Prologue and Act One, Scenes 1-2:
Prologue. The Chorus announces that the story will not be wars, love affairs in royal courts, or great deeds, but the tale of Faustus. Faustus was born of ordinary parents, in Rhodes, Germany. When he came of age he went to Wittenberg to live with relatives and study at the university. Due to his great talent, he quickly completed his studies and became a doctor of divinity, known for his brilliance in theological matters. But alluding to the story of Icarus, the Chorus says that Faustus' "waxen wings did mount above his reach" (l. 21). He has begun to study necromancy, the black arts, and loves magic more than theology. This is the man now sitting in his study.
Scene 1.1. Sitting alone in his study, Faustus considers the different fields of knowledge. He considers logic, personified in Aristotle. But when he reads "to dispute well logic's chiefest end" (1.1.7) he says disdainfully, "Affords this art no greater miracle?" (1.1.9). He has mastered this art and achieved its goals already. In likewise fashion he considers other disciplines. Medicine, personified in the ancient physician Galen: though Faustus has become a great physician, he still has no power over life and death. Law, personified in the codifier of Roman law, Justinian: Faustus considers law a field with a petty subject. Divinity: Faustus reads in different places that the reward of sin is death, and that all men sin. He reasons that all men sin, and so all men must die, and dismisses this doctrine as "Che sera, sera." He bids Divinity farewell.
He turns to magic. Delighted by the art, he points out that even kings' powers are limited within territories. But with the help of magic, Faustus can become a demi-God.
Faustus' servant Wagner enters, and Faustus bids him summon his friends, Valdes and Cornelius. Wagner goes.
Faustus declares that the advice of his friends will be helpful in the pursuit of magic. A Good Angel and Evil Angel enter. The Good Angel tells Faustus to put the evil book of magic aside, and the Evil Angel tells Faustus to pursue magic will lead to power on earth. The angels exit.
Faustus thrills at the thoughts of the strange wonders he'll perform with his sorcery. Cornelius and Valdes enter. He tells them that their advice has won him over: he will practice the magical arts. He will also pursue magic because he has realized it is the only subject vast enough for his mind. Valdes is delighted, and thinks that Faustus brilliance combined with their experience will make them all lords of the earth and the elements of nature itself. Cornelius tells him that his learning is sound foundation for necromancy, and with magic they will be able to find hidden treasure in the seas and earth. Valdes suggests some books, Cornelius suggests method, and Faustus invites them to dine with him. He vows to conjure that very night.
Scene 1.2. Two scholars wonder where Faustus is. They spot Wagner, and ask the location of Wagner's master. Wagner toys with them, mocking the language of scholars, before finally telling them that his master is with Valdes and Cornelius. Wagner leaves. The scholars are horrified, because Valdes and Cornelius are well known to be necromancers. They decide to go to inform the Rector. The First Scholar worries that nothing can help Faustus now, but the Second Scholar says that they must do what they can.
The Prologue gives us Faustus' biography, up the point that the story starts. The lines are delivered by a Chorus, an homage to Greek tragedy, but unlike Greek tragedy the Chorus in this play is not an integrated character. It acts instead like a narrator, appearing only at the beginning and end of the play.
The Prologue makes prominent mention of the classical world. The Chorus mentions the god Mars, the Battle of Thrasimene, the Carthaginians, and alludes to the story of Icarus. Marlowe was well versed in the Latin authors, and in particular loves making allusions to Ovid throughout his plays. The allusion to the story of Icarus foreshadows Faustus' own fate. Icarus, who escaped from an island tower with the help of artificial wings crafted by his father Daedalus, ignored his father's warning not to fly too close to the sun. Icarus ignored the order, and the wax binding the wings melted. The young man plunged to his death. The story has become a symbol for hubris, and the danger of overreaching the limits of man. The limitation of man is a central theme of the play, and the theme is seen by the late of both classical and pagan worldviews.
Faustus has been spoiled by his own gifts. The Chorus tells us that the young man is brilliant, but that brilliance has made him impatient with human learning, and now he has moved on to magic. Faustus' long soliloquy is a revealing introduction to the character. The sin of pride is an important theme of the play, as pride is arguably the mother of all other sins. No form of knowledge is satisfactory to him, and his dissatisfaction comes from pride. He does not wish to be constrained by human limits. His condemnation of medicine is telling: Faustus is not pleased by his accomplishments as a physician, though by him "whole cities have escaped the plague, / And thousand desperate maladies been cured" (1.1.21-2). Saving lives is not enough. Faustus wants supernatural power: "Yet art thou still but Faustus and a man. Coudst thou make men to live eternally, / Or being dead, raise them to life again, Then this profession were to be esteemed." Faustus is expressing a deeply sacrilegious thought. Within the Christian belief system, power over life and death belongs to God. Resurrection of the dead is for Christ, and within God's power at the end of time. Through Christ's sacrifice, death has already been conquered, and through God's grace even a sinner can be reborn. Faustus is not interested in this kind of salvation. He seeks a base, earthly mortality. He therefore is unsatisfied with being mortal, i.e., subject to the laws of nature and God.
This sin is Faustus' greatest transgression, replicating the sin of Satan himself. According to the Christian tradition, Satan originated as one of the angels, but defied God and led a rebellion in heaven. Satan and his angels were defeated and cast into hell. Christian theology, particularly in the medieval Scholastic tradition, had devoted considerable attention to the nature of Satan's sin. (The Scholastic tradition sought to combine pagan learning and methods, i.e. reason and philosophy, inherited from the classical Greek and Roman thinkers, with the revealed [given by divine revelation] knowledge of the scriptures.) Christian theologians had a high estimate of angelic intellect and judgment. Satan, many of them argued, could not have believed that a rebellion against God could succeed. Satan's sin was not that he tried to replace God, but that he sought an independence from God. This attitude was summed up much later, in Milton's famous line for Satan: "Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven." Satan seeks an existence apart from God's dominion, even if it means the agonies of hell, foremost of which is separation from God's love.
Faustus' sin parallels that of the archfiend. He seeks deification, a power apart from God's and not subject to him. Faustus' problem is that he refuses to accept limitation on human potential. He also rejects, on every count, the fundamental values of Christianity. Serving others, e.g. as a physician, is not enough.
Faustus' goals are a warped form of classical thoughts about human potential. Like Alexander the Great, who wept when there were no more lands to conquer, Faustus cannot be satisfied with anything less than the absolute. If the rediscovery of classical learning in the Renaissance led to new appraisals of human potential, Doctor Faustus reveals tension between the classical view of humanity and the Christian. While human beings can still overreach themselves in the Greek worldview, as in Greek tragedy, they do so in a moral framework quite different from that of Christianity. The gods of the Greeks can be made to seem petty and cruel, and often seem to be personifications of the indifference or downright hostility of nature. Even when the gods are depicted piously in Greek tragedy, a human being can be tragically flawed and retain his nobility. But in the Christian worldview, a man who defies God, and who refuses to accept humble human limitations, is a terrible sinner.
The play makes Faustus impressive, but he can only hold to his views because of imperfect or selective understanding. Faustus' shortcoming is that he values knowledge over wisdom. When he thinks about divinity, he considers the words, "If we say that we have no sin, / We deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us" (1.1.42) . The lines are from the First Letter of John, and Faustus omits the very next passage: "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1.9). Ignoring the forgiving aspect of Christianity suits Faustus' temperament: to be forgiven, one must subject himself to God, and we have already seen that Faustus rejects all such limitation.
Faustus takes the selected passages from scripture, and makes them appear comic. When he reads "The reward of sin is death" (1.1.40), quoting Romans 6.23, his laconic "That's hard" usually gets a laugh from the audience. And by putting that together with the passage from the First Letter of John, Faustus paints a picture of a sour and dour Christianity. He is able to write it off, laughing, as his Biblical quotes in Latin are followed by his Latin interpretation: "Che sera, sera." Marlowe's writing here produces some very complicated effects. On one hand, Faustus is mocking everything that's sacred. His picture of Christianity is clearly biased and selective, not to mention impious. On the other hand, Faustus is being funny, and the audience is laughing along with him in his sacrilege. We are being charmed by Faustus, even as we are being shown clear signs of his moral shortcomings.
In an exuberant speech, he describes the wondrous feats he'll perform with magic. This Faustus is the classical Faustus, the one at home with the wonder and strength of Greek humanity. Later, Faustus will fall far short of these goals.
In 1.2, Wagner's mockery of scholarly language is in prose, as opposed to blank verse. As in many of Shakespeare's plays, Marlowe switches to prose for Wagner to suggest the course nature of the speaker. But Wagner's lines are funny, and provide relief from the serious topic of damnation.