John Faustus is a well-respected German scholar who has become frustrated by the limits of normal scholarship. He can no longer see the point of studying medicine, or the law, or religion. Instead, he decides to learn about magic. He talks to his friends, Valdes and Cornelius, and they promise to help him. Meanwhile his servant, Wagner, tells other scholars about his new interest, and they are concerned for him.
Alone in his study, Faustus practices some of his new-found knowledge. He summons Mephistopheles, a devil, and quizzes him about the nature of hell and heaven. He tells Mephistopheles to offer Lucifer (the chief of the devils) his soul in exchange for having whatever he wants in life.
Meanwhile Wagner meets with Robin, a clown, and they mess about, summoning two devils themselves, which terrifies Robin.
Faustus feels conflicted about his decision to offer up his soul. He is visited by a Good Angel and an Evil one, who both try to persuade him to their points of view. When Mephistopheles arrives with news that Lucifer has accepted the deal, Faustus tries to cut his arm and write a contract in his own blood. But his blood congeals, confusing Faustus all the more. But eventually the deal is done: Faustus gives his soul in exchange for twenty five years of life with Mephistopheles at his command. The first thing Faustus asks for is a wife, but Mephistopheles persuades him not to marry and to sleep with courtesans (prostitutes) instead. Meanwhile Robin steals one of Faustus’ books and decides to try his own hand at conjuring.
Faustus wonders if it is too late to repent his decision. As he tries to pray and seek forgiveness, Lucifer appears and distracts him by presenting the Seven Deadly Sins. This makes him feel better and he determines not to think of God and heaven anymore.
The third act begins with Faustus and Mephistopheles in Rome, where they play a trick on the Pope. Meanwhile Robin and Rafe play a trick on an innkeeper using magic, but Mephistopheles appears and turns them into an ape and a dog.
Faustus then visits the Emperor, who has heard of Faustus’ abilities and is keen to meet him. Faustus produces a vision of Alexander the Great and his lover, and also gets revenge on a cynical knight by putting horns on his head. As they leave, Faustus sells his horse to a horse dealer, instructing him only not to lead him into water. Moments later the horse dealer returns, complaining that, after leading him into water, the horse has disappeared altogether.
Faustus then visits the Duke of Vanholt and his pregnant wife, presenting her with grapes, even though they are not in season, which astonishes the Duke. At the start of the fifth act, Wagner puzzles over the fact that Faustus has given him all his possessions, and wonders if it means he is dying, while Faustus entertains his scholar friends at dinner by presenting them with an image of Helen of Troy.
After the scholars have gone, an old man enters and urges Faustus to turn back to God. Faustus is distressed, and wishes he could. Mephistopheles sees him and threatens him: if Faustus repents he will be tortured. Faustus apologises and Mephistopheles distracts him again by bringing Helen of Troy back onstage.
In a frantic state, Faustus talks to the scholars and confesses he has sold his soul and that his time is nearly up. The scholars are horrified and leave him alone, promising to pray for his soul. Faustus, with one hour left to live, is appalled by what is coming and desperate to avoid his fate. Overcome by fear and remorse, he waits for the end in terror.
And as the clock strikes midnight, devils take him away.
BIOGRAPHICAL CONTEXT (AO4): Christopher Marlowe
Born in 1564, (in the same year as Shakespeare) Christopher Marlowe led an eventful and often erratic life. He was accused on occasion of being a Catholic, a homosexual, a murderer, atheist and traitor to the Queen,...