Instructor's Teaching Experience
While there is always some initial hesitancy from students with any play from the Early Modern period, I’ve found that Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus goes over pretty well—but it does require a bit more contextualization than other choices. Before beginning the play, I ask the students to read Elinor Fuchs’ Visit to a Small Planet, and we spend some time fleshing out the world of the play. This can come in the form of a lecture, if you’re comfortable, or by asking the students to do a brief research presentation on an aspect of Early Modern England, and the dramatic practices of the era. I also find it helpful to bring in modern examples of the Faustian Bargain to give them a familiar foundation to build upon as we work through the reading (I generally just point them to the Wikipedia Page on “Deals with the Devil in Popular Culture” and ask them to find examples they are familiar with to bring into discussion with the text. The play is remarkably versatile; it pairs especially well with Frankenstein, as they both explore similar themes, but it also can fit in nicely with a class on folklore if you delve into its roots in Germanic folklore.
Making Early-Modern Magic
For this activity I ask the students to read a Chicago Tribune article on the Newberry Library’s Book of Magical Charms—a commonplace book from the Early Modern period which has a collection of occult entries alongside home remedies. Then, in class we look through the digitized edition on the Newberry’s website together. There are transcriptions and translations available below the image of each page to facilitate an easier understanding of the text. After browsing the Book of Magical Charms, we turn towards a discussion of how magic functions in the play, while attempting to make connections to what we saw in the book. Finally, I ask them to design a charm of curse of their own for one of the characters in the play.
Personally, I like to get them on their feet and moving a bit, so I ask them to split into groups of 4(3 actors and a director) and perform their own version (with their own creative choices) of a short section of the play (1.3, lines 64-86) while offering the following prompts to guide their creative choices:
- Perhaps the most interesting relationship in the play is that of Faustus and Mephistopheles. Are they Friends? Is meph a servant? Is Meph the master? A potential Lover (He doesn't want to give Faustus a wife, after all)?
- Who is really in control of this interrogation? How do you show this in your production? Is Mephistopheles genuinely in the position of servant (or student -- this looks like an academic exam you would see in a grammar school) or is he indicating, subtly, through body language or other wise, that he has Faustus just where he wants him?
After the performance, I have the class ask the director (and the performers) questions about the decisions they made for their production.