By Jessie Foreman
If you have been unfortunate enough to study A-Level English Literature, you might’ve already come across this play: Doctor Faustus. Written by Christopher Marlowe, Faustus is an English morality play that was first performed around 1588 – 1593, but wasn’t published until 1604. It has recently made a comeback in the West End, with Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington taking the eponymous role. In exchange for his soul, scholarly Doctor Faustus is given the services of one of Lucifer’s chief demons, Mephistopheles, for 24 years. Whilst the play is first and foremost a piece of entertainment, there are historical accuracies about how men interacted with magic during the Early Modern period.
By the turn of the seventeenth century, England’s literacy levels had vastly improved from the previous century, with the literate males estimated as high as 35%. However, the proportion of literate women still hadn’t reached the 10% boundary. Education and literacy were still only available to the upper echelons of male society. Faustus seems to be an exception to this point. Although he was born ‘base of stock’ (Prologue, line 11), ‘shortly [Faustus] was graced with doctor’s name’ (Prologue, line 17) and took up residency as a scholar at the university in Wüttermberg. Literacy vastly divided how men and women practised magic: erudite men schooled themselves with the aid of grimoires (textbooks of magic), whereas women, often denounced for witchcraft, would inherit knowledge based on folklore and popular culture. One was treated as a respected, although illegal, intellectual pursuit, the other heretical. Some have even gone on to call the persecution of women as witches as a ‘uniquely lethal form of European misogyny.’
What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu! [Puts down Bible.]
[Picks up book of magic.] These metaphysics of magicians
And necromantic 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!
– Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 48-55 –
Doctor Faustus illustrates the general contemporary attitude towards scholars and clerics as ‘studious artisans,’ who were the main consumers of grimoires, since they were often written in a mixture of Latin or Hebrew, making it even less accessible to the female laity. The pursuit of magical studies and religion were not polar opposites either, as implied by the ‘heavenly’ status of Faustus’ ‘necromantic books.’ Many Christian churches actually promoted the studying and exploration of magic, siting the biblical King Solomon’s magical texts as justification for the use and control of demons. Thus, many scholars didn’t see themselves as flouting their religious beliefs in favour of studying magic, but rather that they were seeking insight into otherworldly beings, according to Christian philosophy. Although, selling your soul to the Devil and using Mephistopheles to prank the Pope, as in in Faustus’ case, is clearly not the most Christian thing to do – this would have garnered a laugh from his Protestant audience during the early seventeenth century.
Furthermore, the second main contrast between male and female interactions with magic, is how they interacted with the Devil and his demons.
[Cuts his arm.] Lo, Mephistopheles, for love of thee
I cut mine arm, and with my proper blood
Assure my soul to be great Lucifer’s,
Chief lord and regent of perpetual night.
View here the blood that trickles from mine arm,
And let it be propitious for my wish.
– Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 53-58 –
It is here that Doctor Faustus signs his name in his own blood on a contract with Lucifer, to make use of Mephistopheles’ magic for the next 24 years. The symbolism in this is obvious, and blood sacrifices were common in grimoires. It also speaks volumes that Faustus negotiated with the Devil and came to a contractual agreement, in comparison to popular beliefs during this time that a woman had a sexual pact with the Devil, and then she became one of his minions whom he had total control over. Power imbalances between genders permeated through early modern society, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising that it reaches dealings with the supernatural too. It was thought that women were naturally inclined to give into temptation and therefore easier targets for the Devil. This idea comes directly from the Bible, whereby Eve was persuaded to take a bite of the Apple of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Women have thus been paying the price for this ever since.
Doctor Faustus cheerfully ends with the Devil cashing in on his side of the bargain after 24 years, and Faustus is dragged to Hell by a legion of demons. Whilst carefully analysing every line for my English lit A-Level might have been the most boring thing ever, this play is an extremely insightful source for analysing the relationship learned men had with magic, and how this differed with women’s. I’m sure it didn’t come to anyone’s surprise that women were demonised for doing almost the exact same thing as men. The theatre production of Doctor Faustus hasn’t blown critics away – perhaps Kit Harington should stick to making pacts with the Seven Kingdoms instead of the Devil. Interestingly, it is agreed upon in the historical community that Dr Faustus was a real person and died in Germany around 1540. Many sources of writings about him stress his nefarious character, and refers to him as a ‘nigromancer’ and ‘sodomite.’
Scarre, G. (1996) Witchcraft and magic in 16th and 17th-century Europe (studies in European history). Basingstoke: Macmillan Education. P.52
 Timbers, F. (2014) Magic and Masculinity: Ritual Magic and Gender in the Early Modern Era. IB Tauris & Co Ltd. P.9
 Ibid. P.11
Timbers, F. (2014) Magic and Masculinity: Ritual Magic and Gender in the Early Modern Era. IB Tauris & Co Ltd.