The play may have been entered into the Stationers' Register on 18 December 1592, though the records are confused and appear to indicate a conflict over the rights to the play. A subsequent Stationers' Register entry, dated 7 January 1601, assigns the play to the bookseller Thomas Bushnell, the publisher of the 1604 first edition. Bushnell transferred his rights to the play to John Wright on 13 September 1610.
The two versions
Two versions of the play exist:
- The 1604 quarto, printed by Valentine Simmes for Thomas Law; this is usually called the A text. The title page attributes the play to "Ch. Marl.". A second edition (A2) in 1609, printed by George Eld for John Wright, is merely a reprint of the 1604 text. The text is short for an English Renaissance play, only 1485 lines long.
- The 1616 quarto, published by John Wright, the enlarged and altered text; usually called the B text. This second text was reprinted in 1619, 1620, 1624, 1631, and as late as 1663. Additions and alterations were made by the minor playwright and actor Samuel Rowley and by William Borne (or Bird, or Boyle), and possibly by Marlowe himself.
The 1604 version was once believed to be closer to the play as originally performed in Marlowe's lifetime, simply because it was older. By the 1940s, after influential studies by Leo Kirschbaum and W. W. Greg, the 1604 version came to be regarded as an abbreviation and the 1616 version as Marlowe's original fuller version. Kirschbaum and Greg considered the A-text a "bad quarto", and thought that the B-text was linked to Marlowe himself. Since then scholarship has swung the other way, most scholars now considering the A-text more authoritative, even if "abbreviated and corrupt", according to Charles Nicholl.
The 1616 version omits 36 lines but adds 676 new lines, making it roughly one third longer than the 1604 version. Among the lines shared by both versions, there are some small but significant changes in wording; for example, "Never too late, if Faustus can repent" in the 1604 text becomes "Never too late, if Faustus will repent" in the 1616 text, a change that offers a very different possibility for Faustus's hope and repentance.
Another difference between texts A and B is the name of the devil summoned by Faustus. Text A states the name is generally "Mephastophilis", while the version of text B commonly states "Mephostophilis". The name of the devil is in each case a reference to Mephistopheles in Faustbuch, the source work, which appeared in English translation in about 1588.
The relationship between the texts is uncertain and many modern editions print both. As an Elizabethan playwright, Marlowe had nothing to do with the publication and had no control over the play in performance, so it was possible for scenes to be dropped or shortened, or for new scenes to be added, so that the resulting publications may be modified versions of the original script.
In the past, it was assumed that the comic scenes were additions by other writers. However, most scholars today consider the comic interludes, whoever wrote them, an integral part of the play. Their tone shows the change in Faustus's ambitions, suggesting Marlowe did oversee the composition of them. The clown is seen as the archetype for comic relief.