Doctor Faustus is based on an older tale; it is believed to be the first dramatization of the Faust legend. Some scholars believe that Marlowe developed the story from a popular 1592 translation, commonly called The English Faust Book. There is thought to have been an earlier, lost German edition of 1587, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten (chapbook), which itself may have been influenced by even earlier, equally ill-preserved pamphlets in Latin (such as those that likely inspired Jacob Bidermann's treatment of the damnation of the doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus (1602)).
Several soothsayers or necromancers of the late fifteenth century adopted the name Faustus, a reference to the Latin for "favored" or "auspicious"; typical was Georgius Faustus Helmstetensis, calling himself astrologer and chiromancer, who was expelled from the town of Ingolstadt for such practices. Subsequent commentators have identified this individual as the prototypical Faustus of the legend.
Whatever the inspiration, the development of Marlowe's play is very faithful to the Faust Book, especially in the way it mixes comedy with tragedy.
However, Marlowe also introduced some changes to make it more original. He made three main additions:
- Faustus's soliloquy, in Act 1, on the vanity of human science
- Good and Bad Angels
- The substitution of a Pageant of Devils for the seven deadly sins
He also emphasised Faustus' intellectual aspirations and curiosity, and minimised the vices in the character, to lend a Renaissance aura to the story.