What is a comic scene in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, and what is its significance?

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One comic scene is that with the horse-courser (one who trains horses to be raced) while Faustus and Mephistophilis are at the Emperor's court. The courser wants to buy Faustus' horse for its great form and build. This of course is the magical horse and accordingly, after agreeing to sell it to the courser, Faustus warns him not to ride the horse into water.  No sooner than the courser reaches the edge of town but he challenges Faustus' instructions and rides the horse right into water. All that separated the courser from the water was a "bottle of hay": the horse had vanished leaving nothing behind but hay.

Marlowe employed the same strategy Shakespeare used, that of employing a Fool to add humor and levity. Also, as with Shakespeare, the Fool conveys important information and/or illuminates important aspects of relationships between principal characters: Shakespeare's King Lear and his Fool are the prime example of this strategy. Marlowe uses the fool the horse-courser for levity but also to convey important information. Granted, the information this fool facilitates isn't on the grand scale of Lear's fool but is important to exposing Faustus' character development and the increasing intensity of the falling action that leads up to the climax and resolution.

What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemn'd to die?
Thy fatal time doth draw to final end;
Despair doth drive distrust into my thoughts:
Confound these passions with a quiet sleep:
Tush, Christ did call the thief upon the Cross;
Then rest thee, Faustus, quiet in conceit.
[Sleeps in his chair.]

This quote reveals the important significance of the courser fool and the comic scene. (1) Faustus is given opportunity to lament the changes that are taking over his thoughts, changes that run deeply into his personality: "Despair doth drive distrust into my thoughts: / Confound these passions." His time is running out, his years are almost over, and, "condemned to die," despair drives his thoughts and passions into directions that are unfamiliar to him. This revelation of his character development increases our sympathy for Faustus.

(2) Faustus reveals his deep and hope-filled thoughts about Christ. In an allusion to the thieves upon the cross with Jesus at Calvary, Faustus builds an analogy between himself and one thief. This reveals increasing intensity by showing that he is hoping to be called to redemption by Christ: "Christ did call the thief upon the Cross; / Then rest thee, Faustus." This statement has further significance of its own because it bears heavily upon the climax and resolution when Faustus begs to know how to be redeemed: "I do repent; and yet I do despair: / ... / What shall I do to shun the snares of death?"

bhawanipur | Student

In tragedies, the playwright tries to give relief to the audience by introducing comic scenes or episodes. Literally such comic interludes is known as tragic relief. A tragedy creates tension in the mind of the audience. Therefore it becomes necessary to relax the minds of the audience by including comic scenes in the play. Otherwise, it generates some sort of emotional weakness. The audience of the Elizabethan period pressed for comic interludes to ease their emotion. The producers also demanded them for success of the play. The comic interlude may have an appropriate emotional connection in the development of the tragic play but it is also admitted that in Marlowe’s dramas, this tragic relief seems to be crude. Due to these often Dr Faustus is called a play of weak plot.

If we give a close study of Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” it shows that there are fourteen scenes in all. Out of them, comic scenes are five or six. Many critics are of the opinion that the comic elements in these scenes are low and vulgar.  They can not be accepted as organic parts of the tragic play.

According to the critics, the first comic scene has been worked out with some care, a comic burlesque of the main plot. It is also felt that most of the comic scenes in Dr. Faustus are of later interpolation and not of Marlowe.

Marlowe must have cherished a strong dislike for clownage conceits. It is known to us that the first edition of the play was published in 1604 and the second edition in 1616. Second edition contains more scenes of clownage with new additions. So it proves that these scenes were not of Marlowe. T.S. Eliot asserts that Marlowe was not devoid of a high developed sense of humour and Marlowe should not be judged by a Shakespeare standard in this respect.

Marlowe introduced the comic scenes in “Dr. Faustus” for many purposes. First of all he introduced crude buffoonery because it was common stock-in-trade of the Elizabethan dramatists. They could not ignore the demands of the groundlings. The Elizabethan audiences justified the inclusion of comic scenes in which Faustus teases and trouble the Pope and his guests, outwit the horse-dealer, and make a fool of the talkative knight, planting a pair of horns on his head. They are essential for dramatic purpose to enable Faustus to display his miraculous powers. Secondly, the purpose of the comic scenes was to offer a temporary relaxation to the audience. Third, Marlowe’s description about Faustus’ pranks on the Pope shows Marlowe’s hatred for church and Pope.