Austen Saunders

Why Dr Faustus’ dark obsessions still resonate

Faustus to Helen of Troy from Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul, see where it flies:
Come Helen, come give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy shall Wittenberg be sacked,
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest.
Yea I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O thou art fairer than the evening air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appeared to hapless Semele,
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azured arms,
And none but thou shalt be my paramour.

One of the things Doctor Faustus gets in return for selling his soul to the devil is an introduction to the most beautiful woman in history. What he says to her tells us more about him than it does about her. This is part of how Marlowe’s play works. Faustus’s character is created as we watch his reactions to the experiences he undergoes. As the play unfolds, we feel that we can make sense of Faustus as someone with a character, someone shaped by his own particular desires and limitations. All this creates a feeling that there is something behind what the script has Faustus say and do. He seems real.

What does this speech suggest about the man behind the mask? First, that Faustus is self-centred.

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