I was feeling very proud of myself for noticing allusions to Faust in Conrad's Heart of Darkness when I realized I'd never actually read any version of Faust.I decided to start with Christopher Marlowe's version because, well, that's what I found on the shelf.
I'd been led to believe that Marlowe was Shakespeare with a more exciting personal life, better hair, and less PR. Sometimes it's unfortunate how expectations play into one's enjoyment of a story; I wasn't overly impressed with my first full-length Marlowe play.
Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is the source of the famous lines about Helen of Troy, a wonderful dialogue of Mephistopheles' about hell being wherever he is, "misery loves company" as an explanation of Satan's desire for Faustus' soul, and a truly pitiful closing plea by Faustus. In general, however, I found Marlowe's language less fluid and quotable than the best of Shakespeare. (Unless, of course, Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays, then... well, I still didn't like it as much.) Perhaps I'm just too familar with hellfire-and-damnation language, but I anticipated most of Marlowe's metaphors before I read them. The descriptions of hell and salvation seemed pulled straight out of morality plays. (You could, I suppose, attribute this to an underlying subversion of religion in Faustus--but often virtue and sin seemed equally dry.) Also, Marlowe's characters read like slightly rounder versions of morality play stand-ins. The only time I really believed Faustus' emotion was at the play's close. Faustus seems to switch between hardened sinner and piously fearful almost-penitent whenever Marlowe gets bored.
Typical Doctor Faustus scene (repeat as needed)...
Random person/angel who we will never see again: Faustus! Stop dabbling in black magic and making deals with the devil--you'll lose your soul!
Faustus: Oh no! I will? Woe is me! I must repent!
Mephistopheles: (Suddenly appearing.) Again? Geez, Faustus! Remember, you like evil. Also, I own you, nerd-boy.
Faustus: Oh, okay! Let's go raise people from the dead and recreate some more scenes from the Iliad!
Mephistopheles: (under his breath) Only twenty-four years, only twenty-four...
Doctor Faustus is obviously not my favorite Renaissance play, but P.M. Pasinetti (1979 Norton's Anthology of World Masterpieces introduction to Renaissance lit.) points out that Marlowe should be credited for creating a Faust/Doctor Faustus who sells his soul not merely for power but for knowledge; a temptation which is understandable to curious Renaissance audiences and scholars in all eras.
Speaking of which, I now have a great desire to read other versions of Faust and compare them to Marlowe's.
(Image from AssociatedContent.com.)