Entertainment and Edification in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

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Schmidt holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and is an author and educator. His essay discusses Marlowe's play as both entertainment and edification.

Most people have wanted something so badly that, in moments of desperation, they imagined they would do anything to have it. Most learn to balance their desires with reality while a few people act on those desperate imaginings. Still, drama offers the possibility of exploring the implications of such impetuous actions, at least as experienced by characters in the play. In Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the main character decides to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for twenty-four years of absolute power. Part of the pleasure of reading or seeing the play comes from the viewer putting themselves in Faustus's predicament and imagining how they would respond to similar temptations. Marlowe's story also illustrates the Renaissance's prevalent belief that art should "teach and delight," that is, be entertaining while simultaneously presenting a morale.

Stories of people who bargain with the devil in exchange for worldly goods abound. These can be literal exchanges, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown" or W. B. Yeats's "The Countess Cathleen." This concept can also be treated thematically, as it is in such works as William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Herman Melville's Moby Dick. These tales illustrate, without evoking supernatural deals, characters whose obsessions drive them to sacrifice all the goodness in their lives.

In many ways, Marlowe's plays typify attitudes in Renaissance England. The intellectual and aesthetic rebirth known as the Renaissance began in Italy during the 14th century and, in the next two centuries, spread new ideas throughout Europe. Three aspects of Renaissance culture—Humanism, Individualism, and the New Science—figure as prominent themes in Marlowe's play.

Rejecting medieval social and religious attitudes, Renaissance Humanists privileged individual over collective values. Humanism encouraged people to realize their happiness and potential in this, the material world, rather than focusing solely on eternal happiness in the afterlife. By freeing intellectual inquiry from the confines of theology, a scientific revolution known as the "New Science" took place. The influence of Galileo and Copernicus spread. Thinkers like Francis Bacon, who emphasized the observation of nature over study of traditional writings about nature, developed what we recognize today as the scientific method.

Finally, the era's social, political, and economic changes meant that even people without a title or inherited wealth could advance in society. This led to the rise of the strong, ambitious personality type that characterized an upwardly mobile Renaissance individual. Marlowe's heroes epitomize this character type, aspiring to a greatness that extends beyond their current status. This overzealous ambition often results in ruthless and irrational actions; they have the power to make their own choices, yet those choices lead to their downfall. In this sense, Marlowe's work serves to caution the viewer against this kind of behavior.

In many ways, the Renaissance can be seen as a period of the over-achiever, of individuals who aspire for great things which they then struggle to reach. Consider men like Sir Philip Sidney or Sir Walter Raleigh, admired by their age as courtiers, warriors, and poets. Renaissance individuals strove for and sometimes attained ambitious goals: Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world and returned with abundant riches. The period was the first to advance the concept of the self-made man; a person could achieve considerable status through his actions, could raise his social standing through ability and determination. When readers of Machiavelli's The Prince and Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier realized the important role a person's image played in...

(This entire section contains 1828 words.)

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attaining success, they sought to fashion impressive images for themselves either through actions or fabrication. If Faustus typifies the Renaissance hero,Doctor Faustus shows the problems with unbridled individualism. Though Faustus has unlimited power, his actions are juvenile and selfish. He does no good deed, no charitable action, no feat for the good of his fellow human.

Marlowe's first stage success, the two-part Tamburlaine, probably appeared on the London stage in 1587 or 1588. It relates the story of the rise to power of a shepherd who uses military and political strength to dominate an empire. Tamburlaine personifies a Renaissance ideal. The play recounts the story of a self-made man who achieves greatness not through a birthright or inheritance but through skill, determination, and character. The shepherd Tamburlaine's success also stems from his Machiavellian attitudes, however. Though the first part of the play ends with him triumphant, the second part concludes with the hero paying the price for his pride. Still, as an individual, Tamburlaine embodies the expansive optimism of Renaissance society, offering a heroism that fails to acknowledge limitation.

Marlowe's next major play, The Jew of Malta, appeared in 1593. Barabas, the protagonist, resembles Tamburlaine in his intense desire for wealth and revenge. In representing the struggle between Barabas, a wealthy Jew, and Malta's Catholic elite, Marlowe offers a world in which values are corrupted by materialism and a ruthless, scheming manner of human relations. In Marlowe's day, religious conflict permeated English society, which viewed Catholics and Jews with suspicion. Though the two plays differ, scholars believe that The Jew of Malta influenced Shakespeare's treatment of similar themes in The Merchant of Venice.

Marlowe continued to blend ambition and Machiavellianism in Edward II, recognized by many as the first great history play written in English. Different from earlier works, the play shifts focus from a single character to several complex relationships, a sign of Marlowe's advancing skill at weaving numerous plot threads. Marlowe telescopes more than two decades of history into the play, which alternates tragedy with comedy and lyricism. Echoes of Edward II appear in Shakespeare's Richard II.

Marlowe based Doctor Faustus on tales of a scholar and magician, Johann Faust, who allegedly sold his soul to the devil so that he might gain immense power. Marlowe found in this tale a parallel to the themes he explores in his previous three plays. In Faustus, however, he found a character whose thirst for power results in the most terrible price—the loss of his eternal soul. The story also offered Marlowe a framework with which to examine the society in which he lived.

During the Renaissance, people realized that education offered economic opportunities. Still, then as now, professors and pedants were often sources of comedy, and some critics see Doctor Faustus as a satire of popular images of Humanist scholars. In some ways, Faustus's strengths as a scholar actually contribute to his downfall as a man. In that sense, the play can be seen not only as a critique of Humanism, but also of empiricism and the New Science generally.

Ironically, the fall of Faustus, a scholar and student of logic, comes in the end from his narrow understanding of logic in general and of the syllogism in particular. A syllogism consists of two statements which, if both true, make a third true. The most famous syllogism is "Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore, Socrates is mortal." If either of the first two statements is not universally true, the conclusion must be false.

In the play's first act, as Faustus plans future subjects for study, he rejects several—philosophy, law, medicine—before considering theology. He quotes the scripture of John, which indicates that the wages of sin is death (damnation), then realizes that all people sin and therefore that damnation is inevitable. "We must sin, and so consequently die./Ay, we must die an everlasting death." He terms this "hard," and then decides, if damnation cannot be avoided, to seek power from the devil.

Logically, Faustus's thoughts construct a syllogism. His two general statements—"sin leads to damnation" and "all people sin"—leads to his third—"all people are damned." Faustus has read the quote from John about the wages of sin out of context, however, for the rest of the quote promises mercy for those sinners willing to repent. Further, Faustus is reading (as he notes) Jerome's bible. Protestant Elizabethan England saw this edition, associated with Catholicism, as an erroneous text that altered or eliminated key elements of the Bible. Ironically, then, Faustus, the world's greatest scholar, comes to ruin because of faulty research methods: he misreads an important quote from a source that is untrustworthy.

As the narrative unfolds, Faustus's demands for learning teach him little, and his failure to reconcile empiricism with faith precipitates his downfall. Doctor Faustus is a play about an individual's knowledge of the world and how it relates to his knowledge of himself; it examines knowledge that serves as a means to an end and knowledge that is an end unto itself. This concept can be explained in two parts.

First, Marlowe's play is about knowledge of the world and of the self. For example, Faustus repeatedly demands from Mephistopheles information about natural and spiritual phenomenon, from facts about the planets to facts about hell. Doctor Faustus becomes a play about self-knowledge when the viewer considers Faustus's responses to Mephistopheles' lessons. When Faustus says, "First I will question thee about hell," Mephistopheles defines hell not as physical but psychological, not as a place but "a state of mind." Although Faustus receives this information from an authority (a devil of Hell), he refuses to believe Hell exists, clinging to the notion that Hell is an "old wives' tale." The devil gives Faustus a lesson in the scientific method, which emphasizes learning through direct experience. When Faustus clings to his existing prejudices, Mephistopheles replies, "Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind."

Secondly, the play can be thought of as being about knowledge as a means to an end and knowledge that is an end. Here too, Faustus's understanding is flawed. Faustus's questions of means—such as how the planets move?—lead him to inquire about ends—who created the planets and for what purpose? But when Faustus demands, "Now tell me, who made the world?" Mephistopheles replies, "I will not." Faustus knows the answer and says, "Think, Faustus, upon God, that made the world." Try as he might, though, Faustus cannot repent to this God. Consequently Mephistopheles's information regarding nature cannot give Faustus answers about God that are any different from what he already knew before selling his soul. Faustus's fixation with amassing as much knowledge as he can is not in the service of any goal; he is not learning to accomplish anything.

As a failed practitioner of the scientific method, Faustus refuses to evaluate evidence and experience objectively and instead relies on the prejudices of traditional, and in a sense superstitious, medieval religion. Just as medieval scholars resisted questioning Aristotle's natural science, so Faustus relies on medieval church doctrine. Faustus seeks a physical hell rather than taking Mephistopheles at his word that hell is psychological. If knowledge comes from observation, however, the devil's empirical evidence should be superior to Faustus's book learning. Still, he does not believe.

Source: Arnold Schmidt, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997

The Damnation of Faustus

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In the following essay, Greg examines several aspects of the hero's downfall in Doctor Faustus, particularly how Faustus's pact with Mephistopheles leads not to a rise in grandeur and power, but to mere worldly gratification. Ultimately, the critic claims, Faustus "commits the sin of demonality, that is, bodily intercourse with demons." The quotations are taken from Greg's own collation of the 1604 and 1616 quarto editions of Doctor Faustus.

An English literary scholar and librarian, Greg was a pioneer in establishing modern bibliographical scholarship. Combining bibliographical and critical methods, he developed an approach to editing Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists.

When working lately on the text of Doctor Faustus, I was struck by certain aspects of the story as told in Marlowe's play that I do not remember to have seen discussed in the editions with which I am familiar. I do not pretend to have read more than a little of what has been written about Marlowe as a dramatist, and it may be that there is nothing new in what I have to say, but it seemed worth while to draw attention to a few points in the picture of the hero's downfall, on the chance that they might have escaped the attention of others, as they had hitherto escaped my own.

As soon as Faustus has decided that necromancy is the only study that can give his ambition scope, he seeks the aid of his friends Valdes and Cornelius, who already are proficients in the art—

Their conference will be a greater help to me/Than all my labours, plod I ne'er so fast.

Who they are we have no notion: they do not appear in the source on which Marlowe drew—"The historie of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus ... according to the true Copie printed at Franckfort, and translated into English by P. F. Gent."—and Cornelius is certainly not the famous Cornelius Agrippa, who is mentioned in their conversation. But they must have been familiar figures at Wittenberg, since on learning that Faustus is at dinner with them, his students at once conclude that he is "fallen into that damned art for which they two are infamous through the world." The pair are ready enough to obey Faustus' invitation, for they have long sought to lead him into forbidden ways. "Know", says Faustus—

Know that your words have won me at the last/ To practise magic and concealed arts./blockquote>

At the same time, though they are his "dearest friends," he is anxious not to appear too pliant, adding, a little clumsily (if the 1604 text is to be trusted)

Yet not your words only, but mine own fantasy,

and he makes it plain that he is no humble seeker after instruction, but one whose personal fame and honour are to be their main concern—

Then, gentle friends, aid me in this attempt, And I, that have with concise syllogisms Gravelled the pastors of the German church, And made the flowering pride of Wittenberg Swarm to my problems, as the infernal spirits On sweet Musaeus when he came to hell, Will be as cunning as Agrippa was, Whose shadows made all Europe honour him.

His friends are content enough to accept him on these terms. Valdes, while hinting that common contributions deserve common rewards—

Faustus, these books, thy wit, and our experience Shall make all nations to canonize us—

paints a glowing picture of the possibilities before them, adding however—in view of what follows a little ominously—

If learned Faustus will be resolute.

Reassured on this score, Cornelius is ready to allow Faustus pride of place—

Then doubt not, Faustus, but to be renowned, And more frequented for this mystery Than heretofore the Delphian oracle—

but only on condition that the profits of the enterprise are shared—

Then tell me, Faustus, What shall we three want

However, it soon appears that for all their sinister reputation the two are but dabblers in witchcraft. They have, indeed, called spirits from the deep, and they have come—

The spirits tell me they can dry the sea And fetch the treasure of all foreign wracks, Yea, all the wealth that our forefathers hid Within the massy entrails of the earth—

but they have made no use of this knowledge, they have never become the masters—or the slaves—of the spirits. Even to raise them they must, of course, have run a mortal risk—

Nor will we come unless he use such means/Wherby he is in danger to be damned—

but they have been careful not to forfeit their salvation for supernatural gifts; they have never succumbed to the temptation of the spirits or made proof of their boasted powers. Nor do they mean to put their own art to the ultimate test. When Faustus eagerly demands,

Come, show me some demonstrations magical,

Valdes proves himself a ready teacher—

Then haste thee to some solitary grove, And bear wise Bacon's and Albanus' works, The Hebrew Psalter, and New Testament, And whatsoever else is requisite We will inform thee ere our conference cease—

and guarantees to make him proficient in the art—

First I'll instruct thee in the rudiments/And then wilt thou be perfecter than I

Knowing the depth of Faustus' learning, and satisfied of his courage and resolution, they are anxious to form a partnership with one whose potentialities as an adept so far exceed their own. But Cornelius leaves us in no doubt of their intention to use Faustus as a cat's-paw rather than run into danger themselves—

Valdes, first let him know the words of art, /And then, all other ceremonies learned, /Faustus may try his cunning by himself.

The precious pair are no deeply versed magicians welcoming a promising beginner, but merely the devil's decoys luring Faustus along the road to destruction. They serve their purpose in giving a dramatic turn to the scene of his temptation, and except for a passing mention by the students, we hear no more of them.

Faustus goes to conjure alone, and alone he concludes his pact with the devil. What use will he make of his hazardously won powers? His dreams, if self-centred, are in the heroic vein:

Oh, what a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honour, and omnipotence, Is promised to the studious artizan! All things that move between the quiet poles Shall be at my command, emperors and kings Are but obeyed in their several provinces, But his dominion that exceeds in this Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man: A sound magician is a demi-god.

More than mortal power and knowledge shall be his, to use in the service of his country:

Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, Resolve me of all ambiguities? Perform what desperate enterprise I will ... I'll have them read me strange philosophy And tell the secrets of all foreign kings; I'll have them wall all Germany with brass, And chase the Prince of Parma from our land.

Whatever baser elements there may be in his ambition, we should, by all human standards, expect the fearless seeker after knowledge and truth, the scholar weary of the futilities of orthodox learning, to make at least no ignoble use of the power suddenly placed at his command.

Critics have complained that instead of pursuing ends worthy of his professed ideals, Faustus, once power is his, abandons these without a qualm, and shows himself content to amuse the Emperor with conjuring tricks and play childish pranks on the Pope; and they have blamed this either on a collaborator, or on the fact of Marlowe's work having been later overlaid and debased by another hand.

The charge, in its crudest form, involves some disregard of the 1616 version, which is not quite as fatuous as its predecessor, but in broad outline there is no denying its justice. As to responsibility: it is of course obvious that not all the play as we have it is Marlowe's. For my own part, however, I do not believe that as originally written it differed to any material extent from what we are able to reconstruct from a comparison of the two versions in which it has come down to us. And while it is true that the middle portion, to which objection is mostly taken, shows little trace of Marlowe's hand, I see no reason to doubt that it was he who planned the whole, or that his collaborator or collaborators, whoever he or they may have been, carried out his plan substantially according to instructions. If that is so, for any fundamental fault in the design Marlowe must be held responsible.

The critics' disappointment is quite natural. Although it is difficult to see how any dramatist could have presented in language and dramatic form the revelation of a knowledge beyond the reach of human wisdom, there is no question that much more might have been done to show the wonder and uphold the dignity of the quest, and so satisfy the natural expectation of the audience. Marlowe did not do it; he deliberately turned from the attempt. Instead he showed us the betrayal of ideals, the lapse into luxury and buffoonery.

And what, in the devil's name, would the critics have? I say "in the devil's name," because all that happens to Faustus once the pact is signed is the devil's work: "human standards" are no longer relevant. Who but a fool, such a clever fool as Faustus, would dream that any power but evil could be won by a bargain with evil, or that truth could be wrung from the father of lies? "All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," is indeed an aphorism to which few Elizabethans would have subscribed; but Marlowe knew the nature of the power he put into the hands of his hero and the inevitable curse it carried with it.

Of course, Faustus' corruption is not a mechanical outcome of his pact with evil. In spite of his earnest desire to know truth, and half-hidden in the Marlowan glamour cast about him, the seeds of decay are in his character from the first—how else should he come to make his fatal bargain? Beside his passion for knowledge is a lust for riches and pleasure and power. If less single-minded, he shares Barabbas' thirst for wealth—

I'll have them fly to India for gold, Ransack the ocean for orient pearl, And search all corners of the new-found world For pleasant fruits and princely delicates...

Patriotism is a veil for ambition: he will

chase the Prince of Parma from our land And reign sole king of all our provinces... I'll join the hills that bind the Afric shore And make that country continent to Spain, And both contributary to my crown: The Emperor shall not live but by my leave, Nor any potentate in Germany.

His aspiration to be "great emperor of the world" recalls Tamburlain's vulgar desire for "The sweet fruition of an earthly crown."

But Faustus' ambition is not thus limited; the promptings of his soul reveal themselves in the words of the Bad Angel:

Be thou on earth, as Jove is in the sky/Lord and commander of these elements.

If there is a sensual vein in him, it is hardly seen at this stage; still his demand to "live in all voluptuousness" anticipates later desires—

Whilst I am here on earth let me be cloyed With all things that delight the heart of man; My four and twenty years of liberty I'll spend in pleasure and in dalliance—

and it may be with shrewd insight that Valdes promises "serviceable" spirits,

Sometimes like women or unwedded maids/Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows /Than in the white breasts of the Queen of Love.

But when all is said, this means no more than that Faustus is a man dazzled by the unlimited possibilities of magic, and alive enough to his own weakness to exclaim:

The god thou serv'st is thine own appetite...

After Faustus has signed the bond with his blood, we can trace the stages of a gradual deterioration. His previous interview with Mephostophilis struck the note of earnest if slightly sceptical inquiry with which he entered on his quest:

This word Damnation terrifies not me/ For I confound hell in Elizium: /My ghost be with the old philosophers!

He questions eagerly about hell, and the spirit replies:

Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it: Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, Am not tormented with ten thousand hells In being deprived of everlasting bliss... FAU • What, is great Mephostophilis so passionate For being deprived of the joys of heaven, Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude, And scorn those joys thou never shalt possess.

After the bond is signed the discussion is renewed, but while the devil loses nothing in dignity of serious discourse, we can already detect a change in Faustus; his sceptical levity takes on a more truculent and jeering tone. Asked "Where is the place that men call hell?" Mephostophilis replies:

Within the bowels of these elements, Where we are tortured and remain for ever. Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed In one self place, but where we are is hell, And where hell is, there must we ever be: And to conclude, when all the world dissolves And every creature shall be purified, All places shall be hell that is not heaven. FAU: Come, I think hell's a fable. MEPH.: Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind... FAU.: Think'st thou that Faustus is so fond to imagine That after this life there is any pain? Tush! these are trifles and mere old wives' tales. MEPH.: But I am an instance to prove the contrary; For I tell thee I am damned and now in hell. FAU.: Nay, and this be hell, I'll willingly be damned: What sleeping, eating, walking, and disputing!

In the next scene there follows the curiously barren discussion on astronomy. It has probably been interpolated and is not altogether easy to follow, but the infernal exposition of the movements of the spheres calls forth an impatient,

These slender questions Wagner can decide and at the end Mephostophilis' sententions Per inaequalem motum respectu totius and Faustus' half-satisfied Well, I am answered! leave in the mouth the taste of dead-sea fruit.

The quarrel that follows on the spirit's refusal to say who made the world leads to the intervention of Lucifer and the "pastime" of the Seven Deadly Sins. There seems to me more savour in this than has sometimes been allowed; still it is a much shrunken Faustus who exclaims: "Oh, this feeds my soul!"

He had been no less delighted with the dance of the devils that offered him crowns and rich apparel on his signing the bond: we do not know its nature, but from his exclamation,

Then there's enough for a thousand souls!

when told that he may conjure up such spirits at will, we may perhaps conclude that it involved a direct appeal to the senses. That would, at least, accord with his mood soon afterwards; for while it would be rash to lay much stress on his demanding "the fairest maid in Germany, for I am wanton and lascivious" (this being perhaps an interpolation) we should allow due weight to Mephostophilis' promise:

I'll cull thee out the fairest courtesans And bring them every morning to thy bed; She whom thine eye shall like, thy heart shall have, Were she as chaste as was Penelope, As wise as Saba, or as beautiful As was bright Lucifer before his fall.

So far Faustus has not left Wittenberg, and emphasis has been rather on the hollowness of his bargain in respect of any intellectual enlightenment than on the actual degradation of his character. As yet only his childish pleasure in the devil-dance and the pageant of the Sins hints at the depth of vulgar triviality into which he is doomed to descend. In company with Mephostophilis he now launches forth into the world; but his dragon-flights

To rind the secrets of astronomy /Graven in the book of Jove's high firmament, and to prove cosmography,/ That measures coasts and kingdoms of the earth, only land him at last in the Pope's privy-chamber to take some part of holy Peter's feast, and live with dalliance in the view /Of rarest things and royal courts of kings.

It is true that in the fuller text of 1616 the rescue of "holy Bruno," imperial candidate for the papal throne, lends a more serious touch to the sheer horse-play of the Roman scenes in the 1604 version, and even the "homing" episode at the Emperor's court is at least developed into some dramatic coherence; but this only brings out more pointedly the progressive fatuity of Faustus' career, which in the clownage and conjuring tricks at Anhalt sinks to the depth of buffoonery.

If, as may be argued, the gradual deterioration of Faustus' character and the prostitution of his powers stand out less clearly than they should, this may be ascribed partly to Marlowe's negligent handling of a theme that failed to kindle his wayward inspiration, and partly to the ineptitude of his collaborator. But the logical outline is there, and I must differ from Marlowe's critics, and believe that when he sketched that outline Marlowe knew what he was about.

Another point to be borne in mind is that there is something strange and peculiar, not only in Faustus' situation, but in his nature. Once he has signed the bond, he is in the position of having of his own free will renounced salvation. So much is obvious. Less obvious is the inner change he has brought upon himself. Critics have strangely neglected the first article of the infernal compact: "that Faustus may be a spirit in form and substance." Presumably they have taken it to mean merely that he should be free of the bonds of flesh, so that he may be invisible at will, invulnerable, and able to change his shape, ride on dragons, and so forth. But in this play "spirit" is used in a special sense. There is, of course, nothing very significant in the fact that, when the "devils" dance before him, Faustus asks:

But may I raise such spirits when I please? that he promises to make my spirits pull His churches down and bids Mephostophilis Ay, go, accursed spirit to ugly hell! or that the latter speaks of the devils as Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer—

though it is noticeable how persistently devils are called spirits in the play, and it is worth recalling that in the Damnable Life Mephostophilis is regularly "the Spirit." What is significant is that when Faustus asks "What is that Lucifer, thy lord?" Mephostophilis replies:

Arch-regent and commander of all spirits.

which Faustus at once interprets as "prince of devils;" and that the Bad Angel, in reply to Faustus' cry of repentance, asserts:

Thou art a spirit; God cannot pity thee.

—a remark to which I shall return. And if there could be any doubt of the meaning of these expressions, we have the explicit statement in the Damnable Life that Faustus' "request was none other than to become a devil." Faustus then, through his bargain with hell, has himself taken on the infernal nature, although it is made clear throughout that he still retains his human soul.

This throws a new light upon the question, debated throughout the play, whether Faustus can be saved by repentance. Faustus, of course, is for ever repenting—and recanting through fear of bodily torture and death—and the Good and Bad Angels, who personate the two sides of his human nature, for are ever disputing the point:

FAU.: Contrition, prayer, repentance, what of these? GOOD A.: Oh, they are means to bring thee unto heaven. BAD A: Rather illusions, fruits of lunacy and again: GOOD A: Never too late, if Faustus will repent. BAD A: If thou repent, devils will tear thee in pieces. GOOD A: Repent, and they shall never raze thy skin.

There are two passages that are particularly significant in this respect: and we must remember, as I have said, the double question at issue—Faustus' nature, and whether repentance can cancel a bargain. First then, the passage from which I have already quoted:

GOOD A.: Faustus, repent; yet God will pity thee. BAD A: Thou art a spirit; God cannot pity thee. FAU.: Who buzzeth in mine ears, I am a spirit' Be I a devil, yet God may pity me; Yes, God will pity me if I repent. BAD A.: Ay, but Faustus never shall repent.

The Bad Angel evades the issue, which is left undecided. Later in the same scene, when Faustus calls on Christ to save his soul, Lucifer replies with admirable logic:

Christ cannot save thy soul, for he is just:/ There's none but I have interest in the same.

Thus the possibility of Faustus' salvation is left nicely poised in doubt—like that of the arch-deacon of scholastic speculation.

It is only when, back among his students at Wittenberg, he faces the final reckoning that Faustus regains some measure of heroic dignity. Marlowe again takes charge. But even so the years have wrought a change. His faithful Wagner is puzzled:

I wonder what he means; if death were nigh, He would not banquet and carouse and swill Among the students, as even now he doth.

This is a very different Faustus from the fearless teacher his students used to know, whose least absence from the classroom caused concern—

I wonder what's become of Faustus, that was/ wont to make our schools ring with sicprobo.

One good, or at least amiable, quality—apart from a genuine tenderness towards his students—we may be tempted to claim for him throughout: a love of beauty in nature and in art:

Have not I made blind Homer sing to me Of Alexander's love and Oenon's death? And hath not he that built the walls of Thebes With ravishing sound of his melodious harp Made music—

and the climax of his career is his union with the immortal beauty of Helen, to measures admittedly the most lovely that flowed from Marlowe's lyre. Is this sensitive appreciation something that has survived uncorrupted from his days of innocence? I can find no hint of it in the austere student of the early scenes. Is it then some strange flowering of moral decay? It would seem so. What, after all, is that "ravishing sound" but the symphony of hell?—

Made music—with my Mephostophilis And Helen, what of her?

Here we come, if I mistake not, to the central theme of the damnation of Faustus. The lines in which he addresses Helen are some of the most famous in the language:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships And burnt the topless towers of Ilium, Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss, ... Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips, And all is dross that is not Helena I will be Paris, and for love of thee Instead of Troy shall Wittenberg be smoked; And I will combat with weak Menelaus, And wear thy colours on my plumed crest: Yes, I will wound Achilles in the heel, And then return to Helen for a kiss. Oh, thou art fairer than the evening's air Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars, Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter When he appeared to hapless Semele, More lovely than the monarch of the sky In wanton Arethusa's azured arms; And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

In these lines Marlowe's uncertain genius soared to its height, but their splendour has obscured, and was perhaps meant discreetly to veil, the real nature of the situation. "Her lips suck forth my soul," says Faustus in lines that I omitted from his speech above. What is Helen? We are not told in so many words, but the answer is there, if we choose to look for it. When the Emperor asks him to present Alexander and his paramour before the court, Faustus (in the 1604 version) laboriously explains the nature of the figures that are to appear:

My gracious lord, I am ready to accomplish your request so far forth as by art and power of my spirit I am able to perform ... But, if it like your grace, it is not m my ability to present before your eyes the true substantial bodies of those two deceased princes, which long since are consumed to dust ... But such spirits as can lively resemble Alexander and his paramour shall appear before your grace in that manner that they best lived in, in their most flourishing estate.

He adds (according to the 1616 version):

My lord, I must forewarn your majesty That, when my spirits present the royal shapes Of Alexander and his paramour, Your grace demand no questions of the king, But in dumb silence let them come and go.

This is explicit enough; and as a reminder that the same holds for Helen, Faustus repeats the caution when he presents her to his students: Be silent then, for danger is in words.

Consider, too, a point critics seem to have overlooked, the circumstances in which Helen is introduced the second time. Urged by the Old Man, Faustus has attempted a last revolt; as usual he has been cowed into submission, and has renewed the blood-bond. He has sunk so low as to beg revenge upon his would-be saviour—

Torment, sweet friend, that base and aged man,/ That durst dissuade me from thy Lucifer, /With greatest torments that our hell affords.

And it is in the first place as a safeguard against relapse that he seeks possession of Helen—

One thing, good servant, let me crave of thee To glut the longing of my heart's desire; That, I may have unto my paramour That heavenly Helen which I saw of late, Whose sweet embraces may extinguish clear Those thoughts that may dissuade me from my vow, And keep mine oath I made to Lucifer.

Love and revenge are alike insurances against salvation. "Helen" then is a "spirit," and in this play a spirit means a devil. In making her his paramour Faustus commits the sin of demoniality, that is, bodily intercourse with demons.

The implication of Faustus' action is made plain in the comments of the Old Man and the Angels. Immediately before the Helen episode the Old Man was still calling on Faustus to repent—

Ah, Doctor Faustus, that I might prevail/To guide thy steps into the way of life! (So 1604:1616 proceeds:) Though thou hast now offended like a man, Do not persever in it like a devil: Yet, yet, thou hast an amiable soul, If sin by custom grow not into nature.

But with Faustus' union with Helen the nice balance between possible salvation and imminent damnation is upset. The Old Man, who has witnessed the meeting (according to the 1604 version), recognizes the inevitable:

Accursed Faustus, miserable man, /That from thy soul exclud'st the grace of heaven/ And fliest the throne of his tribunal seat.

The Good Angel does no less:

O Faustus, if thou hadst given ear to me/ Innumerable joys had followed thee / Oh, thou hast lost celestial happiness.

And Faustus himself, still haunted in his final agony by the idea of a salvation beyond his reach—

See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament? /One drop would save my soul.

—shows, in talk with his students, a terrible clarity of vision:

A surfeit of deadly sin, that hath damned both body and soul. Faustus' offence can ne'er be pardoned: the Serpent that tempted Eve may be saved, but not Faustus.

and Mephostophilis echoes him: "Ay, Faustus, now hast thou no hope of heaven"

It would be idle to speculate how far the "atheist" Marlowe, whom gossip accused of what we call "unnatural" vice, may have dwelt in imagination on the direst sin of which human flesh is capable. But in presenting the fall and slow moral disintegration of an ardent if erring spirit, he did not shrink from depicting, beside Faustus' spiritual sin of bartering his soul to the powers of evil, what is in effect its physical complement and counterpart, however he may have disguised it in immortal verse, (pp. 97-107).

Source: W. W Greg, "The Damnation of Faustus," in the Modern Language Review, Vol. XLI, No. 2, April, 1946, pp. 97-107.

Faustus Put On by the Federal Theatre

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In the following review of a 1937 production of The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, which originally appeared in The New York Times on January 9, 1937, Atkinson illustrates how the manner in which the play is staged enhances its effectiveness. Atkinson maintains that the result of the masterful staging in this production "is a Dr. Faustus that is physically and imaginatively alive, nimble, active—heady theatre stuff.''

As drama critic for The New York Times from 1925 to 1960, Atkinson was one of the most influential reviewers in America.

Although the Federal Theatre has some problem children on its hands, it also has some enterprising artists on its staff. Some of them got together at Maxine Elliott's Theatre last evening and put on a brilliantly original production of Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, which dates from 1589. If that sounds like a schoolbook chore to you, be disabused, for the bigwigs of the Federal Theatre's Project 891 know how absorbing an Elizabethan play can be when it is staged according to the simple unities that obtained in the Elizabethan theatres. Every one interested in the imaginative power of the theatre will want to see how ably Orson Welles and John Houseman have cleared away all the imposing impedimenta that make most classics forbidding and how skillfully they have left Dr. Faustus, grim and terrible, on the stage. By being sensible as well as artists, Mr. Welles and Mr. Houseman have gone a long way toward revolutionizing the staging of Elizabethan plays.

Although Dr. Faustus is a short play, consuming hardly more than an hour in the telling, it is not a simple play to produce. It is the story of the eminent German philosopher who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for universal knowledge. Like most Elizabethan plays, it has an irresponsible scenario; it moves rapidly from place to place, vexing the story with a great many short scenes; it includes several incidents of supernaturalism and, of course, it is written in verse.

If the directors had tried to stage Dr. Faustus against descriptive backgrounds it would be intolerably tedious to follow. But they have virtually stripped it of scenery and decoration, relying upon an ingenious use of lights to establish time and place. In the orchestra pit they have built an apron stage where the actors play cheek by jowl with the audience. The vision of the seven deadly sins is shown by puppets in the right-hand box. Upstage scenes are unmasked by curtained walls that can be lifted swiftly. Entrances are made not only from the wings, but from the orchestra pit and from trap doors that are bursting with light and that make small incidents uncommonly majestical.

The result is a Dr. Faustus that is physically and imaginatively alive, nimble, active—heady theatre stuff. As the learned doctor of damnation Orson Welles gives a robust performance that is mobile and commanding, and he speaks verse with a deliberation that clarifies the meaning and invigorates the sound of words. There are excellent performances in most of the parts, notably Jack Carter's Mephistopheles, Bernard Savage's friend to Faustus and Arthur Spencer's impudent servant. There are clowns, church processionals and coarse brawls along the street. Paul Bowles has composed a score which is somewhat undistinguished in itself, although it helps to arouse the illusion of black magic and diabolical conjuration.

Not that Elizabethan dramas have never been staged before under conditions approximating the conventions of Elizabethan theatres. Most of those experiments have a self-conscious and ascetic look to them. But Mr. Welles and Mr. Houseman have merely looked to the script and staged it naturally. In the first place, it is easy to understand, which is no common virtue. In the second place, it is infernally interesting. Dr. Faustus has the vitality of a modern play, and the verse sounds like good, forceful writing. For this is a simple experiment that has succeeded on its merits as frank and sensible theatre, and a good many people will now pay their taxes in a more charitable frame of mind.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, "Faustus Put On by the Federal Theatre" (1937) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp 185-86.


Critical Overview


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