Wittenberg, Germany

You may have thought we had left Europe for good, but my Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Romances course will see to it that we return there for several more days. (It will give me some time to finish my first summer novel…) We begin our second tour of Europe in Wittenberg, Germany, guided by Christopher Marlowe through the play Doctor Faustus.

My professor made sure that he gave us some background to the literary style of Shakespeare’s time, and Christopher Marlowe certainly cannot be ignored. He used blank verse in his plays before Shakespeare did, and has some plays from which it is believed Shakespeare “borrowed” plot lines. Unfortunately, Marlowe was only 29 years old when he was murdered, leaving us to speculate on what degree of fame he might have achieved.

A synopsis of Doctor Faustus:

Faustus becomes entangled in witchcraft, selling his soul to the devil. He claims that he wants to use his power for academics, but he quickly begins to play tricks on people and use it for his personal gain. Faustus employs a demon named Mephistopheles to do his bidding. The demon tells Faustus how long he will have before his payment for power is due, but Faustus doesn’t listen, nor does he listen to the several attempts made to persuade him to repent.

I believe that people are afraid of reading Shakespeare and his contemporaries because of the difficulty of the language, and I don’t blame them. Blank verse doesn’t make for easy reading, but I like to encourage people by reminding them that these plays weren’t meant to be read. They were meant to be seen. Yes, the language is difficult, but perhaps, instead of reading them, you should try watching. Stage directions and tone of voice make an enormous difference in plays. For Doctor Faustus, finding a good adaptation is tricky since many are loosely based, but Death Note and The Pirates of the Caribbean are believed to be similar in some ways. (And after all, this story is not original to Marlowe. He adapted it from a German fairy tale.)

I personally feel that Doctor Faustus doesn’t need an adaptation to be understood. It reads much more easily than Shakespeare, although I can’t quite place my finger on why that is. I simply know that I did not find it onerous, nor did it take much time.

Doctor Faustus is a short play, but it deals with several serious subjects, such as Satanism, death, power, and salvation. I found the references to salvation and what it means particularly interesting as a Christian. Faustus was urged to repent several times by the good angel on his shoulder, and old man, and Scripture. What made this interesting was how Faustus felt about salvation. He desired it, wished he could have it, but believed that he was too far gone into evil for it to work for him. As a class, we discussed when Faustus was beyond saving and concluded that he could have repented at any time until his soul was taken, but he was lost when he believed himself beyond redemption. Faustus was his own executioner.

I would recommend this play for reading as well as watching. It isn’t difficult or long, but still intriguing. It also provides a good lead into Shakespeare’s works, if you are looking to read some of those.

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