According to the diary of Elizabethan theatre impresario Philip Henslowe, the Lord Admiral's Men borrowed four pounds on November 22, 1602 "to paye unto Wm Byrde & Samwell Rowle for their adicyones in doctor foists."
The first entries in Henslowe's diary to mention Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus come from 1594, the year after the playwright's death (supposedly in a tavern brawl over the reckoning of the bill). Another reference to the play comes from the Stationer's Register in 1592, which could indicate an intention to publish the play, but the earliest printed text of Doctor Faustus did not appear until 1604.
Scholars still dispute the nature of this text and its relationship to a later printing of Doctor Faustus in 1616. One popular theory holds that the 1604 printing--or "A Text" of the play--represents Marlowe's play before playwrights William Bird and Samuel Rowley provided the Admiral's Men with additions. The 1616 version--or "B Text" of the play--could be the revised version of Bird and Rowley.
Both the A and B texts begin with essentially the same prologue, though with a few minor changes in the B text. Faustus is then revealed in his study, becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the limits of human knowledge. He is tempted to try his hand at necromancy, conjuring spirits, and Good and Evil Angels offer him conflicting advice. The magicians Valdes and Cornelius enter and offer to teach him how to conjure.
The next few scenes also correspond in the two texts, with some minor discrepancies. Some scholars enter and question Faustus' servant Wagner, and then the doctor raises the mighty demon Mephistophilis. A comical scene provides an interlude where Wagner uses magic to cow a country bumpkin into serving him, and in the scene that follows Faustus seals his pact with the devil with a contract signed in blood.
This is where the two texts depart significantly. In the B Text, there is another comic scene featuring Robin (the clown that Wagner takes on as a servant in the previous scene) deciding to conjure with another young man named Dick. A corresponding scene appears in the A Text, but with Robin's associate named Rafe, and in the A Text the scene appears right before the goblet scene that follows Faustus' tricks on the Pope. Some editors who prefer the A Text transpose it earlier, generally to where it appears in B, but if the A Text is closer to Marlowe's intentions, then it would seem the playwright wanted to put off the comic business until later, focusing instead on Faustus.
When Faustus begins to doubt his decision, Lucifer himself appears and distracts him with a pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins. The B Text also adds another demon to this scene, Lucifer's companion Beelzabub. That way, the audience gets to see both the devil "And his dam, too." In both versions, a chorus follows (explicitly Wagner in the A Text). The B Text adds a considerable digression to the middle of this speech:
He views the clouds, the planets, and the stars,
The tropics, zones, and quarters of the sky,
From the bright circle of the horned moon
Even to the height of Primum Mobile;
And, whirling round with this circumference
Within the concave compass of the pole,
From east to west his dragons swiftly glide
And in eight days did bring him home again.
Not long he stayed within his quiet house
To rest his bones after his weary toil,
But new exploits do hale him out again,
And, mounted then upon a dragon's back,
That with his wings did part the subtle air,
at which point the speech returns to the A Text, and Faustus proceeds to Rome.
The A Text provides a rather brief incident in Rome, in which Mephistophilis shows Faustus "a troupe of bald-pate friars / Whose summum bonum is in belly cheer." The B Text, however, adds that the feast is "In honour of the pope's triumphant victory" over the rival pope, Bruno. A lengthy scene follows, in which Bruno is humiliated, but ultimately freed. Both versions follow up Faustus' tricks in Rome with a corresponding comic scene. Though the two scenes have notable variations, they both show Robin and his companion playing a trick on a vintner, but then paying for their foolishness when Mephistophilis transforms them into animals.
A scene with Emperor Charles V follows, though the A Text adds this prologue:
When Faustus had with pleasure ta'en the view
Of rarest things and royal courts of kings,
He stayed his course and so returned home,
Where such as bear his absence but with grief--
I mean his friends and near companions--
Did gratulate his safety with kind words.
And in their conference of what befell,
Touching his journey through the world and air,
They put forth questions of astrology,
Which Faustus answered with such learned skill
As they admired and wondered at his wit.
Now is his fame spread forth in every land.
Amongst the rest the emperor is one,
Carolus the Fifth, at whose palace now
Faustus is feasted 'mongst his noblemen.
What there he did in trial of his art
I leave untold, your eyes shall see performed.
The B-Text greatly enlarges the incident in the court of the emperor, stretching it out over several scenes and adding much business for the knight Faustus gives horns for his insult. The A-Text makes it clear, however, that Faustus' prank on the knight was done "not so much for the injury he offered me here in your presence as to delight you with some mirth." This runs directly counter to the spirit of revenge given to the sequence in the B Text. The prolonged comedy in the B-Text also makes the scene that follows, in which Faustus tricks a horse-courser, seem like a tad too much. Yet the B Text does not stop there. It add yet another comic scene with the horse-courser meeting Robin and Dick.
Both versions then have a scene where Faustus meets with the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt. The duchess craves fresh grapes, but it is the middle of winter, so acquiring fruit from the other side of the world is clearly out of the question. Faustus has Mephistophilis acquire grapes from the southern hemisphere, though, and the duke and duchess promise him a reward. After all that we've seen, the conjuring of some grapes seems a small matter, and the duchess's request a rather insignificant desire.
The B-Text clarifies that the duchess is pregnant, though, providing a motivation for her strong craving. It also has the comic characters enter into the scene, obscuring the reward Faustus is to receive. But how much reward does Faustus really need? And can he really find no greater use for his powers than getting grapes from Chile, which today is accomplished by common supermarkets? Perhaps the pettiness of the whole affair is precisely what Marlowe wanted to convey.
The action for the remainder of the play is similar in both versions, though the lines frequently differ substantially. Wagner expresses his concern that his master seems to be planning on dying soon, and a group of scholars convince Faustus to bring forth the image of Helen of Troy. An old man appears, warning Faustus to see the error of his ways, but he leaves still fearing for the magician's soul. Mephistophilis demands that Faustus renew the pact, which he does in return for having Helen as his paramour.
In the A Text, however, this is followed by the return of the old man, who finds himself tormented by demons for trying to save Faustus' soul. In spite of his bodily torments, which contrast strongly with the physical pleasure being enjoyed by Faustus, the old man remains resolute in his faith, declaring:
Satan begins to sift me with his pride.
As in this furnace God shall try my faith,
My faith, vile hell, shall triumph over thee.
Ambitious fiends, see how the heavens smiles
At your repulse and laughs your state to scorn!
Hence, hell! For hence I fly unto my God.
Faustus gets together with his fellow scholars once more on the night before he dies. This scene is brief and simple in the A-Text, but the B-Text crowds it with the return of Lucifer, Beelzebub, Mephistophilis, and the Good and Bad Angels. Faustus' final monologue is similar in both texts, but before the epilogue, the B-Text introduces one final scene where the scholars discover "Faustus' limbs, / All torn asunder by the hand of death."
My personal preference is for the A-Text, though both versions have much to recommend them. Directors would be wise, however, to examine the differences before taking the word of an editor who has conflated the texts with an eye toward comprehensiveness rather than with an eye toward production.