The chorus announces that the play is about a man "swoll'n with cunning of a self-deceit" who "surfeits upon cursèd necromancy."
Faustus tries to decide which discipline to concentrate his studies in. Picking up Aristotle he reads that "to dispute well [is] logic's chiefest end" and decides he has already mastered that. Turning to medicine, he reads that "The end of physic is our body's health" and decides that he has "attained that end" too, and that only if medicine would make one live forever would it really be worth his time studying it. The law is fit only for "a mercenary drudge / Who aims at nothing but external trash, / Too servile and illiberal for me." Finally, he hits on divinity, which tells him only that "we must die an everlasting death. / What doctrine call you this? Che serà, serà, / What will be, shall be? Divinity adieu!" On the other hand, "These metaphysics of magicians / And necromantic books are heavenly, / ... Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires."
He summons his servant, Wagner, and sends him for his "dearest friends, / The German Valdes and Cornelius," who are students of magic. While he's waiting, a Good Angel and an Evil Angel try to get his attention. The former urges him to lay down "that damnèd book" and "Read, read the Scriptures." The Evil Angel says, "Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky, / Lord and commander of these elements." But Faustus is full of ideas about what he can do with his magic, and when Valdes and Cornelius arrive, he informs them of his decision:
Philosophy is odious and obscure;Valdes encourages him: "Faustus, these books, thy wit, and our experience / Shall make all nations to canonize us." The spirits they command will gather treasure from everywhere, including "from America the golden fleece / That yearly stuffs old Philip's treasury," referring to Elizabethan England's nemesis Philip II. They go off to practice some spells.
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
Divinity is basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile.
'Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me.
Two scholars "wonder what's become of Faustus," and after some banter from Wagner, they learn from him that he's dining with Valdes and Cornelius. One scholar fears that Faustus has "fall'n into that damned art for which they two are infamous through the world," and they go off to "inform the Rector" and see if they can save their friend. (Valdes and Cornelius otherwise have nothing to do in the play, so they were probably double-cast. Perhaps as Mephistopheles and Lucifer?)
Faustus conjures up Mephistopheles, but the first time he appears, Faustus says, "Thou art too ugly to attend on me. / Go, and return an old Franciscan friar, / That holy shape becomes a devil best." (This was, after all, as the treatment of friars in The Jew of Malta also suggests, the staunchly anti-Catholic England of Elizabeth I.) When Mephistopheles returns, Faustus is pleased with himself: "Now, Faustus, thou art conjurer laureate, / That canst command great Mephistopheles." But Mephistopheles informs him that he can't do anything without Lucifer's say-so, and that he was only attracted by Faustus's blasphemies: "For when we hear one rack the name of God, / Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ, / We fly in hope to get his glorious soul." Faustus asks Mephistopheles some questions, including, "How comes it then that thou art out of hell?" Mephistopheles explains that "this is hell, nor am I out of it" because before he and the other angels who served Lucifer fell from heaven, he "saw the face of God / And tasted the eternal joys of heaven," so he is constantly aware of "being deprived of everlasting bliss. Faustus is scornful:
What, is great Mephistopheles so passionateAnd he proposes to sign over his soul to Lucifer if he'll give him twenty-four years of "all voluptuousness." Mephistopheles goes to confer with Lucifer, and Faustus gloats, "Had I as many souls as there be stars, / I'd give them all for Mephistopheles, / By him I'll be great emperor of the world."
For being deprivèd of the joys of heaven?
Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude,
And scorn those joys thou never shall possess.
A comic interlude in which Wagner tries out some demon-summoning on the clown Robin, and they both make some dirty jokes.
"Now, Faustus, must thou needs be damned," he resolves, and is prepared to build for Beelzebub "an altar and a church, / And offer lukewarm blood of new-born babes." The Good Angel and the Evil Angel return, the former to urge "think of heaven and heavenly things" and the latter "think of honour and wealth." Mephistopheles returns to say that Lucifer has agreed to the bargain, "And I will be thy slave, and wait on thee, / And give thee more than thou hast wit to ask." All Faustus has to do is write out a deed of gift in blood, and when Faustus's blood congeals while he's writing, Mephistopheles fetches "a chafer of coals" to liquefy it again. "O, what will not I do to obtain his soul?" he asks in an aside. Faustus signs the deed and asks some more questions about hell, such as where it is. "Hell hath no limits," Mephistopheles replies, "nor is circumscribed / In one self place, for where we are is hell, / And where hell is must we ever be." Faustus scoffs, "Come, I think hell's a fable," to which Mephistopheles replies, "Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind." Faustus is still not convinced.
The first thing Faustus asks for is a wife, which Mephistopheles laughs at: "Tut, Faustus, marriage is but a ceremonial toy. If thou lovest me, think no more of it." He promises Faustus all the beautiful women he wants. And he proceeds to provide him with more books.
Another comic interlude with Robin, who has stolen one of Faustus's books, although as his friend Rafe points out, he can't read. They go off to try their hand at conjuring.
Faustus is having second thoughts: "When I behold the heavens, then I repent / And curse thee, wicked Mephistopheles, / Because thou hast deprived me of those joys." But Mephistopheles claims that heaven "is not half so fair as thou / Or any man that breathes on earth" because "It was made for man, therefore is man more excellent." Faustus says if that's so, "I will renounce this magic and repent." The Good and Evil Angels enter, the former to urge him to repent, the latter to say that "God cannot pity thee." And Faustus realizes that "My heart's so hardened I cannot repent." He reviews some of the experiences he has had -- "Have I not made blind Homer sing to me / Of Alexander's love and Oenone's death?" -- and decides against repentance. He and Mephistopheles converse some more on the nature of the universe (the Ptolemaic version) but when he asks Mephistopheles "who made the world," he refuses: Mephistopheles can't speak of God. When he exits, Faustus once again thinks of repentance, and the Evil Angel says "Too late," to which the Good Angel says, "Never too late, if Faustus can repent."
Mephistopheles returns with Lucifer and Beelzebub, just as Faustus is calling on Christ "to save distressèd Faustus' soul." Lucifer tells him to stop doing that: "thou dost injure us. / Thou talk'st of Christ, contrary to thy promise. / Thou should'st not think of God." Faustus agrees, and Lucifer rewards him with a pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins. Faustus enjoys it, and Lucifer promises, "in hell is all manner of delight." Faustus says he would be happy if he could "see hell and return again." Lucifer agrees to send for him at midnight, and gives him a book to study in the meantime.
Wagner acts as chorus to tell us that Faustus is on his way to Rome.
Faustus makes sure that Mephistopheles has done as he commanded and taken him "within the walls of Rome." Mephistopheles assures him not only that but that they are in "his holiness' privy chamber." "Then charm me that I may be invisible," Faustus commands, "to do what I please unseen of any whilst I stay in Rome." So Faustus makes mischief at a banquet given by the pope for the Cardinal of Lorraine, snatching away dishes and cups from the pope and his diners and boxing the pope's ears when he crosses himself. The scene ends with the invisible Faustus and Mephistopheles beating up and throwing firecrackers at the friars who have come to curse them.
Robin and Rafe, with the book Robin stole from Faustus, try to summon spirits to play tricks on a vintner, but accidentally summon Mephistopheles, who is pissed off: "How am I vexèd with these villains'charms! / From Constantinople am I hither come / Only for pleasure of these damnèd slaves." He throws firecrackers at them and turns Robin into an ape and Rafe into a dog.
The chorus tells us that Faustus is now famous and is feasting at the court of Emperor Charles V.
The emperor expresses a desire to see "Alexander the Great, / Chief spectacle of the world's pre-eminence." Faustus explains that he can only summon "such spirits as can lively resemble Alexander and his paramour ... in that manner that they best lived in" because their "true substantial bodies ... long since are consumed to dust." A doubting knight makes aside comments on Faustus's ability to do such things and leaves the room. Faustus sends Mephistopheles to fetch the spirits of Alexander and his "paramour," and the emperor is convinced that these are their "true substantial bodies." (The paramour is referred to as a "lady," but she and Alexander are also called "those two deceased princes." The note suggests that the paramour is either Alexander's wife, Roxana, or the courtesan Thaïs.) Faustus also has the doubting knight summoned; he enters with a pair of horns on his head, cursing Faustus as a "damnèd wretch and execrable dog." After the others have left the stage, Faustus observes to Mephistopheles that he is growing old and wants to return to Wittenberg.
On their way home, Faustus and Mephistopheles meet a horse-dealer who wants to buy Faustus's horse. Faustus agrees to the deal but warns the horse-dealer, "Ride him over hedge, or ditch, or where thou wilt, but not into the water." When the dealer leaves, Faustus asks himself, "What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die? / Thy fatal time doth draw to final end. / Despair doth drive distrust unto my thoughts." But the serious mood is broken when the horse-dealer returns, soaking wet, to say that he couldn't resist seeing what would happen if he rode the horse into water. The horse disappeared out from under him. There's further, um, horseplay involving Faustus's going to sleep in a chair and the angry horse-dealer pulling off one of Faustus's legs. Then Wagner enters to say that the Duke of Vanholt has invited Faustus to his home.
At the duke's home, he has apparently done some tricks for the duke and duchess. He asks the duchess, who is pregnant, if she craves anything. She requests grapes, which are out of season, but Faustus sends Mephistopheles to fetch them for her.
Wagner enters to say that Faustus has given him "all his goods" and therefor "means to die shortly," although he is still carousing with students. Faustus and several students enter, along with Mephistopheles. One of the students says that they have been arguing which woman "was the beautifull'st in all the world" and "have determined with ourselves that Helen of Greece was the admirablest lady that ever lived." They ask him to show her to them, and Faustus presents a pageant in which Helen appears. When the students leave, an old man enters to urge Faustus to repent "Of thy most vile and loathsome filthiness, / The stench whereof corrupts the inward soul." Faustus is moved by the appeal: "Where art thou, Faustus? Wretch, what hast thou done? / Damned art thou, Faustus, despair and die!" Mephistopheles gives him a dagger and he is about to use it when the old man urges him to stop, saying, "I see an angel o'er thy head / And with a vial full of precious grace / Offers to pour the same into thy soul." Faustus asks the old man to leave so he can ponder his sins.
When the old man leaves, Faustus says, "Hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast." Mephistopheles threatens to tear him to pieces for treason against Lucifer, and Faustus relents, offering to renew his pact in blood. He urges Mephistopheles to torment the old man, but Mephistopheles replies, "His faith is great. I cannot touch his soul. / But what I may afflict his body with / I will attempt, which is but little worth." So Faustus asks instead that Mephistopheles show him Helen again.
Was this the face that launched a thousand shipsInstead, Helen's lips suck out his soul, like the kiss of a succubus or a vampire. He exits with Helen and Mephistopheles as the old man returns to ponder Faustus's fate and devils appear to torment him.
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Faustus returns with the students, who are disturbed by his strange behavior. He blames his studies for the "surfeit of deadly sin that hath damned both body and soul." A student reminds him of "God's mercies," but Faustus replies that his "offence can ne'er be pardoned.... O, would I had never seen Wittenberg, never read book!" (There is an anti-intellectual thread running through the play.) When he tells them that he has sold his soul, they cry "God forbid!"
God forbade it indeed, but Faustus hath done it. For vain pleasure of four-and-twenty years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with mine own blood. The date is expired, the time will come, and he will fetch me.They bid him farewell as the clock strikes eleven. He ponders his final hour:
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,He longs for reincarnation:
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I'll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop. Ah, my Christ!
Ah, Pythagoras' metempsychosis, were taht true,As the clock strikes twelve, Lucifer, Mephistopheles and other devils enter, and in his last words he wants to burn his books, just as Prospero will drown his.
This soul should fly from me and I be changed
Unto some brutish beast.
All beasts are happy, for when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolved in elements,
But mine must live still to be plagued in hell.
In the epilogue, the chorus intones the anti-intellectual moral, that "fiendful fortune may exhort the wise / Only to wonder at unlawful things, / Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits / To practise more than heavenly power permits."