Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus was quite possibly the play that sealed Christopher Marlowe’s fate. Based on the Elizabethan sorcerer John Dee, the play rankled quite a few authorities in England and elsewhere. It seems Marlowe dipped his ink into too many secrets that others would rather have not seen scribbled on the very velum bound for the art of playmaking stagecraft.

Doctor Faustus


Christopher had been in trouble before. There were whispers at Cambridge that he was working on Catholic intrigues and plots in Rheims against Protestant Elizabeth. As he was about to matriculate from university with a Master’s degree, the authorities refused to grant him credentials. Apparently to resolve the matter he went straight to Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s secretary of state. Quite soon thereafter a letter arrived to the Cambridge authorities signed by the members of Her Majesty’s Privy Council:

‘Whereas it was reported that Christopher Morley was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Reames and there to remaine, Their Lordships thought good to certefie that he had no such intent, but that in all his accions he had behaued him selfe orderlie and discreetlie wherebie he had done her Majestie good service, & deserued to be rewarded for his faithgull dealinge: Their Lordships request was that the rumor thereof should be allaied by all possible meanes, and that he should be furthered in the degree he was to take this next Commencement: Because it was not her Majesties pleasure that anie on emploied as he had been in matters touching the benefitt of his Countrie should be defamed by those that are ignorant in th’ affaires he went about.’ ¹

But this time he had gone too far. Perhaps flushed with the fabulous success of the play Tamburlaine the Great in London theatres, and  over confident that authorities were on his side, Marlowe mistakenly leaked too much information.

In the play we are presented with a magical sorcerer, based on the figure of John Dee, who conjures demons and sells his soul to the devil for material gain.

Dee seemed to know something about the ‘lay of the land.’ He was a man driven to give the British empire the ultimate power of prescriptive cartography, or an imposed grid or plat on all the maps of the world which would originate from and lead back to England and ‘Isis,’ Edmund’s Spenser’s name for Queen Elizabeth I, which signaled she was the queen in which the occult imperium was invested. ²

In the play, Faustus as the character of Dee echoes as such:

These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromatic books are heavenly:
Lines, circles, scenes, letters and characters –
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence
Is promised to the studious artisan!
All things that move between quiet poles
Shall be at my command. Emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind or rend the clouds:
But his dominion that exceeds in this,
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.
A sound magician is a might god.
Here, Faustus, try they brains to gain a deity. ³

Although Doctor Faustus was written 1588–9 (although some scholars favour 1592–3 as the date, perhaps jibing with the period Marlowe was allegedly murdered) the play wasn’t formally published until 1604. And this was a year after Elizabeth I dies, in 1603.4

Indeed, the Queen would have much to be concerned about. Although Faustus extols her beauty as Helen of Troy and the might of the British imperium launching a thousand ships in her favor, she also sucks forth his very soul.

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium,
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
[Faustus and Helen kiss.]
Her lips such forth my soul – see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come give me my soul again.
[They kiss again.] 5

John Dee at the court of Queen Elizabeth I


But Marlowe not only describes Faustus conjuring kissing demons that fly over hill and dale, he describes through the character of Mephistopheles the occult topography of Rome and it’s power.

And now, my Faustus, that thou mayst perceive
What Rome containeth to delight thee with,
Know that this city stands upon seven hills
That underprops the groundwork of the same.
Just through the midst runs flowing Tiber’s stream,
With winding banks that cut it in two parts,
Over which four stately bridges lean,
That make safe passage to eah part of Rome.
Upon the bridge called Ponte Angelo
Erected is a castle strong,
Within whose walls such store of ordnance are,
And double cannons framed of carved brass,
As match the days within one complete year –
Besides the gates and high pyramides
Which Julius Caesar brought from Africa.6

What Marlowe is describing within the text of Doctor Faustus is none other than secret geophysical knowledge used thoughout history that researcher Sesh Heri details in The Handprint of Atlas. As Heri describes, the use of this secret knowledge evinces an esoteric dimension of a science that understood the interactions between mind and matter. A science that was known to the builders of the Great Pyramids and the Gothic Cathedrals. 7

Marlowe was perhaps warning of the misuse of this power. For at the end of the play Faustus meets a hellish fate.

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learned man.
Faustus is gone, regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits,
To practice more than heavenly power permits.

Terminate hora diem; terminate author opus. 8


Sources Cited:

¹ A.D. Wraight, In Search of Christopher Marlowe (London: Macdonald & Co., 1965), 88.

² Michael Hoffman, The Pirate Queen’s Slavetraders: Elizabeth I and the Conjuring of the British Empire (Revisionist History, no 117), 10.

³ Christopher Marlowe, “Doctor Faustus,” (1604 Text), The Complete Plays, Edited by Mark Thornton Burnett, (London: Tuttle Publishing, 1999), 345.

4 Ibid., xii-xv.

5 Ibid., 384.

6 Ibid., 369.

7 Sesh Heri, The Handprint of Atlas (California: The Lost Continent Library Publishing Co., 2008), 5,7.

8 Marlowe, 457.




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