Marlowe lived in a time of great transformation for Western Europe. New advances in science were overturning ancient ideas about astronomy and physics. The discovery of the Americas had transformed the European conception of the world. Increasingly available translations of classical texts were a powerful influence on English literature and art. Christian and pagan worldviews interacted with each other in rich and often paradoxical ways, and signs of that complicated interaction are present in many of Marlowe's works. England, having endured centuries of civil war, was in the middle of a long period of stability and peace.
Not least of the great changes of Marlowe's time was England's dramatic rise to world power. When Queen Elizabeth came to power in 1558, six years before Marlowe's birth, England was a weak and unstable nation. Torn by internal strife between Catholics and Protestants, an economy in tatters, and unstable leadership, England was vulnerable to invasion by her stronger rivals on the continent. By the time of Elizabeth's death in 1603, she had turned the weakling of Western Europe into a power of the first rank, poised to become the mightiest nation in the world. When the young Marlowe came to London looking to make a life in the theatre, England's capitol was an important center of trade, learning, and art. As time passed, the city's financial, intellectual, and artistic importance became still greater, as London continued its transformation from unremarkable center of a backwater nation to one of the world's most exciting metropolises. Drama was entering a golden age, to be crowned by the glory of Shakespeare. Marlowe was a great innovator of blank verse, unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter. The richness of his dramatic verse anticipates Shakespeare, and some argue that Shakespeare's achievements owed considerable debt to Marlowe's influence.
Like the earlier play, Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus is a play of deep questions concerning morality, religion, and man's relationship to both. England was a Protestant country since the time of Queen Elizabeth I's father, Henry VIII. Although theological and doctrinal differences existed between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, the former still inherited a wealth of culture, thought and tradition from the latter. Christianity was a mix of divergent and often contradictory influences, including the religious traditions of the Near East, the heritage of classical Greco-Roman thought and institutions, mystery religions, and north European superstition and magic.
Sorcery and magic were part of widespread belief systems throughout Europe that predated Christianity. These early beliefs about magic were inextricable from folk medicine. Women in particular used a mix of magic and herbal medicine to treat common illnesses. But as Christianity spread and either assimilated or rejected other belief systems, practitioners of magic came to be viewed as evil. In the fifth century CE, St. Augustine, perhaps the most influential Christian thinker after St. Paul, pronounced all sorcery to be the work of evil spirits, to distinguish it from the good "magic" of Christian ritual and sacrament. The view of the sorcerer changed irrevocably. Magic was devil-worship, outside the framework of Church practice and belief, and those who practiced it were excommunicated and killed.
The Protestant Reformation did not include reform of this oppressive and violent practice. Yet magic continued to keep a hold on people's imaginations, and benign and ambiguous views of magic continued to exist in popular folklore. The conceptions of scholarship further complicated the picture, especially after the Renaissance. Scholars took into their studies subjects not considered scientific by today's standards: astrology, alchemy, and demonology. Some of these subjects blurred the lines between acceptable pursuit of knowledge and dangerous heresy.
As this new Christian folklore of sorcery evolved, certain motifs rose to prominence. Once Christ was rejected, a sorcerer could give his soul to the devil instead, receiving in exchange powers in this life, here and now. Numerous Christian stories feature such bargains, and one of the most famous evolved around the historical person Johanned Faustus, a German astrologer of the early sixteenth century. Marlowe took his plot from an earlier German play about Faustus, but he transformed an old story into a powerhouse of a work, one that has drawn widely different interpretations since its first production. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is first great version of the story, although not the last. In the nineteenth century, the great German writer Johann Wolfgang van Goethe gave the story its greatest incarnation in Faust. Faustus' name has become part of our language. "Faustian bargain" has come to mean a deal made for earthly gain at a high ethical and spiritual cost, or alternately any choice with short-lived benefits and a hell of a price.
The chronology of Marlowe's plays is uncertain. Doctor Faustus's composition may have immediately followed Tamburlaine, or may not have come until 1592.
Two versions of the play were printed, neither during Marlowe's life. The 1604 version is shorter (1517 lines), and until the twentieth century was considered the authoritative text. The 1616 version is longer (2121 lines), but the additions were traditionally thought to have been written by other playwrights. Twentieth century scholarship argues that the B text (of 1616) is in fact closer to the original, though possibly with some censorship. The Penguin Books edition used for this study guide uses the longer B text as the basis while incorporating sections of A that are recognizably superior.