The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (Dover Publications) We speak of Faustian pacts, and of selling our souls. It was Christopher Marlowe's play - first published in 1604 - that brought those idioms to popular consciousness. It is based on the true figure of Georg of Helmstadt, a magician who went by the Latin 'Faustus' ('fortunate'), and whose history was collected in the German Faustbuch published by Johann Spies in 1587. Marlowe's tragic comedy tells of a prideful theologian turned necromancer who sells his soul to the devil to gain magical powers. Doctor Faustus was first acted by the Lord Admiral's Men on September 30, 1594, 16 months after Marlowe was killed. The diary of Philip Henslowe, a stage impresario who owned The Rose Theatre in London, records this earliest-known performance of the play. The fictional Dr Faustus signs a pact in blood with Lucifer, who sends the demon Mephistopheles to serve the man for 24 years. One of his first demands is for a beautiful wife, then for a book that contains the secrets of the universe. Faced with Mephistopheles' farcical answers, Faustus begins to waver. Guided by good and evil angels, he questions whether to repent, deciding 'Never to look to heaven/ Never to name God, or to pray to him/ To burn his scriptures, slay his ministers/ And make my ministers pull his churches down'. This verse would have been shocking in an England ravaged by the schism between the state and the Catholic Church, which had occurred a generation before under Henry VIII, been removed under his daughter Mary, and reinstated with the accession of his younger child, Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603. Faustus' torment reflects the ideological battle between Calvinists, who believed in pre-destined damnation, and Lutherans, who believed in salvation through faith. In the beginning of the play, Faustus says to Mephistopheles: 'I charge thee wait upon me as I live/ To do whatever Faustus shall command/ Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere/ Or the ocean to overwhelm the world.' Far from attaining such majestic omnipotence, throughout the drama Faustus conjures grapes for a pregnant duchess, puts horns on the head of a knight at the court of the Holy Roman emperor and plays juvenile tricks on a horse-courser. It transpires he has sold his soul for little more than the absurd company of a satanic jester. Faustus contains one of the most celebrated lines in English poetry - 'Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?' - uttered when Helen of Troy appears. Despite the play's enduring legacy, its popularity and scholastic importance have waned. But when Marlowe died, at 29, he was a more influential poet and playwright than Shakespeare.