We even know his first name – George.
Among the dozen or so contemporary references, documents from 1532 show that the city council of Nuremberg refused one Georg Faustus safe conduct, reviling him as a ‘great sodomite and necromancer.’ In 1536 Joachim Camerarius (a teacher of Greek at Erfurt) wrote to Daniel Stibar (a councilman at Würzburg): ‘I owe to your friend Faust the pleasure of discussing these affairs with you. I wish he had taught you something of this sort rather than puffed you up with the wind of silly superstition or held you in suspense with I know not what juggler’s tricks.’ As proof that he was no mere piece of diabolical froth but a figure of some significance, he was mentioned in dispatches by both of the great figures of the German Reformation, Luther and Melanchthon. In Luther’s Table-Talk of 1566 (published 20 years after Luther’s death in 1546) there are two references, one of which is the following:
Mention was made of magicians and the magic art, and how Satan blinded men. Much was said about Faust, who called the devil his brother-in-law, and the remark was made: ‘If I, Martin Luther, had given him even my hand, he would have destroyed me; but I would not have been afraid of him — with God as my protector, I would have given him my hand in the name of the Lord.’
Melanchthon, who may have met Faust, wrote that Faust had tried to fly at Venice in the manner of Simon Magus, but had been dashed to the ground; and that at Vienna he had ‘devoured another magician who was discovered a few days later in a certain cave.’
Such was Faust’s notoriety that a book of his deeds, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, spiced up with some previous tales of devil-dealing, was published in German in 1587. Its English translation a few years later was Marlowe’s chief source. The character of Doctor Faustus that Marlowe drew from the English Faust-book became one of the most influential in world literature. Marlowe’s Faustus is a man drunk with knowledge, at war with God for having made him a weak and mortal human, but aspiring nonetheless towards the superhuman. Faustus thinks himself better informed than both God and the Devil (‘Come, I think Hell’s a fable’), but when he is cast into the pit realizes that all along he has been a mere pawn in the struggle of the eternal powers. His last-minute hedging and attempt to recant is one of the most moving episodes in Renaissance drama:
Or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul.
O lente, lente currite noctis equi!
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike.
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I'll leap up to my God: Who pulls me down?
See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament.
One of the eerie things about The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is that the protagonist reminds us irresistibly of someone else: the author. After Marlowe’s death in 1593, aged 29, in a tavern fight, Thomas Kyd said that Marlowe was prone to ‘jest at the divine Scriptures, gibe at prayers, and strive in argument to frustrate and confute what hath been spoke or writ by prophets and such holy men.’ An informer called Richard Baines said at Marlowe’s inquest that ‘almost into every company he cometh he persuades men to Atheism, willing them not to be afeared of bugbears and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both God and his ministers.’ Thomas Beard in 1597 said that he ‘cursed and blasphemed to his last gasp, and together with his breath an oath flew out of his mouth.’
Marlowe, Christopher: The Complete Plays (introduction by JB Steane, Penguin, 1985)
Palmer, Philip Mason, and More, Robert Pattison: The Sources of the Faust Tradition from Simon Magus to Lessing (Octagon, 1966)
Thomas, Vivien, and Tydeman, William: Christopher Marlowe: The Plays and their Sources (Routledge, 1994)
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