctor Faustus when the old Theatre cracked and frighted the Audience.

    Thomas Middleton, The Black Book, 1604

    It seems from this remark by Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), himself a playwright of the generation after Marlowe, that a vivid production could have a marked effect on the audience.

  2. It might also have an effect on the actors, as can be seen from the following anecdote written by an anonymous reader in the early 17th century in his copy of a 16th century book:
    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.

    This anecdote, which may well be apocryphal, suggests that simply by performing the play it might be possible to make devils appear, which suggests some nervousness about the dangerous and blasphemous nature of Faustus' activities.

  3. The next extract, published nearly thirty years later, gives a vivid picture of the stage devices used in productions of the play. The author, John Melton, is writing about the supposed predictions of astrologers:
    Squibs and drums

    Another will fore-tell of Lightning and Thunder that shall happen such a day when there are no such Inflamations to be seen, except men go to the Fortune [a London theatre] in Golding-Lane to see the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus: There indeed a man may behold shaggy-haired devils run roaring over the Stage with Squibs in their mouths, while Drummers make thunder in the tiring-house, and the twelve-penny Hirelings make artificial lightning in the Heavens.

    John Melton, Astrolager, 1620

  4. Finally, here is a passage from a book published in 1633 by William Prynne (1600-69). Prynne was a Puritan and Historiomastix is a lengthy attack on plays and the theatre. The passage confirms the fearful effect upon audiences of witnessing a production of the play. However, unlike the other passages quoted, Prynne goes further and condemns the very production of the play – in this respect the key word in the passage is ‘profanely'. Not only are Faustus' activities blasphemous, so too are their representation in a drama, even if its central character is punished:
    Profanely playing

    … the visible apparition of the devil on the Stage at the Bel-savage Playhouse in Queen Elizabeth's days (to the great amazement both of the Actors and Spectators) whiles they were there profanely playing the History of Faustus (the truth of which I have heard from many now alive, who well remember it) there being some distracted with that fearful sight.

    William Prynne, Histriomastix, 1633
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.