Lessons and ideas for teaching Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus
I just taught Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus for the second time to my senior British Literature class. Last year, it was a doozy wrapping my head around how to first present this foundational text to high school seniors… especially when our textbook includes merely Faustus’ death speech.
Yikes! How is that even enough to convey the complexity and magnitude of this story?
Well, the death speech obviously isn’t enough for college English majors… but in the case of high school seniors, maybe it is.
I’ve decided that high school students mainly need to know the basics of the play and its enduring popularity and staying power in Western culture and narratives.
Yes, the Doctor Faustus story lives on!
Or, I should say the trope of the Faustian Bargain lives on. It’s prevalent motif in world culture and once high school students understand what exactly the Faustian Bargain is, they can easily identify it in contemporary storytelling.
And then a cool, subtle thing happens: their worlds are enlarged. Their view on culture, the arts, the human condition expands just a little. They see the world differently… with a slightly broader notion of history and humanity’s experience in it.
And when that happens, I’ve done my job as a high school British Literature teacher.
Here’s how I tackle Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus:
- I provide some very basic notes for students to take from a good ‘ol Google Slides Presentation.
- We talk briefly about the 1587 anonymous biography of the mysterious magician and astrologer Johann Faustus, the inspiration for Marlowe’s play.
- We learn some vocabulary from the play using a list on Vocabulary.com.
- We read a few pages from our textbook about Marlowe and his background, including his baffling death of being stabbed in the eye.
- We also discuss a summary of the play, followed by a read-aloud of the famous death speech. It’s amazing how even today, the death speech resonates with listeners. Even my seniors think it’s disturbing and powerful. After our read-aloud, we listen to it using the video below while we follow along in the text.
I play only the audio of this YouTube video. I’ve found the actor, while excellent at his performance, is too distracting for students. They engage better with the text when they just follow along while listening.
I use a TON of different media to teach Doctor Faustus. These are presented in in a class period or two roughly in the order they are shown in the list below.
Video Synopsis: The Royal Shakespeare Co.
This clip from The Royal Shakespeare Co. features Director Maria Aberg discussing the gist of Marlowe’s play. Watch this one first.
Trailer: The Royal Shakespeare Co.’s Faustus
This brief preview of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage version is mesmerizing and will definitely creep out your students. Tell the squeamish to look away when Mephistopheles and Faustus sign their pact!
Netflix Series Trailer: Devil at The Crossroads
This video trailer provides just enough info to demonstrate Doctor Faustus’ continuing influence in popular culture. This story about blues artist Robert Johnson’s supposed deal with the devil to gain musical prowess exemplifies the Faustian Bargain.
Feature Film Trailer: Limitless
If your students like Bradley Cooper, they’ll love this Limitless trailer. The film was released in 2011 when today’s seniors were about six or seven, so odds are they haven’t seen it. None of mine had. I showed this trailer and then told students that we would watch the entire movie at the conclusion of our Faustus unit.
The story is essentially The Faustian Bargain for the 21st-century. Down-and-out writer (Cooper) takes a pill to increase his productivity and basically clean up his life. He then becomes dependent on the NZT pill (and its disastrous side effects), helps facilitate the largest corporate merger in history, and comes into contact with the criminal underworld who want access to the pill, too. He eventually learns how to use the pill properly (by taking fewer and abstaining from alcohol) and continues to succeed professionally. It’s an interesting spin on the Faustian Bargain with enough differences to make for some rich class discussions.
TED Talk: Our Faustian Bargain with Technology
I asked students to take notes from a TED Talk by technologist and teacher Scott Dewing. The talk examines our dependence on technology and the risks we run when we engage with increasingly sophisticated technology. It’s another exposure to the ongoing relevance of the Faustian Bargain motif in contemporary culture.
Reader’s Theater: Squashed Editions’ Doctor Faustus
You can’t beat reader’s theater. Last year, I found these scripts from Glyn Hughes Squashed Editions and, wow, what a goldmine! Download these free scripts, pass them out, and assign parts. My students enjoyed these and the entire activity literally took only one class period. There are several roles with only one or two lines, so plan accordingly with your class size. Choose your most outgoing reader to read the part of Faustus.
Paired Text: “The Devil and Tom Walker”
We also read this 1804 story by Washington Irving. Here’s a PDF. It’s a Faustian Bargain for early 19th-century America and demonstrates how Marlowe’s Faustus is universal and timeless. In this story, stingy Tom Walker makes a deal with the devil in order to obtain pirate treasure.
Feature Film: Limitless starring Bradley Cooper
This year, my second year of teaching Doctor Faustus, I opted to show students the movie Limitless. Last year, I chose to show them a video I purchased on Vimeo of Splendid Productions UK Faustus production. While it was entertaining, my students did not engage with it as well as they did Splendid’s version of Everyman, which we had previously watched and which I watched for a second time this year.
Limitless seems to be the better option for my students.
Besides, it readily brings Doctor Faustus into the 21st century. We streamed it on Amazon Prime most recently, but you can also purchase on other platforms. To make sure students stay engaged (i.e. off their phones), purchase my movie guide with key for $5 from Teachers Pay Teachers. I tried to make the guide engaging without distracting. There’s nothing worse than having kids watch a movie, but also require them to fill out a worksheet that takes their attention from the screen. There are eight fairly basic questions on the front. The back contains four critical thinking questions that can be discussed after you complete the movie.
Here’s a slideshow of the movie guide. Pages one and two of the guide are shown plus the first page of the key. Click here to purchase.
Article of the Week: The Potential and Perils of a ‘Limitless’ Mind
The last assignment my students worked on prior to our summative test is an Article of the Week assignment where students read an opinion piece (that contains allusions from Marlowe’s Faustus) from National Public Radio titled, “Recognizing the Perils and Pitfalls of a ‘Limitless’ Mind.”
In my assignment, students may respond to any idea the article raises. They must include one quoted piece of evidence from the article to support their claim. It’s interesting to also learn about other Faustian Bargain texts mentioned in the article, such as The Philosopher’s Stone by British author Colin Wilson published in 1969. Limitless and Wilson’s book — and of course, Marlow’s Doctor Faustus — explore “the true lesson of the movie and the novel: hard as it is, we must learn to accept our limitations while trying to constantly transcend them.”
It’s amazing the number of tools that teachers have access to today, isn’t it?! Just think… video clips, trailers, TED Talks, articles, feature-length films, reader’s theater scripts, and more are easily accessible thanks to the Internet. Maybe there’s too much available, right?! I hope I’ve helped you with narrowing down the selection so you are better able to choose your own combination of materials to make Doctor Faustus come alive for your students.
Thanks for reading!
I think that teaching British Lit is difficult. It really takes an open mind and a willingness to experiment with media and the other teaching resources we have at our disposal.
Please let me know how you present and teach Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Share your experience on my Contact Page or leave a response below.
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