Robert B. Heilman (essay date 1945)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6895

SOURCE: "The Tragedy of Knowledge: Marlowe's Treatment of Faustus," in Quarterly Review of Literature, Vol. II, No. 4, 1945, pp. 316-32.

[In the following essay, Heilman examines the tragic ramifications of Faustus's quest for knowledge.

One of the most attentive of the guests at the Conference of Science, Philosophy, and Religion some years ago was a distinguished Old World thinker who united in one rare mind the achievements of scientist, philosopher, and theologian. Ironically, however, he was the least evident of visitors. Despite his international fame, few of the conferees felt his presence; despite his intellectual venturesomeness, he was but a withdrawing, shadowy figure. Busy delegates looked right through him. Yet they might have had an illuminating word with the eminent Dr. John Faustus, sometime lecturer in the University of Wittenberg.

That Dr. Faustus was present is not of itself surprising, since by nature he was rather a gypsy scholar: in one incarnation or another he had appeared all over the Western world since New Testament times. Why he was present is another matter. It may be imagined that like his master Lucifer he had become bitter and cynical and hence was seeking more converts to his way of life. Or his presence may simply have been part of the torment which he undergoes because in early life he had arrived at a disastrous solution to a philosophical problem—the problem of knowledge.

This is worth noting: Dr. Faustus was a rapt listener during a speech by Mortimer Adler, and once a positive flush replaced Dr. Faustus's characteristic pallor. Mr. Adler was describing college professors:

I say that most of them are positivists. I know that there are enough varieties of positivism to permit the professors to retain their individuality, but I insist that behind the multiplicity of technical jargons there is a single doctrine. The essential point of that doctrine is simply the affirmation of science, and the denial of philosophy and religion.… And, furthermore, I say that the most serious threat to Democracy is the positivism of the professors, which dominates every aspect of modern education and is the central corruption of modern culture. Democracy has much more to fear from the mentality of its teachers than from the nihilism of Hitler.

Dr. Faustus somewhat grimly smiled. For he too had had positivist leanings; he had leaned so far that for one twenty-four-year period he would have scorned such a Conference. But now he was here, and the recurrent issue was up again: the problem of knowledge. And Mr. Adler was trying to tell the professors what Faustus himself had learned. Ironic indeed.

It is unquestionable that on this occasion Faustus thought of Christopher Marlowe, for it was the Renaissance Englishman who had so understandingly traced his approach to the problem of knowledge. That had been three hundred and fifty years before the Adler speech. These years, it doubtless occurred to Faustus, were the summer and autumn of what Spengler had called the "Faustian" age. A flash of perverse pride may have warmed the Doctor as he recalled Spengler's phrase for him: "the portrait of a whole Culture." Hence he may well have admired Marlowe as the possessor of prophetic insight.

But Faustus fades away and easily eludes us; his characteristic restlessness impels him to new scenes. So it is to the concrete expression of Marlowe's play that we must turn for further light on the old scholar. Marlowe wrote in times when the problem of knowledge was undergoing radical revaluation, just as it is in these latter days. What, then, does he say about the professor who,...

(This entire section contains 6895 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

in Adler's words, had experimented with "the affirmation of science, and the denial of philosophy and religion?" In one sense, of course, he doesn't "say" anything; he simply retells a familiar story. But this story might be merely a homiletic melodrama instead of a tragic drama, and as such it would "say" something quite different from what it does. The key to the difference lies in certain aspects of the structure of the play, but especially in the imagery.

In Scene I Faustus immediately attacks the problem of knowledge, though he is not directly concerned with the theoretical issue of the validity and limitations of knowledge. Instead he asks about the function or end of the different fields of knowledge. What can they do? What can I by skilled manipulation do with them? Thus he comes indirectly to validity: if knowledge will not serve my ends, I renounce it; it is not knowledge. Here are introduced the terms in which we are to see, in a succession of withering ironies, the Faustian deterioration which is the body of the play. "In place of the Socratic formula, 'Knowledge is virtue,' we have, even in Bacon," says Spengler, "the formula, 'Knowledge is power.'" The Faustus of Marlowe, who was just three years younger than Bacon, begins his spectacular career by inquiring what knowledge is power. Logic means disputing well: "no greater miracle": out with it. In medicine he might effect "some wondrous cure"; but no, he is still "but … a man," and medicine gives him no power over mortality (an early instance of the modern passion for longevity); out with medicine. The law is "servile and illiberal": out with it. And finally, theology underlines human impotence by decreeing everlasting death: "Divinity, adieu!" Faustus's standard of judgment is already suggested by his use of miracle and wondrous: inevitably he must ask, What does magic offer? "… a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence"; "All things … at my command"; "dominion that … / Stretcheth as far as does the mind of man," transcending the petty provincial autocracy of earthly rulers. He embraces magic.


The scene of Faustus's revaluation of knowledge in terms of power is replete with ironies, notably his rejection of Stipendium peccati mors est because it is "hard." I wish, however, to consider only one aspect of the irony—a set of meanings lurking just beneath the surface and intimating the subsequent development of the action. Though he denies Divinity, Faustus says that "necromantic books are heavenly" and that "A sound magician is a mighty god"; hence he may hope to "gain a deity." Now this preoccupation with the celestial, which comes to be one of the main realities in Faustus's language, suggests even an initial ambivalence in the Faustian experience. On the one hand he is, so to speak, positivizing the religious tradition: heaven is on this earth, and divinity inheres in man—ultimately to become familiar metaphors of a rationalistic world (Faustus is not—at least not yet—at that level of triviality at which divine and heavenly are required to qualify a garment or a dish). Magicians' operations he calls "metaphysics"—that is, a kind of super-physics: science is wonderful, it controls nature, and thus it makes man divine. Indeed, the Evil Angel says just that in encouraging Faustus in the art which contains "Nature's treasure" and which thus can make him "Lord and commander of these elements." This is the modern view of the laboratory as Olympus. On the other hand, Faustus's choice of metaphors has still deeper implications: he has to describe his aspirations in terms of supra-sensual being. The denied reality still lurks in the underlayers of his mind; otherwise his anticipated glories would find a different terminology. This reading is strengthened by the emergence from the Faustian depths of another pre-positivist concept, again in an apparently casual triad of images which betray more than they assert. Faustus thinks for a moment that he may be "eternis'd for some wondrous cure"; he contemplates the possibility that medicine might "make men to live eternally"; he notes the doctrine, "We must die an everlasting death." In one sense he is doing with eternity as with divinity—secularizing it, like the Elizabethan sonnetteers or the modern purveyors of vitamin immortality. But again the ambiguity is inescapable: deep in a subsurface stratum the concept of eternity is active, waiting to be dealt with, foreshadowing its later emergence. For in Faustus we have not only the professor but also Everyman, proclaiming with assurance the autonomy of the mind or the will, but likewise compelled to negotiate with certain diffidences to which humanity is heir. Only in such terms is Faustus literary material, since the professor as professor, who necessarily has had but little place in literature, moves only within a few restricted certitudes.

The intimations of how Faustus will develop become more marked in the second soliloquy, after the lines of the Good and Evil Angels. With unrestricted enthusiasm he envisages his heroic exercise of power-knowledge; he will have gold, pearls, delicacies, military and political distinction; in the century of world wars it will seem suitable enough that the master scientist's climatic feat will be the invention of "stranger engines for the brunt of war." But in the midst of those lines come several that may seem puzzling because they are all fantasy and irrationality: Faustus will wall Germany with brass, make the Rhine circle Wittenberg, fill the schools with silk. But in these lines, which we might be tempted to dismiss as a flight of rhetoric, are the key to the passage. Here Faustus is in a very ecstasy of omnipotence, with which the furious drive of the other lines is consistent: his spirits will "fly" to India, carry out any "desperate enterprise," "ransack" the ocean and "all corners" of America. Marlowe is presenting dramatically the autonomous will and its functioning. Earlier we saw Faustus as intellectual, analyzing, though with an emotional bias, a theoretical situation. Then he makes a decision which is also a release. On the psychological level we see the relief and exhilaration of the adventurer for whom the die is cast. He has knocked off the shackles of belief and tradition. Thus he has freed his will, as the language of the second soliloquy remarkably shows: in his sixty-three opening lines Faustus had not used I once, but now, in twenty lines, he uses I ten times, seven in conjunction with will. The whole tone is that of rampant personality, unfettered individualism. The project bursts with the animal exuberance and desperate excitement of the liberated ago. But the references to the brazen wall and the circling Rhine do more: they point the arbitrariness, the irresponsibility, even the triviality of the individual turned loose in a world centered in his own volition. The vaunt, the egotism of these visions in turn qualify the more "rational" part of Faustus's program, which, to a world just setting out on a conquest of the environment, as well as to a world passionately vain of such conquest, might pass as legitimate enough; but, in this context, militarism and materialism likewise become irresponsible, fantastic, irrational. True, Faustus does want to drive out the alien dictator, the Prince of Parma. But for what? To "reign sole king" himself. And only one line shows a relic of his devotion to philosophy; but what he calls for is "strange" philosophy, fittingly sandwiched between exotic delicacies and the "secrets of all foreign kings." Are not the gossip column and the crossword puzzle foreshadowed? Faustus's mélange of aspirations is the work of an indiscriminate mind, reaching for everything, evaluating nothing.

This soliloquy is the "argument" of the play: a brilliant sketch for the dramatization of "Power doth corrupt." The external plot now begins as Faustus goes on to learn magic from Valdes and Cornelius. He again denies the other fields of knowledge—a shrewd stroke by Marlowe. For, once thoughtful, Faustus now speaks in tones of careless contempt which symbolize his spiritual change. The relish of power runs through the rest of the Scene, in which only two details need our attention. Valdes says their pooled resources and abilities "shall make all nations to canonize us"—another of the metaphors of "success" which give away the insistence of Christian traditions. These experimenters, we might expect, would hope to be masters or heroes; but no, some dim force impels them to thoughts of sainthood. Finally, the visions of grandeur drive Faustus to cry, "This night I'll conjure though I die therefore." The hyperbole is casual, of course, but always the quick words have ironic overtones. This is the fourth direct reference to death in Scene I.

There is abundant evidence of Faustus's large share of "human nature." But one mortal desire finds especially poignant expression in his catalogue of future glories: he will have his spirits "Resolve me of all ambiguities." An end to mortal doubts and hesitancies: he will march straight ahead. In Scene III he grasps with bold certainty at the power conferred by diabolic magic. He is still intoxicated: he can "command great Mephistophilis"; he will build a transoceanic bridge and join Africa to Spain. He is the man of the Age of Science in control of nature, free, for a time at least, from all "ambiguities." Marlowe uses an effective device to underscore Faustus's self-assurance: he sets it ironically against Mephistophilis's pointed acknowledgment of his own subservience "to great Lucifer." But Faustus, swelling with the "pride and insolence" of Lucifer himself, can learn nothing; he rattles on with sophomoric jauntiness about "vain trifles of men's souls" (which to Mephistophilis are not trifling but "glorious") and his disregard for "damnation"; and he asks, with a sort of scientific curiosity, about Mephistophilis's origin. Here the irony of the scene reaches a climax: Mephistophilis, thinking of his Fall, experiences a momentary revival of his old joy in Heaven and thus a sharpened sense of the evilness of his present state (cf. the brief flash of regeneration in Chaucer's Pardoner and the psychology of Boethius and Dante: "There is no greater sorrow than remembering, in misery, the happy times"). This astute complication creates a brilliant paradox: the nearly-omniscient stealer of souls urging Faustus to save his soul; the man with the soul, thinking he is omniscient, sneering at both advice and adviser. The very tools used by conquering man cry out their own inadequacy and urge him to find less "frivolous" ways to wisdom and salvation. Callow man will not hear. "Give me my twenty-four years," he says, "and you can have your eternity." He has learned all about the pie in the sky.

But Scene III has other complications. Faustus, it is clear, is jaunty rather than poised; he gestures somewhat, and does not wholly master the situation. His phrase "desperate thoughts" suggests his consciousness of role. He is concealing something, not from us, but from himself. His language again shows traces of concepts that he cannot vanquish. Eternity, though it appears only once directly, is implied in the lines which show his inability to get Heaven out of his mind. He tosses overboard "the joys of Heaven," but the words of conjuring are "heavenly." And the transition from Heaven to heavens is not too difficult, as we shall see later. "Had I as many souls as there be stars," he cries; he proposes to "make the moon drop from her sphere"; he identifies the occasion of his conjuring by references to "Orion," "sky," and "welkin"; his magic materials include "Figures of every adjunct to the Heavens, / And characters of signs and erring stars." Faustus is too widely learned a man to need to draw images from astronomy alone, and his choice therefore indicates a subconscious drift toward the regions associated with divinity. But still we have here only a slight indication of an associative reflex that later operates unmistakably.

Further, Faustus conceals from himself a certain logical confusion, an ironic reminder of his denial of Logic in Scene I. In calling souls "vain trifles" he presumably denies their reality and the reality of everlasting life. But he will not be consistent: he denies only the unpleasant eternity, hell. Hell is really Elysium, he suggests, an interpretation prepared for by his reference in Scene I to Musaeus among the shades. One mythology is "true"; another is not. Faustus is the self-comforting eclectic.

His unadmitted intention to have it both ways appears more sharply in the beginning of the conjuring scene. His decision to use magic is a denial of God: yet in the very act of conjuring he calls upon God himself—numen triplex Jehovae, per Jehovam, and, further, upon the "breviated names of holy saints," consecratum aquam, and signum crucis. Mephistophilis appears and almost immediately acknowledges God, both in so many words and by his account of the rejection of the rebellious Angels from Heaven. The symbolic quality of the scene presses upon us: from phrase after phrase Faustus could learn that the new realm which he is entering, for the nonce as master, is not independent but subject. He is not escaping bondage but accepting an inferior degree of vassalage. For instance, he has "Jehovah's name, / Forward and backward anagrammatis'd"; surely, unless it is verbalistic mumbo-jumbo, this should suggest to Faustus that he is not unearthing a new reality but only making some allerations in nomenclature. But a vision of immediate power intoxicates him; he is no longer concerned with bene disserere, else he might achieve wisdom. Instead, he rejects the higher knowledge, which exacts discipline, for the lower, which promises power.


The scholar turned positivist, we see, verges on the power-politician. Now in the extravagant passions of a conqueror is only melodrama, not tragedy. But Faustus, we have seen, is confused, though hitherto only subliminally. What thus far has appeared overtly only as blindness to evidence and in the persistence of certain images soon bursts forth in open conflict. The first intoxication subsides, the hidden doubts are exposed, Superman melts into Everyman, and the material of tragedy emerges. Fortunately for art, Faustus was not resolved of all his ambiguities.

In Scene V the knowledge that Faustus had rejected begins to reassert its strength: he cannot make his rejection stick. We need not trace the details of the conflict in the early part of the Scene, Faustus's inability, on one hand, to forget "God or Heaven," and, on the other, his positivist reassurances that these are "vain fancies" and that he is "safe." What is most interesting in V is the middle part, which is an ironic annotation of Faustus's earlier phrase, "vain trifles of men's souls." Here are two more invitations to Faustus to exercise his logic. Mephistophilis's intensely earnest desire to secure his soul ought to lead Faustus to reconsider his original evaluation of the soul, since the alternative is to consider Mephistophilis a fool. Again, Faustus might find light in his extraordinary difficulty in legally conveying his soul—a vivid scene which, while good thriller for the pit, is also full of symbolism: why should a "trifle" create such difficulty? Faustus does not reach the obvious conclusion because he has discarded his powers of judgment. Discarded, but not destroyed. For again his subconscious is at work, and here it leaps forth in the white light of Faustus's phrase after the transfer: Consummatum est. These are Christ's words just before His death on the cross. What we grasp first is the irony: whereas Christ gave up an earthly life to save men's souls, Faustus gives up his soul for earthly life—the secular ordeal of the Faustian era. But these words are more than a pointing of irony: embodying as they do the cardinal doctrine of redemption and hence of everlasting life, they continue the imagery which indicates that Faustus's subconscious, here barely suppressed, is endeavoring to shape his ends. He has increasingly greater difficulty in disregarding a vital part of himself. Until now he has been presented with constant external evidence, such as Mephistophilis's worldview, that should sharpen his thinking; here there comes from within a momentary insight, a resumption of the whole man's doctrine of good and evil. God, he thinks, will throw him "down to hell," which is not now "confounded" with Elysium. As he sees an "inscription on mine arm," it is clear that Faustus's efforts at repression have had the familiar result: neurosis. Mephistophilis and the devils rush up with the equally familiar remedy: distraction—here the material profits of the bargain. (At the end of the "Faustian" culture we have whole "enterprises" devoted to the arts of distraction.)

Overtones of "business" increase: Faustus executes a formal contract with Mephistophilis. Virtually a parody of a business agreement, it admirably gives the tone of a quid-pro-quo world and at the same time, so to speak, dramatizes a pun: we go from the world of redemption to the caveat emptor world. We see, in more familiar words, the substitution of a contractual for an organic social order, an insight amply corroborated by history. We see, too, a continuation of the psychological analysis: a contractual order, which allows man no firm supports in an instinctive way of life, correspondingly exacts too much of him at the conscious, rational level. The devil says, "There's one born every minute"; man proves it by trying to write airtight contracts; but the excessive vigilance leaves him worn out. Deprived of the stability afforded by the deeper roots of an organic life, he needs violent stimuli to keep going. Faustus is already in search of stimuli.

But to return to the problem of knowledge, which becomes increasingly important from Scene V on. Faustus continues to be haunted by the kind of knowledge he has repeatedly rejected; he denies hell but will keep on asking about it. Even Mephistophilis's answers keep bringing Faustus back to an inescapable world: hell is "under the heavens," and whatever "is not Heaven" is hell. When he is given books on magic, Faustus requests special knowledge of two kinds: knowledge of the heavens, and knowledge of all plants, herbs, trees. Of the latter we never hear again, but the former is constantly before our eyes.

I have stressed the recurrence of Heaven and kindred words because of their symbolic value: they represent first what is consciously rejected; then the emergence, in disguised form, of the suppressed knowledge; finally the recrudescence of the original philosophical problem. The final stage appears first in Scene VI, which Faustus opens thus: "When I behold the heavens, then I repent." But he is not up to it and can "Scarce … name salvation, faith, or heaven." Mephistophilis, now an unmixed devil and a positivist much more thoroughgoing than Faustus, assures him that Heaven is not glorious, indeed "not half so fair as thou, / Or any man that breathes on earth." But only by a reminiscent savoring of his pleasures, which include hearing Amphion and Homer (a pre-radio and pre-journalistic Faustus could maintain a dignity comportable with tragedy), can he momentarily evade the mood of repentance. Note his devious return to the starting-point: he will "dispute" again. And of what? "Tell me, are there many heavens above the moon?" "How many heavens, or spheres, are there?" But astronomical facts as such—"freshmen's suppositions"—quickly bore him. What we now see is that astronomy is actually the disguise assumed by theology: the bridge between Heaven and heavens is no accident. So the transition to Faustus's next inquiry is clear: "Tell me who made the world." Though coaxed and denounced, Mephistophilis will not do it; he will tell only what "is not against our kingdom; but this is." Here is the intellectual crux of the play. For one thing, Faustus's quest has brought him back to the starting-point: men cannot forget final causes, and all philosophers must return to the same basic questions. But more important, all philosophers cannot answer the same questions, for knowledge depends upon belief. Preconception and point of view qualify learning, and Faustus, as he recognizes, has the wrong premises. He wants science to do the work of philosophy and religion. For the Dante of the Renaissance, Mephistophilis is to be both Virgil and Beatrice. It cannot be. Faustus must fall back on his earlier knowledge: "Think, Faustus, upon God that made the world."

From the agonizing pain of the conflict in belief (he again struggles toward repentance) Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistophilis are all needed to rescue him. As narcotic they parade the Seven Deadly Sins. This is the kind of knowledge ("pastime," they call it) they can offer: not metaphysics, which Faustus had sought, but a rather simple descriptive psychology. They retain the nomenclature of theology, but this is knowledge-for-entertainment, not knowledge-for-virtue. For this feast Faustus promises "never to look to Heaven"—words which show Marlowe adhering closely to the symbolic pattern. One motif in this pattern he repeats very successfully in the lines in which Faustus anticipates the exhibition:

That sight will be as pleasing unto me As Paradise was to Adam the first day Of his creation.

This is consummatum est over again, the image of another moral world, the idyl of man's beginning set off against Faustus's end, Paradise against mortal imperfection, creation against destruction. With the irony of contrast is merged the irony of identity: Adam and Faustus both pursue knowledge by forbidden means. The suggestiveness of the passage is amplified by the inevitable association with the Fall of Lucifer, which Mephistophilis has mentioned in Scenes III and V. In V Mephistophilis had promised Faustus a courtesan "as beautiful/ As was bright Lucifer before his fall." The recurrent note of the Fall, the relationship among Lucifer, Adam, and Faustus, is summarized in Faustus's cry after the parade of the Sins, "O might I see hell and return again./ How happy were I then!" Here is the ignis fatuus of knowledge-seekers: transcendent knowledge and power, with transcendent immunities. But each mode of knowledge makes its own exactions. One cannot deny Beatrice and still be Dante.

This is a crisis in the dramatic action: Faustus makes no more metaphysical inquiries. Only at the end of VI is there a casual reference to his further pursuit of astronomic studies; for all dramatic purposes, Heaven is out. In the foreground of action we see Faustus forgetting about ultimate issues, manipulating his power over the "elements," becoming the master-magician, and deteriorating rapidly. In Scenes VII, X, XI, and XII he collects information worthy of a world almanac, tricks a Pope and a horse-dealer, and does sleight-of-hand for an Emperor and a pregnant Duchess—a vast exercise in triviality. The disjunct episodes combine in a single thematic and symbolic impact: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We have a somewhat less exuberant form of the intoxication of the early part of the play. When there is no consideration of ends, the exercise of power is a monstrous folly; the application of nature-knowledge to the satisfaction of casual desires results in slapstick, bamboozling, and secular miracles for those who can pay. What we have is an ample preview of a gadget civilization. Scenes VIII and IX, the "comic relief," stress the theme by parody: whereas Faustus will have a distinguished courtesan, Ostler Robin will simply have all the parish girls dance "stark naked" before him. Here is the farce of vulgar minds playing with power-knowledge. Analogies will suggest themselves.

The matter of authorship demands attention here. Dr. Paul H. Kocher has shown that the prose parts of Scenes VII-XII, as well as the Seven-Sins part of VI, were probably by Nashe. What strikes us immediately is Nashe's firm grasp of what the play was doing. If he was livening up a too-familiar play for jaded audiences, he at least did it in Marlowe's terms. For the scenes of Faustus's deterioration are dramaturgically necessary; they justify the ways of God to man as exhibited in the final scene. They realize Faustus's phrase "vain pleasures of twenty-four years"; they are a "moral middle" in a play which would otherwise seem too much the mere history of a contract. Nashe's shortcoming is not in what he writes but in the tone: his problem is to present cumulative triviality without becoming trivial. He needs a dramatic indicator of his own critical attitude. Instead he appears to enter too zestfully into the tomfoolery, and in this the regrets of various critics must find their justification. The flaw in tone comes out sharply when we return to Marlowe in XIII.

But the main direction is right. There is even a subtle rightness in the temporary absence of the qualms from which Faustus otherwise suffers. When Faustus sought knowledge, when he was intellectually and nervously on edge, his intense disturbances were inevitable; the more heightened the awareness, the less likely ease and peace; the relationship of scientia and conscientia is not an accident. But the mere exercise of power is a kind of intoxication, a numbing of mind, an anesthetic of inquiry and hesitancy. Only in Scene XI is there a scratch of conscience. Faustus's question, "What, dost think I am a horse-doctor?" is ironically suggestive of his decline. But his excitement is yet too great to allow the consequent dubieties to come to the surface.


In Scenes XIII and XIV we see the end of the Faustus who defined knowledge in terms of power. His final exercise of power for others is giving the scholars a sight of Helen of Troy. It is appropriate that here in the atmosphere of scholarship and inquiry he again experiences severe doubts about his course and has to be forced into line by Mephistophilis. He is on the edge of believing, repenting, and coming to knowledge of grace, but his commitment to knowledge of the "elements" has engendered a habit too difficult to break. His conflict is aptly externalized in his relations with the Old Man who urges him to save his soul. On the edge of renewed insight, and with no more talk of "vain trifles of men's souls," Faustus addresses the Old Man as "sweet friend," but Mephistophilis wins him back, and it is now Mephistophilis who is "sweet friend." The quiet repetition of the vocative works nicely with Faustus's overt change of attitude to the Old Man. "Torment," he says to Mephistophilis, "that base and crooked age." The fury of hatred is exactly right.

Then Mephistophilis calls up Helen for Faustus. This scene is full of complexities—a fitting climax to the episodes in which Faustus pursues intramundane glories. In one sense it is a fine recapitulation of the ironic half-success of Faustus's more recent career: his achievement is always extraordinary but always falls short of desire. His experience with Helen is not unmixed ecstasy: it must "extinguish clean / These thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow." That is, the power that he got by selling out he must now use to help him forget that, and what, he sold out. As before, his gratification is less pleasure per se than narcotic.

Still, Faustus in one respect reaches his most notable achievement. Not only is Helen of a rare, special beauty which appeals to the cultivated taste (the unselected parish girls satisfied Robin), but also she must be seen in historical context. The scholars call her "that peerless dame of Greece": she is a symbol of the humanist world, of all the aspirations implied in the "humanities." For this is not a Puritan play; the play does not deny that that the things of the world are beautiful or that secularism can achieve its own kind of nobility. It is concerned rather with examining whether such doctrine is exclusive, whether Mephistophilis's dictum that Heaven is not "half so fair as thou, / Or any man that breathes on earth" is infinitely valid; of seeing the Faustian achievement in the perspective of the total knowledge available to man. Thus the use of Helen, with her conspicuous ambivalence. For she also represents carnal knowledge, and in Faustus's love of her we find the summation of a theme of which the pervasiveness has been signalized by the recurrent imagery of Heaven. For she is "heavenly Helen." But further: when Faustus's inner demon had led him to seek knowledge of Heaven, Mephistophilis had told him to think of hell. The linking now reappears sharply: "heavenly Helen … / Whose sweet embracings may … / keep mine oath I made to Lucifer." The heavenly binds him to hell; the very words symbolize the confusion in which Faustus is caught. Heaven he had denied, but the heavenly, whether real or spurious, he has never been able to escape in his pursuit of secular glories. Salvation and destruction are closely knotted in a drama which informs all the brilliant imagery of the end of XIII. If actual salvation is now remote, its reflected presence is felt in the terminology of an unforgettable world of redemption, somehow required to express an intensely felt passion and yet always pointing the destructiveness of that passion. Heavenly Helen: the destruction of Troy: Faustus is the modern Troy. Ilium was topless; in the Christian sense, Faustus's soul is topless.

The towers burned; Faustus burns with passion, and he is doomed to a burning hell. Immortal follows logically with a triple function. There is the immortality of fame, that of Menelaus and Paris—and Faustus. Then there is a kind of physical immortality: the ecstasy of Helen's kiss will make the recipient feel deathless. And beneath this is a third immortality: the kiss marks his journey to eternal punishment. In that sense Helen's lips "suck forth my soul," as well as in the immediate sense that he is emotionally and sensually overwhelmed. Thus can "Heaven be in these lips": again both the unsought presence and the spurious eternity. In his essential confusion Faustus wills to "be Paris"—a scarcely noble end for a philosopher who can at the moment recall two of Paris's least heroic exploits; and in his frenzy he brings into the open the theme of destruction which has thus far been latent: Wittenberg shall be sacked like Troy. On one level we see Faustus imaginatively replaying the ancient story in modern dress, with himself as romantic lead. But may not our imaginations also see another sack of Wittenberg, the loss of her most eminent scholar?

Then Faustus breaks into his most startling comparison—of Helen to Jupiter, and, by implication, of himself to the mortal Semele whom Jupiter had loved. Heavenly Helen now becomes divine Helen: we recall that she is the daughter of Jupiter (Zeus), and we are told that she is brighter than her parent. But the image does still more: "hapless Semele" had wished to see Jupiter directly, as hapless Faustus has desired Helen. Semele was destroyed by the brilliant, burning vision—a climax which fits completely into and amplifies the context of the play. Ilium was burned, Wittenberg sacked, and Semele destroyed by "flaming Jupiter." Faustus likewise is destroyed by his fiery vision; the flames of lust are the climax of his passage to the flames of eternal torment. Finally, Helen is "more lovely than the monarch of the sky" (Helios, Apollo) "In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms"—a vivid picture of the blue sky which enfolds the setting sun, and a reminder of an earlier line, "fairer than the evening air." Again we have the theme of divinity (monarch); again the theme of flames, easily suggested by the colors of the sunset; and again the theme of destruction, delicately continued by the implied disappearance of the sunset brilliance into night. So Faustus reaches his most brilliant moment just before destruction.

The imagery of XIII, we see, continues logically from that of earlier scenes: "heavenly Helen," "make me immortal," "suck forth my soul," "Heaven … in those lips," "thousand stars," "Jupiter," "monarch of the skies." Always the Heaven or heavens that had dogged Faustus's pursuit of a knowledge that would deny Heaven. Like the fugitive from the Hound of Heaven, Faustus could say, "I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist." But Faustus's "linked fantasies" did not yield soon enough. After the Helen speech, the Old Man speaks of Faustus as one that "from thy soul exclud'st the grace of Heaven"; in contrast, the Old Man can twice defy Hell and can note "how the heavens smiles" at his own safety from the devils who now come for Faustus.

Scene XIV could be variously studied. There is the effectiveness of the relationship between Faustus and the other scholars. There are the imagery and the psychological devices by which Marlowe expresses the terror and desperation of Faustus. There is the skillful continuation of the earlier erotic imagery in the use of Ovid's O lente, lente currite noctis equi, the lover's prayer for the prolongation of the night and its joys, which becomes, in Faustus's mouth, an ironic understatement of what he has to lose by the passage of time. There are the multifold ironies centering in Faustus's recognition that he must now "die eternally," whereas in Scene I he had given up theology because of the doctrine that "we must die an everlasting death." His cycle of experience is complete: his investigation of the problem of knowledge has brought him back to the starting-point. Knowledge-for-power, the manipulation of the elements, the exercise of magic even with ostensible benevolence—this is not enough. A world-view which does not admit of or provide for other knowledge is fraught with destruction. This Faustus had not believed. He had wished to deny the knowledge that imposed limitations and made exactions, that underscored mortality, and to find a knowledge that promised profits and made no demands more tangible than adherence to certain apparently trivial formulae (the bond). His rationalism, universally recognizable, had two flaws, or rather, one flaw with two faces. He failed to see that the devil's demands were real, that secularism, whatever its profits, has its own consequences. But this blindness is identical with his failure to grasp the essential validity of his original knowledge, which, whatever its consequences, had its own profits. He achieved an empirical confirmation of revealed knowledge—at a rather high price. He could not "return again" from hell.

So Heaven could not be denied; it could only be suppressed. It kept forcing itself upon him obliquely, and at the end it is again a full reality—and unattainable. Its reality is confirmed by the reality of hell. The two poles of experience echo throughout the language of the last Scene: its structure is accentuated by the unremitting antiphony of "joys of Heaven" and "in hell forever." Here is summarized the cumulative force of Heaven and hell as they have recurred throughout the play. Here eternity (eternal, eternally, forever, perpetually) is ringingly in the open, in contrast with its disguised emergence early in the play and with the twenty-four years that once seemed so ample. Here soul, in Scene III only a name for a "trifle," is an index of his restored insight: he uses the word twelve times. But there is now no problem of definition.

Like all tragic figures, Faustus is Everyman, but Faustus has also the special quality, the heroic dimensions essential to the tragic protagonist. He is Everyman as Intellectual, with the axiological choice centered in the problem of knowledge. As Everyman Faustus embodies a perennial human aspiration—to escape inhibitions, to control the universe, to reconstruct the cosmos in naturalistic, non-theistic terms. As intellectual he is also aware of the exploit in its philosophical dimensions. In Everyman the tragic flaw—pride, wilfulness—causes blindness to the nature and destiny of man; in the intellectual, hubris destroys the understanding of the nature and limitations of knowledge. This is the tragedy of knowledge. In such a tragedy the ultimate irony lies in Faustus's last desperate expedient: "I'll burn my books." He will condemn and reject all knowledge: the violent anti-intellectualism bred by all crises. The answer, of course, is not obscurantism but more light, awareness of the ends of knowledge, proper distinctions. To return to the beginning of this article: Faustus's error was in wanting science to do the work of philosophy and religion.

To a world both more sentimental and more skeptical than Marlowe's, the end of Dr. Faustus may seem full of harshness and despair, dictated by a crushingly inflexible orthodoxy. Another impetus to the rejection or ignoring of its implications will come from the historical relativists who will regard the play as a quaint, though vivid, pictorialization of an obsolete world-view; still another from the biographical interpreter to whom the play is but the pulsating metaphor of a personal crisis. But Dr. Faustus is more than personal or historical: it is general in that, much in the manner of Greek drama, it makes a statement about the fundamental quality of human experience. In the suffering of Oedipus, Orestes, and Faustus we see the inevitable form of the recovery from moral and spiritual disequilibrium. Precisely because it believes in that recovery, the play is not bitter or despairing, but, on the contrary, hopeful and reassuring. It vindicates the ability of man to reassume the values of a mythic, transcendental order of existence; it avers, indeed, that he cannot escape them but that he must reassume them, even after experiences luxuriant in that flattery of human ingenuity which is most conducive to humanity's acquiring fatal illusions about its own superhuman power. The happy ending of the tragedy of knowledge is that man knows better than he thinks he knows. The bitter, hopeless ending would be the picture of a successful, complacent, vulgar Faustus—mastering the world and knowing no other truth.


1 I use the fourteen-scene division of Neilson and others.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1197

The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus 1593(?)

In his The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe used the structure of the medieval morality play to reinterpret the nearly century-old legend of Faust, a man who sacrifices his immortal soul in exchange for knowledge and power. Marlowe presented a mythic, archetypal tale of human pride, sin, and fall from grace that has appealed to readers and audiences through the humanist aspirations of the Renaissance, the spiritual explorations of Romanticism, and the skepticism of modernity.

Biographical Information

Marlowe was a well-educated man who was frequently embroiled in religious and political controversy. He studied theology at Cambridge, but in 1587 the university refused to grant his Master of Arts degree, accusing him of visiting a Jesuit seminary in Rheims, France. Marlowe received his degree only after Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council informed the university that he had been at Rheims to spy on exiled English Catholics who were believed to be plotting against the English monarchy. In 1593 officials discovered a blasphemous document in the home of Marlowe's friend and fellow dramatist Thomas Kyd. Facing imprisonment, Kyd claimed the papers belonged to Marlowe. Another acquaintance, Richard Baines, then accused Marlowe of making shockingly blasphemous and atheistic statements when he was a student. A warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest, but before it could be served, he was killed, stabbed to death at age 29. Historians have debunked the popular story that Marlowe was killed in a dispute over "the reckoning," the bill for a night of food and drink at a tavern. In fact, he died in a private house in the company of men who had also been engaged as spies by the Privy Council. These men claimed that Marlowe attacked first, without provocation, and the stabbing was ruled self-defense. Modern reexaminations of the circumstances of Marlowe's death do not support the claim of self-defense, and a variety of theories have arisen to explain why someone might have ordered Marlowe's assassination.

Scholars do not agree on how to interpret the charges of Marlowe's blasphemy and atheism. The reliability of both Kyd and Baines remains a prominent issue. Whether or not Marlowe actually espoused religious heresy may never be known for certain. Nevertheless, commentators do suggest that Marlowe's extensive education in theology, his participation in the bitter conflicts between Catholicism and Protestantism, and his exposure to atheistic doctrines made him uniquely prepared to dramatize the story of a man who rejects Christianity and makes a pact with the devil.

Textual History

The text of Doctor Faustus survives, as Harry Levin wrote, in a "mangled and encrusted form." Marlowe probably wrote the play between 1588 and 1589, following the success of both the first and second parts of his drama Tamburlaine. Doctor Faustus was performed throughout the 1590s before the first edition, now known as the A-text, was published in 1604. A second version, known as the B-text, was published in 1616. These two versions of the play differ substantially. The A-text has speeches that are not in the B-text; the B-text has almost 700 lines that are not in the A-text. Lines that appear in both versions have many verbal differences, both small and large.

Changes may have been made to both versions during theatrical productions by directors or actors transcribing the play text. Further complicating textual matters, the original publisher of the A-text paid two writers named Samuel Rowley and William Bride to make revisions to Doctor Faustus. Because the A-text is know to have been revised, many scholars maintain that the B-text is probably closest to Marlowe's original version. Some critics have treated the texts as two distinct but related literary works, finding political and ideological differences between the two versions.

Furthering complicating the textual history of Doctor Faustus is the probability that a collaborator wrote the comic scenes in Doctor Faustus—scenes that have long been considered different in style and awkwardly inserted into the rest of the play. Elizabethan playwrights regularly collaborated on projects, and they often divided their work by scenes. Word-frequency tests provide strong indications that the comic and tragic scenes were written by different authors, while contradictions within the play indicate that the comic writer did not know all the details of the tragic scenes.

Plot and Major Themes

The character of Faustus, already a renowned scholar and an accomplished physician when the play opens, aspires to vast wealth, physical pleasures, and the power to restore life to the dead. When he realizes that living a good Christian life will not bring him what he desires, he employs magic to invoke the devil. Mephistophilis, an agent of Lucifer, appears and at first advises Faust not to forego the promise of heaven to pursue his goals. Mephistophilis cites his own bitter fate as one "who saw the face of God / And tasted the eternal joys of heaven" before his exile and fall into damnation. Faustus, however, rejects the warnings and willingly exchanges his soul for the supernatural power and knowledge offered in exchange.

The play spans the next twenty-four years of Faustus's life. In the comic scenes most likely written by a collaborator or inserted after Marlowe's death, Faustus visits the Vatican and mocks the Pope, performs magic for continental royalty, and takes revenge on a horse dealer. These scenes are often considered unworthy of the rest of the text as they seem to reduce the longing of a brilliant man to gain forbidden knowledge to an adolescent delight in flouting authority and associating with the rich and powerful. Throughout his life, Faustus is attended by a Good Angel, who begs him to repent while it is still possible, and a Bad Angel, who assures him that he is past salvation and might as well make the best of his bargain. At one point Faustus seems on the point of repentance, but he chooses instead to commit the sin of invoking and carnally embracing Helen of Troy. In the final scene, he confesses to some scholars that he purchased his amazing powers at the expense of eternal damnation, and retires to an inner room to await the appearance of Lucifer and Mephistophilis to claim his soul.

Critical Reception

The greatest controversies surrounding Doctor Faustus have turned on the question of orthodoxy: whether the play serves Protestant theology or subverts it. One school of critical thought holds that reformation theology provides dramatic unity of the play. Douglas Cole argues that Doctor Faustus is "thoroughly Christian in conception and import"; pointing out that Faustus sins knowingly, does not repent, and suffers eternal damnation--a plot that in no way contraverts Christian doctrine. Other commentators emphasize the humanism of the play, interpreting the character of Faustus as a Promethean image representing the aspirations of the Renaissance. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the protagonist does revolt against the limitations of sin and death, and by extension, against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. In a biographically based interpretation, Harry Levin suggests that Marlowe himself, like Faustus, was an "impenitent and wilful miscreant" committed to subverting Christian values. The subversive nature of the play is a common theme of late twentieth century criticism. Many critics now see the drama as raising questions without offering affirmations of either a religious or a humanist nature.

Lily B. Campbell (essay date 1952)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9839

SOURCE: "Doctor Faustus: A Case of Conscience," in PMLA, Vol. LXVII, No. 2, March, 1952, pp. 219-39.

[In the following essay, Campbell characterizes the nature of Faustus's sin as that of despair. She finds parallels in the action of Doctor Faustus with the historical account of a sixteenth-century Italian lawyer named Francesco Spiera, who was charged with heresy and forced to recant his sincerely held religious views.]

[Anyone attempting to write about Doctor Faustus is bound to feel like invoking Sir Edmund Chambers to write another essay of protest, this one on "The Disintegration of Doctor Faustus." So thorough has been the work of the disintegrators that the study of Marlowe's greatest play has come to revolve almost altogether about bibliographical problems. The sections of the play which form the basis for the arguments of this paper are, however, for the most part those which have the authority of both the 1604 and 1616 editions of the play and are those which in general have been conceded to be Marlowe's. I propose, therefore, to disregard bibliographical problems in the main and to accept the edition of Frederick S. Boas in the English Arden series as the basis for my study.]

It is now generally agreed that the prose History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, commonly referred to as the English Faust Book, is the source from which is derived Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Yet, though the main flow of Marlowe's story stems from this source, the total impression left by play and history is very different. There is great poetry to account in part for the difference. There are bursts of eloquence in the magnificent speeches on hell, on the desire for knowledge and power as great as the mind of man may conceive, on the compulsion of Helen's beauty. But these are not enough to account for the grip of the play on all who have known it through the centuries, for the overwhelming sense of the vital importance of what happens in the soul of Faustus, for the terror and pity and awe which the events on the stage produce in the mind of even the most skeptical in the audience.

There is an almost unbearable tenseness apparent in every audience of which I have been a part, no matter how amateurish may be the production. And this tenseness, I suggest, cannot be accounted for by any play which purports, as most critics would have us believe, to show on the stage a man who sells his soul to the devil and then spends his days in intellectual arguments with the devil and undergraduate pranks on his fellowmen until it is time to pay his horrible debt. Surely the suspense which every witness of the play has felt could not be maintained if there were not a continuous uncertainty as to the final outcome of the action.

An uneasy feeling exists among critics that Marlowe's play is not quite a consistent whole; that those parts of the drama not adequately accounted for by the source book, particularly the so-called "morality" scenes, are intrusions. Henslowe's four pounds' worth of additions in 1602 have been called upon to account in part for this lack of unity, but no one is willing to surrender all of this material to the collaborators. Even the most devoted students of Marlowe have confessed themselves perplexed over two points in these scenes. Frederick S. Boas speaks of the "rival admonitions of the good and bad angels" as "a legacy from medieval drama that fits awkwardly into the Marlovian technique." And he notes that there is "another echo of medievalism when Faustus violates his bond by calling upon his saviour, Christ, and when Lucifer, with his attendant devils, appears to rebuke him and, after his promise not to think henceforth of God, to divert him with the pageant of the seven deadly sins."1 Sir Walter Greg lists as "elements that recall the old religious and moral drama," the temptation of a human being by the powers of evil, the diabolical agents, the angels, and the Old Man standing in the place of the "Good Counsel" of the earlier plays. But he is bothered by the fact that Faustus' final speech is "wholly out of key with the 'morality' element, and seems indeed irreconcilable with such a conception."2 In such dissections of Doctor Faustus it seems to me that there are two flaws. One comes from the failure to recognize the influence of the Reformation as well as the Renaissance on the central conception of the play. The other comes from the tendency to attribute to the sixteenth century the rationalization of later centuries.3

The second point that has often disturbed the interpreters of Faustus is the nature of Faustus' sin. It is always recognized that Faustus sold his soul to the devil, but whether his sin has been analyzed as the traditional one of snatching fire from heaven or eating of the forbidden fruit, whether ascribed to the devil's scheming or to Faustus' wilfulness, whether interpreted in accordance with Lutheran or Catholic doctrine, there has been a lingering doubt in the minds of certain critics as to whether Faustus was really a sinner. Thus U. M. Ellis-Fermor says: "The sin for which punishment is meted out to Faustus is more often alluded to than explained. The Old Man in the scene before the last gives a moving description—in purely general terms, however—of

' … such flagitious crimes of hainous sinnes, As no commiseration may expel.'

But he leaves us, nevertheless, wondering to what he is referring. Faustus, as far as we have been able to follow him, has been foolish and frivolous, but never criminal."4 And Boas writes:

It is because Faustus, so far as he appears in the play, spends his time with Mephistophilis chiefly in such discussions [as that on hell] and in the disputation in academical fashion on 'divine astrology' in Act 11.ii.33-67, rather than in all voluptuousness, that there is a sense of unreality in the Doctor's periodical outbursts of repentance and in the rival admonitions of the good and bad angels, … Had Marlowe vouchsafed us a sight of Faustus in his sinful pleasures it would have been a fitter prelude to his fast approaching doom. Goethe two centuries later was wiser in his generation when he exhibited his Faust as the seducer of the simple maiden, Gretchen. (pp. 211, 216)

It may be that Goethe's was a wiser generation, but Marlowe was writing in the sixteenth century, and the sinner whom he depicts sinned and was damned in terms that the century of the Reformation understood. There has been, indeed, a suggestion now and then of another sin of which Faustus was guilty, for as long ago as 1897 Frederick Ives Carpenter, writing on "Spenser's Cave of Despair," noted that in Marlowe's Faustus we have "an entire play in which intense despair is the underlying motive,"5 and Celeste Wine in her study of "Nathaniel Wood's Conflict of Conscience," published in 1935, commented in a footnote that certain scenes in Marlowe's play were concerned with the sin of despair.6 Paul H. Kocher went further in his book Christopher Marlowe, noting that "Faustus makes the fatal error of not going on to see that man, thus condemned by the letter of the law, is redeemed through the sacrifice of Christ if he will have faith in God's mercy and will repent of his sins.… Faustus' inability to repent in the later climactic scenes of the play arises from this failure to believe wholly and passionately in the mercy of God. Dwelling upon the vileness of his sins and thinking that they can never be pardoned, he despairs and is lost."7 But even Kocher has not gone much beyond the Faust Book, where Doctor Faustus is represented as saying: "I have promised the Devil my Soul; and therefore it is but a folly for me to hope for grace, but it must be even with me as with Lucifer, thrown into perpetual burning fire"—while the narrator comments: "In this perplexity lay this miserable Doctor Faustus, having quite forgot his faith in Christ, never falling to repentance truly, thereby to attain the grace and holy Spirit of God again, the which would have been able to have resisted the strong assaults of Satan: for although he had made him a promise, yet he might have remembered through true repentance sinners come again into the favour of God."8

In her recent book on Poetry and Humanism, M. M. Mahood has analyzed at length the play of Doctor Faustus against the background assumption largely derived from Maritain that there are two kinds of humanism, that which "recognizes that the centre of man is God," and that which "believes that man is his own centre, and therefore the centre of all things." She finds in Marlowe's tragic heroes the most complete demonstration of "the Elizabethan experience of humanism's self-destructive nature, which made reintegration a crying need of the next age," and in Doctor Faustus the great example of the consequent "ebb and flow of exultant individualism and despairing fatalism." In Doctor Faustus there are "both contemptuous pride and credulous despair." No one else has recognized so definitely as has Miss Mahood that the "theme of despair dominates the play," and that "the obstacles to Faustus's salvation are raised only by him." But she concludes that "Faustus's despair is pagan and stoical rather than Christian. With Renaissance man, he asserts his self-sufficiency and rejects the grace which is offered him." In fact, she goes so far as to say that in this play "the hero's rebellious pride is the sole obstacle in the way of his return to grace," and compares him with Milton's Satan who "takes refuge in a despair which enables him to picture himself as the victim of an amoral Fate."9 In her brilliant analysis of the intellectual dichotomy of Faustus Miss Mahood writes as though Marlowe rather than Maritain had laid down the premises on which judgment is based. There is nowhere in her study of Faustus a mention of sin. Indeed, there is no attempt to consider the religious significance of the play or any of the sixteenth-century concepts which it embodies.

To me it seems that we cannot understand Faustus' tragical history unless we see it against the background of sixteenth-century thought and story whence it came, and particularly against the background of religious thinking which it so clearly reflects. When we consider Marlowe's play in this way, it must become apparent that Faustus is represented as committing two mortal sins. The first sin culminates in the compact whereby he gives his soul to the devil in return for twenty-four years of voluptuous living, with Mephistophilis to do his constant bidding. Whether the craftiness of the devil or simply his own ambition for knowledge and power impel him to try what magic can do, he abjures God and summons the aid of the powers of darkness. Mephistophilis makes it quite sure that it was not, however, Faustus' conjuring that was primarily responsible for hell's response:

That was the cause, but yet per accidens; For, when we hear one rack the name of God, Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ, We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul; Nor will we come, unless he use such means Whereby he is in danger to be damn'd. Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity, And pray devoutly to the prince of hell.(I.iii.48-56)

As Sir Walter Greg has noted,10 Faustus' first sin, therefore, arises from his abjuring God, and he makes it emphatic in his message to Lucifer:

Seeing Faustus hath incurr'd eternal death By desperate thoughts against Jove's deity, Say he surrenders up to him his soul, …"(I.iii.90-92)

When critics like Miss Ellis-Fermor and Boas fail to find any reality in Faustus' sin, they seem to me to ignore the emphasis on justification by faith which was one of the great dividing doctrines by which Protestantism came to be distinguished from Roman Catholicism. By abjuring God and alienating his soul from God, Faustus had committed the sin of sins from which all the good works prescribed by the apostle James or by Goethe could not save him.11

But it is not this initial sin which is conclusive and fatal. What ultimately dooms Faustus, body and soul, is that, stung by his conscience and fretting over the fact that he has denied God, he yields to the sin of despair and so is led to reject the proffered mercy of God made manifest in Christ. It was not obeying or disobeying the ten commandments that determined the salvation or the damnation of Faustus but his failure to obey what Christ called the first and great commandment, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." No good works could take the place of the love of God. Nor could what Boas calls his "humanist intellectual ardour" have appeared to Marlowe's generation as a substitute for the "contrition, prayer, repentance" urged by the Good Angel as the means to heavenly grace. And I submit that it is not the initial sin and its consequences that hold us in suspense as we read or behold Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. Rather it is the continuing struggle of conscience, the conflict between hope and despair, where hope would lead him to God again and despair would keep him from salvation, that make the suspense of the play. The outcome remaining in doubt till the eleventh hour, the tension continues throughout the play and gives it its peculiar dramatic compulsion.

Cases of conscience seem to have had the same attraction for the public in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that cases of abnormal psychology have today. And if anyone imagines that case histories are peculiar to the twentieth century, he should be given some required reading in the earlier period. There was, indeed, an immense amount of writing on the subject of conscience in abstract treatises as well as in histories of particular cases. William Perkins, who was at Christ's College, Cambridge, during the years Marlowe spent at Corpus Christi, became perhaps the most prolific writer on the subject, and it is interesting to follow his typical diagnosis of a case of conscience:

Conscience is appointed of God to declare and put in execution his just judgement against sinners: and as God cannot possibly be overcome of man, so neither can the judgement of conscience being the judgement of God be wholly extinguished.… Again when a man sinnes against his conscience, as much as in him lieth, he plungeth himselfe into the gulfe of desperation: for every wound of the conscience, though the smart of it be little felt, is a deadly wound: and he that goes on to sinne against his conscience, stabbes and woundes it often in the same place: and all renewed wounds (as we know) are hardly or never cured. Thirdly, he that lieth in sinnes against his conscience, cannot call upon the name of God: for guiltie conscience makes a man flie from God. And Christ saith, God heareth not sinners, understanding by sinners, such as goe on in their owne waies against conscience: and what can be more dolefull than to be barred of the invocation of Gods name?

(A Discourse of Conscience, Cambridge, 1596)

In all cases of conscience there is, of course, an initial sin which brings the sinner's conscience to confront him and make him aware of his sin and of its consequences. The great danger is that the sinner may be brought to a new and more dreadful sin, the sin of despair, which prevents him from availing himself of the mercy of God through "contrition, prayer, repentance," so that in his despair he may be brought even to the crowning sin of self-slaughter.12 The traditional teaching was completely embodied in the Ars Moriendi, the one of the various arts that went through many editions in many languages in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Contrasting woodcuts there illustrate the state of the man who dies disastrously with that of the man who dies well. In one the dying man is surrounded by fiends who tempt him to believe that he is already beyond God's mercy, and who confront him with the woman he has deceived or the beggar he has failed to feed. In the other the dying man is surrounded by the sinners who have found God's mercy: Peter with his cock, Mary Magdalene, the thief on the cross, Saul who became the apostle Paul. And the lesson is spelled out: Nequaquam desperes.13 But the Protestantism of the sixteenth century with its emphasis on justification by faith alone found new meaning in such traditional teaching. It was a century of theological argument and exposition, and cases of conscience culminating in destruction or salvation were collected in books of examples, noted marginally in histories, or set forth in treatises and sermons.

Among all the cases rehearsed, one contemporary case took precedence as the most widely disseminated in Protestant Europe and England and the most influential. The case was that of Francis Spira (Francesco Spiera), and because it has so many parallels with that of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus in just those episodes which are not adequately accounted for in the Faust Book, it merits detailed consideration."14

Spira, born in 1502, was in his forties a prosperous lawyer in the town of Citadella, Italy, when through the reading of the Bible and of various theological books he became convinced of the truth of the new Protestant doctrines, especially the doctrine of justification by faith. He proclaimed his new convictions with such enthusiasm to friends and clients that he was summoned before the papal legate at Venice to answer to the charge of heresy. The legate was Giovanni della Casa, then at work compiling the Church's first index of prohibited books. Spira was interrogated four times over a period of some twenty days and finally recanted, fearing to lose his life as well as his possessions and mindful of his family's sufferings. He was fined thirty ducats and ordered to repeat his recantation publicly in his home church after mass. "As he went on his journey," we are told, "the spirit of God continually came into his mind," the thirty ducats recalled the thirty pieces of silver which Judas received, and a voice urged him not again to abjure God, not to sign and seal his denial. Nevertheless, he did for the second time make a public recantation.

After his second recantation Spira's conscience tormented him anew. He was convinced that having abjured God, he was pursued by the divine wrath. His family and friends escorted him to Padua, where he stayed in the house of a friend. Great physicians were called in, but they were powerless to help him and recommended him to seek spiritual help. He grew worse, unable to sleep, tortured by an unquenchable thirst, and above all tormented by thoughts of his sin and its inevitable punishment. The greatest scholars then in residence at the University of Padua came to dispute with him to convince him that he should seek the mercy of God instead of giving way to despair. But he would not be comforted. The disputations became something of a public spectacle, it would seem, and both Catholics and Protestants came to hear these great men of the university urging upon Spira the boundless mercy of God, the hope implicit in the stories of Peter, of the thief on the cross, of all those who have sinned grievously yet sought and found forgiveness through Christ. But Spira could not but remember all the Biblical utterances as to the justice of God. And he could not believe that he was of the elect. At times he had visions of devils about him. He protested but submitted when a priest came to exorcise the devils. The great men tried to pray with him, but he always replied with some such statement as that recorded by Gribaldi (fol. C3): "But herein am I tormented: this is my hell, this is my confusion and desperation, that I knowe al grace to be taken from me, that I feele my heart hardened that I cannot believe in or hope anything at al of thatonemente and mercy of God." Again he is quoted as saying (fol. D1): "but so that I could conceive never so lytle hope or trust of the mercy of God: I would most gladly chose to live ten thousand yeres and more, in all the paynes and tormentes of hell, for that at length I myghte hope for some ende." As Spira became more and more a cause célèbre in Padua, the ecclesiastical authorities became worried, and his family seem reluctantly to have agreed to take him home. Before he left Padua, however, he had yielded to the sin of despair so far as to attempt to commit suicide. Some twenty days after he returned to Citadella, on 27 December 1548, he died. The details of his death have remained uncertain.

In the accounts of the case of Spira we thus have all the arguments set forth that we find in the case of Doctor Faustus. There are certain details too that are of interest in connection with Marlowe and Marlowe's Faustus. In the course of his daily conversation with his would-be spiritual comforters Spira blamed in part the teachings of a philosopher who had written some twenty years previously a book which sought to prove that all the miracles which Christ performed could be accounted for by natural causes. And perhaps significantly Spira like Faustus was visited during the late days of his stay in Padua by an old man, an aged presbyter who had gone with him when he was summoned to Venice. Perhaps significantly also Spira before he left Padua admonished the young scholars who were in attendance upon him that they should see to good works as well as faith, though it is made clear that he was only warning them not to turn the liberty of the gospel into the liberty of the flesh, remembering that the faith that is in them ought to show itself in the life they lead.

The sufferings of Spira made history in the Reformation. Four of the distinguished scholars who disputed with him were so moved by their experience that they had their own lives changed, and they spread his story aborad as a warning to others. Two were Italians: Pietro Paola Vergerio and Matteo Gribaldi. One was a Scotchman, Henry Scrymgeour. The fourth was Sigismund Gelous (or Gelons or Gelens). In order to understand the importance of these events, it is necessary to review briefly what significance the testimony of these men had in their own time.

Vergerio was a native of Capo d'Istria. Before entering the service of the Church as a diplomat, he had been briefly a professor of jurisprudence at his alma mater, the University of Padua. He acted as papal nuncio on various important missions and then, having been consecrated by his brother, the Bishop of Pola, was himself made a bishop, first of Modrus and then of his native Capo d'Istria. Being finally persuaded of the truth of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, he spread the doctrine throughout his diocese. He also urged certain reform in church discipline and became involved in disputes over papal authority with the result that he was summoned to Rome to answer charges of heresy. In 1548 he had managed for four years to evade the summons. He was a daily visitor to Spira and perhaps the most earnest pleader with him. The experience determined him to "throw in his lot with the reform." Announcing his decision to the Catholic authorities, he enclosed the six letters he had written about his visits to Spira. Deposed from his bishopric and declared a heretic after he fled to Switzerland, he there took up his far from peaceful life among the Calvinists, but that life is not our concern here. Christopher Hare sums up what is of importance to us when he says: "The apostasy of a Bishop of so much learning and eloquence was a great blow to the Church of Rome, and he was excommunicated and burnt in effigy."

Another of those attending regularly upon Spira was Matteo Gribaldi. We hear of him as professor of jurisprudence at Toulouse in 1535 and 1536 and later at Cahors, Valence, and in 1548 Padua. Tales of his popularity with his students and of the great numbers who attended his lectures have survived wherever he taught. With him as with Vergerio his visits to Spira marked a turning point in his life. He too later went to Switzerland, where, consequent to his denouncing of the burning of Servetus, he became deeply involved in the quarrels of the Calvinists, suffering heavily in the succeeding years. His account of Spira was the first to be translated into English.

The third of the original chroniclers of the case of Spira was Henry Scrmygeour (or Scrimger),15 a Scotchman, uncle to the famous James Melville and to Peter Young, tutor to King James. Graduated from St. Andrews with distinction, he went to study on the Continent. Recommended by Amiot, he was selected as tutor to the children of Secretary Boucherel and later to the children of the Bishop of Rennes when he was ambassador from the court of France to certain Italian states. During a visit to Padua "Henry the Scot" went to witness the disputations with Spira. Like Vergerio and Gribaldi, he too was so moved that McCrie says he "determined to sacrifice the prospects which his present situation held out to him and to return to Switzerland." Ulrich Fugger, of the great mining and banking family and patron to the protestant printer Etienne, invited him to Augsburg to build up his library. He published the famous edition of Justinian's new laws, said to be the basis of even the latest edition.16 His large collection of manuscripts was left to Peter Young and was at least in part used by Casaubon.

The fourth of those who testified to his personal experience at the bedside of Spira was one whom Curione referred to as "Sigismundus Gelous, Pannonius," describing him as famous not only in Pannonia but also among the Italians and Saxons. Nathaniel Bacon referred to him as a "Transilvanian" and spelled his name Gelons. The English translation of Sleidan's Chronicle called him "Sigismund Gelowe, a Polanian." I am inclined to identify him as Sigismund Gelenius, a native of Prague, a friend of Erasmus and Melanchthon, the compiler of a dictionary in four tongues—Slav, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Gelenius edited an impressive number of classical texts and was a Renaissance scholar of distinction.17

The separate accounts of these four witnesses took on something of the status of an official document of the Reformation when they were collected, translated into Latin, and published by Celio Secundo Curione with a preface by Calvin and a discussion of the case by Martin Borrhaus. Curione was one of the most distinguished of the Italian refugees, a classical scholar of renown, a popular teacher at the universities of Milan, Pavia, Venice, and Lucca before he fled to Switzerland in 1542. His Notable History of the Saracens as Englished by Thomas Newton in 1575 may have been used by Marlowe in writing Tamburlaine. Schoolmaster at Lausanne and then a professor of rhetoric and eloquence at Basel, he wrote and translated and annotated a very great number of books on a wide variety of subjects. He suffered many vicissitudes but remained in Basel until his death in 1569 in spite of offers from Emperor Maximilian that he return to the University of Vienna, from the King of Transylvania that he come to the University of Weissenburg, from the Duke of Savoy that he come to the University of Turin, and from the Pope that he return to his native Italy, only forbearing to teach heretical opinions. McCrie says that no such persistent attempts were made to have any of the other Italian refugees return to the fold.

Martin Borrhaus was a native of Stuttgardt, who after studying at various continental universities and after leading a very precarious existence for a time, became a professor at Basel, first of rhetoric and finally of Old Testament history.18

It seems to have been Vergerio who in 1549 pressed Calvin to write a preface to these various texts assembled and translated by Curione. Evidently Vergerio proposed that the work be published at Geneva. Calvin was then at the height of his power and wrote of the request in the manner of one rather bored with writing prefaces.19 But he did write it. And as I have said, the collection seems to have been regarded as an official pronouncement of Protestantism.20 There may have been an edition of the book published in 1549 at Basel, but the British Museum Catalogue suggests tentatively the date 1550 and the place of publication as Geneva for its copy. A Catholic reply was at any rate published in 1550 at Bologna. The Protestant work went on being published in whole and in part and in various translations down to the nineteenth century.21 And Spira became an archetype of the man who having abjured the God in whom he believed fell into the sin of despair and was doomed. In 1693 a work called The Second Spira was published and went into its fourth edition in 1810. In 1724 The Third Spira was published. And Comba notes that as late as 1892 N. B. Cosi was writing the story of Johann Hofmeister as "Ein deutscher Spiera."

The first account of Spira to be published in England was that of Gribaldi, printed in Worcester but intended also "to sell at Shrewsbury":

A notable and marvailous epistle of the famous Doctor, Mathew Gribalde, professor of the law, in the universitie of Padua: concerning the terrible judgement of God, upon hym that for feare of men, denyeth Christ and the known veritie: with a preface of Doctor Calvine. Translated out of Latine into English by E.A.

[Edward Aglionby]

Significantly there was added to the text of Calvin and Gribaldi pieces "A Goodlye prayer, agaynste desperation." Another edition of the work was published in London, probably in 1570, containing also "A Godly and Holsom Preservative," which as Miss Wine has pointed out, had earlier been published separately in two editions.

Lanquet's chronicle as extended by Cooper took notice of the case of Spira,22 Sleidan gave an extensive summary of it,23 and the Common Places of Peter Martyr (Vermigli) recited the tale and moralized it. One of the moralizings is interesting as showing the continued belief that the devil used despair to doom men's souls, for in commenting on Spira's insistence that "God had imposed this evill unto him" for his sins, the author notes that "peradventure God did not this to Spiera, but the divell (whose bondslave he was) having now renounced godlines suggested this, to the end he might drive him to utter desperation."24

All these retellings Marlowe might have known. That Spira was a familiar reference is indicated by such stories as that of Lady Jane Gray who, John Foxe records, disputed with her father's chaplain, Doctor Harding, urging him to "come home again," and warning him: "Remember the horrible hystory of Julian of old, and the lamentable case of Spyra of late, whose case (me thynke) should be yet so greene in your remembraunce, that beyng a thyng of our tyme, you should feare the lyke inconvenience seying you are fallen into the lyke offence."25

An English play was based on the case of Spira, Nathaniel Wood's Conflict of Conscience. Miss Wine has studied its close relationship to Gribaldi's version of the story. It has been suggested, I believe, that Doctor Faustus may have owed something to this earlier play, published in 1581, but the original accounts of Spira by the four chosen witnesses are so much nearer in text and in spirit to Marlowe's play that I cannot believe the Conflict of Conscience has any importance except in giving additional evidence that Spira was the archetype for a case of conscience.26

After Marlowe's death Thomas Beard immortalized himself by including the case of Marlowe in his Theatre of Gods Judgements. He also included the case of Spira.27 It was not, however, until 1607 when Simon Goulart's Admirable and Memorable Histories was published that Gribaldi's story of Spira was supplemented by an abbreviated version of Scrymgeour's contribution to the authorized work on the subject.28 In 1638 Nathaniel Bacon "compiled" from the stories of the four witnesses in this work and the comment of Martin Borrhaus his Relation of the Fearful Estate of F. Spira. 1548, a work which, according to the British Museum Catalogue, was published in four new editions in the seventeenth century and five in the eighteenth.29

We have then, to recognize the case of Spira as the most famous of the cases of conscience, widely known throughout Europe and England,30 spread abroad with the particular endorsement of Calvin and other leaders of the Reformation. Furthermore, the records of visitors who daily waited upon Spira were records of disputations between the sinner who having abjured God could not or would not believe in His mercy and those who, as Sleidan explains, "by the testimonies of holy scripture, which declare unto us the great mercy of God, … endevoured to cure his mynde." Peter Martyr regarded him as the bondslave of the devil, and Spira himself often exclaimed, "The Devil hath possesst me," or "I have a whole Legion of Devils … that possess me as their own."

The "Godlye prayer, agaynste desperation" appended to the English translation of Gribaldi's work asks

that whatsoever my calamities … or how great, hainouse and many fold soever my sinnes be: that I never fal into any kind of desperation, other of body or soul: But that I may alwaies remembre and knowe thy botomeles mercy to surmounte and passe the nombre and gravitie of al mine offences. That I maye alwayes truste in thy mercy, that thou wilt other preserve me from synne, or of thy mere mercy freely forgeve me al my sinnes, for thy sonne Jesu Christes sake. And that thou wilt never take from me thy spirit, but ever grant me grace that, … I maye trulye repent my sins, cal upon thee for helpe and aide, and that I maye stedfastly beleve, that thou (like a merciful father, for thy sons sake) wylt favourably heare me, mercifullye forgeve me, and mightely defend me against all my enemies, and in al my troubles,…

It is a prayer with a two-fold supplication, that the suppliant may be kept from sin, and also that he may never be sucked into the further sin of desperation by failing to believe and ask for the boundless mercy of God. And this is, I submit, the relevant background of sixteenth-century Protestant teaching that is significant for the understanding of Marlowe's Faustus. It is the corollary of the doctrine of justification by faith which Marlowe as a student of divinity at Cambridge could not possibly have failed to hear endlessly disputed.

I had been reading and teaching Faustus for a long time as a play which presented a picture of a man who having sinned made final his doom by the sin of despair when I read Gribaldi's account and was struck by Spira's dwelling upon the endlessness of his punishment. I read again his agonized cry: "but so that I could conceive never so lytle hope or trust of the mercy of God: I would most gladly chose to live ten thousand yeres and more, in all the paynes and tormentes of hell, for that I myghte hope for some ende." And I seemed to hear Doctor Faustus pleading:

If thou wilt not have mercy on my soul, Yet for Christ's sake, whose blood hath ransom'd me, Impose some end to my incessant pain; Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years, A hundred thousand, and at last be sav'd! 0, no end is limited to damned souls!(v.ii. 170-175)

As I went back to re-read the history of Spira, it seemed to me that there was much more than this cry of agony which might well have set the pattern for just those parts of the play which critics had found "medieval" and out of place in a Faustus that contained evidences of Renaissance thinking. There are four such passages before the fifth act which mark Faustus as a case of conscience. They are the passages which lie apart from the story as told in the Faust Book,31 but they are the passages which gradually build up the suspense that keeps the play alive with the uncertainty as to the ultimate fate of the hero.

The first passage begins at Act I, Scene i, line 71, when as Faustus sits reading on his book of magic, the Good Angel suddenly bids him "lay that damned book aside" and turn to the reading of the Scriptures, while the Bad Angel tempts him further to the knowledge which can make him "as Jove is in the sky, Lord and commander of these elements." The conflict of conscience has begun in Faustus' soul, the Good Angel objectifying the forces of good, the Bad Angel (or the Spirit as the later text of the play has it) objectifying the forces of evil. The arguments of the angels reflect the Reformation just as many of the speeches of Mephistophilis reflect the Renaissance. And it is important to note that when Faustus is first tempted and before he sins except in vague desire, he has already heard a warning voice. When Faustus commits mortal sin by finally abjuring the Trinity and sells his soul to the devil, he does not sin blindly in passion but with full consciousness of what he is doing:

This night, I'll conjure, though I die therefore.

This word 'damnation' terrifies not me, For I confound hell in Elysium: My ghost be with the old philosophers!

Seeing Faustus hath incurr'd eternal death By desperate thoughts against Jove's deity, Say, he surrenders up to him his soul, So he will spare him four-and-twenty years, Letting him live in all voluptousness; Having thee ever to attend on me, …(I.i.167; iii.61-64, 90-95)

And again it must be emphasized that the sin which Faustus commits so knowingly is that against the deity. Living in voluptuousness is not the sin but the reward of sin.

The second scene in which Faustus struggles with his conscience comes at the opening of the second act. We hear the questioning in his mind in the opening soliloquy before the angels appear to externalize the argument:

Now, Faustus, must Thou needs be damn'd, and canst thou not be sav'd. What boots it, then, to think on God or heaven? Away with such vain fancies, and despair; Despair in God, and trust in Belzebub.32

A voice seems to be saying to him, "Abjure this magic, turn to God again." But the reply is ready, the certainty that God does not love him. When the angels continue the dispute raging in his thoughts, he has already become conscious of the new temptation to despair. The argument between the angels recalls in its wording the mental conflict of Launcelot Gobbo, but its content is important and deadly serious. Faustus himself injects the pertinent query, the theme of future debates: "Contrition, prayer, repentance—what of these?" Are these the means by which to reach to heaven? Or are they indeed more foolish and ineffective illusions? Since Faustus is only beginning to wonder, the Bad Angel easily recalls him to the pursuit of honor and wealth, particularly wealth. As in the Faust Book an omen of warning stays him for a moment when he would sign the fatal bond. His blood congeals and will not flow for his signature, but warmed by the fire brought by Mephistophilis, it again becomes fluid. The signing goes forward, but the words Homo fuge! that blaze on his arm cause in Faustus a fleeting despair:

Homo, fuge! Whither should I fly? If unto God, he'll throw me down to hell.

But again he determines to sin: "Yet shall not Faustus fly."

The third of the visible conflicts of conscience comes in the next scene, just after Faustus has experienced the first rewards of power deriving from his new contract with the devil. It is a scene that in part is suggested by Chapter xvi of the Faust Book. Faustus, moved to repentance by the thought of the lost joys of heaven, is being reminded by Mephistophilis that he has only himself to thank when a buzzing in his ears marks the transition from an inner mental struggle to its externalization in the angels, who appear briefly. A new theme is introduced, one not accounted for in the Faust Book, but present in the sixteenth-century discussions of the cases of conscience such as that of William Perkins quoted earlier and apparent in the case of Spira. Faustus is convinced that his heart is now so hardened that he cannot repent or call upon heaven:

My heart is harden'd, I cannot repent; Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven, But fearful echoes thunder in my ears, Faustus, thou art damn'd!

It is at this point that we learn that Faustus has reached that stage of despair when suicide becomes a temptation:

             Then swords and knives, Poison, guns, halters, and envonm'd steel Are laid before me to despatch myself; And long ere this I should have done the deed, Had not sweet pleasure conquer'd deep despair.(II.ii.18-25)

So did that "man of hell, that cals himselfe      Despaire," offer the Red Cross Knight

               swords, ropes, poison, fire, And all that might him to perdition draw; …(F.Q. I.ix.28)

It is of some significance, I think, that Marlowe introduces the temptation to suicide, which is a regular accompaniment of the sin of despair, as it was in the case of Spira. Again Faustus wounds his conscience when he hardens his heart, determines not to repent, and turns to new learned discussion with Mephistophilis on the wonders of astronomy. But when in the midst of this discussion Mephistophilis refuses to answer his question as to who made the world, his conscience is again aroused, and as he asks himself once more, "Is't not too late?" the angels appear to embody the argument. This is the great crisis in the fight for his soul. At last he dares to cry:

0, Christ, my Saviour, my Saviour, Help to save distressed Faustus' soul!(II.ii.85-86)

So extreme is the crisis that the princes of hell, Lucifer and Belzebub, come themselves to do battle for Faustus' soul. Lucifer convinces Faustus that since Christ is just, he cannot save his sinful soul, and he so frightens him that he renews his promise to be henceforth an enemy of God and his Word and his church. The devils then offer him as entertainment a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins, a procession of characters with whom Faustus carries on a lively quizzing with no indication that he wishes to take upon himself the burden of these sins. It is an intellectual pleasure that he feels as is made clear by his wish that he could see hell and return safe therefrom.

The fourth passage to develop Faustus' case of conscience is found in Act IV, Scene v, where it is thrust into the midst of his rowdy dealings with the horse-courser. The angels do not appear, and we have only a brief glimpse of the conflict in Faustus' soul, enough to suggest the despair that was always gnawing at his thoughts underneath his frivolous clowning:

What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemn'd to die? Thy fatal time draws to a 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.(IV.v.23-28)

How much critical comment has been affected by the failure to view Doctor Faustus against its sixteenth-century background of religious thinking is seen in the judgment of so distinguished an authority as Sir Walter Greg on this passage: "Nothing could be further from his manner than the combined piety and bad taste of the line,

Tush Christ did call the Theefe upon the Crosse …

This vein of rather sentimental piety, which sometimes intrudes itself upon the play, has usually been thought to point to Dekker, but as we shall see later, Rowley was equally capable of it" (p. 118). If, however, Faustus is seen as a case of conscience, we recognize here the accepted pattern in the use of the thief on the cross in the argument against despair.

In the fifth act of the play we find the case of conscience continued by the Old Man who enters after the scholars have left still dazed by the sight of Helen's beauty which Faustus granted them. The Old Man again calls upon Faustus to repent and again dwells upon the theme suggested in Act II, Scene ii, and regularly in the discussions of conscience:

Yet, yet, thou hast an amiable soul, If sin by custom grow not into nature: Then, Faustus, will repentance come too late, …(V.i.43-45)

In both the 1604 and the 1616 texts the lines that follow are still spoken by the Old Man, but Boas gives them to Faustus. They are the lines which Miss Ellis-Fermor found confusing because she saw no sin that Faustus had committed which could justify them:

 such flagitious crimes of heinous sins As no commiseration may expel, But mercy, Faustus, of thy Saviour sweet, Whose blood alone must wash away thy guilt …(V.i.59-62)

It is, however, at this moment Faustus yields utterly to the sin of despair and is about to commit suicide with the dagger proffered by Mephistophilis as he cries:

Damn'd art thou, Faustus, damn'd; despair and die! Hell claims his right, … And Faustus now will come to do thee right.(v.i.64-67)

But even as he would do the deed, the Old Man takes the place of Spenser's Una and of Spira's sons in snatching the dagger away. The Old Man pleads:

Oh, stay, good Faustus, stay thy desperate steps! I see an angel hover o'er thy head, And, with a vial full of precious grace, Offers to pour the same into thy soul: Then call for mercy, and avoid despair.(v.i.68-72)

The attempt at suicide is so much a part of the sin of despair that it would be strange indeed if Faustus' despair had not reached its climax in the traditional manifestation.

After the Old Man leaves, we find Faustus once more acknowledging the conflict in his soul: "Hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast"; but when Mephistophilis threatens him with bodily torment, he renews his bond and for the second time signs in blood his compact with the devil. The lesson is enforced as Faustus turns against his would-be saviour's demands that Mephistophilis torture him, for Mephistophilis replies: "His faith is great; I cannot touch his soul …" And as always Faustus is wooed from repentance as well as won by threats, this time by the renewed vision of Helen, to whom he addresses his magnificent apostrophe. The Old Man, mourning over the sinner who excludes the grace of heaven from his soul, escapes from the fiends who set upon him but cannot harm him because his faith is great.

It should be noted that Greg (pp. 122-123) is inclined to give all of this episode of the Old Man to the collaborator rather than to Marlowe largely because he thinks it has some of the characteristics of the passage that interrupted the horse-courser scene in Act IV, Scene V, which passage he rejects as Marlowe's because of the mixed piety and bad taste in the mention of the thief on the cross. The scene, however, appears in both early versions of the play, it is derived from the Faust Book, and it does build up by adding the attempt at suicide and emphasizing the sin of despair the typical case of conscience. I have already said that an old friend, an aged man, also visited Spira.

As Faustus' doom draws near, he talks with the young scholars who first try to persuade him that his despair is rooted in physical causes—solitary living or a surfeit—and want to summon physicians to his aid, as Spira's friends first did. But like Spira, Faustus insists that it comes only from sin. They too plead God's infinite mercy, but Faustus insists that he cannot be saved, his offences cannot be pardoned, and he laments the endlessness of his punishment as did Spira: "Faustus hath lost … heaven, the seat of God, the throne of the blessed, the kingdom of joy; and must remain in hell for ever—hell, oh, hell for ever! Sweet friends, what shall become of Faustus, being in hell for ever?" (v.ii.49-54). The scholars, if they had only known, would have called in divines to pray for him, confident that they could have helped. But Faustus can only answer that it is now too late and bid them save themselves.

In a passage not to be found in the 1604 version Mephistophilis gives again what is always the devil's counsel, "What, weep'st thou? 'tis too late, despair, farewell!" while the Good Angel and the Bad Angel appear once more to say I told you so.

As Faustus comes to his final hour, the whole tragedy is brought into focus.33 His first tortured cry culminates in an apostrophe to the sun:

Fair Nature's eye, rise, rise again, and make Perpetual day; or let this hour be but A year, a month, a week, a natural day, That Faustus may repent and save his soul!

There is here a definite acceptance of the fact that the sinner who repents can be saved. It is neither atheist nor agnostic but one who knows the way to God's mercy who adds:

See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament! One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!

The heavy wrath of God that will not suffer him to hide might yet destory his body and let his soul ascend to heaven: for a moment he almost hopes that it might be. But then he utters his final prayer:

O God, If thou wilt not have mercy on my soul, Yet for Christ's sake, whose blood hath ransom'd me, Impose some end to my incessant pain; Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years, A hundred thousand, and at last be sav'd! 0, no end is limited to damned souls!

To be like the beasts, soulless, would be happiness, and in such denial of his first desire to be more than man, to be "on earth as Jove is in the sky," he goes with Mephistophilis, seeing still his wrathful Judge.

The last scene of the play is not printed in the first edition, but whether or not we hear the scholars' discussion which reveals the crude physical details of Faustus' death as they are described in the source book is, I think, a matter to be left to the aesthetic judgment of editor or producer. It is in any case not the physical horror of mangled limbs and shrieks in the night that has continued through more than three hundred and fifty years to effect that horror and pity by which the greatest tragedy has achieved its purpose.

As I said at the outset of this paper, it seems to me that viewing Faustus as one whose fate was not determined by his initial sin but rather as one who until the fatal eleventh hour might have been redeemed, we can account for the suspense which the play creates. We see Faustus confirmed in sin more disastrously by yielding to the counsels of despair urged by Mephistophilis and the Bad Angel than by yielding to the enticements of pleasure. And we see him consequently rejecting the mercy of God promised in the words of the Good Angel and the Old Man as he cast off faith and hope. The Faust Book certainly left open the way for Marlowe's development of the story of Doctor Faustus as a case of conscience. My contention is that the "medieval" elements of Marlowe's play are not medieval but of the Reformation and that they constitute the essential dramatic unity of the play culminating in the speech of Faustus as he faces his doom, so that theme and plot and poetry come together in the diapason of that final grandeur.


1Christopher Marlowe (Oxford, 1940), p. 211.

2 Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: Parallel Texts (Oxford, 1950), pp. 130-132.

3 Robert Hunter West discusses earlier comment on the angels in Faustus and offers new material on the subject but generally ignores the sermons of the period in The Invisible World (Athens, Georgia, 1939), pp. 102-103 et passim.

4Christopher Marlowe (London, 1927), p. 78.

5MLN, XII, 258-274.

6PMLA, L, 661-678. See also notes on the play by William Jackson, W. W. Greg, and Celeste Wine in TLS for 7 Sept., 26 Oct., and 23 Nov. 1933.

7 (Chapel Hill, 1946), pp. 106-107.

8The History … of Doctor John Faustus, modernized and edited by William Rose, Broadway Translations (London, 1925), pp. 89-90.

9Poetry and Humanism (New Haven, 1950), pp. 18, 21, 64-74, 217.

10 Greg (see n. 2), p. 102.

11 The contrasting attitudes of Catholic and Protestant in reconciling the epistles of Paul and of James are set forth in the Catholic Encyclopedia article on "Justification," by J. Pohle (VII, 573-578). The Protestant interpretation made good works the fruit of faith.

12 It is interesting to note that in Biothanatos: A Declaration of that Paradoxe, or Thesis, that Self-homicide is not so Naturally Sinne, that it may never be otherwise, John Donne argues that not all who kill themselves have done it "out of a despaire of God's mercy (which is the onely sinnefull despaire)." Facsimile Text Soc. ed. (New York, 1930), p. 28.

13 For English editions between 1490 and 1506, both in Latin and in English, see STC, Nos. 786-793.

14 For the account of Spira's life and for the identification of the Italian writers who considered his case I have consulted, in addition to the primary sources referred to below, the following works: Emilio Comba, I Nostri Protestanti (Firenze, 1897), pp. 259-295; Comba, Francesco Spiera (Roma and Firenze, 1872); Thomas McCrie, The History of the Progress and Suppression of the Reformation in Italy in the Sixteenth Century (Edinburgh and London, 1827); Christopher Hare, Men and Women of the Italian Reformation (New York, n.d.); Frederic C. Church, The Italian Reformers: 1534-1564 (New York, 1932).

15 See DNB article by Thompson Cooper; Thomas McCrie, Life of Andrew Melville (Edinburgh and London, 1824), I, 38-41, 425-427.

16 Church, Italian Reformers, p. 206, n. 69.

17 See article on Sigismund G. Gelen (or Ghelen or Gelenius) in Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (Leipzig, 1876).

18 See article in All. Deutsche Bibl.

19Letters of John Calvin, comp. Jules Bonnet (Edinburgh and London, 1857), II, 231-232.

20 The title reads: Francisci Spierae, quiquod susceplam semel Evangelice veritatis professionem abnegasset, damnassetque, in horrendam incidit, desperationem, Historia, a quatuor summis viris, summa fide conscripta.

21 I have not thought it relevant to attempt a bibliography. The B.M. Cat. entries are not adequate. Comba has a bibliography valuable for identifying other records of the case. See also Wine's footnotes in PMLA, L, 664-667. The Catholic reply was that of Georgio Siculo, Epistola … alli cittadini di Riva di Trento contra il mendatio di F. Spira, & falso dottrina di Protestanti (Bologna, 1550).

22Cooper's Chronicle (London, 1560), fol. 343.

23 Joannes Philippson, A Famous Chronicle of oure time, called Sleidanes Commentaries, trans. John Daus (London, 1560), fols. 327-329.

24The Common Places, trans. Anthonie Marten (London, 1583), Pt. 3, pp. 23-24.

25Actes and Monumentes (London, 1576), I, 1351 (misnumbered 1341). References to Spira can be traced in the Parker Soc. editions of the works of John Bradford, Thomas Rogers, Edwin Sandys.

26 See note 6. The play has come down to us in two issues, the first naming Spira on the title page, the second substituting the name Philologus because, as the prologue explained, the audience could more easily apply the lesson of the play to themselves if a general rather than a particular name was used. Wood tacked on a happy ending by making Nuntius rush in with a sort of epilogue announcing that Philologus had finally been converted through godly counsel and was saved.

The play opens with Satan determined to reclaim the world with the help of his agent, the Pope, who has Avarice and Tyranny and now Hypocrisy to support him. The history of the creation and the fall is rehearsed. Philologus debates various matters with the spokesmen for the devil, but it not until the fourth act that he embraces "the glass of delight" offered by a Cardinal, moved thereto also by the thoughts of the sufferings of his wife and children if he persists in opposing the Pope's laws. He is warned by a spirit and by his conscience, but Sensual Suggestion and Hypocrisy win, rejoicing thereafter in his recantation. In the fifth act Horror shows Philologus what he has done. His children argue that God is merciful, and Theologus points out the mercy extended to Peter when he had denied Christ and to the thief on the cross. But the sinner will not be comforted and only wishes for the means to commit suicide. Finally, after the moral has been pointed out, Nuntius rushes in with the happy ending.

27 Beard's book (London, 1597) placed Spira among the "Apostates and Backsliders, that through infirmitie and feare have fallen away" in Chap. xvii, pp. 62-65.

28 Goulart's work was trans. by E. Grimeston. Spira was placed in the section on "Desperate Persons" taking up two thirds of the section, pp. 187-196.

29 I have seen only the 1672 and 1683 eds. The 1683 ed. adds "A Further Account of God's severe Judgments on several other Apostates" from Julian the Apostate to Bishop Gardiner. A Relation of the Fearful Estate of Francis Spira with the "miserable lives and deaths" of various others was published in Philadelphia in 1814 by the Rev. W. C. Brownlee with the account of the theological arguments which had risen from the case.

30 R. C. Bald has called my attention to the mention of the case in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (London, 1904), III, 466.

31 The Faust Book, however, does recognize Faustus' failure to claim God's mercy in the passage I quoted on p. 221 and elsewhere.

32 Both the 1604 and the 1616 eds. have a question mark after heaven, and the 1604 ed. also has one after sav'd. I prefer the 1604 pointing but I here follow Boas as elsewhere.

33 v.ii.137-194. Miss Mahood discusses the effect of this scene upon Donne as reflected in his sermons, pp. 89-90.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1634


Bluestone, Max. "Libido Speculandi: Doctrine and Dramaturgy in Contemporary Interpretations of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus." In Selected Papers from English Institute: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, edited by Norman Rabkin, pp. 33-88. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Surveys modern interpretations of Doctor Faustus and concludes that ambiguities in the play have created a critical tradition that "tends toward antithesis and dispute."

Ribner, Irving. "Marlowe and the Critics." Tulane Drama Review 8, No. 4 (Summer 1964): 211-24.

Traces scholarly reaction to Marlowe's works from 1774 to 1962.


Nichol, Charles. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, 413 p.

Exhaustively researched and engrossing account of Marlowe's life, focusing on his experiences as a spy for Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council. The author speculates on the nature of Marlowe's involvement in the kind of political maneuvering, common in the Elizabethan court, that might have led to his assassination.

Rowse, A. L. Christopher Marlowe: A Biography. London: NEED PUB, 1964, 219 p.

Summarizes and assesses what is known about Marlowe's early life, education, literary career, and death.

Boas, Frederick S. Christopher Marlowe: A Biographical and Critical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940, 336 p.

Analyzes Marlowe's life and his major works.


Bevington, David M. From Mankind to Marlowe. Growth of Structure in the Popular Drama of Tudor England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University. Press, 1962, 310 p.

Traces similarities and differences between Marlowe's tragedies and English morality plays such as Everyman and Mankind.

Boccia, Michael. "Faustus Unbound: A Reconsideration of the Fate of Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus." The USF Language Quarterly XXV, Nos. 1-2 (Fall-Winter, 1986): 8-12.

Suggests that the hcaracter of Faustus is not irrevocably damned. The critic presents evidence that Faustus repents and seeks forgiveness in his final soliloquy.

Bradbrook, M. C. "Christopher Marlowe." In Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, pp. 137-164. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935.

Describes the dramatic conventions Marlowe drew upon in writing Doctor Faustus.

Brockbank, J. P. Marlowe: Dr. Faustus. London: Arnold, 1962, 62 p.

Traces the philosophical and theological traditions associated with the Faust legend and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.

Brown, Beatrice Daw. "Marlowe, Faustus, and Simon Magus." Publication of the Modern Language Association LIV (1939): 82-121.

Proposes that Marlowe used legendary material from the life of Simon Magus—a philosopher and magician from the second century—in composing Doctor Faustus.

Brown, John Russell. "Marlowe and the Actors." Tulane Drama Review 8, No. 4 (Summer 1964): 155-73.

Discusses technical approaches to producing and performing Marlowe's plays, citing some of the most famous productions of his works.

Cole, Douglas. Suffering and Evil in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1962. 274 p.

Offers an interpretation of Doctor Faustus as "thoroughly Christian in conception and import."

——. "The Impact of Goethe's Faust on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Criticism of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus." In Faust Through the Centuries: Retrospect and Analysis, edited by Peter Boerner and Sidney Johnson, pp. 185-196. Tubingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1989.

Compares critical responses to Goethe's Faust and Doctor Faustus and suggests that Marlowe's work is more poignantly evocative of late-twentieth-century anxieties than the later work.

Danson, Lawrence. "Christopher Marlowe: The Questioner." English Literary Renaissance 12, No. 1 (Winter 1982): 3-29.

Examines the use of various kinds of questions and interrogations as a dramatic technique in Marlowe's plays.

Ellis-Fermor, U. M. Christopher Marlowe. 1927. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1967, 172 p.

A general study of Marlowe's major works that offers a seminal comparison of Doctor Faustus with Tamburlaine.

Empson, William. Faustus and the Censor: The English Faust-book and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. London: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1987, 226 p.

Speculates about the effects of censorship on Doctor Faustus and interprets the play not as a tragedy but as a subversive burlesque of social and religious issues of Marlowe's England.

Farmham, Willard. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Doctor Faustus. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969, 120 p.

Frye, Roland M. "Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: The Repudiation of Humanity." South Atlantic Quarterly LV, No. 3 (July, 1956): 322-28.

Considers Doctor Faustus a didactic and essentially moral play.

Hardin, Richard F. "Marlowe and the Fruits of Scholarism." Philological Quarterly LXII (1984): 387-400.

Examiness evidence in his writings of Marlowe's skepticism about both Christian theology and secular knowledge.

Heller, Otto. Faust and Faustus: A Study of Goethe's Relation to Marlowe. St. Louis: Washington University Press, 1931, 177 p.

Compares Faust with Doctor Faustus and concludes that Goethe relied heavily on Marlowe's play as a source.

Honderich, Pauline. "John Calvin and Doctor Faustus." Modern Language Review 68 (1969): 391-406.

Interprets the final scenes of Doctor Faustus in relation to Calvinist theology.

Jump, John D., editor. Doctor Faustus: Christopher Marlowe. London: Methuen and Co., 1962.

Standard, widely cited edition of the play that includes an informative general introduction.

Kaula, David. "Time and Timelessness in Everyman and Dr. Faustus. Critical Essays XXII (1960): 9-14.

Contrasts the dramatic treatment of the passage of time in medieval morality plays and in Doctor Faustus.

Keefer, Michael H. "Verbal Magic and the Problem of the A and B Texts of Doctor Faustus." Journal of English and Germanic Philology LXXXII (1983): 324-46.

Contends that the A-text of Doctor Faustus is marked by carefully crafted language while the B-text is fraught with crude stage tricks, and concludes that the A-text is the closest document extant to Marlowe's original text of the play.

Kirschbaum, Leo. "Marlowe's Faustus: a Reconsideration." RES XIX (1943): 225-41.

Argues that Marlowe supports religious values in Doctor Faustus and concludes that "there is no more obvious Christian document in all Elizabethan drama."

Kocher, Paul H. "The Witchcraft Basis in Marlowe's Faustus." Modern Philology XXXVIII, No. 1 (August 1940): 9-36.

Demonstrates that in addition to using the English Faust-book as a source for Doctor Faustus, Marlowe also drew heavily from European witchcraft traditions and folklore.

——. Christopher Marlowe: A Study of His Thought, Learning, and Character. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946.

Analyzes Marlowe's world view, with particular emphasis on the playwright's attitudes toward religion.

Kott, Jan. "The Two Hells of Doctor Faustus: A Polytheatrical Vision." In his The Bottom Translation: Marlowe and Shakespeare and the Carnival Tradition, translated by Daniela Miedzyrzecka and Lillian Vallee, pp. 1-27. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987.

Describes Doctor Faustus as a work that includes a variety of voices and styles and concludes that in Marlowe's play we get "a sense of man's predicament at the threshold of the seventeenth century."

Kuriyama, Constance. Hammer or Anvil: Psychological Patterns in Christopher Marlowe's Plays. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1980, 240 p.

Finds in Doctor Faustus manifestations of psychological trauma from Marlowe's childhood.

Langston, Beach. "Marlowe's Faustus and the Ars moriendi Tradition." In A Tribute to George Coffin Tavlor: Studies and Essays, edited by Arnold Williams, pp. 148-67. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1952).

Identifies Marlowe's allusions to the Christian tradition of preparing for death and examines how Doctor Faustus inverts the themes of judgment and salvation in the Ars moriendi tradition.

Leech, Clifford. "Faustus: A Morality Play?" In Christopher Marlowe: Poet for the Stage, edited by Anne Lancashire, pp. 154-80. New York: AMS Press, 1986.

Argues that Doctor Faustus represents the culmination of the English morality play and the end of that tradition.

Knights, L.C. "The Strange Case of Christopher Marlowe." In his Further Explorations, pp. 75-98. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1965.

Provides a comprehensive overview of Marlowe's life and dramas in relation to the political and religious conventions of the Elizabethan period.

Mahood, M. M. Poetry and Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950, 335 p.

Examines Marlowe's relationship to Renaissance humanism.

Marcus, Leah. "Textual Indeterminacy and Ideological Difference: the Case of Doctor Faustus." Renaissance Drama n.s. XX (1989): 1-29.

Finds differences in ideological and political viewpoints between the A-text and the B-text of Doctor Faustus.

McAlindon, T. "Classical Mythology and Christian Tradition in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus." PMLA LXXXI, No. 3 (June 1966): 214-23.

Describes how classical mythology in Doctor Faustus represents the evil alternative to Christianity and acts as an agent for Faustus's demise.

——. "The Ironic Vision: Diction and Theme in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus." The Review of English Studies n.s. XXXII, No. 126 (May 1981): 129-41.

Focuses on how Marlowe uses poetic diction to contribute to the irony in Doctor Faustus.

Morgan, Gerald. "Harlequin Faustus: Marlowe's Comedy of Hell." The Humanities Association Bulletin XVIII, No. I (Spring 1967): 22-34.

Views Doctor Faustus as a comic satire on classical and medieval myths and traditions surrounding the concept of hell.

Ornstein, Robert. "The Comic Synthesis in Doctor Faustus." ELH 22 (1955): 165-72.

Interprets the comic portions of the play as united with the serious and tragic episodes "to form a subtly ironic tragic design."

Phillips, D. Z. "Knowledge, Patience, and Faust." Yale Review LXIX, No. 3 (March 1980): 321-341.

Analyzes the Faust legend by offering a philosophical analysis of the meaning of the phrase "the future is in God's hands."

Pittock, Malcolm. "God's Mercy Is Infinite: Faustus's Last Soliloquy." English Studies 65, No. 4 (August 1984): 302II.

Defends the theatrical value of Faustus's last soliloquy, arguing that he "is not damned before it but during it."

Rasmussen, Eric. A Textual Companion to Doctor Faustus. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Supplies a detailed analysis of the textual problems in Doctor Faustus.

Sewall, Richard. The Vision of Tragedy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.

Defends the notion of "Christian tragedy" and argues that Doctor Faustus fits the definition.

Shaw, Bernard. "The Spacious Times." In his Plays and Players: Essays on the Theatre, pp. 105-14. London: Oxford University Press, 1952.

Includes an 1896 performance review of Doctor Faustus, in which Shaw dismisses Marlowe as "the true Elizabethan blank-verse beast"—an unimaginative writer prone to vulgarity.

Smith, James. "Marlowe's Doctor Faustus." Scrutiny VII (1939): 36-48.

Suggests that Doctor Faustus is best read as an allegory.

Steane, J. B. Marlowe: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Comprehensive overview of Marlowe's plays and poetry.

Stroup, Thomas B. "Doctor Faustus and Hamlet: Contrasting Kinds of Christian Tragedy." Comparative Drama 5 (1972): 243-53.

Compares the anguished questions about the nature of existence in Doctor Faustus and Hamlet.

Additional coverage of Marlowe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Literature Criticism 1400-1800, Vol. 22, Drama Criticism, Vol. 1, and World Literature Criticism.

D. J. Palmer (essay date 1964)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5627

SOURCE: "Magic and Poetry in Doctor Faustus," in The Critical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1964, pp. 56-67.

[In the following essay, Palmer maintains that Marlowe's portrayal of magic in Doctor Faustus heightenis the tragic intensity of the drama.]

Magic is not only the subject of Doctor Faustus, it is the means by which the dramatic illusion generates power and conviction. As in Tamburlaine, Marlowe evidently conceives the stage as an area liberated from the limitations which nature imposes on the world around; the restraining conditions of probability here seem to be in abeyance, and Marlowe's stage affords scope to realise the gigantic fantasies of his heroes. In Doctor Faustus the stage assumes the properties of a magic circle, within which dramatic spectacle is transformed into enchanted vision, and poetry is endowed with the power of conjuring spirits. We do wrong to feel, as many critics have done, a kind of embarrassment, or even intellectual superiority towards the necromantic elements in the play, for it is precisely through the business of magic that Marlowe effects the heightening and tension necessary to the tragic experience. Few would claim that the play maintains its tragic intensity throughout, or that a sense of structure was one of Marlowe's strengths as a playwright. The farcical episodes which occupy the middle of the action do not have a very sophisticated appeal, and whoever actually wrote them, they remain Marlowe's responsibility as the chief architect of the play. However, the clowning with the Pope, Emperor and the rest, frivolous as it is, should not obscure from us the subtler effects which Marlowe obtains from stage-magic elsewhere in the tragedy. Theatrical trickery is certainly stuff to thrill the groundlings, but the same exploitation of Faustus' supernatural powers in terms of dramatic illusion also underlies those moments of poetic rapture and tragic grandeur that constitute Marlowe's supreme achievement. There was one controlling idea behind the dramatising of the Faust-Book: that the drama, particularly the poetic drama, is itself a kind of enchantment.

The notion of drama as the art of illusion is at least as ancient as the rival view that drama imitates life; the two concepts are not really contradictory, though they have their respective origins in the literary theories of Plato and Aristotle. Shakespeare, as we should expect, lent his support to both views: Hamlet's advice to the players restates the mimetic function of drama, "whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature," while in The Tempest Prospero's speech at the conclusion of the masque pays memorable tribute to the imaginative power of illusion. But most of our critical terminology for discussing drama has come down to us through the Aristotelian tradition of mimesis, and in judging characterisation and action in all kinds of drama we almost inevitably look for probability and truth to nature. Sir Philip Sidney, surveying the popular drama of his day in The Apologie for Poetry, scorned it for the neglect of those unities of time and place which critical authority held to be the basis of credible dramatic action:

…you shal have Asia of the one side, and Affrick of the other, and so many other under-kingdoms, that the Player, when he commeth in, must ever begin with telling where he is, or els the tale wil not be conceived. Now ye shal have three Ladies walke to gather flowers, and then we must beleeve the stage to be a Garden. By and by, we heare newes of shipwracke in the same place, and then wee are to blame if we accept it not for a Rock. Upon the backe of that, comes out a hidious Monster, with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bounde to take it for a Cave. While in the meantime two Armies flye in, represented with foure swords and bucklers, and then what harde heart will not receive it for a pitched fielde? Now, of time they are much more liberall, for ordinary it is that two young Princes fall in love. After many traverces, she is got with childe, delivered of a faire boy; he is lost, groweth a man, falls in love, and is ready to get another child; and all this in two hours space…

Sidney did not live to see Marlowe endow the popular stage with poetic genius, but whether his criteria would have been different if he had written during the 1590s, during the flourishing of the London theatres, is of less interest than the fact that Sidney's description here suits exactly the treatment of time and place which we find in Doctor Faustus. The action covers twenty-four years of Faustus' life, and ranges over most of Europe in presenting his adventures: far from trying to concentrate his plot in the manner of a Corneille or a Racine, by observing on his stage the same physical limitations which would govern it as a location in the real world, Marlowe exploits the stage as a world free from the laws of time and place. His stage is exciting precisely because it is not true to nature in the respects laid down by Sidney, and evidently in this disregard for probability he was perpetuating the habits of popular drama. No doubt Marlowe's play, like those of his predecessors, would have been better constructed if more attention had been paid to the unities, affording concentration and probability, and no doubt some tightening-up along these lines would have spared us from the low farce in the middle of the play (the episodes included in the 1616 Quarto but omitted from the 1604 Quarto suggest a play of potentially variable length: with twenty-four adventure-packed years to choose from in the source book there was no lack of material). But a neo-classical Doctor Faustus would be a radically different play, for the most successful effects of Marlowe's tragedy are also derived from his conception of dramatic illusion. Even his poetry is employed to convince us of the reality of impossibilities.

The methods with which Marlowe, Shakespeare and their contemporaries went to work make it easy to understand why the unities of time and place were never properly accepted in Elizabethan drama. It was essentially a narrative art, transposing for the stage stories from non-dramatic sources, and retaining that multiplicity of incident which was so much to Elizabethan taste, as we can also see in the Faerie Queen and the Arcadia. The chronicle play, with its seemingly intractable material drawn from the flux of history, was a characteristic Elizabethan invention. In dramatising these narratives playwrights found certain means of compressing or externalising action in the stage conventions surviving from the moralities and interludes. Thus, Marlowe uses the rather awkward device of the Good and Bad Angels to project the conflict over Faustus' soul as though he were the everyman of the older allegorical drama, and the counsel offered by the saintly Old Man is clearly derived from the same tradition. The conventions of the soliloquy permitted Marlowe to schematise and compress a train of thought, as in the opening scene of the play, where Faustus' review and rejection of each branch of learning is presented in formal terms that summarise and represent an interior process independent of time. The physical shape of the projecting stage itself, in a theatre open to the sky, also assisted the playwright in freeing his scenes from any localised setting.

On a stage where the laws of material reality are suspended at will, Marlowe's disregard of probability is at one with Faustus' flouting of divine commandment, and Faustus' demonic power over nature is both image and source of the drama's hold upon its spectators. We are, as literally as possible, spellbound. As with Tamburlaine's astounding progress, the spectators collaborate readily in this vicarious experience of infinitely extended power, which affords a conscious exhilaration and sense of release. At its simplest level, the illusion enlists merely a kind of wish-fulfilment or indulged fantasy; the havoc which Faustus creates at the Pope's banquet, like Tamburlaine's treatment of captive kings, is an obvious appeal to our secret and anarchic fantasies, thinly veiled in good Protestant sentiment.

Few Elizabethan playwrights had any qualms about the spectacular, and in Doctor Faustus Marlowe seems to exult in the power of dramatic illusion: the first entrance of Mephostophilis, the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins, the vision of Helen, each show Marlowe's love of strong visual appeal. But the pull of the magic stage is not dependent on spectacle alone, and what Marlowe cannot present in material form he conjures in lyrical, almost ecstatic poetry, so that we are caught up in Faustus' swelling aspirations of becoming a "demi-god":

How am I glutted with conceit of this! Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, Resolve me of all ambiguities, Perform what desperate enterprise I will? 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; 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 make swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg …

In later scenes there is more in this vein, which recalls Tamburlaine's vaunting speeches, where the insistent future tense opens up vistas of fantastic splendour. The characteristic Marlovian mode extends the boundaries of the drama far beyond the physical limits of the stage, and the elemental powers of the universe seem to attend at the summons of this mighty rhetoric. Well might Faustus say, "I see there's virtue in my heavenly words". The visions which haunt the imaginations of Marlowe's ambitious heroes are as much a part of the action as the machinery of spectacular showmanship, and expressed with that vividness and brilliance which the Elizabethans termed enargia. Marlowe's poetry is an important vehicle of dramatic illusion; its purpose is to make us feel as much aware of the visions described as though we were seeing them with our own eyes:

Learned Faustus, To find the secrets of astronomy, Graven in the book of Jove's high firmament, Did mount him up to scale Olympus' top, Where, sitting in a chariot burning bright Drawn by the strength of yoked dragons' necks, He views the clouds, the planets, and the stars, The tropics, zones, and quarters of the sky, From the bright circle of the homed 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.

Here the verbal tense shifts from past to present to reinforce the illusion, and under the spell of this poetry the invisible regions are revealed before us, transcending the narrow confines of the stage: the poetry partakes of that power with which language calls forth the spirits of another world. Whatever else in Marlowe's play would have displeased Sir Philip Sidney, here indeed is that "vigor of his owne invention" which Sidney attributed to the true poet, in a passage that draws more upon Platonism than upon the Aristotelian doctrine of mimesis:

Nature can never set forth the earth in so rich tapistry as divers Poets have done, neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet smelling flowers, nor whatsoever els may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brasen, the Poets only deliver a golden.

By creating a world more compelling in its imaginary vastness and beauty than the actors' scaffold which, stripped of the illusion, is all that actually exists, Marlowe's verse is performing the tasks which Elizabethans assumed to constitute the art of poetry. To move, to persuade, to convince, were the ends to which the poet applied his mastery over language, while the rhetoricians and figurists documented the means by which he was able to sway those whom he addressed.

Yet the transforming spell which this rhetoric exerts upon the drama never rests complete, for the tragedy will show that the magic is a cheat, and that Faustus, who would be a "demi-god", is "but a man condemn'd to die". The tragedy demands simultaneously the breathtaking sense of infinite time and space, the persuasive vision of supernatural wealth and beauty, and also the awareness that these are illusions, an underlying feeling of disenchantment. This sense of the emptiness of Faustus' ambitions, however vast and splendid they are, is first apparent in his interrogation of Mephostophilis, through the revelation that the demon has come of his own accord, not under the compulsion of Faustus' conjuring. In fact the characterisation of Mephostophilis in his grave and melancholy replies to Faustus, invests him and the infernal regions whence he came with a reality and dignity besides which the bravado of Faustus is now seen with critical detachment as a foolish deception we can no longer share:

F. Tell me, what is that Lucifer thy lord? M. Arch-regent and commander of all spirits. F. Was not that Lucifer an angel once? M. Yes, Faustus, and most dearly lov'd of God. F. How comes it then that he is prince of devils? M. 0, by aspiring pride and insolence, For which God threw him from the face of heaven. F. And what are you that live with Lucifer? M. Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer, Conspir'd against our God with Lucifer, And are for ever damn'd with Lucifer. F. Where are you damn'd? M. In hell. F. How comes it then that thou art out of hell? M. Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think'st thou that 1, who saw the face of God And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, Am not tormented with ten thousand hells In being depriv'd of everlasting bliss? 0 Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, Which strike a terror to my fainting soul. F. 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.

In this first part of the play, the initiative seems to pass from Faustus to his attendant spirit: his disbelief in the pains of hell, his hubristic blindness, strike hollow against the measured affirmation of Mephostophilis that "Where we are is hell,/ And where hell is, there must we ever be", and his magic powers dwindle to a mere means of diversion when Faustus dismisses the subject and asks to be given a wife. Later, he calls upon Christ, and with a terrifying stroke of irony, he is confronted instead by Beelzebub. It seems as though the satanic powers have assumed complete control. There is a shift in the dramatic illusion; the fantasies of magic lose their conviction in the face of Mephostophilis' passionate suffering, Faustus' hubris serves as a foil to heighten the awesome reality of hell, and the demon seems paradoxically more tragic and human than the man. Having at the outset enlisted our belief in a stage free from the limitations of natural probability, Marlowe now sets off those boundless visions of enchantment against the eternal tortures of the damned, an imprisonment infinitely more terrible than the circumscription of nature's law, and in the device of this new perspective which secures our acquiescence, it is an illusion of much more compelling reality. Sufficiently compelling, at least, to foster one or two strange stories about contemporary performances, such as the following:

Certain Players at Exeter, acting upon the stage the tragical storie of Dr. Faustus the Conjurer; as a certain nomber of Devels kept everie one his circle there, and as Faustus was busie in his magicall invocations, on a sudden they were all dasht, every one harkning other in the eare, for they were all perswaded, there was one devell too many amongst them; and so after a little pause desired the people to pardon them, they could go no further with this matter; the people also understanding the thing as it was, every man hastened to be first out of dores. The players (as I heard it) contrarye to their custome spending the night in reading and in prayer got them out of the town the next morning.

The scenes with Mephostophilis in the first half of the play are a remarkable piece of dramatic writing. The creation of dialogue does not seem to have come easily to Marlowe, who preferred wherever possible the direct impact upon the audience conveyed in set speeches, with their greater scope for the soaring rhetoric of his mighty line. Even the earliest of Shakespeare's plays have a fluency and genuine engagement between the characters in dialogue that are seldom found in Marlowe's work. The dialogue between Faustus and Mephostophilis is a catechism, a formal interrogation, in which the demon expounds theology and astronomy and explains the terms of the bond Faustus wishes to make. Yet Marlowe manages to transform this rather cramped framework into a vehicle of astonishing dramatic interest: Mephostophilis is characterised through his reluctance to dwell upon the suffering that Faustus cannot grasp as real, and through those baffling retorts which reveal his unsuspected independent volition:

F. Did not he charge thee to appear to me? M. No, I came hither of mine own accord. F. Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee? Speak. M. That was the cause, but yet per accidens.

The middle scenes of the play have been universally condemned. I do not believe they can be redeemed on the grounds that the descent to mere buffoonery and triviality is a deliberate stratagem to underline Faustus' self-deception or the Devil's fraudulency. The play simply does not possess that kind of unity, and our uppermost impression, that this section lacks tragic intensity, is not to be argued away by over-sophisticated interpretation. Perhaps only Shakespeare at the height of his powers was able to sublimate clowning and farcical indignities to a level of high seriousness, as in Hamlet, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra: even here he did not discard the knockabout-horseplay which was so firmly rooted in the traditions of popular drama. However different in tone, and whoever actually wrote them, the middle scenes in Doctor Faustus were licensed by dramatic usage and authorised by the source-book. That does not make them any better than they are, but we should perhaps not so much think of them as letting down the rest of the play as rather marvel at the poetic heights to which Marlowe was able to lift other parts of his material. His sins were those of omission rather than commission, though it is doubtful whether this troubled Marlowe greatly in the business of transposing the Faust Book for the stage: certain moments and situations suggested opportunities for effects of grandeur and rapture, which Marlowe exploited according to his gifts. That he did not raise all the material to the same exalted level indicates the limited range of his genius, and the best that may be said of these scenes of low comedy is that however frivolous, they are not on that account altogether tedious. Much more instructive is the fact that the same exploitation of scenic illusion underlies the farcical episodes and the scenes of great tragic intensity alike.

The vision of Helen is remembered for the brilliance of Faustus' invocation. Yet this scene depends too upon the presentation of magic in terms of theatrical spectacle. From its context the rapturous hymn to beauty gains a richness of meaning and implication which eludes us if we read it as a detachable piece of lyric verse:

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies! Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again. 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 sack'd, And I will combat with weak Menelaus And wear thy colours on my plumed crest, Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel And then return to Helen for a kiss. 0, thou art fairer than the evening air Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars, Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter When he appear'd to hapless Semele, More lovely than the monarch of the sky In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms, And none but thou shalt be my paramour.

The speech is wonderfully articulated in three sweeping movements, the second strophe beginning with that evocation of the heroic world which reaches a minor climax in returning "to Helen for a kiss" before the final strophe takes flight to a yet more ecstatic pitch. Faustus commences, we notice, with a tribute to the power of beauty, as though he recognises in Helen's charms an enchantment akin to his own demonic powers. The properties of magic communicate themselves through the poetry, which in its imagery and rhythm first transforms Faustus and Wittenberg into Paris and Troy, and then metamorphoses Helen and her lover into gods. Here in the final part of the speech there is a curious reversal of roles implied in the images: Helen's appearance before Faustus is compared to that of Jupiter to Semele, and that of Apollo to Arethusa. In each case the literal sense asserts that Helen's beauty is figured in the male god, but the inclusion of Semele and "wanton Arethusa" assist the transposition which we naturally make, so that what we actually understand by these lines is that Faustus has himself assumed the majesty (and immortality) of the gods, while Helen really takes her place with the nymphs. It is a subtle effect, a species of enchantment that not only deifies but also suggests a sexual metamorphosis in the union with Helen.

Faustus' poetry invests Helen and himself with mythological splendour; it lifts them into another dimension of illusion, and clothes the nakedness of the stage. It is a kind of speech used on several occasions by Shakespeare, whenever the presence of a character was of itself insufficient to create the heightened awareness and romantic mood he required. So Romeo identifies the vision of Juliet at her balcony with the beauty of the stars, in a speech which simultaneously lends to Juliet an added loveliness and creates the necessary setting of night; Portia is transformed to a fabulous treasure in Bassanio's words, even before we have seen her,

… the four winds blow in from every coast Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks Hang on her temples like a golden fleece, Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos' strand, And many Jasons come in quest of her …;

and, most magical of all, the silent Hermione is at last restored to her husband, transformed to a statue, before she becomes alive indeed: a double metamorphosis. Faustus' verbal transfiguration of Helen may help to disguise the limitations of the boy actor, but as the rhapsodic verse sweeps us from Bankside and Wittenberg to the Golden Age, we become aware of an undertone of dramatic irony which runs counter to the soaring curve of his vision. His very urgency, while it impels our imaginative participation, yet betrays his desperation; there is no mistaking the anguished recollection of his bond in the cry,

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss,

or the hint in the succeeding lines that Helen is a phantom, a demonic spirit who would indeed suck forth his soul:

Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips, And all is dross that is not Helena.

The ironies reveal a lurking horror even to those spectators who failed to recall the Metamorphoses of Ovid, where Semele was reduced to ashes by her heavenly visitor, and where the embrace of Arethusa was unattainable, since she was transformed into rippling water to evade the lustful clutches of Alpheus. The dramatic excitement in the speech is generated entirely in terms of illusion: we are made to confess to both the glamour and the sham of the vision, for each have a "reality" of their own. The tragic insight depends upon this double awareness.

Marlowe skilfully manages the foreboding which now gathers over the closing episodes of the play. Faustus' farewell to the scholars is well placed as a subdued and elegiac prose prelude to the catastrophe, that sustained soliloquy which by a staggering tour de force keys the emotional pitch of the tragedy to almost unendurable climax. In sheer virtuosity there was nothing in Elizabethan drama to match Faustus' last speech for several years to come. The kind of advance in the technique of the soliloquy which it represents can be measured by comparing it with the soliloquy at the opening of the play. There Faustus' rejection of legitimate studies is displayed in a schematised logical progression which summarises and crystallises the steps which led him to necromancy. The speech is evidently contrived, and within its conventions it does not require us to suppose that it represents any particular moment in Faustus' psychological history. The conception of the final soliloquy is radically different: it does move in the plane of time, as the stark simplicity of the first monosyllables announces:

Ah, Faustus, Now hast thou but one bare hour to live.

The effects Marlowe is striving for here are those of spontaneity; the conception is much more inward, and dramatises the fleeting thoughts as though they were actually passing through Faustus' mind at the time. Instead of the predictable controlled development of the opening soliloquy, here are confusion and contradiction, the very process of the struggle to come to terms with the situation. Of course, the deliberate preconceived movement of the earlier speech befits our impression of the confident Faustus which the beginning of the play requires, and the action must open on a comparatively low emotional pitch, while at the catastrophe the situation demands a frantic and desperate Faustus, and high tension. But the soliloquies are not accounted for in terms of their contexts alone: there is an essential difference in their dramatic representation of inner processes. In the final speech, Marlowe created what was virtually a new vehicle for articulating with immediacy the flux and uncertainty of a mind under pressure. It is only the exaggeration of this vital difference to say that previous soliloquies demanded an orator, while this calls for an actor. As an attempt to turn the speech of distraction into poetry, Faustus' last soliloquy has affinities with Kyd's development of Senecan rhetoric, particularly in his invention of stage madness as an occasion for wild and whirling words.

The licence Marlowe boldly permits himself with metre here is the fundamental means of creating an impression of bursts of rapid speech punctuated by irregular pauses. Figures of repetition, like "Fair nature's eye, rise, rise again", "See, see, where Christ's blood …", "Mountains and hills, come, come", and climatic constructions, such as

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike, The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd,

allow the poetry to take wing, until the flight is sharply arrested often by means of a heavy caesura. A static delivery is impossible, and the strenuous vehemence carried by the disjointed verse insists upon the physical movements implied by the sense. It is impossible to give full weight to "O, I'll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?" with the same gesture as in

Then will I headlong run into the earth. Earth, gape! 0, no, it will not harbour me.

The chimes of the clock are a further cue for action, and this device illustrates how Marlowe succeeds in organically relating the speech to the stage, compared with the static and perhaps literally sedate character of the opening soliloquy. This final scene has returned to Faustus' study, where the play began; yet however localised, the swift transitions which the soliloquy makes in its verbal imagery, from the heavens and planets, to the earth with her mountains and thence to the ugly gaping of hell-mouth, seem to conjure the whole creation to witness the catastrophe. It is a magnificent recollection of the medieval stage which transforms Faustus' study into a microcosm.

This is the supreme example of Marlowe's ability to create dramatic illusion through his poetry. Faustus' flights into other magical realms, away from the here and now, have in earlier scenes been the dramatic occasions for extending the fixed "realities" of the stage into the imaginary dimensions of poetry. The resources of the dramatist have corresponded to those of the magician. Not elation but terror now inspires Faustus' vision of all that lies beyond the physical boundaries of the stage. He conjures the elements in vain, and even if Marlowe's groundlings failed to applaud the full brilliance of giving such a strange context to a line from Ovid, "O lente, lente currite, noctis equi" they would nevertheless recognise in the Latin another esoteric piece of sorcery, which it is. Faustus' magic is no longer of any help to him, but in the imagery of his lines we as spectators seem to become part of a cosmic audience attending his last hour. The theatre scarcely seems able to contain the scene, and yet, paradoxically, Faustus' utter helplessness conveys an almost claustrophobic awareness of confinement, as though the study is a cage from which he is frantically trying to escape.

One cannot say which is the more "real", the illusion of a vast scene embracing heaven, earth and hell, or the illusion of a stage that has shrunk to cramping dimensions. But both are mutually dependent. Faustus is at bay, trapped in a corner, and yet his end is a universal drama. The dramatic effect, perfectly accommodated to the physical conditions of the Elizabethan stage, is derived principally from Marlowe's solution to the problems of space and time, the same problems which neo-classicism solved in terms of the unities. The awareness of Faustus' existence in these two simultaneous illusions of space generates tremendous dramatic tension and corresponds to a similar duality in the plane of time, each equally illusory. Faustus is now trapped by the clock, and by a bold theatrical device time passes with unerring swiftness: the minutes have diminished to seconds, just as the stage seems to have contracted, and closed in upon the doomed man. Yet we are intensely aware too of timeless infinity, of the imminence of perpetual damnation. The whole tragic conflict is epitomised and crowded into this final scene, for these contrary tensions dramatise that antithesis between human and superhuman for which Marlowe saw no certain reconciliation.

Doctor Faustus in its own time considerably extended the range of dramatic techniques, and it is not surprising that the play had its imitators. The treatment of necromancy in Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 2 (where Margery Jourdain the witch is introduced), merely exploit the unsophisticated appeal of spectacular conjuring tricks, but Shakespeare also made an unsuccessful attempt to reproduce the effects of Faustus' last soliloquy in Richard the Third's speech on the eve of his defeat:

Have mercy, Jesu! Soft! I did but dream. O coward conscience, how thou dost afflict me! The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight. Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh. What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by. Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. Is there a murderer here? No—yes, I am. Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why— Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself? Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good That I myself have done unto myself? O no! Alas, I rather hate myself For hateful deeds committed by myself …

There is ample evidence that the popularity of DoctorFaustus survived the turn of the century, and even Jonson's Alchemist pays homage to Marlowe's play, reducing the theme to comic terms by presenting the illusion of magic power as a series of delusions: Sir Epicure Mammon's luxurious fantasies are doubtless meant to parody the rhapsodic poetry of Faustus. Ultimately, however, it was Shakespeare who learned most from Marlowe's exploitation of theatrical illusion, and he developed the dramatic ideas found in Doctor Faustus nowhere more effectively than in Mabeth and The Tempest. The fear and guilt that haunt Macbeth and his wife through their soliloquies and hallucinations transform the stage to a nightmare world that supplants "reality", "and nothing is but what is not". As Faustus was shown the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins, so the witches reveal the procession of phantom kings before Macbeth. In The Tempest, however, the powers of magic are not satanic: Prospero's virtue is a condition of his art, which he employs in the cause of merciful justice. The image of the stage itself as a magic circle becomes explicit in the closing lines of Prospero's Epilogue, and we may not be deceived if we catch an echo of that earlier magician in his words:

              Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; And my ending is despair Unless I be reliev'd by prayer, Which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself, and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon'd be, Let your indulgence set me free.

The conceit is well-turned, for the spectators are here reminded of the necessary part they themselves bear in working the enchantment. Shakespeare bade farewell to the theatre with a play that celebrated his own art through the nobility and virtue of a magician. What better tribute could be paid to Marlowe, whose Faustus was damned, but whose genius redeemed the magic of stage illusion from the censure that it lacked both dignity and beauty.

G. K. Hunter (essay date 1964)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5540

SOURCE: "Five-Act Structure in Doctor Faustus," in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 8, No. 4, Summer, 1964, pp. 77-91. Reprinted in Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 13-25.

[In the following essay, Hunter analyzess the reluctance of Romantic critics to treat Doctor Faustus as a theatrical work and argues for the dramatic unity of the play.]

The original and substantive texts of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (the Quartos of 1604 and 1616) present the play completely without the punctuation of act division or scene enumeration. This is common enough in the play-texts of the period. Indeed it is much the commonest form in plays written for the public theatres. Shakespeare's Henry V and Pericles are without divisions in their quarto texts, but we know that they were written with a five-act structure in mind—the choruses tell us that.

What is exceptional in the textual history of Doctor Faustus is not the lack of division in the original texts; it is rather the reluctance of modern editors to impose an act-structure on the modern texts. This is curious, but it seems possible to discern why the reluctance exists and a survey of the modern editions of Faustus throws some interesting light on critical attitudes to the subject matter of the play.

Marlowe (like other Elizabethan dramatists) was "rediscovered" by the educated English public in an atmosphere which played down his specifically dramatic and theatrical powers. Charles Lamb's Specimens of the English dramatic poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare (1808) established him primarily as a poet. This, as I say, did not distinguish him from other dramatists of the period. But the attitudes implied by Lamb's volume were more difficult to shake off in the case of Doctor Faustus than in other Elizabethan plays; for here they were reinforced, later in the century, by a second wave of anti-theatrical (or at least a-theatrical) influence. In 1887 the young Havelock Ellis (then a medical student) suggested to Henry Vizetelly, well known in "advanced" circles as a courageous though rather risque publisher, that he should put out a series of unexpurgated (key word!) texts of the Elizabethan dramatists—the famous "Mermaid" series. The Marlowe, the first volume in the series, was edited by Ellis himself, and may be taken as a manifesto of the whole new movement. It bore proudly on the title-page the legend Unexpurgated, not simply because the usual casual indecencies of clown conversations were preserved, but rather because an appendix carried the full testimony of the informer Richard Baines "concernynge [Marlowe's] damnable opinions and judgment of Religion and scorne of Gods worde," to which Ellis added the even more offensive comment that such "damnable opinions … have, without exception, been substantially held, more or less widely, by students of science and the Bible in our own days." To say this of remarks like "Moses was but a juggler," "that Christ better deserved to die than Barabas," etc., was to push Marlowe into the front line of the late Victorian battle against bourgeois values. Marlowe appears as a social rebel and religious freethinker (like Ellis himself) and this comes to reinforce the earlier view that he was primarily a poet. The two attitudes join together, in fact, to suggest that he was a poet because he was a freethinker, rejecting social conventions in order to achieve his individual and personal vision. He becomes the morning-star of the 1890s, a harder and more gemlike Oscar Wilde.

In order to preserve the image of Marlowe as a cultfigure of this kind it is necessary to discount the theatrical, and so popular, provenance of his work. If he was the laureate of the atheistical imagination, he must have stood at a considerable distance from his rudely Christian audience; and this assumption presses especially heavily upon Doctor F aus tus, whose hero is himself a freethinker and (by implication at least) a poet. It is not surprising therefore to find Ellis saying in his headnote to Faustus: "I have retained the excellent plan introduced by Professor Ward and adopted by Mr. Bullen, of dividing the play into scenes only; it is a dramatic poem rather than a regular drama." In the face of this critical assurance, and with the Zeitgeist exerting the kind of pressure that I have described, the earlier editorial practice of presenting the play in five acts, derived from the 1663 Quarto by Robinson (1826) and continued in Cunningham (1870), Wagner (1877), and Morley (1883), withered away. It was not until the bibliographical breakthrough of Boas, Kirschbaum, and Greg (1932, 1946, 1950) that the play reappeared in the five-act form. (I mean the perception that the 1616 text must be the basis of any modern recension. In this text the nature of the structure is much clearer; and it was, in fact, the reading of Greg's editio minor that first made clear to me the precision with which the play moved. Greg himself, however, hedges his bets. He finds the act division "convenient in discussing the construction of the play" and so presents it to the reader; but he confides to us in a footnote that "I see no reason to suppose that any act division was originally contemplated." His argument is that there is too great a disproportion between the numbers of lines to be found in the different acts for these to make just divisions. A rereading of The Winter's Tale, in which act 4 is two and a half times as long as act 3, ought to convince us of the peculiarity of this mode of assessment. It may be, of course, that Shakespeare also ought to be presented without act-division. But no editor has yet had the courage to present his text in this way.) Even after their labours the old attitudes persist. The edition by Kocher (1950) is divided into scenes only, and the recent replacement of Boas by the "Revels" edition of J. D. Jump (1962) avoids the act divisions: "Neither Al [1604] nor B1 [1616] makes any attempt to divide the play into acts and scenes, so no such distribution is given prominence in the present edition." It may be sufficient reply to this to quote the recent comment of W. T. Jewkes, who has analysed the act structure of all the plays in the period:

The plays of the "University wits," however, appear both undivided and divided. On a closer inspection it was evident that the clearly divided texts from this group were those which showed least sign of playhouse annotation, while those which retained fragmentary division, or none at all, showed signs of adaptation for performance. It is evident then that these dramatists divided their plays originally, but that adaptation for the stage resulted in either the total or partial loss of act headings.

(Act Division in Elizabethan andJacobean Plays, 1583-1616)

This argument might well be augmented, in the particular case of Doctor Faustus, by reference to the choruses which mark the beginnings of some of the acts, or by repeating Boas's observations about the material taken from the Faustbook. But it is not my purpose here to argue in detail the textual or theatrical probability that Faustus is in five-act form. I rather wish to look at the developing movement of the play to see if the act divisions accepted by Boas and others correspond to anything in the inner economy of the work, marking progressive stages in an organized advance through the material. Since Goethe remarked, "How greatly is it all planned" in 1829, many have been found to repeat his encomium, but few to justify it. I would suggest that the play is planned greatly, even precisely, in five clear stages (or acts), moving forward continuously in a single direction. I am assuming, when I say this, that the text as we have it in the 1616 Quarto is the product of a unified organizing intelligence. Marlowe may have had a collaborator, but I do not believe that we can detect his work—and a stroke of Occam's razor makes him disappear.

The first point I should like to make is that the action (I deal only with the main plot at the moment) moves through clearly separable stages. Act 1 is concerned (as is usual) with setting up the situation and introducing the principal characters. Here we learn the nature of Faustus's desires, set against the limiting factor of his nature; we meet Mephistophilis and the contrast between the two is made evident. Act 2 begins with a preliminary reminder (found before each act of the play) of the stage at which the action has arrived:

Now Faustus must thou needs be damned, And canst thou not be saved. What boots it then to think on God or heaven?(2.1.1-3)

In act 1, the temptation to think of heaven is hardly present; but the subject here announced is the warp on which much of the main-plot action of act 2 is woven. The conflict is now entered upon in real earnest. The introductory note to act 3 is more obvious, being handled by the "Chorus." He tells us that "Learned Faustus," having searched into the secrets of Astronomy, now is gone to prove Cosmography. He is in fact completing his Grand Tour when we meet him, having taken in Paris, Mainz, Naples, Venice, and Padua, and is newly arrived in Rome, "Queen of the Earth" as Milton's Satan calls it, and the summation of worldly grandeur. Mephistophilis describes the sights, and then conducts his master into the highest social circles in the city, and so in the world.

Act 3 is spent in Rome; act 4 in the courts of Germany. The introductory Chorus makes clear the distinction between "the view / Of rarest things" which is the substance of act 3 and the "trial of his art" which is what we are to see in act 4. The introductory speech to act 5 is spoken by Wagner, Faustus's servant, who is confused in one text with the Chorus, and who is exercising here what is clearly a choric function. His first line marks the change of key: "I think my master means to die shortly." Act 5 is concerned with preparations and prevarications in the face of death.

It is obvious enough, I suggest, that each act handles a separate stage in Faustus's career. But it is not obvious from what I have said that the stages move forward in any single and significant line of development. To see that they do requires a fairly laborious retracing of the action, seen now in the light of what was more obvious to Marlowe and his audience than to us—the supposed hierarchy of studies.

The opening lines of the play show us Faustus trying to settle his studies; the opening speech, with this aim in mind, moves in an orthodox direction through the academic disciplines, beginning with logic, here representative of the whole undergraduate course of Liberal Arts, through the Noble Sciences of Medicine and Law and so to the Queen of Sciences, Divinity. So far, the movement has been, as I say, completely orthodox, and a frame of reference has been neatly established. But, having reached Divinity, Faustus still hopes to advance, and can only do so in reverse:

      Divinity, adieu! These metaphysics of magicians And negromantic books are heavenly.(1.1.49-51)

(I preserve the original form negromantic, though most modernizing editors change it to necromantic. This seems to me to be a greater change than is warranted by a licence to modernize. It is the "black art" in general that Faustus is welcoming, not the power to raise the dead.)

At this point he passes, as it were, through the looking glass; he goes on trying to evaluate experience, but his words of value (like "heavenly") now mean the opposite of what they should. The "profit and delight … power … honour … omnipotence" that he promises himself through the practice of magic are all devalued in advance. By embracing negromancy he ensures that worthwhile ends cannot be reached; and the rest of the play is a demonstration of this, moving as it does in a steadily downward direction.

The route taken by Faustus in his descent through human activities was, I think, intended to be easily understood by the original audience, and again I suggest that it is the structure of knowledge as at that time understood that provides the key. Divinity was, as I have noted, the "Queen of the Sciences." Not only so, but it was the discipline which gave meaning to all other knowledge and experience. Hugh of St Victor expresses the idea succinctly: "All the natural arts serve divine science, and the lower order leads to the higher." In Marlowe's own day the same point is made, more elaborately, in the popular French Academy of La Primaudaye:

What would it availe or profit us to have and attaine unto the knowledge and understanding of all humane and moral] Philosophy, Logicke, Phisicke, Metaphisicke, and Mathematick … not to bee ignorant of any thing, which the liberall arts and sciences teach us, therewith to content the curious minds of men and by that means to give them a tast, and to make them enjoy some kind of transitory good in this life: and in the meane time to be altogether and wholy ignorant, or badly instructed, in the true and onely science of divine Philosophy, whereat all the rest ought to aime.

(Preface to book 4)

But if one rejects the final cause here supposed, what happens to the rest of knowledge? This is the question that the play asks and pursues. In what direction does the Icarus of learning fall when he abandons the orthodox methods of flight? The order of topics in the medieval encyclopaedias gives one some clue here. These regularly begin with God and divine matters. Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum starts from the Creator, then moves to "the empyrean heaven and the nature of angels," then to "the formless material and the making of the world; the nature and the properties of things created," then to the human state and its ramifications. The De Rerum Natura attributed to Bede and William of Conches's Philosophia Mundi have the same four-book order. Book 1 deals with God; book 2 with the heavens; book 3 with the lower atmosphere; book 4 with the earth, so down to man and his human activities. The Proem to book 4 (identical in both works) gives a fair indication of the nature of the movement assumed:

The series of books which began with the First Cause has now descended to The Earth, not catering for itching ears nor loitering in the minds of fools, but dealing with what is useful to the reader. For now is that verse fulfilled: "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears." (2 Timothy, iv, 3). But since the mind of the honest man does not turn after wickedness, but conforms itself to the better way, let us tum to the remaining subjects, in the interest of a mind of this kind, estranged from wickedness and conformable to virtue.

In Marlowe's own day this order of topics appeared in works as popular as the Baldwin-Palfreyman Treatise of Moral Philosophy (innumerable editions from 1557 to 1640), in Palfreyman's companion Treatise of Heavenly Philosophy, and in William Vaughan's The Golden Grove (1600, 1608). The French Academy, which Marlowe has been supposed to have known, uses the same organization of topics but treats them in reverse order, upwards from (1) "the institution of manners and callings of all estates," through (2) "concerning the soule and body of man," and (3) "a notable description of the whole world … Angels … the foure elements … fowles, fishes, beasts …" etc. to (4) "Christian philosophy, instructing the true and onely meanes to eternall life." It seems reasonable to suppose that Marlowe knew this system of knowledge; and it is my assertion that he used it to plan the relationship of the parts of Doctor Faustus.

When Faustus has signed away his soul, the first fruits of his new "power … honour … omnipotence" appear in the knowledge of astronomy that he seeks. Astronomy is a heavenly art, no doubt—it appears early in the encyclopaedias—but it is one that is not obviously dependent on divinity. Yet here it leads by the natural process that the encyclopaedists describe to the question of first cause. If the heavens involve more than the tedium of mechanics ("these slender questions Wagner can decide") then astronomy leads straight back to the fundamental question: Who made the world? But, under the conditions of knowledge that Faustus has embraced, this basic question cannot be answered, for it is "against our kingdom." The trap closes on the pseudo-scholar and forces him backwards and downwards.

This is the movement—backwards into ever more superficial shallows of knowledge and experience—which continues inexorably throughout the whole play, as it must, given the initial choice. Baulked in act 2 from the full pursuit of astronomy, in act 3 Faustus turns to cosmography, from the heavens to the earth. But the charms of sightseeing pall, and a magical entree even to the "best" society in the world involves only a tediously superficial contact. Marlowe's age had serious doubts about the importance of cosmography (or geography) as an object of human endeavour. The French Academy treats it under the heading of "curiosity and novelty," as a destructively unserious pursuit. The drop in the status of Faustus's activities is nicely caught by the change of tone between the Chorus at the beginning of act 3 and that introducing act 4. The first tells us that

         Learned Faustus To find the secrets of astronomy Graven in the book of Jove's high firmament Did mount him up to scale Olympus' top.(3.Prol. 1-4)

We seem here still to be dealing with a genuine search for knowledge. But in the later chorus we hear only that

When Faustus had with pleasure ta'en the view Of rarest things and royal courts of kings, He stay'd his course and so returned home.(4.Prol. 1-3; my italics)

The emphasis is no longer on the search after knowledge, with discovery, presumably, as the aimed-for end, but with what is more appropriate to the diabolical premise ("that is not against our kingdom"), with pleasure taken and then given up, without reaching forward to the final causes. Faustus's merry japes among the cardinals are enjoyed by the protagonist, and are clearly meant to be enjoyed by the audience; but nothing more than pleasure is involved, and given the giant pretensions of the first act, the omission is bound to be a factor in our view of the Roman scenes.

Faustus not only views Rome. He also dabbles in statecraft, rescuing the Antipope Bruno and transporting him back to his supporters in Germany. The step from cosmography to statecraft is similar to that from astronomy to cosmography. In each case we have a reduction in the area covered, and an increasing remoteness from first causes. The panoply of state is not here (as it usually is in Shakespeare) an awesome and a righteous thing. It is not approached through the lives of those who must live and suffer inside the system, but via the structure of knowledge, so that it is the relationship to divinity rather than the power over individual lives that is the determining factor in our attitude. The ludicrous antics at the Papal court have usually been seen as a simple piece of Protestant propaganda, pleasing to the groundlings and inserted for no better reason. Yet one can see that this episode (placed where it is) has its own unique part to play in the total economy of the work. It is proper to start Faustus's descent through the world from the highest point, in Rome; it is equally proper to begin his social and political descent with the Vicar of Christ (and so down to Emperor, to Duke, and back to private life). By turning the conduct of the papal court into farce Marlowe devalues all sovereignty and political activity in advance. Bruno (and his tiara) are saved; but there is no suggestion that he has any more virtue to recommend him; he has no real function in the play except to reduce the title and state of the Pope to a mere name.

There is no suggestion in this act that Faustus himself is aware of the startling discrepancy between the actual happenings and the promises he made to himself (and to us) at the beginning of the play. The audience, however, can hardly forget so soon; and our memory is reinforced in the papal palace by the ritual threats of damnation uttered by the Pope and friars. It is no doubt comic that the Pope should be boxed on the ear and exclaim, "Damn'd be this soul for ever for this deed," but we should not fail to notice the sinister echo reverberating behind the horseplay; the curse is comic at this point, but sinister in the context of the whole action.

Act 4 carries the descent of Faustus one more clear step, by still further reducing the importance of the area in which he operates. I have mentioned the social descent to the secular courts of Emperor and Duke of Vanholt. At the same time there is a descent in terms of the kind of activity that the magic procures. Faustus's anti-Papal activities can be seen as political action of a kind, and this aspect would be more obvious to the Elizabethans than it is to us (involved, as they were, in the kind of struggle depicted). But in act 4 he is presented quite frankly as a court entertainer or hired conjurer. In the court of Charles V, of course, there is still some intellectual dignity in his activities. Charles's longing, to see "that famous conqueror, Great Alexander, and his paramour," is a kingly interest in a paragon of kingship. But when Faustus goes on to the court of the Duke of Vanholt he is reduced to satisfying nothing more dignified than the pregnant "longings" of the duchess for out-of-season grapes. At the same time his side activities are brought down by a parallel route. At the court of the Emperor he was matched against the disbelieving knights, Frederick, Benvolio, etc.; at Vanholt his opponents are clowns, the Horse-courser, the Hostess.

The last act of Faustus is often thought of as involving restoration of dignity and brilliance to the sadly tarnished magician. In terms of poetic power there is something to be said on this side; but the poetry that Faustus is given in this act serves to do more than simply glorify the speaker. The fiery brilliance of the Helen speech is lit by the Fire of Hell (as has been pointed out by Kirschbaum and others). The imminence of eternal damnation gives strength and urgency to the action, but the actions that Faustus himself can initiate are as trivial and as restricted as one would expect, given the moral development that I have described as operating throughout the rest of the play. There is no change of direction. In acts 3 and 4 we saw Faustus sink steadily from political intrigue at the Curia to fruit-fetching for a longing duchess. The last act shows a consistent extension of this movement. It picks up the role of Faustus as entertainer, but reduces the area of its exercise still further; it is now confined to the enjoyment of some "two or three" private friends, and as an epilogue to what Wagner characterizes by "banquet … carouse … swill … belly-cheer." Helen appears, in short, at the point where one might have expected dancing-girls.

The nature of the object conjured in act 5, no less than the occasion of the conjuring, shows the same logical development of the movement in the preceding acts. Charles V had longed to satisfy an intellectual interest; the Duchess of Vanholt longed for the satisfaction of a carnal but perfectly natural appetite; but the desire to view Helen of Troy is both carnal and (as the ironic word blessed should warn us) reprehensible, and leads logically to the further and final depravity of:

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 embracings may extinguish clear Those thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow And keep mine oath I made to Lucifer.(5.1.90-96)

The circle in which Faustus conjures has now shrunk from the urbs et orbis of Rome to the smallest circle of all. When the dream of power was lost, the gift of entertainment remained; but even this has now faded. The conjuring here exists for an exclusively self-interested and clearly damnable purpose. The loneliness of the damned, summed up in Mephistophilis's cryptic "Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris"—this now is clearly Faustus's lot. Left alone with himself and the mirror of his own damnation in Helen ("Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!"), he is in a situation that cannot be reached by either the Old Man or the students. His descent has taken him below the reach of human aid; and there is a certain terrible splendour in this, as the poetry conveys, but the moral level of this splendour is never in doubt; it is something that the whole weight of the play's momentum presses on our attention, moving steadily as it does, through the clearly defined stages of its act-structure, away from the deluded dream of power and knowledge and downward, inevitably, coherently, and logically, into the sordid reality of damnation.

I have sought to show that the movement of the main plot of Faustus is controlled and splendidly meaningful. It moves in a single direction (downwards) through a series of definite stages which it would be wilfully obscurantist not to call acts. Indeed it conforms, by and large, to the strict form of five-act structure which was taught in Tudor grammar schools, out of the example of Terence. The structural paradigm was, of course, concerned with comedy, and especially the comedy of intrigue, and could not be applied very exactly to a moralistic tragedy like Faustus. But it is easy to see that act 1 of Faustus gives us the introductory materials, act 2 the first moves in the central conflict (Faustus versus the Devil), acts 3 and 4 the swaying back and forward of this conflict, and act 5 the catastrophe.

What is more, these stages of the main plot are reinforced or underlined by a parallel movement going on simultaneously in the subplot. The general relation between the two levels of the plot, the level of spiritual struggle and that of carnal opportunism, is one of parody—a mode of connection that was common in the period. And I should state that by "parody" I do not mean the feeble modern reduction of characteristics to caricature, but rather that multiple presentation of serious themes which relates them both to the man of affairs and to the light-minded clown.

It is not only in the detail of individual scenes that the subplot parodies the main plot: the whole movement of the subplot mirrors that social and intellectual descent that I have traced in the career of Faustus. The first subplot scene concerns Wagner, a man close to Faustus himself. The second comic scene involves Wagner and his servants, Robin and Dick. The third and subsequent scenes show Robin and Dick by themselves, Wagner having disappeared (he reappears—though not as part of the subplot—in 5.1). It has been argued [by F. S. Boas] that this very descent, and the disappearance of Wagner, "suggests a different hand" [not Marlowe's] for the Robin and Dick scenes. This provides an interesting parallel to the assumption that Marlowe cannot be responsible for the main-plot scenes in the middle of the play. At both levels the action descends to trivialities, and the critics close their eyes in dissent. But if the movement is deliberate at one level it seems likely that it is so at the other level also.

Even more impressive than this general movement in the subplot is the accumulation of details in which the action of the subplot scene mirrors that of the contiguous main plot. Thus act 1, scene 1, shows us Faustus using his virtuosity in logic to deceive himself. Scene 2 shows us Wagner as no less able to chop logic and so to avoid the plain meaning of words. As a development from this we see Faustus raising Mephistophilis and arranging that he should be his servant. The following scene shows us Wagner trying to control Robin, who would not "give his soul to the devil for a shoulder of mutton," unless it were "well roasted, and good sauce to it, if I pay so dear." Wagner too has learned how to raise spirits and makes Robin his servant by a parody compact, promising to teach him "to turn thyself to a dog, or a cat, or a mouse, or a rat, or any thing." It may be noted that the general effect of this and the preceding comic scene is to reduce in status and to "place" for us Faustus's pretensions to have conquered a new art by the force of his learning, and to have gained important new powers. When such as Wagner can raise Banio and Belcher, and all for the sake of terrifying Robin, then neither the means nor the ends of magic can be considered sufficient, by themselves, to make the magician a hero.

In act 2, scenes I and 2, Faustus signs his pact with the Devil and has the first fruits of his "new" knowledge. In scene 3 we meet Robin again. The power of raising spirits has declined from Faustus's servant Wagner to Wagner's servant, Robin. He and his fellow, Dick, plan to use one of the conjuring books to get free drink. In act 3 the first two scenes show Doctor Faustus surveying the great cities of Europe and conjuring at Rome. The third scene shows Robin and Dick enjoying themselves in their own clownish way; but it is not now a way that is so remote from that of Faustus. He "took away his holiness' wine," "stole his holiness' meat from the table," "struck Friar Sandelo a blow on the pate"; they steal the Vintner's cup, and when pursued for it they rely (as Faustus does) on magic as a rescue from their scape.

The play began with Faustus and Robin at opposite ends of the spectrum. One was "glutted … with learning's golden gifts," powerful and renowned; the other was ignorant, "out of service," and "hungry." But the process of logical development in the main plot, as I have described it, has by the end of act 3 brought Faustus down through the diminishing circles of his capacity to the point where his powers and Robin's are no longer incommensurate. Up to this point, of course, Faustus and the clowns have never appeared together in any one scene. Such a conjunction would be unthinkable at the beginning of the play. But by act 4 Faustus has himself sunk to the level of a comic entertainer. His relationship to Frederick, Martino, and Benvolio is entirely without dignity or intellectual pretension, and the intrusion of the clowns, Robin, Dick, Carter, Horse-courser, Hostess, into the court of the Duke of Vanholt marks a natural and inevitable climax in the downward movement of the main plot. The comic "Doctor Fustian" is now all the figure that Faustus can cut in the world; the "success" that he has bought so dearly is to be the leader of a troupe of clowns.

There is no doubt a frisson intended between the last line of act 4 and the first line of act 5—between the duchess's appreciation of Faustus's powers: "His artful sport drives all sad thoughts away," and (set against that) Wagner's "I think my master means to die shortly." The contrast between the two lines catches much of the movement from act 4 to act 5. Act 4 is the climax of the subplot interest. Almost the whole act is taken up with triviality of one kind or another, and it ends with the confrontation of main plot and subplot characters, reducing them to one level. Act 5, on the other hand, is without comic relief; and one can see why, in the terms I have outlined, this should be so. Through act 4 we see Faustus's life enmeshed in the triviality that was inherent in the original stipulation of "any thing … that is not against our kingdom." Act 5, as it begins with the mention of death, so continues to move in the shadow of a tragic conclusion. Faustus has now fallen beneath the level of the clowns and horse-courser:

Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul? … Ah, Pythagoras' metempsychosis, were that true, This soul should fly from me and I be changed Into some brutish beast. All beasts are happy, For when they die Their souls are soon dissolved in elements.(5.2.169-75)

The movement of the subplot helps to confirm this view of the general direction of Faustus's development. The constant looming presence of the clownish common man, with his attention set on immediate comforts, serves as a norm against which we may observe and judge the splendours and the miseries of the overweening intellectual.

Susan Snyder (essay date 1966)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4775

SOURCE: "Marlowe's Doctor Faustus as an Inverted Saint's Life," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXIII, No. 4, July, 1966, pp. 565-77.

[In the following essay, Snyder interprets Doctor Faustus as an inverted hagiography, reversing the traditional seven stages toward sainthood and showing Faustus moving away from sanctity rather than to beatitutude.]

Critics have long recognized that Doctor Faustus is both a tragedy and a morality play. Because Faustus despairs, tragedy wins out in the end; but along the way semi-allegorical characters periodically wrestle over the soul of Faustus, reminding us of the contrasting medieval pattern of fall and redemption. Mr. Clifford Davidson1 sees significance in Faustus' Wittenberg background and relates his hardened heart to the Lutheran emphasis on the bondage of the will. Such an emphasis, with its concomitant insistence that fallen man has no power to initiate his own repentance, is surely present in the play, underlying the sense of tragic inevitability. On the other hand, the speeches of the Good and Evil Angels, the Old Man, and Faustus himself convince us dramatically, if not theologically, that repentance is a constant possibility. This plays against the overly deterministic first element and helps to restore the balance of initiative between hero and opposing force important to the tragic effect. Contributing to and sustaining this tragic balance is a third structural pattern: the inverted saint's life.

Marlowe was accused in his own time of holding unorthodox religious views. One target of his attacks, according to both the Kyd deposition and the Baines memorandum, was Scriptural miracles. Kyd and Baines report statements by Marlowe that such miracles were not the work of God but of clever conjurors who could trick simple people with their arts: "Moyses was but a Jugler and … one Heriots being Sir W Raleighs man Can do more than he"; "it was an easy matter for Moyses being brought up in all the artes of the Egiptians to abuse the Jewes being a rude and grosse people."2 We cannot know how seriously these assertions were made; but even if they were only jesting tavern talk it may have been this idea of the saint as magician that led Marlowe to see in his magician, Faustus, a kind of inverted saint. In any case, the events and language of the play present a parody of the conventional saint's life so consistent that it can hardly be an accident.

The saint's life is a didactic biography. As biography it follows the course of the subject's life. As a didactic work, however, it tends to stress certain features of every holy life, so that a kind of predictable pattern usually emerges, containing some or all of the following elements: early life (sometimes wordly and sinful), conversion to God, sacramental reception into the church, struggle against various temptations of the devil (sometimes overcome with the direct aid of God or his agents), miracles and mystic experiences (sometimes climaxed by a form of the beatific vision), holy death. Doctor Faustus turns the whole pattern upside down to tell the story of a man who after an orthodox early life is "converted" to the devil and seals his pact with a diabolic sacrament; who undergoes a series of "temptations" by the Good Angel and his own conscience, from which his mentor Mephostophilis "rescues" him; who performs "miracles" that are quite literally conjuring tricks; whose heavenly vision is a Greek strumpet; who is received at his death by his eternal master, Lucifer.3

Thus one can see three dramatic movements operating simultaneously in Doctor Faustus. As a Christian soul, Faustus is caught between his two angels, swinging between remorse and desperate pleasure-seeking, not lost until the final moment. In theological terms he is not damned until he dies; deliverance is always possible if he will repent and call for mercy, and in the dramatic tradition of the morality such deliverance was often postponed until the last minute. At several points Faustus seems capable of breaking through to God before the devils return him to spiritual insensibility.

But against the hope for an eleventh-hour rescue raised by the morality elements is the increasing sense of inevitability in Faustus' downward career. The morality upswing demands only a change of heart; but Faustus loses his freedom to change as he hardens into the constricting mold of proud despair. It is his pride (like Lucifer's before him) that initiates the despair—and it is, of course, this same pride that gives him heroic stature in the tragic context: that is, in human terms rather than divine. Faustus respects reason and justice, the great human distinction and the great human achievement. It follows that when he turns to "Jeromes Bible" in the opening scene he finds not the message of grace to the humble but the cold logic of damnation: "Stipendium peccati, mors est … Si peccasse, negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veritas." And if the wages of sin is death and all are sinners, the proud human intellect can come to only one conclusion:

Why then belike we must sinne, And so consequently die, I, we must die, an everlasting death.4

The interaction of pride and despair directs Faustus' course throughout the play. Having made the diabolic pact he often longs to repent, but pride in reason and justice still blinds him to the mercy that lies beyond them. Christian theologians have always recognized the arrogance at the core of despair, the stiff-necked refusal to beg as a gift the salvation one cannot earn.5 Faustus is by turns anguished, hysterical, remorseful—but never humble.

It is the peculiar nature of Faustus' sin that allows tragedy to operate in a Christian morality context. The grace is offered but the protagonist personally blocks his own escape to it. Despair renders his vision intensely subjective, thus allowing dramatically for a dual view of God—tyrannic antagonist as well as loving father—without outrage to orthodoxy. It is possible, depending on one's predilections, to see one or the other God as existing only in Faustus' diseased mind. God does not appear in his own person, unequivocally. The Good Angel and the Old Man may be taken as his agents, but they may also be merely a delusive inner voice and a fallible human being. The certitude of God, a hindrance to the questioning spirit of tragedy, is blurred in a haze of subjectivity.

Faustus' career as an anti-saint performing an exact parody of the traditional words and deeds of the third pattern, shares with the tragic pattern an inevitable progression to a preordained end; and with the morality pattern the down-and-up movement of temptation and triumph. A more detailed analysis of the play will serve to clarify the parody strain and its interaction with the other two kinds of structure.

The prologue begins the parody of sainthood by describing Faustus' early devotion to divinity (11. 14-19). As the man destined for heroic virtue eventually becomes dissatisfied with lesser endeavors, so Faustus starts by turning away from the limitations of divinity. These limitations are, from the orthodox point of view, mainly in himself; his use of logic in reasoning from the wages-of-sin and all-men-are-sinners texts shows him reducing God to a level with earthly concerns. That his whole study of divinity has been poisoned with pride is evident from his boast to Valdes and Cornelius:

And I, that have with subtle Sillogismes Gravel'd the Pastors of the Germane Church, And made the flowring pride of Wittenberg Sworne to my Problemes …(1, i, 134-137).

For Faustus, theology was merely a field in which to display his gifts of reasoning. It is fitting that his "subtle Sillogismes" should lead him away from the divinity he never really understood in its essence. The inversion is complete when he turns to magic, finding a new heaven in "Lines, Circles, Letters, Characters" (I, i, 75-78). The saint aspires through faith to be God's child; Faustus parodies the idea in his determination to father a god.

A sound Magitian is a Demi-god, Here tire my braines to get a Deity.6

There is deep irony in his delighted imaginings:

Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please? Resolve me of all ambiguities? Performe what desperate enterprise I will?(1, i, 106-108)

He will. All ambiguities will be resolved in the end, only too clearly; all enterprises will be desperate because Faustus will live in despair; spirits will fetch him what he has pleased to choose—damnation.

Valdes and Cornelius are the first of Faustus' "spiritual advisors."7 They encourage the new ambitions of their convert with rewards significantly phrased:

Val.: Faustus, these bookes, thy wit, and our experience, shall make all Nations to Canonize us …

Cor.: The miracles that magick will performe, Will make thee vow to study nothing else.8

These preceptors indoctrinate Faustus in his anti-religion. They promise to supply him with books: Roger Bacon and "Albanus" (probably Albertus Magnus), the Hebrew Psalter and the New Testament—for incantations. They will teach him the rites and ceremonies, instruct him in the rudiments of his new discipline. They are, in fact, preparing their catechumen for his formal reception into the "church," in the manner of a saint's life. There is even a reminder, as one would expect in the case of a saint, that this candidate will in time go beyond his instructors:

Val.: First I'le instruct thee in the rudiments, And then wilt thou be perfecter than I(1, i, 193-184).

In scene iii Faustus' first rite is a parody of baptism. Instead of renouncing the devil and all his works, Faustus renounces the Trinity ("valeat numen triplex Jehovae").9 When he performs the two central symbolic acts of baptism, sprinkling holy water and making the sign of the cross, the object is to invoke not God but Mephostophilis. The parody continues with the entrance of Mephostophilis garbed, by Faustus' order, in a Franciscan habit, to match his role as spiritual guide. The guidance itself carries on the mockery, for Faustus is told how to win hell:

Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring Is stoutly to abjure all godlinesse, And pray devoutely to the Prince of hell(1, iii, 278-280).

Periodically Marlowe suspends the parody and turns the values right side up again. Thus, in between Faustus' conversion to magic and his mock baptism is a short scene in which two scholars fear for the soul of their colleague. Their brief conversation gives the sense of danger necessary to balance and intensify the blasphemous comedy of the conjuring scene. In the conjuring scene itself, the danger is again asserted, this time even more tellingly, by Mephostophilis. He abandons his role as hell's advocate long enough to describe movingly the fall of the angels and their endless despair:

Why this is hell: nor am I out of it. Think'st thou that I that saw the face of God, And tasted the eternall Joyes of heaven, Am not tormented with ten thousand hels, In being depriv'd of everlasting blisse?(1, iii, 301-305)

The words have a double impact because they are so incompatible with the role of the speaker. He concludes with an almost involuntary plea that Faustus abandon the desires that terrify even a devil (11. 306-307). Faustus is too exhilarated to heed the warning, but it registers with the audience.

The second act10 shows Faustus' ceremonial reception into the devil's church and his temptations by hope. Following are the third and fourth acts describing his conjuring miracles. The order of events is significant, for in the saint's life a period of trial and temptation often precedes activity as an instrument of grace, just as in Christ's life, the model for these others, the temptation in the wilderness comes before the ministry.

The first soliloquy of Act II presents Faustus in despair, wavering between stoic resolution and the desire to escape into hope. He starts wistfully, trying to think of a way out, then stiffens, wavers again at the thought of repentance, falls back once more with a recollection of the diabolic syllogism (God does not love sinners), and finally resolves to be loyal to Belzebub.

Now Faustus, must thou needs be damn'd? Canst thou not be sav'd? What bootes it then to thinke on God or Heaven? Away with such vaine fancies, and despaire, Despaire in GOD, and trust in Belzebub, Now go not backward Faustus, be resolute. Why waverst thou? O something soundeth in mine eare. Abjure this Magicke, turne to God againe. Why he loves thee not:                The God thou serv'st is thine                  owne appetite Wherein is fixt the love of Belzebub, To him, I'le build an Altar and a Church. And offer luke-warme bloud, of new borne babes(II, i, 390-401).

The language of the passage suggests the spiritual trials of the saint: "vaine fancies"; "be resolute"; "I'le build an Altar and a Church." When the Angels enter, Faustus is again tempted by "Contrition, Prayer, Repentance" (II, i, 405). The Bad Angel assures him they are merely lunatic illusions; he must turn his thoughts from heaven to earth. So Faustus relapses into his former state, rejoicing at his deliverance: "Faustus thou art safe.! Cast no more doubts" (II, i, 413-414).

Once tested, Faustus is ready for his sacramental entry into Lucifer's church. He invokes Mephostophilis as one would the Holy Ghost ("Veni veni Mephostophile"),"11 and hears from him that Lucifer is ready to receive his votary.

In the course of this sacramental shedding of blood, Faustus becomes a demonic Christ. He repeats the words "Consummatum est," to signify that his blood like Christ's has done its work (II, i, 417).12 But that work is to sell what Christ bought, to give back to hell the soul that Christ won from it with his blood. W. W. Greg points out that by the terms of the contract Faustus' nature is altered. He keeps his human soul but becomes "a spirit [i. e. a devil] in forme and substance."13 This amalgam of human and diabolical suggests a parody of the dual nature of Christ, at once human and divine.

The congealing of Faustus' blood and the mysterious "Homo fuge" represent his second temptation by grace. He wavers again, but stays in despair, and Mephostophilis is quick to produce "somewhat to delight his minde," a dance of devils. The latter phenomenon is to offset the effect of the congealed blood and the strange inscription, which come from God. In the play's total inversion, it is the inscription that seems an evil hallucination. Faustus thinks his senses deceived when he sees it (1. 467); for this anti-saint, the true visions are the "shews" of Mephostophilis. The latter, still the preceptor, concludes the scene by presenting his pupil with a book, to be persued well and guarded carefully. Faustus has his false Gospel and the sacrament is complete.

The next two "temptations" continue the inversion principle, but they are not simply repetitions of the first ones. They show the progressive hardening of Faustus' despair, preparing for the last scene when its weight will pull him down from a frantic leap to heaven. His conversation with Mephostophilis about heaven (II, ii, 570-580) shows him once more the anti-saint, tempted by heaven as true saints are tempted by the world and the flesh. "When I behold the heavens then I repent" (1. 570); that is, I am tempted to hope. His guardian devil assures him that heaven is not half so fair as earthly man. Still Faustus desires it; he makes an intellectual rejection of his magic. But the core of pride is still there. Faustus thinks his own will can turn him from evil. Because he lacks humility to ask for grace, the short essay into repentance is abortive. His heart refuses to follow his mind.

My heart is hardned, I cannot repent: Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven14 (11, ii, 589-590).

In this dilemma his thoughts turn to suicide. The next four lines recreate verbally the traditional allegorical figure of Despair, carrying the instruments of self-destruction:15

Swords, poyson halters, and invenomb'd steele, Are laid before me to dispatch my selfe: And long e're this, I should have done the deed, Had not sweete pleasure conquer'd deepe despaire.

This is perhaps spelling out his condition almost too obviously, but it does create the desired impression of despair settling about him like a permanent aura, always with its implication of death. The suicide motif will reappear later. Faustus does not take his own life in the physical sense, but he is committing spiritual suicide. Now, however, he is recalled again by "sweete pleasure" to unconsciousness.

The fourth temptation takes Faustus a step further. Calling on Christ is his first open rebellion against the diabolic trinity: "O Christ my Saviour, my Saviour, / Helpe to save distressed Faustus soule" (II, ii, 652-653). Realizing his need for help, he is close to breaking out of despair. The devils must abandon persuasion and distraction for threats. The Bad Angel warns that they will tear him to pieces (1. 650); Lucifer, Belzebub, and Mephostophilis appear, to frighten him into submission.

The parodic element in this rebellion is less apparent than elsewhere, until we recall the Protestant insistence on man's utter helplessness, of which God periodically reminds him. Lucifer's open show of power is equivalent in a sense to the God-directed sufferings that chastise and humble the souls of the elect. More openly parodic are Faustus' abject plea for pardon and his vow "never to looke to heaven" (II, ii, 665-666). Lucifer rewards his obedient servant with an appropriate vision. As Faustus prepares to watch the Seven Deadly Sins, he himself reminds us with unintentional irony of the contrast between this vision and that of the saints: "That sight will be as pleasant to me, as Paradise/was to Adam the first day of his creation" (II, ii, 673-674).

Acts III and IV, as we have them, have always been viewed as the weak part of the play, in terms of structure and dramatic interest. In the structure of the parodied saint's life, the pranks and tricks do have their place as the "miracles" that demonstrate the saint's peculiar gifts of grace. As God's favorites can sometimes prophesy the future, the devil's saint can recreate the past—Alexander and his paramour, for example. As Jesus and his saints used miracles to convince scoffers, Faustus uses his conjuring to discomfit the scornful Benvolio with a pair of horns. Faustus performs his cheap illusions to show the powers he has gained from the devil. That they amount to so little underlines for the audience the tragedy of Faustus' degeneration. Nevertheless, these scenes do not hold the interest dramatically (as spectacle they can be more successful, as a recent New York production showed). The ideas are not worked out and we lose sight of Faustus the man in all the buffoonery. It is significant that he has become a buffoon, but more inner characterization is needed if we are to feel the pity of it.

Faustus does not approach consciousness of his state in these two acts, except for a curious brief soliloquy which interrupts his practical joke on the horsecourser:

What art thou Faustus but a man condemn'd to die? Thy fatall time drawes to a finall end; Despaire doth drive distrust into my thoughts.

Confound these passions with a quiet sleepe: Tush Christ did call the Theefe upon the Crosse, Then rest thee Faustus quiet in conceit(IV, v, 1546-1551).

This is startling enough in the middle of a prank, and critics have made various attempts to justify it or to blame it on an unskillful collaborator. It is certainly introduced without preamble, but Greg's condemnation of its "combined piety and bad taste""16 misses the point. The good thief was traditionally invoked against despair, as Lily B. Campbell notes.17 The passage thus reminds us of Faustus' despair and impending fate (tragic inevitability) and suggests at the same time that he may still be saved (morality promise of last-minute rescue). Unfortunately for Faustus, the story of the good thief is itself double-edged. It can be an antidote to despair, but it can also be a devilish encouragement to postpone repentance until the last breath, relying on God's great love. It is the latter application that prevails with Faustus, who makes no move to repent but "rests quiet." Unable to find the middle way of hope, he falls into the opposite extreme of presumption.

In Act V we are again involved in the human tragedy. As the play moves toward its agonizing close, the parodic element is less important than the hero's intense inner experience; but it is still there. The rapturous lines to Helen of Troy, with their allusions to heaven, immortality, and ecstatic self-abandonment, are a blasphemous parody of the supreme mystical union with God:18

Sweet Hellen make me immortall with a kisse: Her lips sucke forth my soule, see where it flies. Come Hellen, come, give me my soule againe, Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lippes, And all is drosse that is not Helena(V, i, 1876-1880).

The great beauty of the poetry only increases its shock value. The tension between orthodoxy and blasphemy which runs through the whole play is at its strongest here.

Afterwards, the inevitability of the anti-saint's career works mainly to reinforce the tragic end of Faustus the man. Even before Helen the Old Man has come, bringing Faustus to an anguished awareness of sin in an abrupt switch from the drunken pleasures of the banquet. So dangerous is this emissary that Mephostophilis quickly hands Faustus a dagger in the hope that suicide will damn forever the soul the devil is in danger of losing. "Hell claimes his right" (1. 1832), and Faustus, always responsive to the dictates of justice, is about to execute himself when the Old Man stops him:

O stay good Faustus, stay thy desperate steps. I see an Angell hover ore thy head, And with a vyoll full of pretious grace, Offers to poure the same into thy soule, Then call for mercy, and avoyd despaire(V, i, 1834-1838).

Faustus is moved to ponder his sins, but now the only result can be the hopeless, sterile remorse of Judas: "I do repent, and yet I doe despaire" (1. 1844). When Mephostophilis intervenes, his language ("traytor," "disobedience")19 suffices to remind Faustus of his contract and to turn him from mercy through the invocation of justice. Faustus succumbs fearfully and is rewarded with Helen.

Tension builds on the last night, as the devils await their prize and the scholars urge Faustus to repent, to "looke up to heaven" (V, ii, 1935). He cannot. His answer is that of Cain: my offence is too great to be pardoned (ll. 1937-1939).20 As for reaching to heaven, "I would/lift up my hands, but see they hold 'em, they hold 'em" (11. 1953-1954).

In the final soliloquy, morality play, tragedy, and demonic saint's legend fuse in a terrible conclusion. We watch Faustus search frantically for a way out, knowing that he himself blocks that way. He cannot leap up to heaven ("who puls me downe?").21 He can look, at last, and for a moment he sees redemption:

See see where Christs blood streames in the firmament, One drop would save my soule, halfe a drop, ah my Christ(A, 11. 14631464).22

But the verb is conditional. One drop "would" save him, if he had hope. He has none, and the vision is replaced by the angry face of God the Judge. Only justice is left.

The travestied saint's life in Doctor Faustus intensifies its tragic effect, increasing the stature of the hero while ensuring his downfall. By hinting at a possible "divine comedy" pattern of last-minute redemption, Marlowe calls attention to his ultimate overthrow of that pattern. Together with the great poetry and the portrayal of Faustus' grandly inquiring mind, the travesty establishes within Doctor Faustus the center of rebellion necessary in tragedy. It asserts definitely the freedom of the mind, to balance or at least protest the inevitable working of evil in Faustus and his world.


1 "Doctor Faustus of Wittenberg," SP, LIX (1962), 514 523.

2 Quoted by Paul Kocher, Christopher Marlowe (Chapel Hill, 1946), pp. 34-35. The admired "Heriots" is Thomas Harriot, mathematician, sceptic, one of the Raleigh circle which also included Marlowe.

3 The parody gives new, if ironic, life to the ancient identification of magician and holy man. E. M. Butler has traced the "myth of the magus" back to the sacrificial king-god of the seasonal fertility rites and to the tribal witch-doctor [The Myth of the Magus (Cambridge, 1948), pp. 1-11]. The main features of the magus myth can be discerned in the Biblical accounts of Moses and Christ as well as in the legends of Pythagoras and Zoroaster. The line between magic and miracle is largely a Christian invention (p. 78). Once drawn, however, it placed a wide gulf between saint and Magician, and the latter suffered inevitable degradation. There is little in the Faustbuch to suggest a saint or even an anti-saint. The stature of Faustus is Marlowe's gift.

4 I, i, 65-73. All Doctor Faustus references, unless otherwise noted, are to the B text of 1616 in W. W. Greg's edition of the parallel texts (Oxford, 1950). The B text is generally accepted by modern editors as more reliable than the A quarto of 1604. Probably neither version is entirely Marlowe's work, but the main plot displays a unity and progression which indicate that his collaborator or collaborators, however inferior as poets, did not misunderstand the play's design. The authorship problem is thus not crucial to this discussion.

In all quotations I have expanded abbreviations and regularized i and j, and u and v.

5 For example, Augustine, De sermone Domini in monte I, XXII, 74, in Migne (ed.), Patrologiae cursus completus … series latina, XXXIV, 1266-1267. It was pride, says Augustine, that turned Judas' repentance (Matt. 27: 3-5) into despair; he could not humble his heart. The pride at the center of despair emerges clearly in one locus classicus, Cain's defiant declaration to God after killing Abel: "Maior est iniquitas mea, quam ut veniam merear" (Gen. 4: 13).

6 I, i, 88-89. The reading of A and B 2, "to gaine a deitie," loses half the point. Both Greg and Boas favor B's "get," in the sense of "beget."

7 Unless we count Mephostophilis, who in the B text later confesses (V, ii, 1989-1992) that before his visible entry he had guided Faustus' eyes to the fatal Scripture passages.

8 I, i, 141-142 and 158-159. Italics mine, excluding proper names. C. L. Barber ["'The form of Faustus fortunes good or bad,'" Tulane Drama Review, VIII (Summer, 1964), 99] gives another, not necessarily conflicting, interpretation of the constant use of religious language for Faustus' necromantic pursuits: the repeated, involuntary invocation of heaven and things divine by Faustus, Valdes and Cornelius, and Mephostophilis shows the inadequacy of blasphemous magic as a substitute for the lost joys of heaven. "In repeatedly using such expressions, which often 'come naturally' in the colloquial language of a Christian society, the rebels seem to stumble uncannily upon words which condemn them by the logic of a situation larger than they are."

9 I, iii, 242-243. On "numen triplex Jehovae" as the Trinity, see Boas' note on this passage in the Arden edition.

10 I follow Boas' act divisions, believing with him that "the prevalent practice of a merely scenic division … has … done injustice to the structural quality of the play" (p. vi).

11 II, i, 417.

12 See John 19: 30.

13 "The Damnation of Faustus," MLR, XLI (1946), 103; II, i, 488.

14 Other passages suggest a Christ-parody: Faustus' desire to raise the dead and grant eternal life (I, i, 51-53), and his "graveling" of the German pastors (I, i, 134-135), perhaps meant to recall the youthful Christ confounding the doctors of the law.

15 Despair is represented in medieval and Renaissance iconography as a figure in the act of self-destruction. In allegorical narrative and drama, Despair or a similar figure usually presents the hero with a choice of weapons for suicide (see Skelton's Magnyfycence, Book I of The Faerie Queene, and Arnoul Greban's Mystere de la passion; in the latter case the victim is Judas). Cf. also Arieh Sachs, "The Religious Despair of Dr. Faustus," JEGP, LXIII (1964), 625-47.

16 Greg, Doctor Faustus (parallel texts), p. 118.

17Doctor Faustus: A Case of Conscience," PMLA, LXVII (1952), 236. One example is woodcut 4 of the Ars moriendi, a popular late medieval tract, in which the good thief appears with Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene to preserve Moriens from despair [facs. of editio princeps, c. 1450, ed. W. Harry Rylands (1881)].

18 The spelling "Hellen" in B (A has "Helen") may be just a type-setter's whim, but it affords a neat epitome of the heaven-hell inversion.

19 V, i, 1847-1848.

20 See note 5 above.

21 V, ii, 2048.

22 Line 1463 does not appear in B, but even the staunchest foes of the A quarto refuse to omit it from their editions.

Wilbur Sanders (essay date 1968)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7058

SOURCE: "New Wine and the Old Bottles: Doctor Faustus," in The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1968. Reprinted in Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 27-45.

[In the following excerpt, Sanders suggests that Faustus represents more than an aspiring Renaissance humanist; he argues that Marlowe meant his audience to "detect a serious moral weakness" in his actions.]

Just as, in the treatment of the supernatural order, Marlowe seems to waver between a rather leaden-footed literalism and real imaginative insight, so in the characterisation of the sin for which Faustus is ultimately damned, he seems uncertain of his ground. At times it is seen homiletically as mere presumptuous pride, "a devilish exercise." At times (as it acquires a real dramatic weight and body) it is seen, less simply, as a legitimate aspiration somehow tainted at its source. And at times it is simply endorsed with a kind of naïve enthusiasm which is very like the wide-eyed wonderment of the Faustbook.

It is this uncertainty, I think, that has encouraged critics like Professor Ellis-Fermor to see Faustus's sin as a harmless variety of humanist aspiration (for her, Marlowe the humanist is obliged to damn his hero only because he has been guilty of intellectual apostasy in the face of a menacing orthodoxy). This is to respond to something which is certainly present in the play; but it is something of which the play is not, so to speak, aware.

We have seen already [elsewhere] how Faustus's exploratory urges could be taken to symbolise the intellectual expansionism of the Renaissance; and it is true that many even of his power fantasies are connected with the widening geographical and mental horizons of that period: true for instance that he proposes to "search all corners of the new-found world." But for what? "For pleasant fruits and princely delicates" (1.83).

Helen may be the paradigm of classical beauty, the resuscitated body of antique learning, but she is raised in order to become Faustus's paramour, and to "extinguish clear / Those thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow" (18.94). Indeed, most of Faustus's "humanist" impulses, closely scrutinised, resolve themselves into a familiar and explicit form of hedonism and epicurean self-indulgence. There is no doubt that Marlowe sets out to place very firmly the damnable nature of Faustus's ambition; and if we are to allow any force at all to Ellis-Fermor's mitigating contentions, we must do so by positing a Marlowe divided against himself, here as elsewhere. In fact, I believe, he was. But it is necessary, first of all, to see how hard he worked to show us the dangers of the Faustian path.

When one considers Faustus's motives for taking up the magical arts, it becomes clear that Marlowe wants us to detect a serious moral weakness at the root of the decision. There is, for instance, his contempt for the laborious particularity of the academic disciplines—"too servile and illiberal for me": the revealing stress on the personal pronoun ("Thou art too ugly to attend on me") is the dramatic embodiment of the psychological state which Marlowe sees to be attendant on such an intellectual attitude. Faustus prefers the grandiose cult of universals: he will "level at the end of every art." But there must be no hard work: the drudgery is to be deputed to his "servile spirits" (1.96). The irksome burden of unanswered questions can be shrugged off, for the spirits will "resolve me of all ambiguities" (1.79); and it's a desire for the fruits of knowledge without its pains which makes him long to "see hell and return again safe" (6.172). He shares that perennial human conviction that there's a short cut of knowledge, some formula that makes it unnecessary to go about and about the hill of truth—a conviction that is aptly symbolised in the delusions of magic. The art into which the two infamous magicians initiate him is one of those reassuring skills which demand exactly the knowledge one possesses—astrology, tongues, mineralogy (1.137)—yet promise immediate and infallible results. Cornelius and Valdes are the direct ancestors of our Pelmanists and Scientologists, and Faustus has plainly been reading their illustrated brochure when he remarks,

Their conference will be a greater help to me Than all my labours, plod I ne'er so fast.(1.67)

It is plain, then, in the opening scenes, that Marlowe is giving us a portrait of an egocentric abuse of knowledge; Faustus belongs to that class of scholars who are, in Nashe's words,

ambitious, haughty, and proud, nor do they loue vertue for it selfe any whit, but because they would ouerquell and outstrip others with the vaineglorious ostentation of it. A humour of monarchising and nothing els it is, which makes them affect rare quallified studies.

It is certainly a desire for "vaineglorious ostentation" which makes Faustus aspire to the status of an Agrippa, "whose shadows made all Europe honour him" (1.116). "Be a physician Faustus," he advises himself, "and be eterniz'd for some wondrous cure" (1.14—the vaguely indefinite "some" is an index of the extent to which aspiration is divorced from reality, while "eterniz'd" reminds us how constantly Faustus makes his felicity reside in the mouths of men). For such an academic megalomaniac, the triumphant university disputation is the most delectable of memories:

I … have with concise syllogisms Gravell'd 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.(1.111)

It is with such relish that he finds himself able to equate Wittenberg's "flowering pride" with a swarm of infernal bees! And the relish is there because he has set all his pleasure upon the subjugation of other beings to his personal gratification. But this is an appetite which reasserts itself at the very moment of its satisfaction; for, once subjugated, the divines of Wittenberg can no longer minister to his sense of power, and he must go in search of increasingly larger spheres in which to exercise his passion for domination. Which is the plot of the play.

If there is one key motif in the scenes leading up to the signing of the pact, it is this "humour of monarchising," an obsessive preoccupation with power: power over the grand forces of nature—winds, storms (1.57), the Rhine (1.88), the ocean (3.41), the air (3.107); power over national and international destinies ("The Emperor shall not live but by my leave, / Nor any potentate of Germany"—3.112 and cf. 1.86, 91-95); power over the storehouses of nature ("I'll have them fly to India for gold, / Ransack the ocean for orient pearl"—1.81 and cf. 1.74, 143-46), over the plate-fleets of Spain (1.130); even the disposition of the continental landmasses (3.109-10) and the movements of the celestial bodies (3.40) are to be at his command. Those of his dreams which are not merely anarchistic nihilism—as the ocean overwhelming the world, the moon dropping from her sphere (3.40-41) or the petty prosecution of private revenge (3.98)—are simply variations on a single theme: "I'll be great emperor of the world" (3.106). His mind, like Epicure Mammon's, thrown into near delirium at the prospect, casts up this strange farrago of preposterous fantasies in the future tense ("I'll … I'll … I'll …"). Like Mammon, too, Faustus earns our contempt by assuming that the beings of superior power with whom he traffics exist merely to gratify his whims.

Such ambitions are not only damnable, they are laughable, and in terms of the chosen peripateia they are clearly to be regarded as arrant folly and presumption. But Marlowe, we recall, is the author of Tamburlaine (Tamburlaine the indulgence ad absurdum of the "humour of monarchising," not the moral fable critics have made out of it). And the more I look at the verse in which Faustus's grandiose visions are expounded the less certain I am that Marlowe has wholly dissociated himself from his hero—any more than the anonymous author of the Faustbook had done. In both the play and its source book, there are long stretches where a naive wonder at the subtleties of the witch completely submerges the moral condemnation of witchcraft—an ambiguity which results from the shallowness of the initial condemnation. At such points in the play (and I would include nearly all the central section, scenes 8-17, under this heading) the verse is strangely neutral morally—Mammon's foamings at the mouth provide an instructive contrast—has no clearly placed tone, only a shallow fluency and prolixity that suggest it came a trifle too easily to its author. It is neither the clear moral evaluation of a diseased mind, nor the enactment of a kindling imagination, but the indulgence of an abiding mood or mode in Marlowe's rhetorical poetic.

This becomes clear if we consider one passage where we do get a genuine presentation of the quickened pulse and soaring imagination of a man awestruck before a new universe of meaning and potentiality:

O, what a world of profit and delight Of power, of honour, of omnipotence, Is promis'd to the studious artisan! All things that move between the quiet poles Shall be at my command: emperors and kings Are but obey'd in their several provinces, Nor can they raise the wind or rend the clouds; But his dominion that exceeds in this Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.(1.52)

By charting so subtly the accumulating emotion behind the words, this masterfully articulated crescendo gives to the word "dominion" a richer and more human meaning than it has elsewhere. "Power" in these terms is not merely a presumptuous aspiration beyond the human condition, but a very nearly legitimate ambition closely, though ambiguously, related to the passion for mastery that leads to knowledge and "truth." If this vein had been more diligently uncovered in the rest of the play, we might have had a tragedy. But even this fine passage is immediately followed by a piece of rant in the Tamburlaine vein, which tips the delicate balance between an imaginative sympathy which is itself a judgment, and a top-heavy moral censure:

A sound magician is a demi-god; Here tire, my brains, to get a deity!

The overstrain in the verse—expressing itself here in a syntactical incoherence—is not, I suggest, a dramatisation of Faustus's mental state. It is too imprecise and too hectic to be that. Rather it is Marlowe forcing an insurrectionary line of thought to discredit itself by overprotestation. Again, awareness of a tormenting ambivalence at the heart of all speculation, unsatiable or otherwise, has given way to flat homiletic demonstration.

The element of demonstration is strong in Faustus—most notably in the rejection of learning which opens the action. Faustus here indulges in a conventional, if not an academic, exercise: the "Dispraise of Learning." But both his methods and his conclusions are strikingly different from the Christianised pyrrhonism of his models. Faustus does not, in the traditional manner, indicate the shortcomings of human wit by showing how far each science falls short of its own avowed aims, and how far of divine omniscience; nor does he conclude with an exhortation to study only to know oneself and God. Instead he refers all learning to his private satisfaction, and finishes by rejecting "divinity" along with the rest.

The startlingly egocentric nature of his rejection can be estimated by comparing a contemporary survey of the same area—Cornelius Agrippa's De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientarum. Agrippa, like Faustus, has bidden on kai me on farewell; but for what reasons? Because the philosophers "striue and disagree emong themselues in all things," one sect subverting another; because their reason "cannot perswade no constant or certaine thinge, but doth alwayes wauer in mutable opinions"; because Logic, the philosopher's tool, is "nothinge els, but a skilfulnes of contention and darknesse, by the whiche al other sciences are made more obscure, and harder to learne"; because their conclusions ground themselves upon authority where they should build upon experience. Here is Faustus surveying the same territory:

Is to dispute well logic's chiefest end? Affords this art no greater miracle? Then read no more, thou hast attain'd that end; A greater subject fitteth Faustus' wit. Bid on kai me on farewell.(1.8)

The shifty way in which one section of philosophy (Logic) is equated with all of Aristotle, and then used to discredit philosophy itself, makes one doubt that there was ever a serious intellectual objection here at all.

Again, Agrippa has no time for Physic, which he finds to be "a certaine Arte of manslaughter … aboue the knowledge of the lawe," because it cannot predict what it claims to control, yet, unperturbed by this technological breakdown, makes increasingly extravagant claims for its efficacy. Faustus:

The end of physic is our body's health. Why, Faustus, hast thou not attain'd that end? Is not thy common talk sound aphorisms? Are not thy bills hung up as monuments, Whereby whole cities have escap'd the plague And thousand desperate maladies been cured? Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.(1.17)

Of "the Lawe and Statutes" Agrippa complains that they are merely a compound of men's uncertain opinions, "altered at euerye chaunge of time, of the State, of the Prince," and cannot, consequently, represent any real principle of justice. For Faustus the disiilusionment expounds itself in words like "petty" and "paltry." The failure of Law to realise in the temporal sphere the justice that humanity demands of the divine order is far from his mind:

This study fits a mercenary drudge Who aims at nothing but external trash, Too servile and illiberal for me.(1.34)

In each of these cases, the rewards of learning are conceived entirely in terms of the recognition and acclaim which are accorded to the practitioner. Where Agrippa refers a science to the principles which it is supposed to embody, and finds it wanting, Faustus refers the whole body of human learning to his private satisfaction—"The god thou serv'st is thine own appetite"—and when he discovers, either that the offered satisfaction is already available to him, or that it is one he does not covet, he passes on. Agrippa is by no means a profound thinker: but beside Faustus's glib superficiality, Agrippa's carefree a priori pyrrhonism seems eminently sane.

Now it may be that we have here Faustus's mental history in a conventionalised form; but if so, it is the mental history of a shallow mind—a sophist's mind: and the telescoping of time (if that is what it is) has the dramatic effect of heightening the sense of shallowness. It is important to realise that the investigation is no more than a facade (note the tone of pert self-congratulation and the glib transitions—as if the books were all ready with the markers at the relevant pages), and that the real decision has been taken in the first four lines, where Faustus exhorts himself to "be a divine in show / Yet level at the end of every art." Divinity, of course, was the science which claimed to do just this, and Faustus has already made the "end of every art" antithetical to the study of God.

There is a peremptory haste about the whole sequence, punctuated as it is by the clap of shut books and the breathless snatching of the next ("Galen come … Where is Justinian? …"), and as a result, when the abrupt slackening of pace does come, it is doubly arresting:

These metaphysics of magicians And necromantic books are heavenly; Lines, circles, letters, characters: Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.1.48—B text)

At once the factitious clouds of sophistry disperse, and, gloating over his symbolic hieroglyphs in irrational fascination, Faustus finds his true tone. The seriousness of his commitment to a thorough-going rationalism is indicated here by the interesting, though not surprising, fact that he does not apply the same rational canons to the "arte magick": it is enough that "these are those that Faustus most desires."

Faustus's condemnation is thus writ large (too large, as I see it) in the opening scene. In order to regard him as a premature Promethean hero of the Enlightenment, one must either regard all enlightened Prometheans as damnable (this is roughly Miss Mahood's position), or admit that, judged by enlightened criteria, he is a decidedly damp squib. In anybody's book the attitudes he adopts are unworthy.

And yet there is here that same absence of moral orientation of the energies of the verse, however loudly the attitudes expressed may call out for censure. As with the presentation of Faustus's power fantasies, there is an emotional indirection making it almost impossible to be sure that Marlowe has not gone a-whoring after the strange gods he appears to abominate. To a dangerous degree Faustus is Marlowe, and the play is a vehement attempt to impose order on a realm of consciousness which is still in insurrection.

Perhaps this is why Marlowe overdoes the condemnation. This frivolous academic opportunist, who has clearly learned very little from his encyclopedic education, cannot engage our sympathies very deeply. The narrow moral categories of the Prologue seem entirely adequate to encompass the significance of such a presumptuous fool:

   swollen with cunning of a self-conceit, His waxen wings did mount above his reach, And, melting, heavens conspir'd his overthrow.(Prologue, 20)

This is the tone and manner of homiletic demonstration, not of tragic paradox, and it is in harmony with the Faustus of the early scenes.

On the one hand, then, we have a conscious and studied rejection of Faustus's position, which phrases itself in explicit moral comment and in an only slightly less explicit ironic exposure of his dubious motivation. On the other hand, there is an unrecognised hankering after the pleasures of magic, which turn, as the play progresses, into something very like the pleasures of the senses—"all voluptuousness." This split in sensibility, between the conscious design and the subconscious desire, is a familiar strait of the Puritan imagination—which finds its illicit Comuses and Bowers of Bliss too powerfully attractive to be dealt with on any but a moralistic level. Yet the moralisation which promises to free the mind from the tyranny of the sensory, this theoretical world-negation, simply hides the secret appetites from sight, and sharpens them as it prohibits their gratification. Thus it gives rise simultaneously to moralistic excess, and to a hectic and unwholesome obsession with the lost joys of mere sensuality. As we shall see, it is a peculiarly protestant dilemma in more ways than one.

If there were no more than this in Doctor Faustus, it would not exercise the kind of fascination it does. But there is also a desperate fatalism about Marlowe's vision, a sense that all the most desirable and ravishing things, man's fulfilment itself, are subject to a cosmic veto. A tragic rift yawns between the things man desires as man, and the things he must be content with, as sinner. And it is partly against this dark fatality that Faustus mobilises his doomed revolt.

I have described the rejection of learning as peremptory and wilful. But there is one significant moment where Faustus is brought up short for a moment, darkly brooding over one of his texts; and because the subject of his contemplation introduces one of the most impressive movements in the play, it is worth examining the passage carefully.

Stipendium peccati, mors est: ha, stipendium, etc. The reward of sin is death? that's hard: Si pecasse negamus, fallimur, & nulla est in nobis veritas: If we say that we have no sin We deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. Why then belike we must sin, And so consequently die, Ay, we must die, an everlasting death. What doctrine call you this? Che sara, sara: What will be, shall be; Divinity adieu.(1.39—B text punctuation and lineation)

Scholars have provided the biblically unlearned with the second halves of Faustus's texts—"but the gift of God is eternal life," and "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins"—and we have been made aware that Faustus's argument only holds good in the absence of Grace. Paul Kocher has even unearthed an example of this precise syllogism, duly refuted by a theologian. Any member of Marlowe's audience, we gather, could have given this crude sophistry its logical quietus. And so he might; but whether he would thereby have been rid of the problem is another question.

For as the sixteenth century became the seventeenth, and as a distorted Calvinist theology grew increasingly vocal in English pulpits, the possibility of reprobation without appeal became one of the most earnestly discussed topics of English theology. In the year Marlowe took his B.A., the debate flared up as a Cambridge graduate and future archbishop, Samuel Harsnett, denounced the preachers of a reprobation which had, he claimed, "grown high and monstrous, and like a Goliath, and men do shake and tremble at it." Series of manuals offering to satisfy the reader about his election or otherwise were printed and reprinted. Cases of conscience like the famous one of Francis Spira, which may have influenced Faustus, encouraged unholy and obsessive speculation about one's eternal destiny. There was a distinct feeling in the air that, though damnation was a certainty unless steps were taken to avert it, salvation was a problematical and tricky business. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Marlowe at Cambridge was thoroughly exposed to this opinion and the debates it provoked.

It doesn't require much imagination to see how this kind of thinking, robed with all the grandeur of theological authority, might prey upon a mind already open to suggestions of guilt and worthlessness. Those who thought it necessary to preach against the doctrine were certainly aware of the savage self-contempt which it reinforced in unstable personalities.

But Faustus's syllogism is not simply a theological curiosity, nor is it a position to be rebutted and then forgotten. It has an alarming kind of internal and experiential logic which survives refutation. The predestinarian crux is the basilisk eye of Christianity. It proposes the desperate and totally destructive possibility, to which, in his blacker moments, man is prone to yield. Faustus is a little chirpy about it at first—"Why then belike we must sin, and so consequently die"—but he immediately feels the dark compulsion of the idea: "Ay, we must die, an everlasting death." It is the siren song of annihilation, inviting the guilt which is an inescapable component of personality to rise and engulf the whole being. Faustus reacts vigorously and, as I have said, peremptorily: "What doctrine call you this? … Divinity adieu." But in that brief brooding pause we have seen his rebellion from an angle which reveals it as, in some sense, a revolt for life, not against life. Magic is at least one way of escaping the gloomy pessimism of this doomed view of human existence. The essential pessimism of Marlowe's vision lies in the fact that magic is also, for the play, delusion.

It is, I suppose, fairly obvious that the deity of Doctor Faustus is not the God of Love, the Good Shepherd, but either the avenging Jehovah of the Old Testament, or his Christian offshoot, the Calvinist tyrant of mass reprobation. This God, in less troubled days, had been Tamburlaine's patron and protector:

There is a God, full of revenging wrath, From whom the thunder and the lightning breaks, Whose scourge I am, and him will I obey.(2 Tam. 5.1.182)

In Tamburlaine this deity was transparently a theological "front" for a bloody-minded aggressiveness in the Scythian general, if not in Marlowe himself. But in the period between Tamburlaine and Faustus, complacent identification with this appalling God has given way to torment and horror before it. In a very real sense, Faustus is an unsuccessful attempt to evade the fatal embrace of this murderous and irresistible deity—Marlowe's attempt as well as Faustus's.

The escape route is remarkably congruent with what we know of Marlowe's own revolt, for Faustus's rebellion takes the shape of a flirtation with a kind of free-thought that was fairly widely disseminated in Renaissance Europe. He questions the immortality of the soul (3.64); he asks, and apparently wants to be informed, about the origins of the world (though the form of this question labels him an incurable theist—6.69); he wonders whether hell exists, or if it does whether it has anything like the horrors depicted by the theologians (3.61-63; 5.116-40), and his scepticism has the characteristic Epicurean tinge that tended, in the sixteenth century, to go with the release of the "advanced thinker" from the oppression of threatened punishment—he wants to spend his "four-and-twenty years of liberty" "in all voluptuousness" (3.94 and 8.61).

But like that of most of the "atheist" rebels of this period, Faustus's free-thought is far from being untroubled. It is deeply involved with personal pressures, and still joined, by the umbilical cord of a terror-which-is-still-faith, to the theism it purports to reject.

Faustus's learned discussions with Mephostophilis, for instance, have a persistent and revealing tendency to finger the wound in his own consciousness—and this despite the fact that he is, ostensibly, searching for the new and startling truths which his liberation from old dogma should have freed him to contemplate:

Are all celestial bodies but one globe As is the substance of this centric earth?(6.36)

When Mephostophilis proves to be stonily orthodox, he is not content, and raises the problem of the eccentric motion of the planets:

        But have they all One motion, both situ et tempore?

But again he is disappointed, for Mephostophilis merely falls back upon the hypothesis of the poles of the zodiac. His impatience is clear: "These slender questions Wagner can decide: / Hath Mephostophilis no greater skill? … These are freshman's suppositions." And again he circles nearer his objective:

But, tell me, hath every sphere a dominion or intelligentia?

asking in effect, How true is the spiritual order allegedly governing the material universe? Here Mephostophilis is again reactionary, for the intelligences had already been expounded as metaphors for behaviour according to rational laws, yet he asserts their objective existence. (It is one of the play's most telling ironies that the new diabolic knowledge, for which Faustus sells his soul, should prove to be nothing more than the old scholastic cosmos which he has contemptuously rejected in its favour.)

There is a little more elementary astronomical catechising, which Mephostophilis answers conservatively, whereat Faustus concedes, "Well, I am answered," in a voice that implies he is not; then, precipitately, he rushes on to his true question:

Now tell me who made the world.

This is his real point of attack; for it is the divinely created, providentially ordered universe that he is so reluctant to accept. the answer he receives is presented with tremendous dramatic force as an upheaval in hell. Mephostophilis refuses to answer, and his sullen recalcitrance grows into a menacing anger, so menacing that Faustus sees, for the first time since his original encounter with the demonic world, the repellent face of evil:

Ay, go, accursed spirit, to ugly hell!

The fiend's abrupt departure and his subsequent return with Lucifer and Beelzebub at precisely the moment when Faustus calls upon Christ is, as James Smith points out, an apt representation of the emotional upheaval which the very asking of the question provokes in Faustus's consciousness. For his particular form of scepticism is accompanied by, perhaps derived from a profound emotional involvement with the ideas he rejects; and if his atheism is superficial, it is superficial because his theism is ineradicable.

The same tension between attraction and repulsion is discernible in the exaggerated gestures with which he dismisses the "vain trifles of men's souls" (3.64), and the "old wives' tales" of an after-life (5.136), but especially in the ambiguous attitudes that he adopts towards hell itself. It is interesting to note that on this issue (the existence of hell) he also employs the same wary catechising technique, pouncing on discrepancies, and driving home with the question which he hopes will extort the desired information. When Mephostophilis declares himself to be "for ever damn'd with Lucifer," Faustus is immediately on the alert:

  Where are you damn'd? MEPHOSTOPHILIS:     In hell. FAUSTUS: How comes it then that thou art out of hell?(3.76)

The fiend's answer has gone down in the annals of theatrical history, but its revelation of a hell that is coextensive with the existence of mind is precisely the reverse of what Faustus was seeking: it was not hell, but the power of the sound magician, that was to stretch "as far as doth the mind of man." Yet Faustus is not answered: his view of hell continues to fluctuate wildly throughout the play.

That hell is "a fable" (5.128) is only one of the positions he adopts: if it is "sleeping, eating, walking and disputing," as Mephostophilis suggests, then he'll "willingly be damn'd" (5.139-40). On the one hand, he "confounds hell in Elysium"—meaning, I take it, that the two are a single state, the classical Hades where his ghost will be "with the old philosophers" (3.62-63); on the other hand, Mephostophilis is exhorted to "scorn those joys thou never shalt possess" (3.88) and Faustus acknowledges that he has "incurr'd eternal death" (3.90). It is only after he has asked for and received a description of hell from a being to whom he is talking only because he believes him to have come from hell, that Faustus declares hell to be a fable. Yet, a few scenes later, Lucifer's genial assurance that "in hell is all manner of delight" (6.171) sends him grovelling for a sight of the fabulous place.

But there's a deep consistency here. Hell is a fable only as long as it's a place "where we are tortur'd and remain forever." If it affords "all manner of delight," he believes in it. He'll scorn the joys he'll never possess only because he does not believe them to be joys. He'll willingly be damned provided he can have damnation on his own terms—"sleeping, eating, walking and disputing." The consistency resides in his determination to submit all moral categories to his personal convenience; and the ultimate failure of such an enterprise is figured in the continual presence of the melancholy fiend who knows better than to attempt it. On Mephostophilis's terms—being in hell and knowing it—one can be damned and preserve one's dignity; on Faustus's—being in hell and pretending it's heaven—one can only prevaricate and rationalise, writhing on the pin which holds one fast to an inexorably moral universe.

Moral systems can only be overthrown on moral grounds. What revolutions in morality humanity has seen, have all been conducted in the interests of some higher principle which has hitherto been overlooked. Faustus's reorganisation of morality can make no such claim; it aims merely at making the universe more convenient to live in—"if I may haue my desire while I liue, I am satisfied, let me shift after death as I may," as Robert Greene put it. It lacks even the Utilitarian grace of considering the convenience of mankind as a whole. It is Faustus's private revolution, the objectives of which would be utterly subverted if all men were to participate in its benefits. Marlowe draws with perception and firmness the disastrous blindness implicit in this epicurean individualism. One sees, in the scenes depicting Faustus's accommodation to damnation and the creed of hell, the kind of meaning that could be given to his rejection of the traditional wisdom: it is a rejection of the "communal" element in human endeavour; and one immediate result is a dangerous isolation which Marlowe dramatises in the long midnight colloquies with the nonhuman Mephostophilis.

Very often of course it is necessary to cut oneself off from the assumptions that come most easily; but equally often, the severing of bonds is succeeded by a servile commitment to the party that promises emancipation. In Faustus's case the commitment is to the nonhuman and for the greater part of the play he is shown trying to be "a spirit in form and substance," to the consequent atrophy of his specifically human potentialities. "He is not well with being over-solitary."

This is why his eleventh-hour return to the domestic limitations of the scholar's life, and his poignant reaching out for human contact, are so extraordinarily moving—at last his estranged and suppressed humanity has risen to demand its due. When the First Scholar regrets that Faustus has given his friends no opportunity to pray for him (19.69-70), he is speaking not only of the loss of divine grace, but also of the communal human support which men can give each other, from which Faustus, by his "singularity," has cut himself off.

It is when this doomed attempt at autarchy and self-signification collides with the demands of a nature still fundamentally religious, that the play again moves into a region of tragic potential:

GOOD ANGEL: Faustus, repent; yet God will pity thee.
BAD ANGEL: Thou art a spirit; God cannot pity thee.
FAUSTUS: Who buzzeth in mine ears I am a spirit?
Be I a devil, yet God may pity me;
Yea, God will pity me if I repent.

BAD ANGEL: Ay, but Faustus never shall repent.(6.12)

The Angels withdraw, leaving Faustus to the bottomless solitude of moral responsibility:

My heart is harden'd, I cannot repent. Scare can I name salvation, faith, or heaven, But fearful echoes thunders in mine ears, 'Faustus, thou art damn'd!' Then guns and knives, Swords, poison, halters, and envenom'd steel Are laid before me to dispatch myself; And long ere this I should have done the deed Had not sweet pleasure conquer'd deep despair.(6.18)

Beneath the rhetorical symmetries of the Angels' speech lies the tragic paradox of a consciousness ruinously divided against itself—a consciousness powerfully drawn by "salvation, faith and heaven," yet deafened by the "fearful echoes" that thunder in his ears when he names them, by those magnified reverberations of his own despairing self-accusation. The sense of imprisonment within the self is so overwhelming that he can only frame it in terms of external coercion—"My heart is harden'd." To ask whether he is in fact coerced, or whether he only imagines he is, is meaningless. Unless we blind ourselves with a drastically oversimplified view of volition, we must recognise in Faustus's predicament a perennial human impasse.

The situation is given added depth as he goes on to specify the "sweet pleasure" in a way that transcends mere "voluptuousness" and becomes a passionate love of beauty:

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 with my Mephostophilis? Why should I die, then, or basely despair?

Why indeed? The music is so entirely present in the lyric cadence of these lines that it becomes more than an infernal palliative. And the mention of Mephostophilis does not so much ironically discredit the vision, as transform the fiend into a sweet musician in consort with all the singers of antiquity. Faustus's religious consciousness, his desperate self-rejection, and his love of beautiful things, are here locked in internecine conflict, none prevailing yet none yielding. It is one of the finest moments in the play.

If one had to select a single scene as the imaginative heart of the action, I think it would be this one (scene 6), with its appalling and giddy oscillation between the profundities of despair and the escapist frivolities of the Pageant of the Sins; with its superb dramatisation of Faustus's love-hate relation with God, when he calls on Christ and is confronted by Lucifer. If he is torn more violently than this by his divided nature, he cannot survive.

But increasingly, from this point onwards, the hardness of heart, and the corresponding stiffness of mind, provide him with an assured resting place—"Now Faustus must / Thou needs be damn'd … Despair in God, and trust in Beelzebub" (5.1-5). He resolves the agonies of choice by falling back on an assumed external fate; and though he wavers and has to exhort himself to "be resolute," his resolution never takes cognizance of the contrary impulse towards repentance. The two are absolutely dissevered. He seems to prefer damnation; for, as a reprobate, he is in a position to exercise that limited variety of "manly fortitude" which consists in scorning the joys he never shall possess. His is the kind of mind which prefers consistency to integrity. He is stiff to maintain any purpose. And in that stiffness he goes to hell.

I have called this movement in the play (the movement concerned with Faustus's desperate attempt to defy a reality of his own nature) tragic, because it leads us beyond the homiletic framework of the opening scenes, and asks us to conceive of a conflict between immovable conviction and irresistible doubt on the battleground of the individual consciousness. At such moments, the evaluation of Faustus's moral condition is no longer possible in terms like the Chorus's "swollen with cunning of a self-conceit." Marlowe's attempt to impose order on his rebellion moves out of the sphere of moralistic abstraction into a world where the felt reality of the heavenly values constitutes their sole claim to serious attention.

And it is a basic element in Faustus's damnation that salvation and the means to it should never seem more than "illusions, fruits of lunacy." Although that salvation is a continual theoretical possibility, there is a blockage in Faustus's consciousness which makes "contrition, prayer, repentance" appear always to be unreal alternatives. And the blockage is Marlowe's too. Why else can it be that the heavenly can only be represented in the faint efflorescence of the Good Angel's utterances, or in the Old Man's appeal to a "faith" which claims will triumph over "vile hell" (18.124), but which is imprisoned within its own theological concepts? There is a crippling generality about the salvation the Old Man offers:

I see an angel hovers o'er thy head And with a vial full of precious grace Offers to pour the same into the soul: Then call for mercy, and avoid despair.(18.61)

As spiritual counsel this is hopelessly inadequate, and the reply Marlowe gives Faustus—"I feel / Thy words to comfort my distressed soul"—seems forced and unconvincing.

The final declaration of Marlowe's failure to give body to the heavenly order is the creaking machinery of the descending "throne" in scene 19. The only face of God that we see—and see with frightening immediacy—is one from which Faustus recoils in horror:

           See where God Stretcheth out his arms and bends his ireful brows. Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me, And hide me from the heavy wrath of God! No, no.(19.150)

The conception of divine justice which prevails is Lucifer's—"Christ cannot save thy soul, for he is just" (6.87). Justice expresses itself in the total rejection and annihilation of "distressed Faustus."

Under the species of the nature of God, a man figures to himself the friendliness or hostility of the universe, and the possibilities of his existence within it. Marlowe's view of the matter appears to be black in the extreme. The play is permeated with a strong sense of man's alienation from the order of things, a deeply felt "sense of sin," which seems to dominate its vision. As J. B. Steane points out, the "lurking sense of damnation precedes the invocation" of hell.

It is in the sense that the world of the play is hostile to the only values that can redeem it that Faustus's damnation may be said to be imposed from above. Yet there is an urgency and a personal heat behind this terrible paradox which, though it defeats the synthesising activity of Marlowe's art, commands attention and, indeed, a regretful respect. Though the play's grasp of reality is sporadic, its reach is tremendous. We are watching a man, I suggest, locked in a death embrace with the agonising God he can neither reject nor love. It is the final consummation of the Puritan imagination.

Yet, though this may be the tragedy of Christopher Marlowe, it is not The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus. The tragic dilemma we sense behind the play is behind it. It is not officially recognised as a powerful and autonomous insight of revolutionary import. Instead Marlowe tries to accommodate it, by means of the psychomachia form, to the old frontiers and boundaries of moralised experience. And it refuses to submit.

The apotheosis of Helen, for instance, which is supposed to be firmly placed as a narcotic which "may extinguish clear / Those thoughts that do dissuade" Faustus from his vow, nevertheless overflows the moral banks Marlowe is constructing.

O, thou art fairer than the evening's air Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars, Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter When he appear'd to hapless Semele, More lovely than the monarch of the sky In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms, And none but thou shalt be my paramour.(18.112)

Up to this point, the image's sensual potency has been qualified by the destruction with which it is associated—"burnt," "sack'd," "combat," "wound"; but here the flame of passion flares up so fiercely that is transfigures even so moral an epithet as "wanton." The conflict is sharp in this scene, for these lines are immediately succeeded by the Old Man's

Accursed Faustus, miserable man, That from thy soul exclud'st the grace of heaven And fliest the throne of his tribunal seat!(18.119)

It is clear that this comment cannot contain the Helen vision; but equally clear that Marlowe expects it to. The "humanist" and the moralist in him are again at war.

Thus Marlowe comes within hailing distance of that internalisation of moral sanctions by which drama can lead into wisdom instead of pointing at it, only to abandon it for easier simplifications:

Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall, Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise.

This, cheek by jowl with Faustus's last moments, is the critical paradox of the play at its most acute. I suppose it might be argued that the Epilogue merely condenses, into conventional and manageable form, a dramatic experience too vast and chaotic to be left unformulated; but I am inclined to think that the effect is simply bathetic.

Robert Ornstein (essay date 1968)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6437

SOURCE: "Marlowe and God: The Tragic Theology of Dr. Faustus," in PMLA, Vol. 83, No. 5, October, 1968, pp. 1378-85.

[In the following essay, Ornstein suggests that Doctor Faustus is informed by Marlowe's personal vision of a harsh and unforgiving diety, and that the play is "Marlowe's testament of despair."]

Apart from Shakespearean drama, few Elizabethan plays have been so frequently and thoroughly studied in recent decades as Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. Yet it remains as problematical a work of art today as it was thirty years ago. Interpretations based on the biographical evidence of Marlowe's atheism are now in disrepute, because scholarly investigations of Elizabethan thought and dramatic traditions would convince us of the orthodoxy of Marlowe's artistic theme and moral attitude. But if earlier "biographical" studies of Dr. Faustus were partial and unsatisfactory, they were at least in touch with the poetic splendor of its lines and the metaphysical terror of its final scene. In more recent "corrective" studies the element of fire in Marlowe's tragic thought is quite put out; only the ironies of Faustus' overreaching ambitions and the choric homiletic pieties remain.

Much more knowledgeable about Marlowe's art and Elizabethan culture than were earlier readers, we see Dr. Faustus differently. Indeed, we study a text different from that used by earlier scholars, who preferred the 1604 Quarto to the longer 1616 Quarto with its explicitly and harshly moralistic conclusion. We now know from W. W. Greg's splendid researches that the 1616 Quarto is a far more respectable (that is, less corrupted) dramatic text than is the 1604 Quarto.1 But before we accept the moralism of the 1616 Quarto as a key to Marlowe's tragic intention, we must ask whether it represents a more authentic version of the Dr. Faustus which Marlowe (and possibly a collaborator) originally conceived. I am not alone in thinking that despite its flaws, cuts, and evident corruption, the 1604 text is, as a whole, more powerful and artistically compelling than is the 1616 text.2 Indeed, if the 1604 Quarto is, as Greg argues, a memorial reconstruction of a truncated and degraded performance version of Marlowe's play, then it is a uniquely remarkable one which reproduces the main plot with extraordinary accuracy, which restores more memorable and unmistakably Marlovian passages than it omits, and which again and again either corrects errors in the 1616 text or offers more terse and vivid readings. Frederick S. Boas remarked (and Greg agrees) that the 1604 Quarto contributes as much to the presently accepted text of the main action of Dr.Faustus as does the 1616 text, which is markedly superior only in the representation of the comic sequences.3 To the main action as portrayed in the 1604 Quarto, the 1616 Quarto adds only the puzzling Pope Bruno episodes, and the pedestrian allegorical sequences and choruses of the last scenes, which seemed to Greg out of character with the total artistic conception of the play.4

While bibliographical investigations have not solved the complex problems of Marlowe's text, much less the problems of interpreting Marlowe's artistic intention, they have swept away some dubious assumptions which have muddled critical inquiry. For too long critics have talked about the text of Dr.Faustus as if it were a massive ruin, when there is no real evidence thAT ANY IMPORTANT SCENE HAS BEEN LOST OR REPLACED BY hack comedy. The artistic jumble and anticlimax of the fourth act is a consequence, I think, not of textual corruption but of the fundamental incapacities and limitations of Marlowe's imagination. Lacking a sure instinct for dramatic design,5 he reproduces in Dr. Faustus the narrative failings of the tragical history of Dr. Faustus as it is related in the Faustbook. In Marlowe's play, as in his source, the hero's defiant, blasphemous choice of black magic is a splendid beginning; his final moments of dread and despair are a powerful conclusion. But between these two poles of spiritual crisis, the history of Faustus lacks dramatic intensity and narrative substance; the emphasis falls on the astonishing adventures in sorcery, which can be far more easily talked about than acted out, and which do not in themselves sustain the essential drama of the hero's progress toward damnation.

Of course, Marlowe might have found alternatives to the slapstick comedy from the Faustbook which he incorporated in his fourth act. He might have created absorbing scenes of spiritual discovery in which Faustus, increasingly aware of the futility of his bargain with the Devil, turns with true longing toward salvation. Greatly portrayed, Faustus' spiritual struggles—his waverings between exhilaration and despondency, stoic resolution and despair—might have provided an essential core of psychological and moral action between the first and last acts. But though Marlowe superbly portrays his hero on the heights of aspiration and in the depths of despair, he does not trace the path which leads Faustus from one spiritual extreme to the other. Not interested in, or perhaps capable of, depicting psychological nuance and process, he allows the allegorical machinery of good and bad angels to conventionalize and externalize Faustus' spiritual struggles, even while he ekes out his fable with seriocomic episodes from his source.

I do not mean to oversimplify either Marlowe's failings or the artistic problems which he faced in writing Dr. Faustus. Just as his hero seeks the unattainable, Marlowe attempts in art the impossible: namely, to translate into specific human terms and effective theater his amorphous, rhapsodic idea of man's transcendent potentialities. His inability to fashion appropriate artistic correlatives for his metaphysical vision is perhaps more apparent to us than it was to "credulous" Elizabethans, who, we say, were awed by a few squibs, or by flights of poetic fancy and seriocomic sorceries. But perhaps even on the Elizabethan stage, the scenes of Faustus' magical arts did not seem magical enough, because several of them are omitted from the briefer 1604 Quarto.

Even clothed in the conventionalities of the Faustbook, Marlowe's fascination with the supernatural is very much the expression of a unique temperament. The elements of the supernatural in other Elizabethan plays are merely literary, drawn from folklore and popular superstition, and allied to the fantasy of dreams rather than the speculations of philosophy. For Marlowe, however, the dream of transcendent or supernatural power has momentous intellectual seriousness; it is his unique "philosophical" contribution to the Renaissance theorizing about power which in Machiavelli and Bacon takes a more purely pragmatic form. It is revealing that Marlowe, who established the Machiavellian herovillain on the Elizabethan stage, could not fix his attention on the petty arena of politics or on the paltry goal of wealth and political sovereignty. The sweet fruition of an earthly crown is no medicine for Tamburlaine's dying fury, nor is it, even in Tamburlaine, Part I, an adequate object for Tamburlaine's essentially metaphysical longings.6 Nothing merely earthly or merely human could be commensurate with Marlowe's passion for the heroic.

We do not know how Marlowe's metaphysical longings struck his contemporaries. We do know that his plays fascinated them, and we know what they thought about Marlowe's blasphemous life and death. We must necessarily distinguish between Marlowe's life (as Elizabethans perhaps imagined it) and his art. But we cannot assume that the two are completely unrelated. We do not arrive at a more just and scholarly interpretation of Dr. Faustus by ignoring contemporary opinions about Marlowe and by putting aside the ideas attributed to him by contemporary accusers. Similarly we cannot argue that the Baines note and the Arian disputation said to be Marlowe's tell us nothing about the mind which created Dr. Faustus, while we seek the key to Marlowe's artistic intention in pedestrian plays which he probably never saw.7 No doubt Marlowe's contemporaries exaggerated as well as distorted his heterodoxy. Vehement accusations of atheism were notoriously casual and inaccurate in the Renaissance, and Marlowe was the kind of man who incited other men's malice and enmity. But while the evidence of his "atheism" is circumstantial (and the circumstances themselves are doubtful), one is nevertheless struck by the correspondence and consistency of the accusations made We must against and Marlowe by Kyd, Baines, and others.8 We must wonder, furthermore, whether the legend of Marlowe's atheism could have flourished well into the seventeenth century, if Dr. Faustus, his one play that held the Jacobean stage and reading public, had seemed as obviously orthodox to viewers then as it does to scholars today.

This is not to say that the scurrilities of the Baines note or the Arian arguments of the theological disputation correspond to the profounder vision of Dr. Faustus, which though written in the last year of Marlowe's life, when he was publicly flaunting his heresies, seems far less a manifesto of heroic defiance and aberrant enthusiasms than do his earliest plays. Paul Kocher would explain the apparent retreat toward orthodoxy in Dr. Faustus as Marlowe's instinctive shudder before the possibility of hell.9 But this psychological conjecture ignores the insistent ironies of the play, which embody Marlowe's lucid intellectual awareness of his hero's failings and failures. From the beginning, mean sensual appetites intermingle with Faustus' Promethean aspirations. From the beginning, he is too glutted with self-conceit to see that his mastery over Mephistophilis is mere appearance and that he defies heavenly law only to accept the bondage of hell. Hungering for immortality, he trades his hope of salvation for twenty-four years of pleasure and profit, but even the terms of this ridiculous bargain are not honored, because he never attains the powers or the knowledge which magic promised. On the stage, he is never more than a master of illusions, pranks, and magic shows, who grows enamored of his own shadows, and who parodies divine omnipotence, even as in turn he is parodied by the silly clown.10 Aware at last that he cannot command the elemental forces of nature, he would lose himself in them; in ironic peripeteia, his creative impulse becomes a passion for self-annihilation.

The ironic lesson of Faustus' tragedy is clear enough, I suppose, but it is not clear to whom the lesson was addressed. Was it intended for the mass of Elizabethan theatergoers, who had neither the intellectual capacity nor the daring to emulate Faustus' career and who would, if at all, damn themselves in more conventional ways? Similar to other men in his vanity, Faustus is extraordinary in his hubristic daring and in his heroic willingness to embrace a dreadful fate, though he first puts aside the thought of the inconceivable future and later cringes before his self-imposed destiny. From a prudential viewpoint Faustus' choice of necromancy is foolish as well as self-destructive. His thirst for the absolute ignores the alternative path of caution and acceptance which is always open. One can be saved like the Old Man, not doomed like Faustus, just as one can be an Ismene, not an Antigone; a Horatio, not a Hamlet. The way of survival—of the mean—is announced and exemplified by the Chorus of Marlowe's play, which, shaken by the spectacle of tragic suffering, moralizes the error of tragic daring.

To walk the path that the Chorus delineates, however, is not to be Faustus. For though the Chorus speaks of the bough that might have grown straight, its metaphor of growth and fulfillment is earthbound and passive. The heroic choice is not between alternative paths of self-fulfillment but between the self-destructiveness of mighty strivings and the salvation that demands self-abnegation and the denial of heroic aspiration. For inevitably man's attempts at greatness must break against a universal order which is predicated on, and which demands, human obedience and denial. Thus Marlowe's heroes do not cry out, like Hamlet and Lear, against worlds out of ethical joint. Like figures of Greek mythology, they hurl the gauntlets of their will and ambition at whatever gods may be. Their defiances are Promethean, their flights of aspiration Icarian, their challenges Titanic. It is not enough for Tamburlaine to subdue the monarchs of the earth. Ultimately and inevitably he must set his standards against the heavens.11

We could more confidently speak of Dr. Faustus as a cosmic tragedy if its plot sustained the philosophical magnitude of the opening scenes, where fundamental questions are raised about man's destiny. Unfortunately, however, the great concluding scene seems to lack the intellectual resonances of the first act. The earlier philosophical questioning of human limitations seems to have no bearing on the ultimate drama of Faustus' spiritual anguish, which seems wholly personal, and emotional, and explicable by Christian doctrine. What Faustus has dared or done seems now irrelevant, because, according to doctrine, he need only repent and have faith to be saved. As an intellectual rebel, Faustus has mythic significance. As a writhing sinner, he seems merely another example of religious despair. To be sure, Faustus proclaims the uniqueness of his fate as one hounded by an unrelenting God for having committed the unpardonable sin of daring.12 But scholars insist that Faustus is mistaken; they would see him as the victim of his own illusions, not as the sacrifice to a universal order hostile to human greatness.

Perhaps the desire to conventionalize the viewpoint of Dr. Faustus is an inevitable reaction against earlier attempts to magnify Marlowe's importance as intellectual rebel and prophet. Certainly there is a need to reexamine the usual and familiar generalizations about Marlowe and his age. But it is not easy to demythologize a writer who was a legend in his own time and who serves modern scholars as an exemplar of the restless questioning spirit of late Renaissance thought. A useful beginning might be the recognition that there is little of the "Faustian" as Goethe conceived it in Marlowe's Faustus, even as there is little that is modern or scientific in Marlowe's thought. No compeer of Bacon or Galileo, Marlowe's "philosophy" was felt, not argued; poetic, not intellectual. Empiricism, naturalism, mathematical rationalism—the main currents of late Renaissance philosophic thought that converged in the scientific revolutions of the early seventeenth century—were alien to him. He could not insist on the standard of rationalism when he yearned always for mysteries that lay beyond human reason and experience—beyond the here and now of Renaissance humanism. Thus where Bacon seeks the scientific knowledge that eradicates mysteries and enables man to control a world of natural "second causes," Marlowe's Faustus aspires to a control of nature which is immediately miraculous and "divine." Where the modernity of Renaissance humanism lay in its increasing concern with the purely natural and human, Marlowe was fascinated by the superhuman and by the very metaphysical speculations which seemed to a Bacon and Montaigne barren and futile. Despite a wide-ranging skepticism about religious belief, he hungered for an altitude of thought and experience. He brooded over the nature of the Diety, whose supreme authority and limitless power provide (in Tamburlaine as well as in Dr. Faustus) a measure of human potentialities and limitations. His God is no tired vaudevillian, as Sartre imagines; his heroes' blasphemy is not a denial of God but a challenge to His supremacy. They do not deify mankind; they would be gods.

Instead of placing Marlowe in the very vanguard of Renaissance humanistic thought, then, we should recognize that his bent of mind is more medieval than modern, and his response to experience is more antihumanistic than humanistic. Man as such does not delight him—nor woman either. His Zenocrate and Helen are incarnations of poetic aspirations, not of feminine beauty. His recollections of Ovid, as in Faustus' dying speech, translate rhapsodic sensuality into metaphysical dread. We look in vain in his plays for an appreciation of the enduring qualities of the human spirit, or for those personal relationships which are treasured in the more genuinely humanistic art of his contemporaries. Indeed, very near the surface of Marlowe's enthusiasms is a desolate sense of the emptiness of much of existence; and at the heart of his "philosophy" is something that might be called "contempt for the world." He cannot rejoice in the human (much less in human self-sufficiency) because he considers that which is merely human worthless. The humanistic enthusiasms of the early Tamburlaine are not to be found in Faustus' opening speech,13 which implies that man's condition is merely pitiful; he lives like a criminal under the sentence of death, and his crime is inherent in his humanity.

Other Elizabethans felt the pang of mortality more immediately and sensuously. They knew that all must pass and that no ecstasy can make the stars stand still. But they also knew the preciousness of youth, of beauty, and of love. For a despairing Faustus, however, the beauty of Helen is no anodyne. There is no depth or intensity of experience that compensates for mortality, no accomplishment that does not seem ultimately trivial. Because death is a metaphysical outrage which annihilates the meaning of existence, Marlowe's heroes begin as lovers of the world they would remake—they would seize their day—and end as nihilists. Other Elizabethan tragic heroes learn how to die and, in learning this, rob death of its infinite terror. Their victory is denied the Marlovian hero, who can never accept the elemental facts of his humanity.

Renaissance humanists inherited the ancient saw that all philosophy is learning how to die. For Marlowe, however, the crux of philosophy is why men must die. He knows the traditional justifications for the ways of God. He links Faustus' rebellion to the original impulse to sin in Lucifer and Adam, and he thinks on the cure which Christ's sacrifice dearly bought. But he will not, like Christian apologists, explain original sin as a collusion of feminine vanity and masculine uxoriousness. In Dr. Faustus, as in Greek mythology, man's primal disobedience is a Promethean impulse. It is the questioning mind, not unruly passions, that threatens the divinely established order. For with knowledge enough man—even a sinner like Oedipus—could become like the gods.

Not convinced of the beneficence of universal order, the Greek mind could equate tragic hubris with nobility and altruism. It could imagine a fearful Zeus, who had usurped supreme power in the universe, denying man the gifts of civilization which might threaten his own supremacy. Apologists for an omnipotent and loving Christian God could not imagine a Promethean kind of disobedience. Since divine law is necessarily perfect, man's disobedience is necessarily vicious or absurd. The very desire to fathom supernal mysteries becomes, in Christian apologetics, a symptom of man's spiritual malaise. The Old Testament answer to a Job is ad hominem in the largest sense: what right has man to question? The argument of Paradise Lost is similarly ad hominem. Milton does not rationalize the edict against tasting moral knowledge; he insists rather that the edict is one which only the egotistical, undisciplined, or self-conceited would wish to overstep. In fact, the limitation seems arbitrary only to those incapable of self-knowledge, who are seduced by Satan or make a god of their own appetites.

Marlowe would not argue the contrary. The mood of exultation in the first part of Tamburlaine fades in Part 11, where Marlowe intuits the inhumanity of titanic aspiration. In Dr.Faustus he anatomizes the vices of the would-be superman, who spurns splendid accomplishments because they do not satisfy an ignoble egotism. Faustus practices medicine without compassion for human suffering, and worse still, he would abandon his studies because his fame is already established and the conquest of death eludes him. He despises the petty quiddities of the law, but he is not inspired by a nobler ideal of justice. Incapable of selfless dedication to his studies, he can use the very chop logic he scorns in philosophy to justify his abandoning of theology and his pursuit of black magic. Because he is glutted with self-conceit, his altruistic schemes are self-aggrandizing: he dreams of pleasure and profit.

But if we say that at the start Faustus is arrogant, vain, and guilty of the cardinal sin of pride, then we have also to say that his "fall" is neither a simple moral degradation nor a conventional seduction from conscience and belief. Compare, for example, the pattern of his fate with that of Macbeth, who before he succumbs to the temptation of power is at the height of his nobility.14 From the moment he decides to murder Duncan, Macbeth's path is precipitously downward; his life becomes a darkening horror of self-hatred and murderous acts. Faustus' tragic career is more paradoxical, because even as his grand illusions fade and his intellectual powers dissipate in petty shows and sensuality, his moral awareness grows. By strict Christian tenet, Faustus may be more innocent at the beginning of the play than at the close; to an audience, however, he is most arrogant, most contemptuous of other men, most scornful of religion before he falls. His fall is a moral education and discovery, during which he is humanized, not degraded. Though he speaks of his hardened heart and would have the Old Man tormented, for misery loves company, he gains in damnation a humility, compassion, and sympathy for fellow human beings which he did not before possess. Where Macbeth's fall increasingly isolates him from other men, Faustus' fall is a means to communion with others. At the last he is surrounded by men who would pray for him and protect him from the Devil, but Faustus will not allow them to risk their lives and'souls for him. I do not mean to oversimplify our response to the Faustus who cringes before Mephistophilis and Lucifer, and who would lose himself with Helen. I would suggest, however, that Marlowe's portrayal of the dying Faustus is far more poignant and disturbing than many scholars will admit. If Faustus were obviously lost and corrupted, there would be no final problem of interpretation, no need to pore over Elizabethan sermons and theological treatises to explain why he is not saved. It is only because Faustus seems so much more gracious in the fifth act than in the first that the reason for his damnation must be argued out, frequently with such doctrinal casuistries as turn the God of infinite love into a petty legalist.15

Faustus claims that his doom was sealed by his blasphemous defiance of God. Theology denies his claim on the ground that no trespass has irrevocable consequences and no human act is beyond divine pardon. Yet even theology admits that human acts may have irrevocable consequences. After original sin, man's nature and his destiny were irrevocably changed. Knowing good and evil, he forfeited the paradise of innocence and entered the world of moral and mortal experience, from which only grace might redeem him.

Grace is grace, say the reprobates of Measure for Measure, despite all controversy. But grace in Dr. Faustus is problematical because Marlowe would have it so. He could have shown in the last scene a Faustus who is tormented by the legions and the prospect of hell as he reaches toward a glorious heaven beyond his grasp. Marlowe chose instead to make Lucifer merely a spectator to the final agony of his victim, who shrinks more from the wrath of God than from the terror of hell. Mephistophilis may define hell as the absence of God, but Faustus finds the presence of God unbearable, because he sees, not the loving Father, but the wrathful Jehovah who cast the rebellious angels down to hell.16 There is pity on earth but not in heaven, though Christ's blood streams in the firmament. We can, of course, cite theological reasons why Faustus must be damned: he lacks faith, he does not believe in God's redeeming love, he is guilty of the sin of despair. But we cannot by references to Christian doctrine resolve the aesthetic issues of a play that calls doctrine into question. We cannot argue the theological reasons why Faustus does not merit God's pity, when the audience is deeply moved, when the Old Man pities Faustus, and even Mephistophilis was touched to momentary compassion. Shall the audience and a fallen angel pity what God cannot?

That Marlowe's God is a deity of power, not love, has been suggested by various critics,17 and can be inferred from his plays, the arguments of the Arian disputation, and the ideas attributed to Marlowe by his contemporary accusers. But we cannot from such various sources abstract a single static Marlovian theology which explains the world view of Dr. Faustus. For the Arian disputation denies the divinity of Christ, and the scurrilities of the Baines note jeer at Christ as a lewd effeminate imposter. Yet in Dr. Faustus the Sacrifice is real; indeed Faustus' attempts to parody it merely accentuate his hybristic blindness. Because the Baines note records, not Marlowe's most private convictions, but the outrageous heresies he chose18 recklessly to flaunt in public, we need not choose between it and Dr.Faustus as his final religious "testament." Nor need we attempt the impossible task of reconciling the one with the other. But we can note the illuminating ways in which the ideas of the Baines note converge with, as well as contradict, the tragic theology of Dr. Faustus.

Marlowe's free thinking is evident in almost all of his art. He reveals aberrant sympathies in Tamburlaine and he snipes at Christian assumptions and professions in The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris. In Dr.Faustus his quarrel with Christianity continues. The Church is still for him a place of superstitious rites and false authorities.19 The true revelation of the divine is the universe itself, in which God's Apollonian creativity is manifest.20 Marlowe could imagine his heroic Creator exacting a fearful sacrifice as the price of man's pardon. But he could not imagine, nor does he imply in Dr. Faustus, that this supreme and universal Power ever assumed man's inferior shape, contemptible weakness, and mortality.21

As a philosopher, Faustus is superior to the crude vulgarities of the Baines note but not to its mockery of Christ. He does not proclaim that Jesus is an unmanly pseudo-god, but by temperament, and with conscious ironic wit, he plays the role of an antichrist. Unlike the God who became man, Faustus is man who would be god, who would escape the human condition which Christ willingly assumed, and who deliberately seeks the satanic temptations which Christ rejected. Like Christ, but without Christ's love, Faustus has healed the sick, and he now spurns medicine because he cannot by it reenact Christ's miracles: he cannot, he complains, raise men from the dead or make them live eternally. Deliberately parodying the Sacrifice, he sells what Christ died to purchase; he signs the Devil's pact with his own blood and with Christ's words on his lips, even as later he dies with a paraphrase of the Last Words on his lips. But the irony of the last scene is very different from that of earlier moments where Faustus played the conscious parodist of Christ, for now the mock-Passion has become real; and Faustus' death is a sacrifice which, like Christ's, reveals the divine will—that is to say, it is in the sacrifices which the gods require that their law is revealed to us.

We can argue that Faustus too late—or with too little conviction—turns toward Christ. But we cannot say that the Faustus of the early scenes ignores the Sacrifice when he rejects his faith. He does not, as scholars would have it, describe Christianity without Christ or delude himself with schoolboy sophistries about the possibility of salvation. No character so foolish could claim the intellectual authority or the magnitude of accomplishment which is granted to Faustus by the Chorus and the speeches of the opening scene. If the impatient tone and the cursory quality of Faustus' deliberations seem to convict him of superficiality, we must remember that he is not for the first time considering the possibilities that lie within man's scope. Even as the play begins he is "settling" his studies: i.e., summing up intellectual accounts, reviewing the circumstances which led him toward forbidden pursuits. His accounting (as the dramatic occasion requires)22 is elliptical and poetic, not discursive; yet it has a philosophical amplitude. Faustus begins, as it were, at the beginning, with man's conception in sin; and he contemplates man's fate under the aspects of time and eternity. If all men must die because the wages of sin are death, then that is hard, since no man can escape sinning. Or rather that would be intolerably hard, except that Christ's sacrifice holds out the possibility of pardon and eternal life—a possibility which Faustus seems to ignore:

Jerome's Bible, Faustus, view it well:Stipendium peccati mors est. Ha! Stipendium, etc.     [He reads] The reward of sin is death. That's hard.Si peccase negamus, fallimur Et nulla est in nobis veritas. If we say that we have no sin, We deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us. Why then belike we must sin, And so consequently die. Ay, we must die an everlasting death. What doctrine call you this? Che sera, sera: What will be, shall be! Divinity, adieu!(I.i.38-49)

Ignoring the conditional quality of Jerome's sentence, Faustus seems to construct a faulty syllogism of inevitable damnation. Man, we protest, need not claim that he is innocent. He can be saved if he confesses his sinfulness and throws himself on the mercy of God. But is not this salvation also hard for one who would believe in the dignity of man? What value can man claim for his being if its criminality can be absolved only by confession and surrender? Faustus will not save himself by imitating Christ's submissiveness; he seeks instead to fulfill the "divine," and yet forbidden, potentialities of his own genius. His model of imitation is the God of force and creative energy whom Tamburlaine first "served" and then challenged.

We can say that Faustus despaired because he misconceived the nature of God. But taking a larger perspective on Marlowe's art, we can infer that Marlowe despaired because he could not imagine a God other than the Deity of Tamburlaine and Dr. Faustus, even though with maturer sympathies he came at last to see that the untrammeled and transcendent "divine" will is an ethical horror. Can Marlowe's God forgive? No doubt he can forgive the Old Man, who bows his head in submission, even as Tamburlaine can forgive those who bow before his dreadful edicts. But this is the "charity" of satisfied will, not of compassionate love; its obverse is the damnation of Faustus, which echoes imaginatively the slaughter of the Damascan Virgins in Tamburlaine. Just as the fatal banners hang over Tamburlaine's tents at Damascus, "reflexing the hue of blood," at Faustus' damnation Christ's blood streams in the Firmament.23 At the beginning of Dr. Faustus the sublime charity of the Sacrifice is poised against Faustus' consuming egotism; at the close of the play it is poised against the unpitying wrath of God. Thus while the tragic theology of Dr. Faustus admits the Incarnation, which is derided in Marlowe's "atheistic" pronouncements, the Godlike and the Christlike remain antithetical. The ethic of mercy is humane, promulgated by the Son, who became man. The ethic of heaven—of the cosmos—in Marlowe's view, is inhumane, futilely grasped at by an arrogant Faustus and exemplified on earth by Tamburlaine's dedications to power and the law of his own pitiless will.24

Not surprisingly, then, we find nothing in Marlowe's plays that resembles the tragic acceptances of other dramatists. Rejecting his early Marlovian enthusiasms, George Chapman fashioned a nobler ideal of the stoic fortitude that endures and triumphs over adversity. But when Marlowe outgrew his jejune infatuation with power, he could not reach beyond the bitter pleasure of exposing his illusions. Thus no tragic fortitude sustains Faustus, who shrinks from absolute daring to wretched impotence, who, cringing before the Devil's physical tormentings, is less heroic than the Old Man, the mean of life over which the superman would soar. If we assume that Dr. Faustus, composed in the last year of Marlowe's life, is a piece of orthodox moralism, than we must wonder at the sordid and unregenerate circumstances of Marlowe's death. If, however, we see in Dr. Faustus Marlowe's testament of despair, then we see also a perfect correspondence between the nihilism of Marlowe's art and of his life. For it is the horror of the void—of loss and impotence—humanly experienced which is conveyed by Faustus' last soliloquy. Recoiling from the intellect that betrayed him, Faustus turns from thought to sensuality, from the pursuit of knowledge to the burning of books,25 and to a longing for self-annihilation which is perhaps also exemplified in Marlowe's life. If Baines's account is accurate, Marlowe, in the last weeks of his life, courted the stake by publicly and repeatedly declaring atheistic and treasonous libels.26 And finally, in a drunken, almost suicidal quarrel (which he seems to have provoked), he found a lasting escape from the vexation of his own thought.


1 See the introduction to Greg's Marlowe's Doctor Faustus 1604-1616, Parallel Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950).

2 See, e.g., C. L. Barber, "'The Form of Faustus' Fortunes Good or Bad"," Tulane Drama Review, VIII (1964), 93, n. 2.

3The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, ed. Frederick S. Boas (London, 1932), p. 23.

4 Greg, Parallel Texts, pp. 230-232.

5 One cannot attribute all the varied structural failings of Marlowe's plays to textual corruption. Tamburlaine, Part I, succeeds to the extent that it does despite a singular lack of dramatic form.

6 See Una Ellis-Fermor's acute discussion of poetry and idea in Tamburlaine in Christopher Marlowe (London, 1927), pp. 27 ff.

7 Plays such as Nathaniel Woodes's Conflict of Conscience.

8 Kyd's apology and the fragments of the Arian disputation he said belonged to Marlowe are reprinted in F. S. Boas, The Works of Thomas Kyd (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), pp. cx-cxiii. Kyd's accusations against Marlowe and Richard Baines's note are reprinted by Paul Kocher in Christopher Marlowe (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1946), pp. 25, 34-36. Kocher argues very persuasively the consistency of atheistic ideas attributed to Marlowe by various contemporaries (pp. 27-32).

9 Kocher, p. 119.

10 See my earlier essay, "The Comic Synthesis in Doctor Faustus," ELH, XXII (1955), 165-172.

11 'Again and again the thought of man challenging or displacing the gods recurs in the first part of Tamburlaine, couched usually in allusions to Greek mythology. See, e.g., II.iii.18 ff.;; II.vii.12-15; IV.iv.71-72; V.ii.387-390, 447-448. It is revealing that the great apostrophe to man's aspiring mind "still climbing after knowledge infinite" (II.vii. 18 ff.) immediately follows a reference to Jove's deposition of Saturn, king of the gods. In Part II Tamburlaine threatens to turn his cavalieros against the heavens (II.iv. 103-106) when Zenocrate dies. And when he feels his fatal illness, he would "march against the powers of heaven" to "slaughter the gods" (V.iii.48-50). All references to Marlowe's plays are to The Complete Plays, ed. Irving Ribner (New York, 1963).

12 "But Faustus' offence can ne'er be pardoned. / The serpent that tempted Eve may be saved, but not Faustus" (V.ii.41-42).

13 'Concluding his summary of his feats in medicine, Faustus remarks, "Yet art thou still but Faustus and a man." And to be but a man is of course to be subject to death.

14 In paralleling the careers of Faustus and Macbeth, Helen Gardner emphasizes only their degradations ("The Tragedy of Damnation," Essays and Studies, 1, 1948, 46 ff.). Yet we have only to compare the last scenes of Dr. Faustus with the last scenes of Macbeth to realize how different are the spiritual fates of the two "damned" heroes.

15 One example is W. W. Greg's argument that Faustus is ultimately damned because he makes love to a witch (Helen), in "The Damnation of Faustus," MLR, XLI (1946), 97-107.

16 Similarly Faustus' fellow scholars shrink from his side lest they tempt the wrath of God. The heavens can bum as well as hell. When the opening Chorus speaks of "melting heavens," it refers, not to tears of mercy and compassion, but to the heat of vindictive wrath. Indeed, "melting heavens conspired [Faustus'] overthrow."

17 'See Kocher, pp. 71 et passim.

18 We can only speculate about Marlowe's motives for publicizing his atheism. See n. 26.

19 According to Baines, Marlowe said, "The first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe," and he accused Moses of tricking the Jews so as to implant an "everlasting supersition" in their hearts (Kocher, p. 34). To be sure, Marlowe's target in Dr. Faustus is the hated papacy. But Baines reports Marlowe's statement "that if there be any god or any good Religion, then it is in the papistes because the service of god is performed with more Cerimonies, as Elevation of the mass, organs, singing men, Shaven Crownes" (Kocher, p. 35). Marlowe may well have been attracted to the solemn ritual and mysteries of the Catholic service.

20 The first antagonism between Faustus and Mephistophilis arises when Faustus asks "who made the world." Faustus tries to think "upon God that made the world," but he is ordered by Lucifer (II.ii.108) to "talk not of Paradise or creation."

21 See the emphasis on the eternality and omnipotence of the deity in the Arian disputation, Kyd, pp. cxi, cxii.

22 The dreariness of the opening scene of Toumeur's The Atheist's Tragedy, where D'Amville discusses his philosophy at length with his accomplice Borachio, provides an instructive contrast to the brilliant opening scene of Dr. Faustus.

23 Doctrinally, of course, Christ's blood is the symbol of redemption. But the immediate imaginative and emotional force of the line, I think, is to evoke the agony of the Crucifixion. When the red banners hang at Damascus (Tamburlaine), the Virgins are slaughtered at spearpoint, and in Part II, Tamburlaine would "set black streamers in the firmament / To signify the slaughter of the gods" (v.iii.49-50). In Tamburlaine, at least, bloody hues in the firmament are associated with implacable will and destructiveness. Equally revealing is the description of Tamburlaine's "mildness of mind / That, satiate with spoil, refuseth blood" (IV.i.51-58). Such is the "mercy" of satisfied will at Damascus in Part I.

24 This is not to agree with Una Ellis-Fermor that Marlowe envisions in Dr. Faustus a Satanic world order (The Frontiers of Drama, London, 1948, pp. 141 ff.). Cruelty, sadistic destructiveness, and vindictiveness are characteristic of the would-be god, Tamburlaine (or Lucifer), in his degradation, not of the wrathful deity of Marlowe's last play.

25 It is interesting that Faustus' last despairing attempt to appease his angry God by offering to burn his books echoes Envy's sentence: "I cannot read and therefore wish all books burned" (II.ii.128).

26 To read Baines's account of Marlowe's obscene and treasonous public statements—an account corroborated by others—is to know that whatever Marlowe's motive was, it was not a hope of winning believers from Christianity.

Michael Hattaway (essay date 1970)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10609

SOURCE: "The Theology of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus," in Renaissance Drama, New Series Vol. III, 1970, pp. 51-78.

[In the following essay, Hattaway examines the Christian iconography in Doctor Faustus and concludes that the drama moves "inevitably towards orthodoxy rather than iconoclasm."]

Oh men most braine-sick and miserable, that endevour to be worse than they can!

Montaigne, Essays, II.xii

(trans. Florio)

Ever since Eliot described The Jew of Malta as a "tragic farce," critics have been trying hard to define the particular conjunctions of contradictory impulses in Marlowe's works. It is difficult now to regard Doctor Faustus simply as a great soul struggling to free himself from the fetters of his age, an interpretation incidentally that dates only from about the time of Byron's Manfred, nor do most of us want to follow the severely moralistic interpretations of the play that destroy it as a tragedy. Yet the more one reads the writings of Marlowe's contemporaries, the more one is forced to the opinion that his audiences adopted a more stringent attitude towards his heroes than most modern critics have done and that the plays work in large part by irony, by invoking traditional ideas or icons and using them as formative principles of meaning. If we know some orthodox answers to the problems raised by the play, we are far more likely to understand its full significance, for there is a continual interplay taking place in the minds of the audience between icon and scene.1 Even though our involvement with the hero and the intensity of the verse may threaten the orthodox reference of the presented image, it is hard to believe that Marlowe was skeptical of its validity as a summary of human experience.

Professor Bradbrook has suggested some icons for Tamburlaine, and Professor Hunter has interpreted Barabas' life as "a parody of Job's spiritual Odyssey.'" As a point of departure for this chronicle of Faustus2 pursuit of wisdom, I should like to put forward the figure of Solomon, king of Israel, who in sixteenth-century literature was frequently referred to as "the wise man." As an emblem of wisdom, however, Solomon presented a paradox, for after being preeminent among men for his Godgiven wisdom, he had turned from his learning, fame, and wealth to write the Book of Ecclesiastes, the book that begins "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity." (No Renaissance scholars questioned his authorship of this work.) Some commentators read Ecclesiastes as a lament for man's state, some as a plea for the wise folly of Christ that they opposed to ratiocination and vain speculation, and some as a testimony of repentance written by Solomon after he had been seduced by strange women or after he had renounced his magic.3 We remember that he had appeared to Robert Greene in his Vision to admonish him for his vain life. Now Solomon's skepticism led him to humility and a stronger faith: Faustus, after far less intellectual agony, came to this same conclusion of the vanity of worldly learning in the first scene of the play, but instead of formulating a skeptical philosophy and erecting his faith upon it as did Montaigne, Ralegh, and Greville, he gave himself to his lust and was unable to repent. Ecclesiastes 1:13 describes his dilemma: "And I haue giuen mine heart to searche and finde out wisedome by all thinges that are done vnder the heauen." But he would not accept the conclusion drawn from this chapter that we find in a gloss in the 1578 Geneva Bible: "Man of nature hath a desire to know, and yet is not able to come to the perfection of knowledge, which is the punishment of sinne, to humble man, and to teach him to depend only vpon God." Faustus would overleap the obstacles placed before Man as a consequence of his sin, try a short cut to wisdom and power—witchcraft.

There is evidence that connects Faustus directly with Solomon. As has been noticed, Solomon was often listed among the great magicians, and it is not surprising to find Marlowe's source, "P.F.'s" translation of the Faustbuch, reporting:

Belial … deceiued King Salomon that worshipped the Gods of the heathen: and there are such Spirits innumerable that can come by men and tempt them, driue them to sinne, weaken their beliefe … and to this intent doe wee spread our selues throughout all the world, as the vtter enemies of God, and his Sonne Christ, yea & all those that worship them: and that thou knowest by thy selfe Faustus, how we haue dealt with thee.4

Second, when Faustus asks for books of conjuring and for "one booke more … wherein I might see al plants, hearbes and trees that grow vpon the earth,"5 it might be that he is asking for Solomon's "lost books" of natural philosophy.6 Third, Mephostophilis offers to bring Faustus a courtesan "as wise as Saba"—the Queen of Sheba (B.456), and Faustus' offer to burn his books may be connected with the legend that Solomon buried his magic book after using it to make the devils serve him in building the temple.7 In any case Faustus turns from skepticism to the pursuit of knowledge, power, and riches as Solomon turned from these vanities to skepticism and repentance.

However much the critic admires Faustus, he must, as I shall attempt to do, place the wisdom Faustus craves against the knowledge he attains, weigh omniscience against man's possible knowledge, consider whether Faustus confounds two kinds of knowledge, the contemplation of divine mysteries with the active investigation of the world. I shall also seek to show how closely the end of the play, Faustus' denial of Christ (those scenes that receive most attention from the moralists), is related to the scenes that show the scholar at the height of his fame (those that the romantics like), for it is Faustus' obdurate denial of the highest wisdom, symbolized in the figure of Christ, that damns Faustus as a scholar and as a man.


The play opens on Faustus seated in his study reviewing the divisions of learning. His speech is a short treatise on a familiar Renaissance theme, the vanity of human knowledge, and lies in the tradition that runs from Solomon's Ecclesiastes to Agrippa's De vanitate and beyond. The setting recalls countless pictures of St. Jerome in his study which, because of the legend that the saint turned from pagan learning, were often regarded as vanity pictures. Although there may be a specific echo of Lyly's Euphues, Faustus' debate with himself follows the pattern of the De vanitate—but Faustus, who would be "as cunning as Agrippa was" (B.139), does not come to Agrippa's conclusion. The famous German magician Henry Cornelius Agrippa was certainly known to Marlowe. He had written his De vanitate partly as a retraction of his unpublished but notorious book on magic, the De occulta philosophia, but as the De vanitate was a rhetorical set piece, a declamatio invectiva, he included in it a review of all the sciences. (How sincere he was about magic is in doubt, for he later published the De occulta philosophia with the retractions perfunctorily appended.8) His purpose, he claimed, was not to condemn all learning but to reform the abuses that had "crept in, through the peruerse doings of men." He inveighs against the deification of the schoolmen and says that knowledge must begin with pious humility, must be lodged in good men, and must be used for the good of the common weal. Knowledge will bring no happiness of itself, but as we have been possessed since the Fall of the knowledge of good and evil, we shall be made happy only by knowing that we are leading a good life in accordance with God's Word. "For not the good vnderstanding, but the good wyll, ioyneth men vnto God."9

Such sentiments were the basis of practically all humanist writings on knowledge, and the reflections of Euphues and Faustus on the vanity of worldly learning would be familiar to an Elizabethan audience. But whereas Agrippa "retracted" his magic and Euphues after ten years' unprofitable study turned from "al learninge which is not spronge from the bowels of the holy Bible,"10 Faustus dismisses divinity and embraces necromancy. To have recourse to the devil and the forbidden arts instead of to God and His Word, to devote his energies to his own good instead of the good of the common weal, would be a shocking course of action, directed against the pious tradition of Christian humanism. The scholarly saint has turned sorcerer before our eyes. But it is necessary to look at the speech in more detail.

The first subject Faustus surveys is logic. He would "leuell at the end of euery Art," would "liue and die in Aristotles workes." This line might be an ironic jibe at the scholastic logicians, but when Faustus defines the end of logic he derives his formulation not from Aristotle but from Ramus: "Bene disserere est finis logices."11 It had been Ramus' ambition to sweep away the study of analytics for its own sake and to apply it instead to all forms of discourse, the material of history, antiquity, oratory, and poetry, and in Faustus' one line Marlowe shows a succinct appreciation of Ramus' intention. As is well known, moreover, he portrayed the slaughter of Ramus by the Guise in The Massacre at Paris. There before he dies Ramus asks his murderer, "Wherein hath Ramus been so offencious?" to which the Guise replies:

Marry sir, in hauing a smack in all, And yet didst neuer sound anything to the depth. Was it not thou that scoftes the Organon, And said it was a heape of vanities? He that will be a flat dicotamest, And seen in nothing but Epitomies: Is in your iudgment thought a learned man.12

Now these were common charges against Ramus and Ramists: that seeking to be scholars "in shew" they used their knowledge only for display and mastered no discipline thoroughly. Most university men who had spent years mastering Aristotelian logic would have no truck with the short cuts indicated by Ramus. In an attack on Ramism in The Anatomie of Absurditie (1589) Nashe had censured those who, "out of looue with the obscuritie wherein they liue," sought to shine by parading new-fangled and slapdash opinions quickly learned, "becomming the Maisters of the ignorant before they be the Schollers of the learned." And five years later Hooker sarcastically defined Ramism as "an Art which teacheth the way of speedy discourse, and restraineth the mind of man that it may not wax over-wise."13 It is probable, therefore, that a university man would detect an element of criticism of Faustus in this line: instead of being as learned as he could claim, Marlowe is suggesting that Faustus, having given his allegiance to Ramus, was swollen with a "selfe conceit," that he still had much to learn in logic alone.

Faustus' sweeping dismissals of medicine and law contain ironies that are as important as the hubris they reveal. His lament that he cannot raise the dead to life is bitterly echoed in the last speech, when he says he would rather be buried under mountains and hills than live in hell for ever. Similarly his signing of the deed of gift, a "paltry legacy," brings him into confrontation with the eternal law at the end of the play. But when he turns to divinity, the highest learning, he propounds questions so well known to the audience that his unorthodox conclusion must have cast a shadow of condemnation over his actions from the first. He picks up Jerome's Bible and with seeming skill proves syllogistically from scriptural texts (Rom. 6:23 and I John 1:8) that all men are condemned to everlasting death. The audience would have been thoroughly familiar with this argument, for it is found in the Homilies that by law were read each Sunday in every church in the land. In "The First Part of the Sermon Of the miserie of man" the same texts are clearly expounded to conclude: "Wherfore the wyse man in the booke called Ecclesiastes, maketh this true & generall confession. There is not one iust man vppon the earth that doth good & sinneth not."14 The first reaction of the audience would have been that Faustus' deduction from Solomon's "confession" was false, for, having come to the above conclusion, the homily continues:

It hath bene manifestly declared vnto you, that no man can fulfill the law of God, and therfore by the lawe all men are condemned, whereupon it folowed necessarilye, that some other thinge should be required for our saluati, then the lawe: and that is, a true and liuely fayth in Chryst, bringinge foorth good workes, and a lyfe accordinge to Gods commaundementes … For the right and true Christian fayth is, not onely to beleue that holy scripture, & al the foresaid articles of our faith are true, but also to haue a sure trust and c fidence in gods mercifull promises, to be saued from euerlasting damnation by Christ: wherof doth folow a louing hart, to obey his commaundements.15

At the end of the play Mephostophilis boasts that he led Faustus' eye to the scriptural passages that caused him to despair, and we find that the logical proof of universal damnation was a favorite figure of Luther's—he regarded it as the "devil's syllogism."16 So although Marlowe could hardly have been expected to demonstrate his hero's learning conclusively in one short scene, it does seem that Faustus is parading the imperfection rather than the perfection of his learning,17 since his logic and divinity would ring hollow to anyone who had been to university or even to church. He has not undergone that purification by dialectic and moral philosophy that Pico said gave observation of things divine by the light of theology.18

Yet one should not be too severe. Faustus has other accomplishments—he is "grounded in Astrologie, Inricht with tongues, well seene in Minerals" (B.1 60-161)—although he means to turn them to an evil end. He has heard the music of Homer and Amphion, his far-ranging mind contemns fiddling detail, and there is a hint that he would put his learning to practical use. So too he is loyal to his profession—in Tudor England scholars enjoyed none of the prestige and influence of their counterparts in Italy. Faustus would clothe his fellow students in silk; he knew how

        … to this day is euerie scholler poore, Grosse gold from them runs headlong to the boore.19

These lines from Hero and Leander occur when Marlowe is narrating the struggle between the Destinies quoted by Burton, who lists poverty, too much study, and social ostracism among the causes of melancholy and madness.20 Faustus is determined to break from the tedium and unprofitability of scholarship; he longs for an act of self-affirmation—and spends the rest of the play coming to grips with his intellectual freedom.

After he has committed himself to magic, Faustus embarks eagerly on conjectures as to what his power will bring. There are two problems here: what is Marlowe's attitude to Faustus' "speculations," and what sort of magician is Faustus? The play was written at a boom time for Elizabethan capitalists, and a time when conspicuous expenditure and consumption were not only symptoms of indulgence but the means of attracting the sovereign's favor, the prerequisites of power. Lawrence Stone has drawn up revealing accounts for the enormous amounts spent on display and prodigal living, the extravagance that naturally provoked the satirists of the time.21 Although there is little direct satire in Doctor Faustus, it is continually implied that learning is being subsumed in the pursuit of wealth and power. This theme of Prodigality is not new to drama: Thomas Lupton's morality All for Money (printed 1578) has characters that anticipate the themes of Marlowe's tragedy. As well as Sin, Damnation, and Pleasure, there is a Satan whose delight it is to exclude man from salvation and a set called Learning with Money, Learning without Money, Money without Learning, and Neither Money nor Learning. The conclusion is that he who is content with what he has has the greatest riches.22

Another play that deals in large part with the prostitution of learning and the pursuit of magnificence is Nashe's Summer's Last Will and Testament. It was written in 1592, probably the same year as Faustus,23 an exceptionally bad year for year the plague. The values of society are crumbling, there is great store set by material things, and Summer, racked with disease, calls his servants to account and finds them all guilty of extortion, arrogance, and self-interest. Knowledge has bred pride, pride discontent, "Conscience but few respect, all hunt for gaine":

Familiaritie and conference, That were the sinewes of societies, Are now for vnderminings onely vsde, And nouell wits, that loue none but themselues, Thinke wisedomes height as falshood slily couch't, Seeking each other to o'rethrow his mate.(11.1157, 1193-1198)

This is the world of the despised comic scenes of Faustus, where the scholars sit down to a great feast, where Pride will "not speake an other worde, except the ground were perfumde and couered with cloth of arras" (A.788-780), and where Faustus expends his energies on cozening a horsecourser. "Wisdome without honesty," said Jonson quoting from Vives, "is meere craft, and coosinage. And therefore the reputation of Honesty must first be gotten; which cannot be, but by living well. A good life is a maine Argument."24

Faustus' adventures moreover are not to be read as just the diversions of a man glutted with pleasure, for they serve to modify our admiration of his Promethean vision. His Epicure Mammonish trances confound his desire for knowledge with his desire for wealth:

Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, Resolue me of all ambiguities? Performe what desperate enterprise I will? I'le haue them flie to India for gold, Ransacke the Ocean for Orient Pearle,

And search all corners of the new-found-world For pleasant fruites and Princely delicates. I'le haue them read me strange Philosophy..(B.106-113)

The world will be desperately ransacked for its riches, and knowledge has become another commodity, dissociated from wonder which, as Bacon said, is the "seed of knowledge." Faustus' mind, "steeped and infused in the humours of the affections,"25 can never rise to the contemplation of the highest mysteries.

The evidence Marlowe supplies in the play for an evaluation of Faustus' magic is inconclusive, and our judgment must depend on our widest conception of the play's meaning. It was usual in the Renaissance to define carefully different kinds of magic, since some, like Ficino's and Pico's, were serious philosophic systems, extensions of theology and natural philosophy, while others were the hocus-pocus of sorcerers and conjurors. Many treatises could be cited; the De vanitate is convenient. Agrippa begins by dividing magic into natural and ceremonial magic:

Naturall Magicke then is that, whiche hauing intentiuely behelde the forces of all naturall things, and celestiall, and with curious search sought out theyr order, doth in suche sort publish abroade the hidden and secret powers of nature: coupling the inferiour things wyth the qualityes of the superiour as if it were certaine enticements by a naturall ioyning of them togither, that thereof oftentymes doe arise maruellous miracles: not so much by Art as nature whereunto this Arte doeth proffer hir selfe a seruaunt, when shee worketh these things.26

Natural magic includes mathematical magic, which is the bringing forth of "things lyke to the woorkes of nature" (as one example he mentions the brazen head that spoke forged by Albert the Great—like the one in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay), and "witching magic," which has to do with potions and transformations and the control of natural phenomena. One of the examples he gives is Orpheus, who with his "Hymne" could, like Prospero, "assuage the stormie tempest." Control of the elements is one of the things Faustus dreams of. Agrippa's attitude to all this is extremely ambivalent. Like Scot,27 he gives as much information as confutation and says that "this naturall Magicke sometymes enclienth to Geocie and [sometimes to] Theurgie." He notes that Solomon condemned natural magic, claims that the products of natural magic cannot partake of "the veritie, & diuinitie," and expresses incredulity that "the secretes of hidden verity" can be discovered by magic.

What distinguishes natural magic from ceremonial magic is that, whereas the former is concerned with phenomena and the harnessing of the powers or "virtues" of natural objects like the stars, the latter is concerned with the investigation of other worlds and the employment of supernatural agents. Whether the agents are angels or demons determines whether ceremonial magic is white or black, theurgy or goecy. Agrippa says that theurgy is ideally "gouerned by good Angelles, and by the diuine power" but that in effect it is "bounde with wicked deceytes of the Diuels." Goecy is "grounded vpon the entereours of wicked sprites made with the rites of detestable curiositie, with vnleful coniurations, and with defensiue prayers, bannished & accursed by the decrees of al lawes."28

Now Faustus wanted to prophesy, to control the elements and bring forth wonders: "make a bridge through the mouing Aire, To passe the Ocean with a band of men" (B.330-331). He is versed in astrology and mineralogy and would make "the subiects of euery element"29 serve him. He asks Mephostophilis for a book containing the "characters" of the planets (such figures are given in Agrippa and Scot30) that he might draw down their virtues, and also one containing "al plants, hearbes and trees that grow vpon the earth" (A.623-624). This last is interesting, for it suggests that Faustus would wield power over things by knowing their names, an idea that was commonly held.31 Plato suggested that "a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which are thus given are necessarily their true names"32—the similarity between nomen and numen also suggested a mystical relationship. In the Bible it is reported that Adam before the Fall gave names to the whole of Creation (Genesis 2:19-20). These sources stimulated many Renaissance thinkers. Agrippa devoted a chapter of the De occulta philosophia (I.lxx) to the subject:

For as the great operator doth produce divers species, and particular things by the influencies of the Heavens, and by the Elements, together with the vertues of Planets; so according to the properties of the influencies proper names result to things, and are put upon them by him who numbers the multitude of the Stars, calling them all by their names.33

Bacon wrote:

And therefore it is not the pleasure of curiosity, nor the quiet of resolution, nor the raising of the spirit, nor victory of wit, nor faculty of speech, nor lucre of profession, nor ambition of honour or fame, nor inablement for business, that are the true ends of knowledge; some of these being more worthy than other, though all inferior and degenerate: but it is a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power (for whensoever he shall be able to call the creatures by their true names he shall again command them) which he had in his first state of creation.34

Before his rebellion Caliban had been taught words that made his purposes known,35 and Greville wrote that Adam's sin dimmed "that piercing light, Which from their inward natures, gave the name, To euery creature, and describ'd the same."36 So Faustus is trying to regain prelapsarian knowledge (in vain, of course, for Mephostophilis fobs him off with commonplaces), and although we are aware that immoderate knowledge can lead to the deadly sin of pride, Faustus' desires could pass for theurgic natural magic and be interpreted as quasi-serious and nonblameworthy activities.

But other passages in the play make it impossible for us to condone Faustus' magic. The conjuring scene in which Alleyn wore a surplice and cross37 and used Psalters and New Testaments, Faustus' journeys through the air, his employment of diabolic agents, and the pact with the devil that makes him specifically a watch38 involve practices that all serious magicians would condemn. Critics who have read a Baconian optimism into the play have overlooked the impression that the elements of witchcraft made upon contemporaries, the horrific seriousness that underlies the comic antics.

Yet this is not the end of the matter, for it can be argued that Faustus does not attain even the stature of a sorcerer or diviner but is merely an illusionist or juggler, duped by the devil. Although it would not be possible to perform on stage the miracles Faustus planned, those that he does perform, the tricks with the horsecorser and soldiers, and the illusions wrought at court, are the lowest form of magical art. Illusions, said Agrippa, are the stock in trade of stage players and

are onely done according to the outwarde apparance: wyth these the Magitiens do shewe vaine visions, and with lugling casts do play many myracles, and cause dreams, which thing is not so muche done by Geoticall inchauntments, and prayers, and deceytes of the Diuell, as also with certaine vapours of perfumes, lightes, medicines, colleries, bindings, and hangings, moreouer with rings, Images, glasses & other like receyts and instruments of Magicke, and with a natural and celestial vertue.39

We are reminded of how Marlowe, as the Baines note reports, sneered at Moses, who was held to have wrought his miracles by means of the cabala he had received from God: "He affirmeth that Moyses was but a Jugler & that one Heriots being Sir W. Raleighs man Can do more than he." It would seem, therefore, that Faustus can be seen not as a mighty magician but only as an illusionist and would-be sorcerer. For even his conjuring is ineffective because Mephostophilis tells him that he came to Faustus of his own accord and then only because he heard the blasphemies in the spells—Pico quotes Plotinus' opinion that only he who has the spirits in his power and not vice versa can be graced with the name of "magus."40 The devil's book may have the power to summon Mephostophilis from Constantinople, but he and his companions carry off the magician at the end of the play. So, like Scot, Marlowe was showing that a witch was powerless except to unleash the forces of evil. He could count on the terror these would arouse in the audience as the reports of the visible appearance of the devil on the stage testify, and he knew that his hero's black magic would be regarded as both crime and sin.

Although the state of the text makes any firm decision impossible, I believe with Greg that most of the comic scenes were planned, if not written, by Marlowe.41 Instead of gaining the wisdom and power he had hoped for from magic, Faustus is fobbed off by diabolic fraud with a series of tricks and illusions, fun to watch on the stage, but terrifyingly ominous in the foretaste they provide with their false legs and heads of the devils tearing Faustus apart at the end of the play. Even the Pope's feast, so obvious an occasion for knockabout farce, has moral overtones as a banquet of sense. In production its staging could well allude visually to the first scene where Faustus devours the "courses" of learning before they are snatched away.42 Certainly the Wagner scenes cannot be dismissed lightly. Lines like "the Villaines … so hungry, that I know he would giue his soule to the deuill, for a shoulder of Mutton, tho it were bloud raw"43 place Faustus' blind appetite grotesquely in the tradition that Curtius has called "kitchen humor."44 And it is significant that Marlowe does not follow The Damnable Life which makes Wagner one "which had studied also at the Vniversitie of Wittenberg" (chap. 56). He is instead a servant, from which we may infer that Marlowe had in mind a burlesque of elements in the main plot, played by characters of inferior class. The other juggling scenes, besides dramatizing the failure of Faustus' aspirations, have a thematic relationship to the central scenes. For whereas the great scenes display the connection between wisdom and faith, the comic scenes display the connection between wisdom and works. Marlowe's attitude to them is ambiguous for they not only suggest a falling off from humanist ideals but also, with their antipapist satire, evoke the audience's indulgence. Unable to believe, Faustus "embraces magic rituals, they are something he can do."45 But horrific rituals and comic antics contribute in no way to Faustus' damnation. This comes because Faustus ignores true wisdom, what Calvin called "certaine knowledge," that feeling of godhead that even a reprobate experiences.46 Faustus must be justified by his faith alone.

Faustus signs the deed with the devil, ignores the warnings of both Mephostophilis and the Good Angel, and proceeds to his diabolic catechism, a scene that echoes Nature's speech to Humanyte in An Interlude of the Four Elements and foreshadows Lear's questioning of Edgar.47 If Faustus hopes to plumb the secrets of the cosmos, he is deceived. To his questions about hell, Mephostophilis points out that it is not only a place, but a condition, a familiar Protestant doctrine. As a place it is circumscribed by local limits, but its existence is coextensive with its essence. Faustus' reason rejects this seeming sophistry: "I thinke Hel's a fable" (B.519), he says, just as he had disproved by reason the possibility of salvation in the first scene. Mephostophilis will provide material for his rational deductions, but his rejoinder to Faustus' conclusion ("I, thinke so still, till experience change thy minde") suggests that Marlowe is affirming the Protestant and skeptical conviction that saving wisdom comes not from reason but from faith. The passage recalls Montaigne, who wrote against rational atheists:

They establish … by the reason of their judgement, that whatsoever is reported of hell, or of after-comming paines, is but a fiction; but the occasions to make triall of it, offering it selfe, at what time age or sickenes doth sommon them to death: the [terrour] of the same, through the horrour of their future condition, doth then replenish with another kinde of beleefe.48

Faustus is replenished with "another kinde of beleefe" at the end of the play, but it is not the faith which he has repeatedly abjured and which alone could have enlightened and saved him.

Mephostophilis' refusal to propound Copernican theories has bothered many critics. But we can reasonably conjecture that Marlowe, who displayed a far more expert knowledge of astronomy than the author of the Faustbuch, was aware of Copemican thought and that he either dismissed the theory as false or, which is more probable, chose to reject it for dramatic reasons. For although Johnston pointed out that no textbook widely used in Marlowe's youth contained a detailed description of the Copernican system,49 it would be surprising if he had not heard of the writings of Thomas Digges in the 1570's, Bruno's advocacy of Copernicus during his visit to England, or the Copernican ideas discussed by Richard Harvey,50 Dr Dee, and Thomas Harriot. Three years after Marlowe's death Nashe, his fellow student at Cambridge and coauthor of Dido, wrote of Gabriel Harvey's "hatching such another Paradoxe as that of Nicholaus Copernicus was, who held that the Sun remains immoueable in the center of the World, & that the Earth is moou'd about the Sunne."51

Yet if Marlowe did in fact know of Copernicus there is not a trace of the new cosmology in Faustus' dialogue with Mephostophilis (or in the rest of his work):

Come Mephostophilis let vs dispute againe, And reason of diuine Astrology. Speake, are there many Spheares aboue the Moone? Are all Celestiall bodies but one Globe, As is the substance of this centricke earth


As are the elements, such are the heauens, Euen from the Moone vnto the Emperiall Orbe, Mutually folded in each others Spheares, And iontly moue vpon one Axle-tree, Whose terminem, is tearmed the worlds wide Pole.(B.602-611)

Obviously Mephostophilis is repeating Ptolemaic commonplaces52 and dismisses Faustus' probings as offhandedly as does the simple carter in one of the later scenes:


Nay, hearke you, can you tell me where you are?


I marry can I, we are vnder heauen.(B.1 708-1709)

The debate proceeds with Faustus trying to make Mephostophilis reveal whether God made the world, but the only pronouncement he can draw from him is a denial of the existence of the crystalline sphere (which had been introduced to account for the phenomenon of trepidation) and of the elementary sphere of fire. The crystalline sphere had been discarded by Augustinus Ricius in his De motu octauae sphaerae, which Johnston suggests might have been known to Marlowe53—it was also to be discarded by Ralegh.54 Johnston makes the point that Mephostophilis is therefore propounding an unorthodox modification of Ptolemaic cosmology that was notable for its stress on empirical observation, since the two spheres it rejected were unfurnished with visible bodies. But to have let Mephostophilis impart more revolutionary theories to Faustus would have been to destroy the argument of the play. Diabolic knowledge is not wisdom.

It is notable, moreover, that throughout the play Faustus does not believe anything that he does not experience with his senses. (In fact, Copernican cosmology, which was at that time based not on empirical observation but on mathematical convenience, would have been beyond his comprehension). Mephostophilis leads Faustus' eyes to the relevant scriptures and afterwards is careful to keep his senses gratified and his mind diverted. Faustus disregards all counsel and the promptings of his own conscience. He could not see as Anselm did that belief might come before comprehension—credo ut intelligam. This point is developed by Thomas Lodge in The Divel Coniured (1596), an admirable discourse on magic and witchcraft:

worldlie mens delight is tied to their knowledge, and what they see, they commend, & what they heare, they suspect: They onlie that know the world trulie, trust it not in well knowing it, by faith they apprehend things vnseene, and by the profit are assured of their vncertainties: Christ by becomming man, prooueth that nothing is vnpossible to God: by partaking infirmity, nourisheth our faiths: & we that know his sufferance exceedeth our senses, must c clude, that onelie faith must apprehend his Deitie. To them that beleeue, he maketh all things possible; the holie Ghost helpeth them, who breedeth charitie; their charitie inflameth them, which norisheth faith; their faith assureth them being grounded in charitie. To them that beleeue not that which they see not, he giueth ouer to trust in that which they should not: in blindness they liue, in obstinacie they continue, & desperat they die.

(p. 18)

Faustus' death stands for the death of the intellect enclosed by the senses; his "friuolous demaunds," his proud and obtuse refusal to concede the existence of the truth that is apprehended by faith, strike in us as in Mephostophilis himself the terrible impulse to retreat from a man with whom we might otherwise be in sympathy. As Heilman points out in a penetrating article, Faustus neither brings self-knowledge to the play, nor, which is more terrifying, does he attain it at the end.55

From academic disputation Faustus is easily diverted, first by his desire for a wife, then by the show of the seven deadly sins. He has already succumbed to the medieval temptations of the world and the devil; his temptation of the flesh culminates with a second banquet of sense and in his vision of Helen. His sexual appetite must be titillated with the exotic; he must sleep where Paris lay. Of course his vision of Helen does redeem the bathos of the preceding scenes, and the quality and intensity of the verse celebrate something that is remarkably absent from the cold-hearted bargaining that passes on both sides for the processes of religion. One must concede a positive here, but it is a positive that transmutes various highly ironic statements. For we must remember that Helen has been an ambiguous figure from the times of Stesichorus and Euripides,56 and that in many sixteenth-century poems she was often, if not a whore, at least a symbol of fickleness and mutability as well as being the destroyer of the home of the mythical ancestor of Elizabeth.57 And, as W. W. Greg pointed out, "in making [Helen] his paramour, Faustus commits the sin of demoniality, that is, bodily intercourse with demons."58 By seeing Helen as a succuba, the lines

Sweet Hellen make me immortal] with a kisse: Her lips sucke forth my soule, see where it flies(B.1876-1877)

have an ominous ring, since it was commonly believed that "a witch could not die until his familiar was passed on by a breath or kiss to someone living"; and there was a more rarely expressed belief "that the gift must be from a man to a woman and from a woman to a man."59 Although Faustus was already "a spirit in forme and substance," the presence on the stage of real actors probably suggested a demonic tryst to the audience. But the Helen scene has a deeper symbolic value, for it is here that Faustus definitively renounces the honorable lives of action and contemplation for the dishonorable one of voluptuousness. "He that preferred Helena, quitted the gifts of Juno and Pallas."60


Doctor Faustus opens on to social and intellectual reality, but its theological and philosophical meaning is, I believe, best examined with reference to the medieval plays from which it is directly descended. Its hero, unlike Edward II and Tamburlaine, who are monarchs, is Everyman whose fame depends on his wisdom. He is confronted by powers of good and evil, clownage alternates with graver scenes, and the play works by tableau and set debate in a way that looks back to the moralities. But beside the structural debt, certain doctrines that appear in earlier plays help the understanding of the themes of Marlowe's play. It is not possible to point to direct borrowing—the ideas were too commonplace—but these didactic plays project an orthodoxy that may elude a modern audience.

The "Macro" morality play Wisdom Who Is Christ, subtitled "How Lucifer tempts the Mind, Will, and Understanding of Man to sin" (ca. 1460), is a debate on the very issues of Doctor Faustus. The play opens with the entry of Wisdom clad in purple cloth of gold, wearing an imperial crown set with precious stones, and carrying an orb and scepter. He proclaims himself as "Euerlastynge Wysdom" and as Christ explains why this name is especially given to the Son:

All-thow eche persone of' e trinyte be wysdam etemall, And all thre, on euerlastynge wysdome togedyr present, Neuer-, e-les, for-as-moche as wysdom ys propyrly Applyede to' e sune by resune, And als yt fallyt to hym specyally, By-cause of hys hye generacion, Therfor pe belowyde sone hathe 'is sygnyficacion Custummaly 'Wysdom', nowe Gode, now man, Spows of pe chyrche, & wery patrone, Wyffe of eche chose sowle: thus Wysdom begane.61

Anima enters accompanied by Mind, Will, and Understanding, and asks Wisdom what she may give Him; He desires her to give Him her heart. When she asks Him to "Teche me be scholys of yowur dyvynyte," he replies:

Dysyer not to sauour in cunnynge to excellent,  But drede and conforme yowur wyll to me,  For yt ys be heelfull dyscyplyne Oat in  Wysdom may be,    The drede of God, bat ys begynnynge; The wedis of synne, pat makyt to flee,    And swete wertuus herbys in be sowil sprynge.(11. 87-92)

And when Anima asks Wisdom how she may know God, He replies:

By knowynge of yowur sylff, ye may haue felynge  Wat God ys is yowur sowle sensyble; The more knowynge of yowur selff passyble,  be more veryly ye xall God knowe.(11. 95-98)

Wisdom goes out, and in His absence Lucifer enters "in a dewyllys [a]ray, with-owt & with-in, as a prowde galonte" and boasts of his knowledge of "all compleccions of a man" (1. 343). He dupes the three "mights," urging Mind to leave his studies, to dress well, do many deeds, get riches, see the world, seek a mistress, and breed children. Like Faustus, Mind is turned from the Wisdom of God to knowledge of the flesh. Understanding and Will cheerfully join Mind, and Lucifer plans to steer them to three of the deadly sins, Pride, Lechery, and Covetousness, the perversions of the virtues with which they are respectively associated. They glory in their misdeeds, but when Wisdom returns like the Old Man in Faustus and bids Mind think on his end, Anima after some hesitation repents and calls on Christ for mercy. She comes to "Salomonys conclusyon": "Timor domini inicium sapiencie" (11. 1157-1158).

The parallels to the events in the Faustus story are apparent, and the parallels in doctrine, although perhaps only present by implication in the later play, are suggestive. Faustus' denial of Christ, "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (I Cor. 1:24), is a final denial of wisdom. In the last scene we see Faustus obtusely refusing the highest wisdom and power he had dreamed of. He has cut himself off from the Christian tradition of learning, the tradition established by Luther and Colet, for whom wisdom was above all Christ, and can find no other to replace it. He has sought infinite knowledge but does not realize that this is built upon the saving wisdom of repentance and contrition, the Knowledge personified in Everyman. His "selfe conceit" has supplanted his fear of the Lord.62 Unable because of this pride to comprehend "be scholys of dyvynyte," he tries a short cut to wisdom—sorcery. His lack of self-knowledge, dramatized by his failure to measure his achievements against his aspirations, prevents him from winning higher knowledge. Ignorance of himself produces pride, ignorance of God, despair. And by letting his sensuality triumph over his reason, by giving himself to Helen rather than heeding the Old Man's counsel, he deprives himself of heavenly grace and is unable to repent. True, his proud daring and the breadth of his vision surpass the simple delights of the morality play and turn their jingles into felt desires, but the agony of the final scene is so much the greater.

Wisdom Who Is Christ contains more doctrine relevant to Doctor Faustus than the other Macro plays, but these do provide some useful insights. The Castle of Perseverance contains elements that parallel the high scenes in Faustus. It is a play about the art of dying. Mankind appears between a good and an evil angel; the Good Angel urges him to think on his end so that he will not sin, but Mankind accepts the counsel of the Bad Angel—there will be time enough for repentance when he is old and his fleshly fires have burned low. As Pleasure says later:

With bis werld he schal haue lond & house; bis weridys wysdom geueth not a louse of God, nyn of hye heuene.(11.489-492)

The play continues with a long series of debates, in which the following, spoken by Humilitas to Pride, the primal sin, is important. Pride was the insuperable bar to salvation until Christ's death—since His death it has become the way to hell:

for, whann Lucyfer to helle fyl,  Pride, ber-of bou were chesun; & bou, deuyl, with wyckyd wyl,  In paradys trappyd us with tresun, So bou us bond in balys Ille;  bis may I preue be ryth resun. tyl bis Duke bat dyed on hylle,  in heuene man myth neuere han sesun;    be gospel bus declaryt. for who-so lowe hym, schal ben hy; berfore bou schalt not comen us ny; & bou bou be neuere so sly,    I schal felle al bi fare.        qui se exaltat, humiliabitur, & cetera.(II. 2096-2109)

For although the devil's power is great, man can be saved by Christ's sacrifice—if he repents:

Lord, bou bat man hathe don more mysse banne good,  if he dey in very contricioun,

Lord, be lest drope of bi blod,  For hys synne makyth satisfaccioun.(11. 3367-3370)

Despite his apostasy Faustus could have called on Christ until the last moment. But he succumbs to Lucifer's threats and temptations, and by calling on Lucifer to spare him, instead of on Christ to save him, he is damned:

See see where Christs blood streames in the firmament, One drop would saue my soule, halfe a drop, ah my Christ Ah rend not my heart for naming of my Christ, Yet will I call on him, oh spare me Lucifer! Where is it now? tis gone: And see where God stretcheth out his arme, And bends his irefull browes(A.1463-1469)

Faustus' "Knowledge of Good bought dear by knowing ill"63 comes too late to save him.

The third of the Macro moralities, Mankind (ca. 1470), helps us to understand the comic scenes of Faustus and the hero's relationship with Mephostophilis. More worldly than the other two plays, Mankind demonstrates how, after the Fall, Man can be saved only by Christ's mercy. Mercy appears to Mankind at the beginning of the play and is greeted as the incarnation of saving knowledge:

All heyll, semely father! ye be welcome to 'is house! Of be very wysdam ye haue partycypacyon.(11. 202-203)

Mankind takes counsel from Mercy and resolves to live by the sweat of his brow and delve with his spade. In this way he is sure he can resist the blandishments of Titivillus the Devil. But his resolution64 does no save him from the wily Titivillus and his fellows New Guise, Nought, and Nowadays, and he accepts the fleshly delights they offer him. Mercy, however, expostulates with Mankind, who at first refuses to listen, and then falls into despair. He goes to hand himself, and Mischief like Mephostophilis is promptly at hand with a rope just when he would despair and die.

The egall justyse of God wyll not permytte such a synfull wrech  To be rewyvyd & restoryd a-geyn; yt were Impossibyll

he laments. But Mercy, like the Old Man shows how God does not work merely according to His law:

The justice of God wyll as I wyll, as hym selfe doth precyse: Nolo mortem peccatoris, inquit, & yff he wyll be reducyble.65 (11. 824-827)

Here Mercy triumphs over despair, and the play ends with a sermon De contemptu mundi. But although the play ends happily and although the devils appear as a crew of merry fellows, good companions as Mephostophilis is to Faustus, there is an awful difference between the cheerful vice and the implacable enemy of mankind, between their familiar appearance and their evil nature. The audience's laughter at Mankind's pitiful attempts to resist them floats on a deep sense of unease, and like the comic scenes of Faustus the play is a parable of the pettiness of man without God.


But what was Faustus' sin, and did he bring his punishment upon himself, or was it inflicted by a vengeful God, a symbol of all the beliefs he had outraged? It is possible to show that it was not the conjuring (or rather juggling), nor even the diabolic pact that cost Faustus his salvation. For the mere presence of the Old Man and Good Angel would be ridiculous if Faustus had been damned from the beginning of the play, or if there were no possibility of his repentance.66 His fellow scholars regretfully leave him in the penultimate scene for embracing goecy, but even after he has excluded "the grace of heauen" from his soul by taking Helen as his paramour, there is no reason to believe that this loss of grace has made salvation impossible, since he is granted the vision of Christ's blood in his last agony. For Faustus is damned not for his works—Marlowe could indulge Faustus in the comic scenes without causing us to worry about his salvation—but for his loss of faith. In terms of the informing allegory of the play, Faustus has blindly ignored Christ, the incomprehensible mysteries of the highest wisdom. By this act he has at once damned himself as a scholar and been made to realize that, as at the beginning of the play, he is "still but Faustus, and a man." We fear his punishment, but we pity his fate and realize that human comprehension will rise no higher than his. Specifically, however, in sixteenth-century terms, Faustus is a man who has fallen away from God, who has committed the sin of sins, the sin against the Holy Ghost, by his repeated abjurations of Christ, and who finally falls into despair. As Luther knew, despair could lead to salvation, but he also knew the other despair, the sin against hope, the denial of Christ, the repudiation of saving wisdom.

Until the last moments of the play we are in suspense over whether Faustus will recover his faith. At the beginning of the play he had planned to

…make a bridge through the moouing ayre, To passe the Ocean with a band of men, Ile ioyne the hills that binde the Affricke shore, And make that land continent to Spaine.(A.350-353)

These are parodies of miracles that could be wrought only by those who possessed the strongest faith67—Faustus' aspirations are in fact similar to the powers of Fidelia in The Faerie Queene. She alone could teach Redcross the mysteries of heavenly learning, and she alone had the cosmic power Faustus craved:

And when she list poure out her larger spright,  She would commaund the hastie Sunne to stay,  Or backward turne his course from heauens hight;  Sometimes great hostes of men she could dismay,  Dry-shod to passe, she parts the flouds in tway;  And eke huge mountains from their natiue seat  She could commaund, themselues to beare away,  And throw in raging sea with roaring threat. Almightie God he gaue such powre, and puissance great.(I.x.20)

These are also like the miracles that the magician Antichrist in the Chester play boasts of but can never perform and for which he is damned and borne away by devils.68 But Faustus succumbs, and his last call for the mountains and hills to fall on him, an image taken from Luke 23:30 and Revelation 6:15-16, has a special irony. Without faith he could not perform miracles; without faith he could not be saved.

The movement of The Tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus is therefore inevitably towards orthodoxy rather than iconoclasm. The great scenes re-enact and reassert the emblems of Christian learning, the saint in his study, Solomon's conviction of vanity, the moralizations of the Helen story, the saving wisdom of Christ, and the apocalypse that will destroy all monuments to man's knowledge. But when pointing the moral of this play we must not let the weight of censure fall too heavily on the hero, for he is the representative of a tradition of learning which was essentially self-destructive. Until men could find conviction in their study of the world for its own sake, which implies a retreat from divine wisdom as well as a retreat from the humanist ideals of wisdom as a moral virtue and of the priority of self-knowledge, Faustus' attempt to resolve the predicament of Solomon had to end in tragedy. Yet the intensity of Faustus' vision that culminates in his conjuring of Helen and his whole grand temerity affects us far more deeply than Bacon's rationalizations or a critic's moralizings. Doctor Faustus, like all great tragedies, defies philosophy.


1 See Michael Hattaway, "Marlowe and Brecht," in Christopher Marlowe, ed. Brian Morris (London, 1968), pp. 95-112. Cf. Max Bluestone, "Libido Speculandi," in Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, ed. Norman Rabkin (New York, 1969), which contains a bibliography of Faustus criticism. In "The Philosophy of Dr. Faustus," Essays in Criticism, XX (1970), 123-142, A. L. French argues that the irony of the play destroys its tragic potential.

2 M. C. Bradbrook, English Dramatic Form (London, 1965), pp. 41-59; G. K. Hunter, "The Theology of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta," JWCI, XXVII (1964), 211-240. See also Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero (London, 1962).

3 See Michael Hattaway, "Paradoxes of Solomon: Learning in the English Renaissance," JHI, XXIX (1968), 499-530. For Solomon the magician, see J. P. Migne, Troisième et dernière encyclopédie théologique (Paris, 1854-1867), XXIV, cols. 839 ff.

4Sources of the Faust Tradition, ed. P. M. Palmer and R. P. More (New York, 1936), pp. 152-153.

5 1604 Quarto (A), 11. 622-623; quotations are taken from Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," 1604-1616: Parallel Texts, ed. W. W. Greg (Oxford, 1950).

6 See I Kings 4:33: "And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon euen vnto the hyssope that springeth out of the wall." Bacon several times laments the "loss" of this book: New Atlantis, p. 145; De augmentis, VIII.i (Works, ed. J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath [London, 1857-1874]); and Gesta Grayorum, ed. W. W. Greg (Oxford, 1914), p. 34.

7 See M. D. Conway, Solomon and Solomonic Literature (London, 1899), p. 236.

8 See D. P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella (London, 1958), p. 190; compare with Faustus' speech the invective in Nashe's Summer's Last Will and Testament, 11. 1394 ff. (Works, ed. R. B. McKerrow [Oxford, 1958], vol. III).

9 Agrippa, Of the Vanitie and vncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, trans. James Sanford (London, 1575), Sig. iiir, fols. 2r-3r.

10 Lyly, Works, ed. R. W. Bond (Oxford, 1902), I, 289; this was first quoted by Paul H. Kocher, Christopher Marlowe (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1946).

11 This was first pointed out in A. W. Ward's edition of the play (Oxford, 1901), p. 130; in William Temple's edition of Ramus' Dialecticae libri duo (Cambridge, Eng., 1584), we find the text "Bene disserere est finis dialecticae," p. 4. The end of "analytics" was thus defined by Aristotle: "Versatur autem in demonstratione, ac de demonstrandi scientia est instituta," Logica (Paris, 1567), p. 100.

12 Marlowe, Works, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke (Oxford, 1910), 11. 389-396. In the play Ramus counters by saying that he had reduced the confusion of the Organon and that he had been reviled because "the blockish Sorbonests" regarded Aristotle's works as sacrosanct. One cannot claim that Marlowe opposed any reform of logic, but as I shall suggest he, like Fraunce, who supported Ramus, disliked the universal dissemination of half-digested learning. See the preface to The Lawiers Logike (London, 1588).

1 'Nashe, Works, I, 43-44. See also Thomas Lodge: "In his hood and habit [the devil] will prooue RAMUS to be a deeper Philosopher then ARISTOTLE," Wits Miserie (London, 1596), p. 5; Hooker, Laws,

14Homilies (London, 1587), Sig. B2r-v.

15Ibid., Sigs. C3r, C4v. Cf. The Merchant of Venice: "in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation" (IV.i.194-195), and Measure for Measure: "all the souls that were were forfeit once" (II.ii.73).

16 It was also used by Spenser's Despaire against Redcrosse (Faerie Queen, (I.ix.28 ff.); see Susan Snyder, "The Left Hand of God: Despair in Medieval and Renaissance Tradition," Studies in the Renaissance, XII (1965), pp. 18-59; and cf. Calvin, Institutes, II.vii.9: "Man being condemned of sin by the law, the effect thereof in the good is the crauing of helpe from God, in the bad their despairing of themselues without aspiring to any helper" (trans. T. Norton [London, 1599]).

17 Two morality plays, Redford's Wit and Science (before 1547) and its derivative, the anonymous The Marriage of Wit and Science (ca. 1570), are devoted to this argument—that true wisdom comes only after long and assiduous study. The orthodox steps to wisdom are also set out in An Interlude of the Four Elements, ed. J. 0. Halliwell (London, 1848), pp. 5-6. Another parallel can be found in Donne's Third Satyre, where the poet (possibly as early as 1593) urges his contemporaries to resist the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, the temptations to which Faustus succumbs, and urges them to be, unlike Faustus, busy to seek truth, to "doubt wisely."

18Oration, 16.

19Hero and Leander, I. 471-472.

20The Anatomy of Melancholy, I.ii.3.xv.

21The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford, 1965), pp. 184-186, 547-586.

22 The play is reprinted in SJ, XL (1904), 129-186. Cf. W. Wager's Enough is as Good as a Feast (printed ca. 1565), where Contentation argues with the Worldly Man, and Dekker's Old Fortunatus, the hero of which chooses riches before wisdom.

23 I accept the opinions of W. W. Greg, Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," pp. vii, 5-11, that the case for the later dating in 1592 is stronger; Kocher, Christopher Marlowe, puts the case for 1588-1589.

24 Jonson, Timber, in Works, ed. C. H. Herford and P. and E. Simpson (Oxford, 1925-1952), VIII, 566.

25Advancement, I.i.3. See also James Smith, "Marlowe's Dr. Faustus," Scrutiny, VIII (1939), 36-55, for some illuminating comparisons with Augustine's strictures against the unbounded appetite for experience and learning. Marlowe often knowingly confuses the motives of his characters in this way to point a moral. The obvious example is the speech in I Tamburlaine, "Nature that fram'd vs of foure Elements … Doth teach vs all to haue aspyring minds" (11. 869-880). This is the highest common factor in all romantic interpretations of Marlowe, but it invokes in the reader a measure of detachment when Tamburlaine reveals that the "perfect blisse and sole felicitie" is "The sweet fruition of an earthly crowne." The speech has become a blasphemous prescription for a mystic ecstasy. Cf. Greene's Selimus (1594), in Works, ed. Grosart (n.p., 1881-1886), XIV, 11. 281-285.

26Of the Vanitie, fol. 55r.

27 Reginald Scot, The Discouerie of Witchcraft (London, 1584).

28Of the Vanitie, fols. 55v-59v.

29 A. 155; B reads "spirits of euery element."

30 Agrippa, De occulta philosophia, passim; and Scot, Discouerie of Witchcraft, pp. 397 ff.

31 E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (New York, 1953), pp. 495 ff., has pointed out how ancient and medieval writers (especially Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiarum libri) felt that the essence of a thing could be found in its designation.

32Cratylus, 438 (trans. Jowett).

33Three Books of Occult Philosophy, trans. J. F. (London, 1651), p. 153.

34Valerius terminus, in Works, III, 222.

35The Tempest, I.ii.357.

36 "A Treatie of Humane Learning," st. 50, Poems and Dramas, ed. G. Bullough (Edinburgh, 1939); cf. Piers the Plowman, ed. W. W. Skeat (Oxford, 1886), C.xvii. 206-211.

37 See Samuel Rowlands, The Knave of Clubbs (London, 1615?), Sig. D2$$Word$$.

38 As opposed to a sorcerer who merely conjured the devil. King James and others made this distinction.

39Of the Vanitie, fol. 62 $$Word$$. Cf Lodge, The Divil Coniured, in Works (New York, 1963), p. 25.

40Oration, 33. Cf. Agrippa, Of the Vanitie, fol. 58 r: "For the diuels also beeing constreyned do alwayes lie in wayte to the ende that they may deceyue vs going astray."

41 Cf. Paul H. Kocher, "Nashe's Authorship of the Prose Scenes in Faustus," MLQ, III (1942), 17-40.

42 See M. C. Bradbrook, "Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and the Eldritch Tradition," in Essays in Honour of Hardin Craig (London, 1963), pp. 83-90; J. F. Kermode, "The Banquet of Sense," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, XLIV (1961), pp. 68-99.

43 B.346-348; images connected with appetite are frequent in the play: "How am I glutted with conceipt of this?" (B.105); "The God thou seru'st is thine owne appetite" (B.398); "O this feedes my soule" (A.797); also B.25-26, B.1864, B.1932.

44 See E. R. Curtius, "Jest and Earnest in Medieval Literature," in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (New York, 1953), pp. 417-435.

45 Quoted from C. L. Barber, "The Form of Faustus' Fortunes Good or Bad," TDR, VIII (1964), 92-119. Barber also notes that "Doctor Faustus reflects the tension involved in the Protestant's world's denying itself miracle in a central area of experience."

46Institutes, III.ii.II, 14.

47 See Muir's important note to III.iv. 159 in the Arden edition of King Lear.

48 Montaigne, Apologie, Everyman's Library (New York, 1923-1928), II, 134. Cf. Calvin, Institutes, I.iv.4. For the ubiquism of the Lutheran heretic John Brenz, see D. C. Allen, "Paradise Lost I, 254-255," MLN, LXXI (1956), 324-326.

49 F. R. Johnston, "Marlowe's Astronomy and Renaissance Skepticism," ELH, XIII (1946), 241-254. Cf. Kocher: "either Marlowe did not know Copernican thought, or, if he did, he had already irrevocably given his allegiance to the system of Aristotle and Ptolemy," Marlowe, p. 214.

50Lamb of God (London, 1590), p. 176.

51Works, III, 94.

52 The strongly placed word centricke suggests Faustus is expecting something more revolutionary.

53 But Ricius' theory had been mentioned by Thomas Digges in 1576 (see Kocher, Marlowe, p. 218 n), and by Agrippa, Vanitie, fol. 42 r.

54Works (Oxford, 1829), II, 23.

55 R. B. Heilman, "'Twere Best not Know Myself: Othello, Lear, Macbeth," in Shakespeare 400, ed. J. G. McManaway (New York, 1964), pp. 89-98.

56 See A. W. Ward's edition of Faustus, pp. 122-124. For the false Helen in Spenser, see T. Roche, The Kindly Flame (Princeton, N. J., 1964), pp. 152-162.

57 See Proctor's "The Reward of whoredome by the fall of Helen," in A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions [1578], ed. H. E. Rollins (Cambridge, Mass., 1926), p. 81. Rollins lists other poems, p. 187 n.

58 "The Damnation of Faustus," MLR, XLI (1946), 97-107; Greg's article must be read in conjunction with T. W. Craik's "Faustus' Damnation Reconsidered," Ren D, N.S. 11 (1969), 189-196, which doubts Greg's literal interpretation of the text and rightly doubts whether it is here that "the nice balance between possible salvation and imminent damnation is upset."

59 K. M. Briggs, Pale Hecate's Team (London, 1962), p. 37.

60 Bacon, Essays, "Of Love," Works, p. 398. W. S. Hecksher, "Was this the face … ?", JWCI, I (1937), 295-297, suggests that there is an echo of Lucian's 18th Dialogue of the Dead on the theme mors omnia aequat, in which the cynic Menippus discourses with Hermes over Helen's skull.

61The Macro Plays, ed. F. J. Furnivall and A. W. Pollard (London, 1904), 11. 7-16. The idea of sophia, the active wisdom that Paul contrasted with the intellectual wisdom of the Greeks, derives from I Cor. 1:24. For a history of the topos of Christ as Wisdom and its iconography, see M. T. d'Alverny, "La Sainte Sagesse et le Christ," The Bodleian Library Record, V (1956), 232-244. Cf. Sidney's translation of de Mornay's A Woorke concerning the trewnesse of the Christian Religion [1587]: "In the Trinitie we call the Sonne, the Word, or the Speech; namely, the lively and perfect image and wisedome of the Father," (Sidney, Works, ed. Feuillerat [Cambridge, Eng., 1912-1926], III, 325). For further examples in medieval drama, see M. F. Smith, Wisdom and Personification of Wisdom (Washington, D. C., 1935), pp. 145-163.

62 Like the characters in The White Devil, Faustus' world finishes beneath the moon: he refuses to contemplate the highest wisdom which is spiritual and not terrestrial, to confound knowledge with knowledge, as Flamineo says.

63Paradise Lost, IV, 222.

64 Nicholas Brooke has argued that Doctor Faustus is a perversion of the morality pattern in that Faustus resolves to be damned and succeeds despite the warnings of Mephostophilis: "The Moral Tragedy of Dr. Faustus," The Cambridge Journal, V (1952), 662-687.

65 Cf. Faerie Queene, I, ix.39.

66 Scot, Discouerie (1584), notes (pp. 40 ff.) that bargains between witches and devils are not binding. Nor would orthodox theologians allow that the devil by his strength alone would overcome a penitent Christian: see St. John Chrysostom, "De Diabolo Tentatore": "Unum igitur hoc primum didicimus, eum per vim aut necessitatem non vincere," Homiliae LXXVII (Paris, 1609), p. 319D; also his Sermon that no man is hurted but of hym selfe, trans. T. Lupset (London, 1542). Chrysostom's sermons contain several specific points that Marlowe included in his play (see J. D. Jump's edition [London, 1962], p. 21 n). For Faustus' despair, see Chrysostom's Treatise touching the restoring againe of him that is fallen, trans. R. Wolcomb (London, 1609), esp. pp. 6, 139.

67 See Matt. 7:20: "if ye haue fayth … ye shall saye vnto this mountaine, Remoue hence to yonder place, and it shall remoue: and nothing shalbe vnpossible vnto you."

68 See The Play of Antichrist from the Chester Cycle, ed. W. W. Greg (Oxford, 1935). Faustus' death scene is similar to that of Philologus in Woodes's The Conflict of Conscience. See also Lily B. Campbell, "Doctor Faustus: A Case of Conscience," PMLA, LXVII (1952), 219-239.

Cleanth Brooks (essay date 1965)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5569

SOURCE: "The Unity of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus," in his A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Writer's Craft, Methuen & Co., 1971, pp. 367-80.

[In the following essay first given as a lecture in 1965, Brooks argues that the middle of Doctor Faustus supports, rather than disrupts, the unity of the drama, and he defends the poetry in Faustus's final soliloquy as an expression of the individuality that "is at once his glory and his damnation."]

In his Poetics, Aristotle observed that a tragedy should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The statement makes a point that seems obvious, and many a reader of our time must have dismissed it as one of more tedious remarks of the Stagirite, or indeed put it down to one of the duller notes taken by the student whom some suppose to have heard Aristotle's lectures and preserved the substance of them for us. Yet the play without a middle does occur, and in at least three signal instances that I can think of in English literature, we have a play that lacks a proper middle or at least a play that seems to lack a middle. Milton's Samson Agonistes is one of them; Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, another; and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the third. Milton presents us with Samson, in the hands of his enemies, blind, grinding at the mill with other slaves, yet in only a little while he has Samson pull down the temple roof upon his enemies. There is a beginning and there is an end, but in the interval between them has anything of real consequence happened? Murder in the Cathedral may seem an even more flagrant instance of an end jammed on to a beginning quite directly and without any intervening dramatic substance. Thomas has come back out of exile to assume his proper place in his cathedral and act as shepherd to his people. He is already aware of the consequences of his return, and that in all probability the decisive act has been taken that will quickly lead to his martyrdom and death.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus may seem to show the same defect, for very early in the play the learned doctor makes his decision to sell his soul to the devil, and after that there seems little to do except to fill in the time before the mortgage falls due and the devil comes to collect the forfeited soul. If the consequence of Faustus's bargain is inevitable, and if nothing can be done to alter it, then it doesn't much matter what one puts in as filler. Hence one can stuff in comedy and farce more or less ad libitum, the taste of the audience and its patience in sitting through the play being the only limiting factors.

In what I shall say here, I do not propose to do more than touch upon the vexed problem of the authorship of Doctor Fastus in either the A or B version. But I think that it is significant that the principal scenes that are confidently assigned to Marlowe turn out to be the scenes that open and close the play. To other hands is assigned the basic reponsibility for supplying the comedy or sheer wonder-working or farce that makes up much of the play and is the very staple of Acts III and IV.

For their effectiveness, Doctor Faustus,Samson Agonistes and Murder in the Cathedral, all three, depend heavily upon their poetry. One could go further: the poetry tends to be intensely lyrical and in the play with which we are concerned arises from the depths of the character of Faustus himself; it expresses his aspirations, his dreams, his fears, his agonies, and his intense awareness of the conflicting feelings within himself. The poetry, it ought to be observed, is not a kind of superficial gilding, but an expression—and perhaps the inevitable expression—of the emotions of the central character. If there is indeed a "middle" in this play—that is, a part of the play concerned with complication and development in which the character of Faustus becomes something quite different from the man whom we first meet—then the "middle" of the play has to be sought in this area of personal self-examination and inner conflict, and the poetry will prove its most dramatic expression. One observes that something of this sort is true of Samson Agonistes. The Samson whom we meet at the beginning of the play is obviously incapable of undertaking the action that he performs so gloriously at the end. Something very important, I should argue, does happen to Samson in the course of the play, and his awareness of some "rousing motions" after Harapha has left him is no accident—that is, the rousing motions did not simply happen to occur at the propitious moment. I should argue that the encounter between Samson and his father, his wife, and the giant, all have had their part in transforming the quality of his response to the world about him, and that the sensitive auditor or reader will, if he attends to the poetry with which Milton has invested the play, come to see that this is true.

I think that a similar case can be made for Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, though I must concede that Eliot has cut it very fine. An attentive reading or a good production of the play will make the reader aware that the Thomas who is presented early in the play is not yet ready for martyrdom. True, Thomas thinks he has prepared himself. He has foreseen the three tempters. But the Fourth Tempter is indeed, as he tells us, unexpected, and Thomas himself is clearly shaken by the encounter and does not experience his rousing motions until after a further conflict.

But before attempting to get deeper into the problem of whether Doctor Faustus has a proper middle, it will be useful to make one or two general observations about the play. Doctor Faustus is a play about knowledge, about the relation of one's knowledge of the world to his knowledge of himself—about knowledge of means and its relation to knowledge of ends. It is a play, thus, that reflects the interests of the Renaissance and indeed that looks forward to the issues of the modern day. There is even an anticipation in the play, I should suppose, of the problem of the 'two cultures'. Faustus is dissatisfied and even bored with the study of ethics and divinity and metaphysics. What has captured his imagination is magic, but we must not be misled by the associations that that term now carries for most of us. The knowledge that Faustus wants to attain is knowledge that can be put to use—what Bertrand Russell long ago called power knowledge—the knowledge that allows one to effect changes in the world around him. When Faustus rejects philosophy and divinity for magic, he chooses magic because, as he says, the pursuit of magic promises "a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence." He sums it up in saying: "A sound Magician is a mighty god." But if one does manage to acquire the technical knowledge that will allow one to "Wall all Germany with brass" or to beat a modern jet plane's time in flying in fresh grapes from the tropics, for what purpose is that technical knowledge to be used? How does this knowledge of means relate to one's knowledge of ends? Marlowe is too honest a dramatist to allow Faustus to escape such questions.

This last comment must not, however, be taken to imply that Marlowe has written a moral tract rather than a drama, or that he has been less than skilful in making Faustus's experiments with power-knowledge bring him, again and again, up against knowledge of a more ultimate kind. Marlowe makes the process seem natural and inevitable. For example, as soon as Faustus has signed the contract with the devil and has, by giving himself to hell, gained his new knowledge, his first question to Mephistopheles, rather naturally, has to do with the nature of the place to which he has consigned himself. He says: "First will I question with thee about hell, / Tell me, where is the place that men call hell?" In his reply, Mephistopheles explodes any notion of a local hell, and defines hell as a state of mind; but Faustus cannot believe his ears, and though getting his information from an impeccable source, indeed from the very horse's mouth, he refuses to accept the first fruits of his new knowledge. He had already come to the decision that stories of hell were merely "old wives' tales"—one supposes that this decision was a factor in his resolution to sell his soul. Yet when Mephistopheles says that he is an instance to prove the contrary since he is damned, and is even now in hell, Faustus cannot take in the notion. "How? Now in hell? / Nay and this be hell, I'll willingly be damned here…"

The new knowledge that Faustus has acquired proves curiously unsatisfactory in other ways. For instance, Faustus demands a book in which the motions and characters of the planets are so truly set forth that, knowing these motions, he can raise up spirits directly and without the intervention of Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles at once produces the book, only to have Faustus say: "When I behold the heavens, then I repent / … Because thou has deprived me of those joys." Mephistopheles manages to distract Faustus from notions of repentance, but soon Faustus is once more making inquiries that touch upon the heavens, this time about astrology; and again, almost before he knows it, Faustus has been moved by his contemplation of the revolution of the spheres to a more ultimate question. "Tell me who made the world," he suddenly asks Mephistopheles, and this thought of the Creator once more wracks Faustus with a reminder of his damnation. Marlowe has throughout the play used the words heaven and heavenly in a tantalizingly double sense. Heavenly refers to the structure of the cosmos as seen from the earth, but it also has associations with the divine—the sphere from which Faustus has cut himself off.

Thus, technical questions about how nature works have a tendency to raise the larger questions of the Creator and the purposes of the creation. Faustus cannot be content—such is the education of a lifetime—or such was Marlowe's education, if you prefer—cannot be content with the mere workings of the machinery of the universe: he must push on to ask about ultimate purposes. Knowledge of means cannot be sealed off from knowledge of ends, and here Faustus's newly acquired knowledge cannot give him answers different from those he already knew before he forfeited his soul. The new knowledge can only forbid Faustus to dwell upon the answers to troubling questions that persist, the answers to which he knows all too well.

To come at matters in a different way, Faustus is the man who is all dressed up with no place to go. His plight is that he cannot find anything to do really worthy of the supernatural powers that he has come to possess. Faustus never carries out in practice his dreams of great accomplishments. He evidently doesn't want to wall all Germany with brass, or make the swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg. Nor does he chase the Prince of Parma from Germany. Instead, he plays tricks on the Pope, or courts favour with the Emperor by staging magical shows for him. When he summons up at the Emperor's request Alexander the Great and his paramour, Faustus is careful to explain—Faustus in some sense remains to the end an honest man—that the Emperor will not be seeing "the true substantial bodies of those two deceased princes which long since are consumed to dust." The illusion is certainly life-like. Faustus has gone beyond a mere cinematic presentation to the feelings of Aldous Huxley—the Emperor is invited to go up and touch the wart on the Grecian paramour's neck—but even so, Alexander and his paramour are no more than apparitions. This magical world lacks substance.

With reference to the quality of Faustus's exploitations of his magical power, one may point out that Marlowe is scarcely answerable for some of the stuff that was worked into the middle of the play. Yet to judge only from the scenes acknowledged to be Marlowe's and from the ending that Marlowe devised for the play, it is inconceivable that Faustus should ever have carried out the grandiose plans which he mentions in Scene iii—such matters as making a bridge through the moving air so that bands of men can pass over the ocean, or joining the hills that bind the African shore to those of Spain. Faustus's basie motivation—his yearning for self-aggrandisement—ensures that the power he has gained will be used for what are finally frivolous purposes.

I have been stressing the author's distinction between the different kinds of knowledge that Faustus craves, and his careful pointing up of the inner contradictions that exist among these kinds of knowledge. I think that these matters are important for the meaning of the play, but some of you may feel that in themselves they scarcely serve to establish the requisite middle for the play. To note the confusions and contradictions in Faustus's quest for knowledge may make Faustus appear a more human figure and even a more modern figure. (I am entirely aware that my own perspective may be such as to make the play more "modern" that it is.) Yet, if Faustus is indeed doomed, the moment he signs, with his own blood, his contract with the devil, then there is no further significant action that he can take, and the rest of the play will be not so much dramatic as elegiac, as Faustus comes to lament the course that he has taken, or simply clinical, as we watch the writhings and inner torment of a character whose case is hopeless. Whether the case of Faustus becomes hopeless early in the play is, then, a matter of real consequence.

On a purely legalistic basis, of course, Faustus's case is hopeless. He has made a contract and he has to abide by it. This is the point that the devils insist on relentlessly. Yet there are plenty of indications that Faustus was not the prisoner of one fatal act. Before Faustus signs the bond, the good angel twice appears to him, first to beg him to lay his "Damned book aside" and later to implore him to beware of the 'execrable art' of magic. But even after Faustus has signed the bond, the good angel appears. In Scene vi he adjures Faustus to repent, saying: "Repent, yet God will pity thee." The bad angel, it is true, appears along with him to insist that "God cannot pity thee". But then the bad angel had appeared along with the good in all the early appearances too.

There are other indications that Faustus is not yet beyond the possibility of redemption. The devils, in spite of the contract, are evidently not at all sure of the soul of Faustus. They find it again and again necessary to argue with him, to bully him, and to threaten him. Mephistopheles evidently believes that it is very important to try to distract Faustus from his doleful thoughts. The assumption of the play is surely that the devils are anxious, and Mephistopheles in particular goes to a great deal of trouble to keep Faustus under control. There is never any assumption that the bond itself, signed with Faustus's blood, is quite sufficient to preserve him safe for hell. At least once, Lucifer himself has to be called in to ensure that Faustus will not escape. Lucifer appeals to Faustus's sense of logic by telling him that "Christ cannot save thy soul, for he is just, / There's none but I have interest in the same." But Lucifer employs an even more potent weapon: he terrifies Faustus, and as we shall see in Scene xiii, a crucial scene that occurs late in the play, Faustus has little defence against terror.

In Scene xiii, a new character appears, one simply called "an Old Man". He comes just in the nick of time, for Faustus, in his despair, is on the point of committing suicide, and Mephistopheles, apparently happy to make sure of Faustus's damnation, hands him a dagger. But the Old Man persuades Faustus to desist, telling him: "I see an angel hovers o'er thy head, / And with a vial full of precious grace, / Offers to pour the same into thy soul: / Then call for mercy, and avoid despair".

The Old Man has faith that Faustus can still be saved, and testifies to the presence of his good angel, waiting to pour out the necessary grace. But Faustus has indeed despaired. It may be significant that Faustus apparently does not see the angel now. At this crisis when, as Faustus says, "hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast", Mephistopheles accuses him of disobedience, and threatens to tear his flesh piecemeal. The threat is sufficient. A moment before, Faustus had addressed the Old Man as "my sweet friend". Now, in a sudden reversal, he calls Mephistopheles sweet—"Sweet Mephistopheles, intreat thy lord / To pardon my unjust presumption, / And with my blood again I will confirm / My former vow I made to Lucifer." The answer of Mephistopheles is interesting and even shocking. He tells Faustus: "Do it then quickly, with unfeigned heart, / Lest greater danger do attend thy drift." There is honour among thieves, among devils the appeal to loyalty and sincerity. "Unfeigned heart" carries ironically the very accent of Christian piety.

Faustus, for his part, shows himself, now perhaps for the first time, to be truly a lost soul. For he suddenly rounds upon the Old Man and beseeches Mephistopheles to inflict on him the "greatest torments that our hell affords". The pronoun is significant. Faustus now thinks of hell as "our hell", and the acceptance of it as part of himself and his desire to see the Old Man suffer mark surely a new stage in his development or deterioration. The shift-over may seem abrupt, but I find it credible in the total context, and I am reminded of what William Butler Yeats said about his Faustian play, The Countess Cathleen. The Countess, as you will remember, redeemed the souls of her people from the demons to whom they had sold their souls by selling her own. Many years after he had written the play, Yeats remarked that he had made a mistake, he felt, in his treatment of the Countess. As he put it in his Autobiography: "The Countess sells her soul, but [in the play] she is not transformed. If I were to think out that scene to-day, she would, the moment her hand has signed, burst into loud laughter, mock at all she has held holy, horrify the peasants in the midst of their temptations." Thus Yeats would have dramatized the commitments she had made. The comment is a valid one, and I think is relevant here. Yeats, in making the signing of the bond the decisive and effective act, is of course being more legalistic than is Marlowe, but he vindicates the psychology of the volte face. When Faustus does indeed become irrecoverably damned, he shows it in his conduct, and the change in conduct is startling. Faustus has now become a member of the devil's party in a sense in which he has not been before.

I think too that it is a sound psychology that makes Faustus demand at this point greater distractions and more powerful narcotics than he had earlier required. In the scene before this, it was enough for Faustus to call up the vision of Helen. Now he needs to possess her. And if this final abandonment to sensual delight calls forth the most celebrated poetry in the play, the poetry is ominously fitting. Indeed, the poetry here, for all of its passion, is instinct with the desperation of Faustus's plight. Helen's was the face "that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium". If the wonderful lines insist upon the transcendent power of a beauty that could command the allegiance of thousands, they also refer to the destructive fire that she set alight, and perhaps hint at the hell-fire that now burns for Faustus. After this magnificent invocation, Faustus implores Helen to make his soul immortal with a kiss, but his soul is already immortal, with an immortality that he would gladly—as he says in the last scene—lose if he could.

It may be worth pointing out that the sharpest inner contradictions in Faustus's thinking are manifest in the passage that we have just discussed. Faustus is so much terrified by Mephistopheles's threat to tear his flesh piecemeal that he hysterically courts the favour of Mephistopheles by begging him to tear the flesh of the Old Man. Yet Mephistopheles in his reply actually deflates the terror by remarking of the Old Man that "His faith is great, I cannot touch his soul". He promises to try to afflict the Old Man's body, but he observes with business-like candour that this kind of affliction amounts to little—it "is but little worth".

Perhaps the most powerful testimony in the play against any shallow legalistic interpretation of Faustus's damnation occurs in one of the earlier speeches of Mephistopheles. If Mephistopheles later in the play sees to it, by using distractions, by appealing to Faustus's sense of justice, by invoking terror, that Faustus shall not escape, it is notable that early in the play he testifies to the folly of what Faustus is proposing to do with his life.

When Faustus asks Mephistopheles why it was that Lucifer fell, Mephistopheles replies with complete orthodoxy and with even Christian eloquence: "Oh, by aspiring pride and insolence," When Faustus asks him "What are you that live with Lucifer?" Mephistopheles answers that he is one of the "unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer", and that with Lucifer he is damned forever. It is at this point that Faustus, obsessed with the notion that hell is a place, expresses his astonishment that Mephistopheles can be said at this very moment to be in hell. Mephistophele's answer deserves to be quoted in full:

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? Oh Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.

Faustus is surprised that great Mephistopheles should be, as he puts it, "so passionate" on this subject, and the reader of the play may himself wonder that Mephistopheles can be so eloquent on the side of the angels—of the good angels, that is. But Marlowe has not been careless nor is he absent-minded. The psychology is ultimately sound. In this connection, two points ought to be observed. Though there is good reason to believe that Marlowe expected his audience to accept his devils as actual beings with an objective reality of their own and not merely as projections of Faustus's state of mind, in this play—as in any other sound and believable use of ghosts, spirits, and other such supernatural beings—the devils do have a very real relation to the minds of the persons to whom they appear. Though not necessarily merely projections of the characters' emotions, they are always in some sense mirrors of the inner states of the persons to whom they appear.

The second point to be observed is this: Faustus does learn something in the course of the play, and in learning it suffers change and becomes a different man. At the beginning of the play, he does seem somewhat naive and jejune. He is fascinated by the new possibilities that his traffic with magic may open to him. Mephistopheles's use of the phrase "these frivolous demands" is quite justified. But in a sense, the very jauntiness with which he talks to Mephistopheles is proof that he is not yet fully damned, has not involved himself completely with the agents of evil. As the play goes on, he will lose his frivolousness: he will learn to take more and more seriously the loss of heaven. Yet at the same time, this very experience of deeper involvement in evil will make more and more difficult any return to the joys of heaven.

At any rate, there is a tremendous honesty as the play is worked out. Faustus may appear at times frivolous, but he is honest with himself. With all of his yearning for the state of grace that he has lost, he always acknowledges the strength of his desire for illicit pleasures and powers. At one point in the play, before he signed the fatal bond. Faustus says to himself that he will turn to God again. But immediately he dismisses the notion: "To God?" he asks incredulously, and then replies to himself: "He loves thee not, / The God thou servest is thine own appetite."

Most of all, however, Faustus is the prisoner of his own conceptions and indeed preconceptions. It is not so much that God has damned him as that he has damned himself. Faustus is trapped in his own legalism. The emphasis on such legalism seems to be a constant element in all treatments of the Faustian compact. It occurs in Yeats's The Countess Cathleen, when the devils, trusting in the letter of the law, are defeated and at the end find they have no power over the soul of the Countess. Legalism is also a feature of one of the most brilliant recent treatments of the story, that given by William Faulkner in The Hamlet.

Faustus's entrapment in legalism is easily illustrated. If the devils insist that a promise is a promise and a bond is a bond that has to be honoured—though it is plain that they are far from sure that the mere signing of the bond has effectively put Faustus's soul in their possession—Faustus himself is all too easily convinced that this is true. Apparently, he can believe in and understand a God of justice, but not a God of mercy. If Faustus's self-knowledge makes him say in Scene vi: "My heart's so hardened, I cannot repent," his sense of legal obligation makes him say in Scene xiii: "Hell calls for right, and with a roaring voice / Says, Faustus come, thine hour is come / And Faustus will come to do thee right." Even at this point the Old Man thinks that Faustus can still be saved. The good angel has reiterated that he might be saved. The devils themselves would seem to fear that Faustus even at the last might escape them: but Faustus himself is convinced that he cannot be saved and his despair effectually prevents any action which would allow him a way out.

In one sense, then, this play is a study in despair. But the despair does not paralyze the imagination of Faustus. He knows constantly what is happening to him. He reports on his state of mind with relentless honesty. And at the end of the play, in tremendous poetry, he dramatizes for us what it is to feel the inexorable movement toward the abyss, not numbed, not dulled with apathy, but with every sense quickened and alert. (Kurtz, in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, shows these qualities. He is damned, knows that he's damned, indeed flees from redemption, but never deceives himself about what is happening, and mutters, "The horror, the horror.")

One may still ask, however, whether these changes that occur in Faustus's soul are sufficient to constitute a middle. Does Faustus act? Is there a sufficient conflict? Is Faustus so incapacitated for choice that he is a helpless victim and not a conscious re-agent with circumstance?

Yet, one must not be doctrinaire and pedantic in considering this concept of decisive action. As T. S. Eliot put it in Murder in the Cathedral, suffering is action and action is suffering. Faustus's suffering is not merely passive: he is constantly reaffirming at deeper and deeper levels his original rash tender of his soul to Lucifer. Moreover, if Faustus's action amounts in the end to suffering, the suffering is not meaningless. It leads to knowledge—knowledge of very much the same sort as that which Milton's Adam acquired in Paradise Lost—"Knowledge of good bought dear by knowing ill"—and through something of the same process. Early in the play, Mephistopheles told him: "Think so still till experience change thy mind." Perhaps this is the best way in which to describe the "middle" of the play: the middle consists of the experiences that do change Faustus's mind so that in the end he knows what hell is and has become accommodated to it, now truly damned.

My own view is that the play does have a sufficient middle, but this is not to say that it is not a play of a rather special sort—and that its dependence upon its poetry—though a legitimate dependence, I would insist—is very great.

There is no need to praise the poetry of the wonderful-last scene, but I should like to make one or two brief observations about it. The drama depends, of course, upon Faustus's obsession with the clock and his sense of time's moving on inexorably, pushing him so swiftly to the final event. But this final scene really grows integrally out of the play. The agonized and eloquent clock-watching matches perfectly the legalism which has dominated Faustus from the beginning of the play. What Faustus in effect tries to do is to hold back the hand of the clock, not to change his relation to God. Incidentally, what Faustus does not notice is that like Mephistopheles earlier, he himself is now already in hell. The coming of the hour of twelve can hardly bring him into greater torment than that which now possesses him and which the poetry he utters so powerfully bodies forth.

Everybody has commented on Marlowe's brilliant use of the quotation from Ovid: "O lente, lente, currite noctis equi," in the Amores words murmured by the lover to his mistress in his wish that the night of passion might be prolonged, in this context so jarringly ironic. But the irony is not at all factitious. The scholar who now quotes the lines from Ovid in so different a context is the same man who a little earlier had begged the phantasm of Helen to make his soul immortal with a kiss. Now, in his agony, he demands of himself: "Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul? / Or, why is this immortal that thou hast?"

Again, the great line, "See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament," echoes a significant passage much earlier in the play. (I do not insist that the reader has to notice it, or that Marlowe's audience would have necessarily been aware of the echo, but I see no reason why we should not admire it if we happen upon it ourselves or if someone calls it to our attention.) When Faustus prepares to sign the document that will consign his soul to the devil, he finds that he must sign in blood, and he pierces his arm to procure the sanguine ink. But his blood will hardly trickle from his arm, and he interprets his blood's unwillingness to flow as follows: "What might the staying of my blood portend? / Is it unwilling I should write this bill? / Why streams it not, that I might write afresh?" His own blood, in an instinctive horror, refuses to stream for his damnation. Now, as he waits for the clock to strike twelve, he has a vision of Christ's blood streaming in the firmament for man's salvation. But in his despair he is certain that Christ's blood does not stream for his salvation.

In short, the magnificent passage in the final scene bodies forth the experience of Faustus in a kind of personal dies irae, but it is not a purple patch tacked on to the end of a rather amorphous play. Rather, the great outburst of poetry finds in the play a supporting context. It sums up the knowledge that Faustus has bought at so dear a price, and if it is the expression of a creature fascinated with, and made eloquent by, horror, it is still the speech of a man who, for all of his terror, somehow preserves his dignity. Faustus at the end is still a man, not a cringing wretch. The poetry saves him from adjectness. If he wishes to escape from himself, to be changed into little water drops, to be swallowed up in the great ocean of being, he maintains to the end—in spite of himself, in spite of his desire to blot out his personal being—his individuality of mind, the special quality of the restless spirit that aspired. This retention of his individuality is at once his glory and his damnation

A. Bartlett Giametti (essay date 1972)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5101

SOURCE: "Marlowe: The Arts of Illusion," in The Yale Review, Vol. LXI, No. 4, June, 1972, pp. 530-543.

[In the following essay, Giamatti reads Doctor Faustus as an examination of the Renaissance conviction that human beings could "remake or change or transform" themselves, and as an exporation of the question of whether this would tend to be done good or for evil purposes.]

George Sabellicus was pleased to call himself, a contemporary tells us in 1507, "the younger Faust, the chief of necromancers, astrologer, the second magus, palmist, diviner with water and fire, second in the art of divination by water." But even this billing did not smooth the way, for Dr. Faust, as Sabellicus came to be called, was constantly forced to move on. City after city, nervously or defiantly, expelled him. It had always been so for the man called to the arts of illusion.

From antiquity through the seventeenth century, if no farther, the mummer, the mime, the juggler, the actor, the mountebank, the magician, even the scientist as astrologer or alchemist—all were suspect for their solitary or their irregular lives. But even more, they were profoundly distrusted for their varying and various capacities for irreverence. By irreverence, I mean not only their blasphemous conditions and conversation; I mean essentially their abilities to imitate and to transform, their gifts for changing shape and surpassing limits in ways which seemed to threaten Divine plan or Divinity itself. The historical Faust played to all these fears. By the time he disappears as an actual figure, around 1540, even his name has changed from George to Johann Faust—a harmless image within the historical records of his alleged sinister powers to manipulate appearances.

The Faust story is a product of the Protestant Reformation when, in Germany, men saw clearly the price of sin, the power of evil, and above all the limits of man. It was a time when the religious impulse, always ambiguous and now obsessed with purity and reform, precipitated out and identified its own darker side, the urge to magic and deformation. The Faust story is a Reformation story because it implies deformation as the result of any human impulse beyond or outside the strictly interpreted norm.

The Faust story sees both reformation and deformation as springing from the same source: the impulse to be at one with God—the difference being that the former results from submission to God, the latter from trying, like Faust, to assume Godhead. But the Faust story has even deeper roots than the Reformation. It draws its radical potency from that great Renaissance (and hence modern) myth which says that spiritual reformation and deformation derive from man's innate power of formation, the capacity of the self to shape the self. The Faust story is firmly rooted in Renaissance man's profound conviction that he is a Proteus, that he can remake or change or transform himself.

The problem in this attitude, a problem crystallized by the Faust story, is this: Given man's basic urge and potential for transformation, would man re-form himself in a good sense and be one of the blest, or would he de-form himself and become a monster? What shape would he fashion for himself? Would he be Hyperion, or a satyr? Both were in him. Finally, once he unleashed the process of transformation, could he stop it? This was the most haunting question of all, and is the issue in Doctor Faustus.

               we must now perform The form of Faustus' fortunes, good or bad.

So the chorus to Marlowe's play. And here Renaissance art offers itself as one solution to the massive ambiguities of Renaissance life. Performing is one way of forming, for the theatre can safely release the human desire for new shapes. It provides an arena for limitless aspiration and multiple shapes while containing this impulse within the physical limits of the theatre and the arbitrary structure of art. This is no final answer, because now the theatre becomes simply a public image, a public language, for man's private agonies. "The great Globe" is a theatrical place and an individual's head, and both are reservoirs in their way for the energy to change and to remake human form. Both are dangerous places. The final solution is to purify the mind and the place; it is to have another Reformation, a Puritan Revolution, and close down the theatres. You return to radical principles, write a poem justifying the ways of God to man, and go back to calling Faustus Satan or Eve. But that was all ahead. In the early 1590's, the theatre was still being fashioned as the medium for manageable metamorphosis. And Marlowe takes a giant step when he transforms the material from the English translation (1592) of the German Faustbuch (1587) into a play about how the splendid urge to aspire to new form can deform past salvation if the shape you want is that of God Himself.

Renaissance man felt he had the power to transform himself because he had the power of language. Words were units of energy. Through words man could assume forms and aspire to shapes and states otherwise beyond his reach. Words had this immense potency, this virtue, because they were derived from and were images of the Word, the Word of God which made us and which was God. Used properly, words could shape us in His image, and lead us to salvation. Through praise, in its largest sense, our words approach their source in the Word and, therefore, we approach Him.

Because words, like men, were fallen, however, they-contained, as we do, shapes of evil within them. Fallen words, like men, are unstable elements; thus they are, as we are, such dangers to us. As we must always check that impulse to deformation in ourselves, so we must constantly be aware of the beast in language—Spenser calls it the Blatant Beast, whose rabid bite is vicious slander—and we must know that when we unleash a word and let it soar, we run the risk of loosing an evil force as well, one that we cannot control. We, as men using words, must stay within our limits, or what we master may master and misshape us.

This is simply to say that the power of words and the power in words reflect our fallen state—above the beasts, below the angels, and capable of assuming either form. As a power, language is neither good nor bad. It all depends upon how we convert this energy, upon how we transform this power, in the mind with the mind. We are what we are depending upon how we shape ourselves with words; depending on whether we use words as God intended us to use them, or we use words to set ourselves up in His place and assume His knowledge and power.

Because all men are users of the magic power, language, because all men are performers with words and transformers through words, the Renaissance could figure all men under the single image of the magus, the magician. And as there were two ways of using language to project new shapes, a good and a bad, the Renaissance distinguished two kinds of magus. One is the "goetic" or black magician. This is Faustus, or Spenser's Archimago, or—in his own fashion—lago, who imposes a nightmare on the island of Love, Cyprus, and who transforms the shape of Desdemona in the head of Othello. The other kind of magus and magic is represented by the "natural" or white magician. In harmless form, this is Puck, who can take whatever shape he wants—"Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound, / a hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire"—but whose power to transform finally will amend and harmonize all the divisions of love and the law. In Spenser's Faerie Queene, opposed to Archimago, there is Merlin in Book III who can project in his magic glass the true shape of love in Britomart's Artegall. Finally, there is the great white magician of Elizabethan literature, Prospero, who controls not only form and substance in Ariel and Caliban, and fashions justice and love, but who also can recognize the limits of his art and drown his book. This knowledge of white Prospero—where his knowledge stops—is acquired by black Faustus much too late.

In the black and white magicians, the Renaissance poets and thinkers saw concentrated the black dangers and the white glories of that single power, language, and that single urge, self-transformation. In the magus, they saw man; through the One, they perceived the Many.

Therefore Renaissance Faustus differs from all those other magicians who stand behind him in grand and receding array, Roger Bacon and Piero d'Albano (Doctor Faustus I.i.155), the medieval Virgil (III.i.13), the sinister sorcerer Simon Magus, who offered to buy the power of the Holy Ghost (Acts viii:9-24; the apocryphal Acts of Peter), for Faustus is not simply doing tricks or trying to buy magic power. Faustus is any of us, any man using (and misusing) power in the quest for all knowledge and total control. Faustus is no trickster; he is modern man who would play the role of God.

In our play, the warring impulses for good and evil in the mind of everyman are visualized by the Good and Bad angels which hover around Faustus. Again, the single human head is the source for the double drive. And when we first meet those $$Word$$ the first words of the Good angel are:

O, Faustus, lay that damned book aside, And gaze not on it.… Read, read the Scriptures. That is blasphemy.(I.i.71-74)

Here, at the outset, is an indication of the way the play is a battle of books. We see how the deepest issue in the play is words, the language of black magic versus the language of Scripture. We see how the power of words to shape for good or ill, and how that power is used and how that power can use you, is the pivot on which the play turns. We see how, at bottom, the problem of language remains.

Throughout his career, as he struggled to shape a new idiom for the nascent English stage, Marlowe wrestled with the multiform angel (or demon) of language. He made his problem as a playwright the subject of his plays. He expanded the limits of the stage by writing of the human mind in its battle to surpass human limitation. He used soaring words as symbols of man's aspiring mind. And he used the lurking dangers in words to image the terrors of aspiring too far.

Only Doctor Faustus fully exploits the glories and terrors in language to illuminate the full ambiguity of the human condition, though even as early as Hero and Leander one can hear Marlowe exploring through words the terrain of human potential, its mountain peaks and dark ravines:

And fruitful wits that in aspiring are, Shall discontent, run into regions farre.(1.477-478)

In the earlier plays, however, the emphasis is heavily on man's mind as it soars beyond human limits—the dangers are not at issue yet—and thus the emphasis is on what language can do and not yet on what it can do to you. So we hear of the "aspiring mind" of Tamburlaine, and of his "conquering mind," whose foil is Bajazeth's "conquered head." Marlowe's great heroes all live in the present participle and the future tense. So in Edward II we hear of Mortimer's "virtue that aspires to heaven," but because we hear of it as he goes to prison, the ambiguities begin to emerge. And the ambiguities of the human condition are fully clear when we hear the Duke of Guise, whose "aspiring thoughts aim at the crown" (The Massacre at Paris, xix.24):

That I like best that flies beyond my reach. Set me to scale the highest pyramides And thereon set the diadem of France; I'll either rend it with my nails to naught Or mount the top with my aspiring wings, Although my downfall be the deepest hell.(ii.42-47)

There is what the Marlovian hero always knows: that his superb urge to transcend may also damn him deep.

Even more interesting is the image of Icarus submerged in the metaphor of flight in the last two lines. This myth fascinated Marlowe all his life, for like winged words themselves, it was another way of imaging the glories and terrors of transcendence. We first meet Icarus in Marlowe's earliest play, Dido Queen of Carthage, when Dido passionately laments Aeneas' parting:

I'll frame me wings of wax like Icarus, And o'er his ships will soar unto the sun, That they may melt and I fall in his arms.(v.i. 243-245)

Dido will be Icarus so that she may fall, but later in the words of the Duke of Guise Marlowe exploits the myth as an image of the act of reaching per se and he comes back to Icarus one last time—if Doctor Faustus is his last play—in the chorus' description of Faustus, who excelled in theological disputes:

Till swoll'n with cunning of a self-conceit, His waxen wings did mount above his reach, And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow.(Prol.20-22)

To say the Icarus myth has informed the substance of Marlowe's plays all along is a way of suggesting that Faustus, under various guises, has been all Marlowe's study. I am not implying Marlowe knew about Faust before he wrote of Faustus, though he may have, nor that Marlowe writes the same play over and over, for in crucial ways they are different. What I am suggesting is that in Doctor Faustus Marlowe's life-long obsessions with the language of aspiration found their perfect vehicle. However, there is another sense in which Doctor Faustus reveals Marlowe's life-long absorption in problems of language, and that emerges throughout the plays not in a Faust-like figure, but in a Faust pattern.

By Faust pattern, I mean that the crucial act in the Faust story is the consummation of a pact which promises a soul for twenty-four years of omnipotence. And in all the plays a pact or pledge has a critical role by representing that limit which the hero either rejects or overreaches. In Dido, it is the marriage pledge (Marlowe makes much of what his Virgilian source says is only a figment of Dido's imagination), which Aeneas superhumanly ignores to Dido's despair; in I Tamburlaine, there are Zenocrates' letters of safe conduct from the Great Cham himself which Tamburlaine, as his first act before us, countermands to prove himself "a greater man"; in The Jew of Malta, there are two pacts: the decrees Barabas refuses to sign which then deprive him of his goods (and goad him on) and the pledge between him and the Governor to betray the Turk, which both plan to break. In Edward II, the King is forced to sign a document banishing Gaveston, and in The Massacre at Paris, various pacts in the form of letters propel the Duke of Guise to his excesses, but none so much as the pledge of marriage—the "union and religious league"—between the King of Navarre and Margaret.

It would serve no purpose to push this pattern, if pattern it is, too hard. Still it is striking that in each play the hero defines himself and his role (or roles), his form and his performance, in terms of what for a better term we can call a verbal institution—some pact or pledge, letter, contract, or decree, whose validity as binding the hero at some point denies and which he tries to overcome. In all the plays, words supply a limit which the heroes' language attempts to supersede, an image of the mind trying to surpass our human limitations.

In Doctor Faustus, the verbal institution Faustus wants to overcome is language itself, language as it codifies, regulates, controls. And simply with his words, he can do this. He can send his words past the limits of other men's knowledge and control. But while his words are soaring, what about his deeds? What about the issue, the shapes, created by those flying words? If language is the power to form new realities, what are they? At the beginning of his career, with Tamburlaine, Marlowe saw no problem. "Go stout Theridamas; thy words are swords," says Mycetes. We change words to swords by prefixing an s, and for Tamburlaine things were almost that easy. He needed only to say he was a King to be one. In Tamburlaine, there is no gap between word and deed, no tragic lag between what you want and what you can have. But Tamburlaine is a figure of romance, the shepherd who becomes a knight and gets the girl. By the end of his career Marlowe had thought hard on our fallen state, and language; and tragedy, not romance, is the result.

In Doctor Faustus, the gap between word and deed widens and widens until it yawns like the mouth of Hell. As Faustus' language soars higher, the products of language—events, shapes, actions—become lower and lower, in the sense of trivial, in the sense of approaching Hell. What his words express and what they effect could not be more tragically separated. As we witness the widening gap between the mental spectacle the words conjure and the theatrical spectacle actually unfolding, between the way one thing is said and a very different effect is communicated or results, we see how Marlowe dramatizes the terrible ambiguities in the power of self-transformation through the magic of words.

First, the difference between what Faustus' words say and what his words actually do. In I.i we find Faustus alone in his study, about to "settle" his studies. He then speaks for some sixty-five lines. Now, according to his own words, he is a most learned man and very deep thinker; but according to what we see as a result of his words, Faustus has very patchy learning and a superficial mind. For while his words tell us he has soared above all organized human knowledge, they actually show us deep ignorance, particularly in the simple and central matters of the soul.

For instance, when Faustus dismisses Philosophy at line 10—he has attained its end; when he considers Medicine, finds it wanting, and dismisses it at line 27; when he says Law is all "paltry legacies," "external trash," and waves it away at line 36; and when he regards Theology and then, in the first of many unintentionally sinister puns (and there resides the issue of the play) bids it "adieu" at line 49—when he is saying all this, what do we actually see? When he says Philosophy is limited, we see a man who confounds Aristotle and Peter Ramus, a man who treats the deep questions of being and not being and the technique of disputing well as if they were the same. When he says Medicine is limited, we see a man who confuses gold and health, alchemy and physic, and who finds medicine wanting because it is not miracle, a lack he will remedy by turning to magic, miracle's parody. The soaring language does not offer us an ennobling spectacle; rather, the opposite.

When Faustus dismisses Law, something more sinister commences. To prove Law is really only legalism, Faustus quotes Justinian twice in Latin. In the first citation, Faustus misquotes Justinian. But if the ironic spectacle of misquoting what you claim is far beneath you were not enough, further ironies attend the second citation, which is: "The father cannot disinherit the son except …" (line 31). Faustus leaves the citation unfinished, but the rest of the play completes it. God the Father cannot disinherit man His son except when man chooses to will his soul to Satan. What Faustus considers legalistic trash far beneath his soaring mind is in reality an abiding principle which eludes his grasp.

Nowhere does Marlowe's technique of having Faustus dismiss a body of knowledge by a partial quotation have more devastating effect than in Faustus' denial of Theology. Faustus says Theology only teaches that we must sin and die, thus che sera, sera, and he wants no part of doctrine whose lesson is that necessity hangs over us. Nowhere do we see his limitations through his statements of mastery more clearly than here and in his citations from Scripture. He cites, in Latin, Romans vi:23, "The wages of sin is death," but as with Justinian's words he fails to finish the line: "But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." He cites the first Epistle of John, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth within us," but he fails to finish the passage, "If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." It is certainly to convert, and abuse, the power of the Word through one's own words when the Bible is misshaped to justify turning to "heavenly" "necromantic books." The play's techniques and issues are concentrated in this first speech and projected into the rest of the drama. The more Faustus transforms himself into a god through language, looking down on all human experience and knowledge, the more we see his very words transform him into something foolish, ignorant, superficial; the more Faustus tells of total mastery, the more we see a process of enslavement. Finally, we begin to understand how Marlowe's irony operates through the techniques of partial citation; for when Faustus only partially quotes Justinian or the Bible, language releases a meaning which Faustus does not pursue but which throughout the action of the play pursues Faustus. That is the problem with language, and is the issue Marlowe probes.

Faustus has dismissed Philosophy, Medicine, Law, and Theology. He has embraced the "metaphysics of magicians." Then he exclaims:

A sound magician is a demi-god. Here try thy brains to get a deity! Wagner—

Here are those crucial lines where Faustus says in effect that through magic he will assume powers only God has. Immense and potent lines. Then, "Wagner"—and Wagner, his servant and disciple, enters. The joke is verbally juxtaposing "deity" and "Wagner"; the joke is visually juxtaposing mighty Faustus and foolish Wagner, calling upon godhead and getting a goon. The terrifying implications of this process (and scene) develop in Act II.ii, when Faustus cries out to Christ, and Lucifer springs up. But that is tragedy, and later. This is still funny—challenging Heaven and getting Wagner—and here, in I.i, we really initiate the subplot.

The function of a subplot is to burlesque the concerns of a main plot by mirroring those concerns in lower form; not simply to reduce mighty concerns to absurdity but also to show us that no man's mighty self is immune to human fallibility, to foolishness, to flaw. The subplot is the great equalizer, savagely reducing or gently jesting the main concerns as the dramatist sees fit. The subplot's ironic spectacle and perspective make it a crucial element in Doctor Faustus, and in Act I, Marlowe introduces us to its uses. In Scene ii, Wagner and the two scholars, but mostly Wagner, burlesque Faustus and his two accomplices in magic in Scene i; in Scene iv, the actions of Wagner and Robin, the clown, provide farcical, shrewd commentary on Faustus and Mephistophilis in Scene iii. In Act II, the subplot begins to provide more than burlesque.

Scenes i and ii of Act II show us Faustus assuming the awesome powers of the devil, and at the end of Scene ii Lucifer gives Faustus a gift: "peruse this book and view it thoroughly, and thou shalt turn thyself into what shape thou wilt." But we really only understand the implications of this Satanic gift of words which shape when immediately in the following scene, Robin and Dick enter with one of Faustus' conjuring books. They mumble and jumble, parodying what has just preceded, and then make for a tavern where we meet them again three scenes later at Act III.iii. There, the Vintner searches them for a stolen cup. Robin decides to conjure. And Mephistophilis appears. This is suddenly no joke. As Mephistophilis is the first to say:

To purge this rashness of this cursed deed, First be thou turnéd to this ugly shape, For apish deeds transformed to an ape.… Be thou transformed to a dog, and carry him upon thy back.(40-42, 45)

The two clowns go off chattering and baying: in the devil's word, and by his word, transformed.

Here in the midst of farce, something serious has happened. The subplot's burlesque of the main plot's mighty concerns has been gradually acquainting us, in visual terms, with the way foolish shapes are latent in Faustus' aspiring words. But with the appearance of Mephistophilis at Robin's conjuring, this larger issue is clarified. We suddenly see clearly the way language releases meaning the user—here the clown—cannot control, and the way this meaning—here Mephistophilis—shapes or transforms the user. We see the transformer transformed, precisely what was suggested on the basis of Faustus' opening speech would happen to Faustus by the end. The seemingly simple contrast of subplot and main plot leads back to the central problem of the play: how the power to shape—language—can also misshape. And we have been led to this because the clown, transformed, is only a version of what Faustus, mighty magician, will become.

Or, indeed, what Faustus is rapidly becoming before our eyes. For there is that ever-growing split between Faustus' mighty words and his trivial deeds, between the shapes his language envisions and the shapes it actually creates. This larger movement, like the subplot which it parallels and meets in Act IV, begins in Faustus' second long speech in Act I.i, just after Wagner has appeared.

Beginning at line 79, we see the way Faustus' words fly up while their effects remain below. Faustus says he will create spirit servants. They will fly to India—for gold; ransack oceans—for pearls; search the corners of the earth—for fruits and delicacies. His servants will read him strange philosophies—and tell him royal secrets; they will dress schoolboys in silk, and invent new war machines. Here indeed is the language of aspiration—and the spectacle of naked appetite. Superb words—which show a taste for jewels, food, gossip, fashion, grim destruction. While we hear the flying words, we also see a man changing himself, through those words, from a magician to a babbler in luxury to a general agent of death.

And when, over the course of the play, we see what Faustus does with those splendid powers; when we see how Faustus only uses them to vex the Pope and his retinue (III.i-ii), produce a dumbshow and put horns on a courtier (IV.ii), fool a fop with a false head (IV.iii) and a horse-courser with a false horse and leg (IV.v), and gather grapes for a pregnant Duchess (IV.vii)—then we see that what Faustus does with his power totally undercuts what we heard Faustus claim for his power. But not only does the power to be a god make trivia; much worse, that very power makes Faustus trivial. Over the play, the magician metamorphoses himself to a court jester, a fool. The process dramatized in the language of Act I.i is dramatized in the spectacle of the whole play.

The overall effect of this process is to trivialize everything, finally to trivialize main plot to the level of subplot. We see this happening when the characters of the subplot begin to enter the main plot—Wagner entering after Faustus gulls the horse-courser; Robin and Dick talking to the horse-courser and carter about Faustus' mighty deeds, like turning horses to hay. This merging of the two levels of life is completed in IV.vii when, after Faustus brings off his last piece of tremendous trivia—grapes for the Duchess—Robin, Dick, and Company burst in and one by one Faustus charms them dumb. Now subplot is main plot; there is no difference. With his power to gain a deity, Faustus has reduced the world to its lowest level. Instead of learning the secrets of the universe, he has turned reality to farce. Finally, even the power of language, the power of transformation, is itself dramatically trivialized before our eyes when, without a word, Faustus denies the gulls the power of speech. That mighty power of language is so abused it no longer even communicates on a simple level; it only produces silence in the mouths of fools.

When we ponder the spectacle of the last scene, V.ii, in comparison with the statement of I.i, we notice that we see at the end precisely what we heard at the beginning. In both scenes, a universe, an unlimited existence, is unfolded. But, of course, similarities only underscore differences, and here the difference between the scenes is all the world. Where at the outset Faustus was a creator, at the end he is a creature; where before he dreamed of unlimited power and glory, now he is assured of limitless torment.

The words by which he reshaped himself into a demigod at the beginning have now exploded into horror all about him. What we see on stage are the contents of his head—the Hell he will possess forever, the Heaven he will shortly lose. He brought it on himself, this deformed world, when he converted, when he turned to magic from God, when he turned the power of words from God's praise to his own. It does him no good to shriek "I'll burn my books" at the very end. The power in his books has swallowed him, and he is now himself only a misshapen symbol, another occult sign, in Satan's ledger.

More than any other play, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus celebrates that God-like power of language, and shows us how words can soar, and tempts us to dizzying heights within our heads. But all the time, Marlowe is in control. He knows too much about the shaping power of words to be a Faustus. Marlowe is a magus too, all poets are, but one who tells us in this play to use that awesome power of words to fashion ourselves in God's image. Else, like his hero, we will be deformed by the servant we abuse.

Stephen Greenblatt (essay date 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8628

SOURCE: "Marlowe and the Will to Absolute Play," in his Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, The University of Chicago Press, 1980, pp. 193-221.

[In the following excerpt, Greenblatt explores the act of strenuous, aggressive self-fashioning on the part of protagoniss in Marlowe's plays. He contends that Faustus, like Tamburlaine and Edward II, wilfully reshapes himself in opposition to authority.]

On 26 June 1586 a small fleet, financed by the Earl of Cumberland, set out from Gravesend for the South Seas. It sailed down the West African coast, sighting Sierra Leone in October, and at this point we may let one of those on board, the merchant John Sarracoll, tell his own story:

The fourth of November we went on shore to a town of the Negroes, … which we found to be but lately built: it was of about two hundred houses, and walled about with mighty great trees, and stakes so thick, that a rat could hardly get in or out. But as it chanced, we came directly upon a port which was not shut up, where we entered with such fierceness, that the people fled all out of the town, which we found to be finely built after their fashion, and the streets of it so intricate that it was difficult for us to find the way out that we came in at. We found their houses and streets so finely and cleanly kept that it was an admiration to us all, for that neither in the houses nor streets was so much dust to be found as would fill an egg shell. We found little in their houses, except some mats, gourds, and some earthen pots. Our men at their departure set the town on fire, and it was bumt (for the most part of it) in a quarter of an hour, the houses being covered with reed and straw.1

This passage is atypical, for it lacks the bloodbath that usually climaxes these incidents, but it will serve as a reminder of what until recently was called one of the glorious achievements of Renaissance civilization, and it will serve as a convenient bridge from the world of Edmund Spenser to the world of Christopher Marlowe.

What is most striking in Sarracoll's account, of course, is the casual, unexplained violence. Does the merchant feel that the firing of the town needs no explanation? If asked, would he have had one to give? Why does he take care to tell us why the town burned so quickly, but not why it was burned? Is there an aesthetic element in his admiration of the town, so finely built, so intricate, so cleanly kept? And does this admiration conflict with or somehow fuel the destructiveness? If he feels no uneasiness at all, why does he suddenly shift and write not we but our men set the town on fire? Was there an order or not? And, when he recalls the invasion, why does he think of rats? The questions are all met by the moral blankness that rests like thick snow on Sarracoll's sentences: "The 17th. day of November we departed from Sierra Leona, directing our course for the Straits of Magellan."

If, on returning to England in 1587, the merchant and his associates had gone to see the Lord Admiral's Men perform a new play, Tamburlaine the Great, they would have seen an extraordinary meditation on the roots of their own behavior. For despite all the exoticism in Marlowe—Scythian shepherds, Maltese Jews, German magicians—it is his own countrymen that he broods upon and depicts. As in Spenser, though to radically different effect, the "other world" becomes a mirror.2 If we want to understand the historical matrix of Marlowe's achievement, the analogue to Tamburlaine's restlessness, aesthetic sensitivity, appetite, and violence, we might look not at the playwright's literary sources, not even at the relentless power-hunger of Tudor absolutism, but at the acquisitive energies of English merchants, entrepreneurs, and adventurers, promoters alike of trading companies and theatrical companies.

But what bearing does Marlowe actually have on a passage like the one with which I opened? He is, for a start, fascinated by the idea of the stranger in a strange land. Almost all of his heroes are aliens or wanderers, from Aeneas in Carthage to Barabas in Malta, from Tamburlaine's endless campaigns to Faustus's demonic flights. From his first play to his last, Marlowe is drawn to the idea of physical movement, to the problem of its representation within the narrow confines of the theater. Tamburlaine almost ceaselessly traverses the stage, and when he is not actually on the move, he is imagining campaigns or hearing reports of grueling marches. The obvious effect is to enact the hero's vision of a nature that "Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds" and of the soul that "Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest" (I Tam 2.6.871, 877). But as always in Marlowe, this enactment, this realization on the level of the body in time and space, complicates, qualifies, exposes, and even mocks the abstract conception. For the cumulative effect of this restlessness is not so much heroic as grotesquely comic, if we accept Bergson's classic definition of the comic as the mechanical imposed upon the living. Tamburlaine is a machine, a desiring machine that produces violence and death. Menaphon's admiring description begins by making him sound like Leonardo's Vitruvian Man or Michelangelo's David and ends by making him sound like an expensive mechanical device, one of those curious inventions that courtiers gave to the queen at New Year's: a huge, straight, strongly jointed creature with a costly pearl placed between his shoulders, the pearl inscribed with celestial symbols. Once set in motion, this thing cannot slow down or change course; it moves at the same frenzied pace until it finally stops.

One further effect of this unvarying movement is that, paradoxically, very little progress seems to be made, despite fervent declarations to the contrary. To be sure, the scenes change, so quickly at times that Marlowe seems to be battering against the boundaries of his own medium: at one moment the stage represents a vast space, then suddenly contracts to a bed, then turns in quick succession into an imperial camp, a burning town, a besieged fortress, a battlefield, a tent. But then all of those spaces seem curiously alike. The relevant contrast is Antony and Cleopatra where the restless movement is organized around the deep structural opposition of Rome and Egypt, or I Henry IV where the tavern, the court, and the country are perceived as diversely shaped spaces, spaces that elicit and echo different tones, energies, and even realities. In Tamburlaine Marlowe contrives to efface all such differences, as if to insist upon the essential meaninglessness of theatrical space, the vacancy that is the dark side of its power to imitate any place. This vacancy—quite literally, this absence of scenery—is the equivalent in the medium of the theater to the secularization of space, the abolition of qualitative up and down, which for Cassirer is one of the greatest achievements of Renaissance philosophy, the equivalent then to the reduction of the universe to the coordinates of a map.3

Give me a Map, then let me see how much Is left for me to conquer all the world, That these my boys may finish all my wants.(2 Tam 5.3.4516-18)

Space is transformed into an abstraction, then fed to the appetitive machine. This is the voice of conquest, but it is also the voice of wants never finished and of transcendental homelessness. And though the characters and situations change, that voice is never entirely absent in Marlowe. Barabas does not leave Malta, but he is the quintessential alien: at one point his house is seized and turned into a nunnery, at another he is thrown over the walls of the city, only to rise with the words, "What, all alone?" Edward II should be the very opposite; he is, by his role, the embodiment of the land and its people, but without Gaveston he lives in his own country like an exile. Only in Doctor Faustus does there seem to be a significant difference: having signed away his soul and body, Faustus begins a course of restless wandering, but at the close of the twenty-four years, he feels a compulsion to return to Wittenberg.4 Of course, it is ironic that when a meaningful sense of place finally emerges in Marlowe, it does so only as a place to die. But the irony runs deeper still. For nothing in the covenant or in any of the devil's speeches requires that Faustus has to pay his life where he originally contracted to sell it; the urge is apparently in Faustus, as if he felt there were a fatality in the place he had undertaken his studies, felt it appropriate and even necessary to die there and nowhere else. "O would I had never seen Wittenberg," he despairingly tells his friends. But the play has long before this exposed such a sense of place to radical questioning. To Faustus's insistent demands to know the "where about" of hell, Mephistophilis replies,

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd In one self place, for where we are is hell, And where hell is, must we ever be.(567-69)

By implication, Faustus's feeling about Wittenberg is an illusion, one of a network of fictions by which he constitutes his identity and his world. Typically, he refuses to accept the account of a limitless, inner hell, countering with the extraordinary, and in the circumstances, ludicrous "I think hell's a fable." Mephistophilis's quiet response slides from parodic agreement to devastating irony: "Aye, think so still, till experience change thy mind."5 The experience of which the devil speaks can refer not only to torment after death but to Faustus's life in the remainder of the play: the half-trivial, half-daring exploits, the alternating states of bliss and despair, the questions that are not answered and the answers that bring no real satisfaction, the wanderings that lead nowhere. The chilling line may carry a further suggestion: "Yes, continue to think that hell's a fable, until experience transforms your mind." At the heart of this mental transformation is the anguished perception of time as inexorable, space as abstract. In his final soliloquy, Faustus's frenzied invocation to time to stop or slow itself gives way to horrified clarity: "The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike" (1460). And his appeal to nature—earth, stars, air, ocean—at once to shield him and destroy him is met by silence: space is neutral and unresponsive.

Doctor Faustus then does not contradict but rather realizes intimations about space and time in Marlowe's other plays. That man is homeless, that all places are alike, is linked to man's inner state, to the uncircumscribed hell he carries within him. And this insight returns us to the violence with which we began, the violence of Tamburlaine and of the English merchant and his men. It is not enough to say that their actions are the expression of brute power, though they are certainly that, nor even that they bespeak a compulsive suspicion and hatred that one Elizabethan voyager saw as characteristic of the military mind.6 For experiencing this limitlessness, this transformation of space and time into abstractions, men do violence as a means of marking boundaries, effecting transformation, signaling closure. To burn a town or to kill all of its inhabitants is to make an end and, in so doing, to give life a shape and a certainty that it would otherwise lack. The great fear, in Barabas's words, is "That I may vanish o'er the earth in air, / And leave no memory that e'er I was" (1.499-500). As the town where Zenocrate dies burns at his command, Tamburlaine proclaims his identity, fixed forever in the heavens by his acts of violence:

Over my Zenith hang a blazing star, That may endure till heaven be dissolv'd, Fed with the fresh supply of earthly dregs, Theat'ning a death and famine to this land.(2 Tam 3.2.3196-99)

In this charred soil and the blazing star, Tamburlaine seeks literally to make an enduring mark in the world, to stamp his image on time and space. Similarly, Faustus, by violence not on others but on himself, seeks to give his life a clear fixed shape. To be sure, he speaks of attaining "a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence" (83-84), but perhaps the hidden core of what he seeks is the limit of twenty-four years to live, a limit he himself sets and reiterates.7 Time so marked out should have a quality different from other time, should possess its end: "Now will I make an end immediately," he says, writing with his blood.

But in Marlowe's ironic world, these desperate attempts at boundary and closure produce the opposite effect, reinforcing the condition they are meant to efface. Tamburlaine's violence does not transform space from the abstract to the human, but rather further reduces the world to a map, the very emblem of abstraction:

I will confute those blind Geographers That make a triple region in the world, Excluding Regions which I mean to trace, And with this pen reduce them to a Map, Calling the Provinces, Cities and towns After my name and thine Zenocrate.(1 Tam 4.4.1715-20)

At Tamburlaine's death, the map still stretches out before him, and nothing bears his name save Marlowe's play (the crucial exception to which we will return).8 Likewise at his death, pleading for "some end to my incessant pain," Faustus is haunted by eternity: "O no end is limited to damned souls" (1458).

The reasons why attempts at making a mark or an end fail are complex and vary significantly with each play, but one critical link is the feeling in almost all Marlowe's protagonists that they are using up experience. This feeling extends to our merchant, John Sarracoll, and his men: they not only visit Sierra Leone, they consume it. Tamburlaine exults in just this power to "Conquer, sack, and utterly consume / Your cities" (2 Tam 4.2.3867-68). He even contrives to use up his defeated enemies, transforming Bajazeth into his footstool, the kings of Trebizon and Soria into horses to be discarded, when they are broken-winded, for "fresh horse" (2 Tam 5.1.4242). In a bizarrely comic moment, Tamburlaine's son suggests that the kings just captured be released to resume the fight, but Tamburlaine replies, in the language of consumption, "Cherish thy valor still with fresh supplies: / And glut it not with stale and daunted foes" (2 Tam 4.1.3761-62). Valor, like any appetite, always demands new food.

Faustus's relationship to knowledge is strikingly similar; in his opening soliloquy he bids farewell to each of his studies in turn as something he has used up. He needs to cherish his mind with fresh supplies, for nothing can be accumulated, nothing saved or savored. And as the remainder of the play makes clear, each of these farewells is an act of destruction: logic, medicine, law, and divinity are not so much rejected as violated. The violence arises not only from the desire to mark boundaries but from the feeling that what one leaves behind, turns away from, must no longer exist; that objects endure only for the moment of the act of attention and then are effaced; that the next moment cannot be fully grasped until the last is destroyed. Marlowe writes in the period in which European man embarked on his extraordinary career of consumption, his eager pursuit of knowledge, with one intellectual model after another seized, squeezed dry, and discarded, and his frenzied exhaustion of the world's resources.9

Lo here my sons are all the golden Mines, Inestimable drugs and precious stones, More worth than Asia and the world beside, And from th'Antartic Pole, Eastward behold As much more land which never was descried, Wherein are rocks of Pearl that shine as bright As all the Lamps that beautify the Sky, And shall I die, and this unconquered?(2 Tam 5.3.4544-51)

So fully do we inhabit this construction of reality that most often we see beyond it only in accounts of cultures immensely distant from our own: "The Nuer [writes Evans-Pritchard] have no expression equivalent to 'time' in our language, and they cannot, therefore, as we can, speak of time as though it were something actual, which passes, can be wasted, can be saved, and so forth. I do not think that they ever experience the same feeling of fighting against time or of having to co-ordinate activities with an abstract passage of time because their points of reference are mainly the activities themselves, which are generally of a leisurely character.… Nuer are fortunate."10 Of course, such a conception of time and activity had vanished from Europe long before the sixteenth century, but English Renaissance works, and Marlowe's plays in particular, give voice to a radically intensified sense that time is abstract, uniform, and inhuman. The origins of this sense of time are difficult to locate with any certainty. Puritans in the late sixteenth century were already campaigning vigorously against the medieval doctrine of the unevenness of time, a doctrine that had survived largely intact in the Elizabethan church calendar. They sought, in effect, to desacramentalize time, to discredit and sweep away the dense web of saints' days, "dismal days," seasonal taboos, mystic observances, and folk festivals that gave time a distinct, irregular shape; in its place, they urged a simple, flat routine of six days work and a sabbath rest.11 Moreover, there seem, in this period, to have been subtle changes in what we may call family time. At one end of the life cycle, traditional youth groups were suppressed or fell into neglect, customs that had allowed adolescents considerable autonomy were overturned, and children were brought under the stricter discipline of the immediate family. At the other end, the Protestant rejection of the doctrine of purgatory eliminated the dead as an "age group," cutting off the living from ritualized communion with their deceased parents and relatives.12 Such changes might well have contributed to a sense in Marlowe and some of his contemporaries that time is alien, profoundly indifferent to human longing and anxiety. Whatever the case, we certainly find in Marlowe's plays a powerful feeling that time is something to be resisted and a related fear that fulfillment or fruition is impossible. "Why waste you thus the time away?" an impatient Leicester asks Edward II, whose crown he has come to fetch. "Stay a while," Edward replies, "let me be king till night" (2045), whereupon, like Faustus,13 he struggles vainly to arrest time with incantation. At such moments, Marlowe's celebrated line is itself rich with irony: the rhythms intended to slow time only consume it, magnificent words are spoken and disappear into a void. But it is precisely this sense of the void that compels the characters to speak so powerfully, as if to struggle the more insistently against the enveloping silence.

That the moments of intensest time-consciousness all occur at or near the close of these plays has the effect of making the heroes seem to struggle against theatrical time. As Marlowe uses the vacancy of theatrical space to suggest his characters' homelessness, so he uses the curve of theatrical time to suggest their struggle against extinction, in effect against the nothingness into which all characters fall at the end of a play. The pressure of the dramatic medium itself likewise underlies what we may call the repetition compulsion of Marlowe's heroes. Tamburlaine no sooner annihilates one army than he sets out to annihilate another, no sooner unharnesses two kings than he hitches up two more. Barabas gains and loses, regains and reloses his wealth, while pursuing a seemingly endless string of revenges and politic murders, including, characteristically, two suitors, two friars, two rulers, and, in effect, two children. In Edward II the plot is less overtly episodic, yet even here, after spending the first half of the play alternately embracing and parting from Gaveston, Edward immediately replaces the slain favorite with Spencer Junior and thereby resumes the same pattern, the willful courting of disaster that is finally "rewarded" in the castle cesspool. Finally, as C. L. Barber observes, "Faustus repeatedly moves through a circular pattern, from thinking of the joys of heaven, through despairing of ever possessing them, to embracing magical dominion as a blasphemous substitute."14 The pattern of action and the complex psychological structure embodied in it vary with each play, but at the deepest level of the medium itself the motivation is the same: the renewal of existence through repetition of the self-constituting act. The character repeats himself in order to continue to be that same character on the stage. Identity is a theatrical invention that must be reiterated if it is to endure.

To grasp the full import of this notion of repetition as self-fashioning, we must understand its relation to the culturally dominant notion of repetition as a warning or memorial, an instrument of civility. In this view recurrent patterns exist in the history of individuals or nations in order to inculcate crucial moral values, passing them from generation to generation.15 Men are notoriously slow learners and, in their inherent sinfulness, resistant to virtue, but gradually, through repetition, the paradigms may sink in and responsible, God-fearing, obedient subjects may be formed. Accordingly, Tudor monarchs ordered the formal reiteration of the central tenets of the religious and social orthodoxy, carefully specifying the minimum number of times a year these tenets were to be read aloud from the pulpit.16 Similarly, the punishment of criminals was public, so that the state's power to inflict torment and death could act upon the people as an edifying caution. The high number of such executions reflects not only judicial "massacres"17 but the attempt to teach through reiterated terror. Each branding or hanging or disemboweling was theatrical in conception and performance, a repeatable admonitory drama enacted on a scaffold before a rapt audience. Those who threatened order, those on whose nature nurture could never stick—the traitor, the vagabond, the homosexual, the thief—were identified and punished accordingly. This idea of the "notable spectacle," the "theater of God's judgments," extended quite naturally to the drama itself, and, indeed, to all of literature which thus takes its rightful place as part of a vast, interlocking system of repetitions, embracing homilies and hangings, royal progresses and rote learning.18 It is by no means only timeservers who are involved here; a great artist like Spenser, as we have seen, embraces his participation in this system, though, of course, that participation is more complex than most. In Spenser's rich and subtle version of the civilizing process, the apparent repetitions within each book and in The Faerie Queene as a whole serve to initiate hero and reader alike into the nuances of each of the virtues, the complex discriminations that a humane moral sensibility entails, while, as we have seen, the shifting resolutions of analogous problems help to shore up values that are threatened by the shape of a prior resolution. The heroes' names and the virtues they embody both exist prior to the experiences chronicled in their books and are fully established by means of those experiences; Spenserean repetition expresses that which is already in some sense real, given by the power that exists outside the poem and that the poem celebrates.

Marlowe seems to have regarded the drama's participation in such a system—an admonitory fiction upholding a moral order—with a blend of obsessive fascination and contemptuous loathing. Tamburlaine repeatedly teases its audience with the form of the cautionary tale, only to violate the convention. All of the signals of the tragic are produced, but the play stubbornly, radically, refuses to become a tragedy. "The Gods, defenders of the innocent, / Will never prosper your intended drifts" (I Tam 1.2.264-65), declares Zenocrate in act 1 and then promptly falls in love with her captor. With his dying breath, Cosroe curses Tamburlaine—a sure prelude to disaster—but the disaster never occurs. Bajazeth, the king of Arabia, and even Theridamas and Zenocrate have powerful premonitions of the hero's downfall, but he passes from success to success. Tamburlaine is proud, arrogant, and blasphemous; he lusts for power, betrays his allies, overthrows legitimate authority, and threatens the gods; he rises to the top of the wheel of fortune and then steadfastly refuses to budge. Since the dominant ideology no longer insists that rise-and-decline and pride-goes-before-a-fall are unvarying, universal rhythms, we undoubtedly miss some of the shock of Tamburlaine's career, but the play itself invokes those rhythms often enough to surprise us with their failure to materialize.

Having undermined the notion of the cautionary tale in Tamburlaine, part 1, Marlowe demolishes it in part 2 in the most unexpected way—by suddenly invoking it. The slaughter of thousands, the murder of his own son, the torture of his royal captives are all without apparent consequence; then Tamburlaine falls ill, and when? When he burns the Koran! The one action which Elizabethan churchmen themselves might have applauded seems to bring down divine vengeance.19 The effect is not to celebrate the transcendent power of Mohammed but to challenge the habit of mind that looks to heaven for rewards and punishments, that imagines human evil as "the scourge of God." Similarly, in Doctor Faustus, as Max Bluestone observes, the homiletical tradition is continually introduced only to be undermined by dramatic spectacle,20 while in Edward II Marlowe uses the emblematic method of admonitory drama, but uses it to such devastating effect that the audience recoils from it in disgust. Edward's grisly execution is, as orthodox interpreters of the play have correctly insisted, iconographically "appropriate," but this appropriateness can only be established at the expense of every complex, sympathetic human feeling evoked by the play. The audience is forced to confront its insistence upon coherence, and the result is a profound questioning of the way audiences constitute meaning in the theater and in life.21

There is a questioning too of the way individuals are constituted in the theater and in life. Marlowe's heroes fashion themselves not in loving submission to an absolute authority but in self-conscious opposition: Tamburlaine against hierarchy, Barabas against Christianity, Faustus against God, Edward against the sanctified rites and responsibilities of kingship, marriage, and manhood. And where identity in More, Tyndale, Wyatt, and Spenser had been achieved through an attack upon something perceived as alien and threatening, in Marlowe it is achieved through a subversive identification with the alien.…

Marlowe stands apart then from both orthodoxy and skepticism; he calls into question the theory of literature and history as repeatable moral lessons, and he calls into question his age's characteristic mode of rejecting those lessons. But how does he himself understand his characters' motivation, the force that compels them to repeat the same actions again and again? The answer, as I have already suggested, lies in their will to self-fashioning. Marlowe's heroes struggle to invent themselves; they stand, in Coriolanus's phrase, "As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin" (5.3.36-37). Shakespeare characteristically forces his very Marlovian hero to reach out and grasp his mother's hand; in Marlowe's plays, with the exception of Dido Queen of Carthage, we never see and scarcely even hear of the hero's parents. Tamburlaine is the son of nameless "paltry" Scythians, Faustus of "parents base of stock" (12), and Barabas, so far as we can tell, of no one at all. (Even in Edward II, where an emphasis on parentage would seem unavoidable, there is scant mention of Edward I.) The family is at the center of most Elizabethan and Jacobean drama as it is at the center of the period's economic and social structure,34 in Marlowe it is something to be neglected, despised, or violated. Two of Marlowe's heroes kill their children without a trace of remorse; most prefer male friendships to marriage or kinship bonds; all insist upon free choice in determining their intimate relations. Upon his father's death, Edward immediately sends for Gaveston; Barabas adopts Ithamore in place of Abigail; Faustus cleaves to his sweet Mephistophilis; and, in a more passionate love scene than any with Zenocrate, Tamburlaine wins the ardent loyalty of Theridamas.

The effect is to dissolve the structure of sacramental and blood relations that normally determine identity in this period and to render the heroes virtually autochthonous, their names and identities given by no one but themselves. Indeed self-naming is a major enterprise in these plays, repeated over and over again as if the hero continues to exist only by virtue of constantly renewed acts of will. Augustine had written in The City of God that "if God were to withdraw what we may call his 'constructive power' from existing things, they would cease to exist, just as they did not exist before they were made."35 In the neutrality of time and space that characterizes Marlowe's world, this "constructive power" must exist within the hero himself; if it should fail for an instant he would fall into nothingness, become, in Barabas's words, "a senseless lump of clay / That will with every water wash to dirt" (1.450-51). Hence the hero's compulsion to repeat his name and his actions, a compulsion Marlowe links to the drama itself. The hero's re-presentations fade into the reiterated performances of the play.

If Marlowe's protagonists fashion themselves, they are, as we have seen, compelled to use only those forms and materials produced by the structure of relations in their particular, quite distinct worlds. We watch Tamburlaine construct himself out of phrases picked up or overheard: "And ride in triumph through Persepolis" (I Tam 2.5.754) or "I that am term'd the Scourge and Wrath of God" (I Tam 3.3.1142). Like the gold taken from unwary travelers or the troops lured away from other princes, Tamburlaine's identity is something appropriated, seized from others.36 Even Edward II, with his greater psychological complexity, can only clothe himself in the metaphors available to this station, though these metaphors—the "Imperial Lion," for example—often seem little applicable. And the most haunting instance in Marlowe of this self-fashioning by quotation or appropriation occurs in Doctor Faustus, when the hero concludes the signing of the fatal deed with the words "Consummatum est" (515).

To unfold the significance of this repetition of Christ's dying words, we must restore them to their context in the Gospel of John:

After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished [Consummatum est]: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.


As it is written in psalm 69, "and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink," so it is fulfilled; Christ's thirst is not identical to the body's normal longing for drink, but an enactment of that longing so that he may fully accomplish the role darkly prefigured in the Old Testament. The drink of vinegar is the final structural element in the realization of his identity. Faustus's use of Christ's words then evokes the archetypal act of roletaking; by reenacting the moment in which Christ acknowledges the fulfillment of his being, the magician hopes to touch upon the primal springs of identity itself. But whatever identity Faustus can thereby achieve is limited to the status of brilliant parody. His blasphemy is the uncanny expression of a perverse, despairing faith, an appropriation to himself of the most solemn and momentous words available in his culture to mark the decisive boundary in his life, an ambiguous equation of himself with Christ, first as God, then as dying man.

"Consummatum est" is the culmination of Faustus's fantasies of making an end, and hence a suicide that demonically parodies Christ's self-sacrifice. But in the Gospel, as we have seen, the words are a true end; they are spoken at the moment of fulfillment and death. In Doctor Faustus they are rather a beginning, spoken at the moment Faustus is embarking on his bargain. Unlike Christ, who is his own transcendent object, and whose career is precisely the realization of himself, Faustus, and all of Marlowe's self-fashioning heroes, must posit an object in order to exist. Naming oneself is not enough; one must also name and pursue a goal. And if both the self and object so constituted are tragically bounded by the dominant ideology against which they vainly struggle, Marlowe's heroes nevertheless manifest a theatrical energy that distinguishes their words as well as their actions from the surrounding society. If the audience's perception of radical difference gives way to a perception of subversive identity, that too in its turn gives way: in the excessive quality of Marlowe's heroes, in their histrionic extremism, lies that which distinguishes their self-fashioning acts from the society around them. The Turks, friars, and Christian knights may all be driven by acquisitive desire, but only Barabas can speak of "Infinite riches in a little room," only he has the capacity for what one must call aesthetic experience:

Bags of fiery Opals, Sapphires, Amethysts, Jacinths, hard Topaz, grass-green Emeralds, Beauteous Rubies, sparkling Diamonds, And seld-seen costly stones.…(1.60-63)

Similarly, Theridimas may declare that "A God is not so glorious as a King," but when he is asked if he himself would be a king, he replies, "Nay, though I praise it, I can live without it" (I Tam 2.5.771). Tamburlaine cannot live without it, and his reward is not only "The sweet fruition of an earthly crown" but what Plato's rival Gorgias conceives as "the magic violence of speech."38

It is this Gorgian conception of rhetoric, and not the Platonic or Aristotelian, that is borne out in Marlowe's heroes. For Gorgias man is forever cut off from the knowledge of being, forever locked in the partial, the contradictory, and the irrational. If anything exists, he writes, it is both incomprehensible and incommunicable, for "that which we communicate is speech, and speech is not the same thing as the things that exist."39 This tragic epistemological distance is never bridged; instead, through the power of language men construct deceptions in which and for which they live. Gorgias held that deception—apate—is the very essence of the creative imagination: the tragic artist exceeds his peers in the power to deceive. Such a conception of art does not preclude its claim to strip away fraud, since tragedy "with its myths and emotions has created a deception such that its successful practitioner is nearer to reality than the unsuccessful, and the man who lets himself be deceived is wiser than he who does not."40 In The Jew of Malta Barabas the deceiver gives us his own version of this aesthetic: "A counterfeit profession," he tells his daughter, "is better / Than unseen hypocrisy" (1.531-32). In the long run, the play challenges this conviction, at least from the point of view of survival: the Governor, who is the very embodiment of "unseen hypocrisy" eventually triumphs over the Jew's "counterfeit profession." But Marlowe uses the distinction to direct the audience's allegiance toward Barabas; to lie and to know that one is lying seems more attractive, more aesthetically pleasing, and more moral even, than to lie and believe that one is telling the truth.…

Man can only exist in the world by fashioning for himself a name and an object, but these, as Marlowe and Montaigne understood, are both fictions. No particular name or object can entirely satisfy one's inner energy demanding to be expressed or fill so completely the potential of one's consciousness that all longings are quelled, all intimations of unreality silenced. As we have seen in the controversy between More and Tyndale, Protestant and Catholic polemicists demonstrated brilliantly how each other's religion—the very anchor of reality for millions of souls—was a cunning theatrical illusion, a demonic fantasy, a piece of poetry. Each conducted this unmasking, of course, in the name of the real religious truth, but the collective effect upon a skeptical intellect like Marlowe's seems to have been devastating. And it was not only the religious dismantling of reality to which the playwright was responding. On the distant shores of Africa and America and at home, in their "rediscovered" classical texts, Renaissance Europeans were daily confronting evidence that their accustomed reality was only one solution, among many others, of perennial human problems. Though they often tried to destroy the alien cultures they encountered, or to absorb them into their ideology, they could not always destroy the testimony of their own consciousness. "The wonder is not that things are," writes Valery, "but that they are what they are and not something else."48 Each of Marlowe's plays constitutes reality in a manner radically different from the plays that preceded it, just as his work as a whole marks a startling departure from the drama of his time. Each of his heroes makes a different leap from inchoate appetite to the all-consuming project: what is necessary in one play is accidental or absent in the next. Only the leap itself is always necessary, at once necessary and absurd, for it is the embracing of a fiction rendered desirable by the intoxication of language, by the will to play.

Marlowe's heroes must live their lives as projects, but they do so in the midst of intimations that the projects are illusions. Their strength is not sapped by these intimations: they do not withdraw into stoical resignation or contemplative solitude, nor do they endure for the sake of isolated moments of grace in which they are in touch with a wholeness otherwise absent in their lives. Rather they take courage from the absurdity of their enterprise, a murderous, self-destructive, supremely eloquent, playful courage. This playfulness in Marlowe's works manifests itself as cruel humor, murderous practical jokes, a penchant for the outlandish and absurd, delight in role-playing, entire absorption in the game at hand and consequent indifference to what lies outside the boundaries of the game, radical insensitivity to human complexity and suffering, extreme but disciplined aggression, hostility to transcendence.

There is some evidence, apart from the cruel, aggressive plays themselves, for a similar dark playfulness in Marlowe's own career, with the comic (and extremely dangerous) blasphemies, the nearly overt (and equally dangerous) homosexuality—tokens of a courting of disaster as reckless as that depicted in Edward or Faustus. In the life, as in the plays, the categories by which we normally organize experience are insistently called into question—is this a man whose recklessness suggests that he is out of control or rather that he is supremely in control, control so coolly mocking that he can, to recall Wyatt, calculate his own excesses? What little we know about Marlowe's mysterious stint as a double agent in Walsingham's secret service—it seems that he went to Rheims in 1587, perhaps posing as a Catholic in order to ferret out incriminating evidence against English Catholic seminarians—and what little we can gather from the contents of the Baines libel suggests, beyond estrangement from ideology, a fathomless and eerily playful self-estrangement. The will to play flaunts society's cherished orthodoxies, embraces what the culture finds loathsome or frightening, transforms the serious into the joke and then unsettles the category of the joke by taking it seriously, courts self-destruction in the interest of the anarchic discharge of its energy. This is play on the brink of an abyss, absolute play.

In his turbulent life and, more important, in his writing, Marlowe is deeply implicated in his heroes, though he is far more intelligent and self-aware than any of them. Cutting himself off from the comforting doctrine of repetition, he writes plays that spurn and subvert his culture's metaphysical and ethical certainties. We who have lived after Nietzsche and Flaubert may find it difficult to grasp how strong, how recklessly courageous Marlowe must have been: to write as if the admonitory purpose of literature were a lie, to invent fictions only to create and not to serve God or the state, to fashion lines that echo in the void, that echo more powerfully because there is nothing but a void. Hence Marlowe's implication in the lives of his protagonists and hence too his surmounting of this implication in the creation of enduring works of art. For the one true goal of all these heroes is to be characters in Marlowe's plays; it is only for this, ultimately, that they manifest both their playful energy and their haunting sense of unsatisfied longing.


1 "The voyage set out by the right honourable the Earle of Cumberland, in the yere 1586.… Written by M. John Sarracoll marchant in the same voyage," in Richard Hakluyt, ed., The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation, 12 vols. (Glasgow: James MacLehose & Sons, 1903-5), 11:206-7. On the English in Sierra Leone prior to this voyage, see P. E. H. Hair, "Protestants as Pirates, Slavers, and Proto-missionaries: Sierra Leone 1568 and 1582," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 21 (1970), pp. 203-24. On the region in this period, see Walter Rodney, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1970).

2 At the opening of Tamburlaine there is a wry reminder of how exotic Europe would appear to a Persian: "Europe, where the Sun dares scarce appear, / For freezing meteors and congealed cold" (1 Tam 1.1.18-19). Quotations of Marlowe's plays with the exception of Doctor Faustus, are modernized from The Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910). Quotations of Doctor Faustus are modernized from the A text of W. W. Greg's Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" 1604-1616: Parallel Texts (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1950). My own reading of the play supports recent arguments for the superiority of the A text; see Fredson Bowers, "Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: The 1602 Additions," (Studies in Bibliography 26 [1973], 1-18) and Constance Brown Kuriyama (English Literary Renaissance 5 [1975], 171-97).

On the relationship of Spenser and Marlowe, see Douglas Bush, "Marlowe and Spenser," Times Literary Supplement, 28 May 1938, p. 370; T. W. Baldwin, "The Genesis of Some Passages which Spenser Borrowed from Marlowe," English Literary History 9 (1942), pp. 157-87, and reply by W. B. C. Watkins in ELH 11 (1944), 249-65; John D. Jump, "Spenser and Marlowe," Notes and Queries 209, new ser. 11 (1964), pp. 261-62. See also Georg Schoeneich, "Der literarische Einfluss Spensers auf Marlowe" (Diss., Halle, 1907).

3 See Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. Mario Domandi (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1963), esp. chap. 1, "Nicholas Cusanus." In Doctor Faustus Marlowe plays upon the residual religious symbolism of the Elizabethan stage (though this is more true of the B text than the A text), but he does so only to subvert it, locating hell psychologically rather than spatially.

On maps in Marlowe, see Ethel Seaton, "Marlowe's Map," Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association 10 (1924), pp. 13-35; Donald K. Anderson, Jr., "Tamburlaine's 'Perpendicular' and the T-in-O Maps," Notes and Queries 21 (1974), pp. 284-86.

4 Here, as elsewhere in my discussion of Doctor Faustus, I am indebted to conversations with Edward Snow and to his essay, "Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and the Ends of Desire," in Two Renaissance Mythmakers: Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, ed. Alvin B. Keman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), pp. 70-110.

5 The agreement depends, in part, on the pun on Aye/I (the latter is the reading of the A and B texts). "Experience" may also have the sense of "experiment," as if Faustus's whole future were a test of the proposition that hell is a fable.

6 See Richard Madox's Diary for 14 December 1582: "Although the soldiers are strong and sufficiently courageous, they are utterly inept at trading and the exploring of unknown lands. Because, indeed, being always among enemies and in a hostile place, they believe they are [here] exposed to the usual dangers; for this reason they can never enter into dealings with others without suspicion. Suspicion, however, breeds hatred and hatred open war, and thus those they ought to attract and attach to themselves by human kindness and clemency, they frighten off by impudence and malice, and in this way all love perishes. Especially because of ignorance of languages, each is a barbarian to the other" (An Elizabethan in 1582, ed. Donno, p. 186). In the light of this passage, perhaps the odd conjunction of admiration and destructiveness in Sarracoll's account may be traced to the difference between the merchant's view of the town and the view (and consequent actions) of the soldiers who were with him.

7 Snow, "Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and the Ends of Desire," p. 101.

8 The futility of naming cities after oneself was a commonplace in the period; see, for example, Ralegh's History of the World (1614):

This was that Seleucia, whereto Antigonus the great who founded it, gave the name of Antigonia: but Seleucus getting it shortly after, called it Seleucia; and Ptolemie Evergetes having lately won it, might, if it had so pleased him, have changed the name into Ptolemais. Such is the vanity of men, that hope to purchase an endless memorial unto their names, by works proceeding rather from their greatness, than from their virtue; which therefore no longer are their own, than the same greatness hath continuance. (V, v, 2, p. 646)

9 The cutting edge of this career was the conquest of the New World where fertile lands, rich mines, and whole peoples were consumed in a few generations. It is estimated that the Indian population of New Spain (Mexico) fell from approximately 11 million in 1519 to approximately 1.5 million in 1650, and there are similarly horrifying figures for Brazil. In 1583 a Jesuit, Jose de Anchieta, observed of the latter that "the number of people used up in this place from twenty years ago until now seems a thing not to be believed" (quoted in Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System [New York: Academic Press, 1974], 80, n. 75); appropriately, it is on this great enterprise (among others) that the dying Tamburlaine, with infinite pathos, reflects.

10 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1940), p. 103; quoted in E. P. Thompson, "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism," Past and Present 38 (1967), p. 96.

11 'See Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971), p. 621; likewise, Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England, 2d ed. (New York: Schocken, 1967), chap. 5.

12 See Natalie Zemon Davis, "Some Tasks and Themes in the Study of Popular Religion," in The Pursuit of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Religion, eds. Charles Trinkaus and Heiko A. Oberman (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974), pp. 307-36. I am also indebted to Professor Davis's essay, "Ghosts, Kin and Progeny: Some Features of Family Life in Early Modern France," Daedalus 106 (1977), pp. 87-114.

13 On time in Doctor Faustus, see Max Bluestone, "Adaptive Time in Doctor Faustus," in From Story to Siege: The Dramatic Adaptation of Prose Fiction in the Period of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries [Studies in English Literature, n. 70] (The Hague: Mouton, 1974), pp. 244-52; David Kaula, "Time and the Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus," College English 22 (1960), pp. 9-14.

14 C. L. Barber, "'The form of Faustus' fortunes good or bad,'" Tulane Drama Review 8 (1964), p. 99.

15 For a typical expression of this view, see Ralegh's History: "The same just God who liveth and governeth all things for ever, doth in these our times give victory, courage and discourage, raise and throw down Kings, Estates, Cities, and Nations, for the same offences which were committed of old, and are committed in the present: for which reason in these and other the afflictions of Israel, always the causes are set down, that they might be as precedents to succeeding ages" (II, xix, 3, pp. 508-9).

16 See, for example, the Edwardian proclamations: #287 and #313, in Tudor Royal Proclamations, 1:393-403, 432-33.

17 This characterization of the period's legal procedure is Christopher Hill's: "The Many-Headed Monster in Late Tudor and Early Stuart Political Thinking," in From the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation: Essays in Honor of Garrett Mattingly, ed. Charles H. Carter (New York: Random House, 1965), p. 303. Hill's view is close to Thomas More's in Utopia: Thieves "were everywhere executed, … as many as twenty at a time being hanged on one gallows" (Utopia, p. 61). Statistics are inexact and inconsistent, but, for example, 74 persons were sentenced to death in Devon in 1598, and the average number of executions per year in London and Middlesex in the years 1607-1616 was 140 [Douglas Hay, "Property, Authority and the Criminal Law," in Hay et al., Albion's Fatal Tree (New York: Random House, 1975), p. 22n].

18 The Mirror for Magistrates is typical for its tireless repetition of the same paradigm of retributive justice, while both tragedy and comedy are quite characteristically conceived by Sidney, in the Apology for Poetry, as warnings and lessons. This conception continues to dominate sociological theories of literature; see, for example, Elizabeth Burns, Theatricality (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 35.

19 On English Renaissance attitudes toward the Koran, see Samuel C. Chew, The Crescent and the Rose: Islam and England during the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1937), esp. pp. 434ff.

20 Max Bluestone, "Libido Speculandi: Doctrine and Dramaturgy in Contemporary Interpretations of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus," in Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, ed. Norman Rabkin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 82.

21 There is perceptive exploration of this aspect of Marlowe's work by J. R. Mulryne and Stephen Fender, "Marlowe and the 'Comic Distance,'" in Christopher Marlowe: Mermaid Critical Commentaries, ed. Brian Morris (London: Ernest Benn, 1968), 49-64.

34 See C. L. Barber, "The Family in Shakespeare's Development: The Tragedy of the Sacred," a paper delivered at the English Institute, September, 1976; also Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost (New York: Scribner's, 1965).

35The City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin, 1972), II, xii, 26, p. 506. See Georges Poulet, Studies in Human Time, trans. Elliott Coleman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956), p. 19.

36 Cf. Julian Pitt-Rivers, "Honour and Social Status": "The victor in any competition for honour finds his reputation enhanced by the humiliation of the vanquished.… It was believed at one time in Italy by the common people that one who gave an insult thereby took to himself the reputation of which he deprived the other. The Church of England hymn puts the pont succinctly:

Conquering Kings their titles take From the foes they captive make"(In J. G. Peristiany, ed., Honour and Shame, p. 24.)

37 The Vulgate is worth quoting for its subtle play on consummo: "Postea sciens lesus quia omnia consummata sunt, ut consummaretur Scriptura, dixit: Sitio. Vas ergo erat positum aceto plenum; illi autem spongiam plenam aceto hyssopo circumponentes obtulerunt ori eius. Cum ergo accepisset Iesus acetum, dixit, Consummatum est. Et inclinato capite, tradidit spiritum."

38 See Mario Untersteiner, The Sophists, trans. Kathleen Freeman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1954), p. 106. Untersteiner's account of the place of tragedy in Gorgias has considerable resonance for a student of Marlowe:

If Being and knowledge are tragic, life will be tragic. The most universal form of art will be that which by means of "deception" can give knowledge of the tragic element revealed by ontology and epistemology. The perfect form of art will be, therefore, tragedy, which, better than any other manifestation of poetry, achieves a penetrating understanding of the irrational reality, by means of that "deception" which favours an irrational communicability of that which is not rationally communicable: the effect of this conditional knowledge of the unknowable and of this partial communication of the incommunicable is pleasure.

(Pp. 187-88)

39 Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948), p. 129.

40 Untersteiner, p. 113. See Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, "Gorgias, Aeschylus, and Apate," American Journal of Philology 76 (1955), pp. 225-60.

47 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968 ed.), p. 311. The relevance of this passage to the present context was suggested to me by my colleague Paul Alpers.

48 Paul Valery, Leonardo Poe Mallarme, trans. Malcolm Cowley and James R. Lawler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972) [vol. 8 of The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, ed. Jackson Mathews, Bollingen Series 45], p. 93.

Barbara Howard Traister (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6039

SOURCE: "Doctor Faustus: Master of Self-Delusion," in Heavenly Necromancers: The Magician in English Renaissance Drama, University of Missouri Press, 1984. Reprinted in Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 77-92.

[In the following excerpt, Traister explores the historical and literary associations of magic in Doctor Faustus. She concludes that the imagery of magic undercuts the humanistic message of the play and results in a very pessimistic view of humankind's ability to effectively deal with forbidden knowledge.]

Ambiguity and irony—key words in almost every discussion of Faustus—are frequently used to explain the play's various dichotomies. For underlying almost all explication of Faustus is a sense that the play's words and actions do not match: Faustus's rhetoric and his deeds are incommensurate, and the play's beginning and end frame a number of prosaic and dull scenes in which Faustus seems totally unlike the scholar of the play's opening.

Among the reams of Faustus criticism are some treatments of Marlowe's use of magic. But most of this work has sought sources for the magical techniques and terminology Marlowe uses and possible models for Faustus himself. Very little has been said about the importance of magic to the play's theme and structure, though the ambiguity and uncertainty commonly associated with magic make it a particularly appropriate concern for this much-debated play.

In a thorough review of Faustus's magic, Paul Kocher termed it witchcraft and asserted, "Marlowe's play maintains a thoroughly orthodox basis in theology, ethics, and astronomy; it makes no departure from consistency in its witchcraft theory." Kocher is correct, in the main, for as soon as Faustus signs the pact with Mephistophilis he crosses the border that separates magician from witch. From this point on, Faustus does not control but is controlled, as Mephistophilis demonstrates repeatedly.

But Faustus himself does not subscribe to the orthodox theory that Kocher found predominant in Marlowe's play. In the first scenes, he obviously has no intention of becoming a witch or of subjecting himself to any power—godly or demonic—beyond his own. In his expansive imagination, Faustus sees himself controlling spirits:

Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, Resolve me of all ambiguities, Perform what desperate enterprise I will?(1.78-80)

Apparently speaking for Faustus and Cornelius as well, Valdes offers an apt metaphor for the relationship that they expect to prevail between themselves and the spirits:

As Indian Moors obey their Spanish lords, So shall the spirits of every element Be always serviceable to us three.(1.120-22)

Though Faustus may intend to practice magic of dubious moral value, he envisions a straightforward situation in which he will compel spirits to do his will. He intends to be a magician "as cunning as Agrippa was" (1.116). Agrippa rejected magic that subjected man to the devil but accepted magic by which man could compel the devil to do his will. At this point in the play, Faustus—filled with dreams of personal power—would surely make a similar distinction about his intentions with regard to magic.

The path Faustus is attempting to walk is very narrow. Pico's famous Oration makes clear what is at stake:

Magic has two forms: one consists entirely in the operations and powers of demons … which appears to me to be a distorted and monstrous business; and the other … is nothing other than the highest realization of natural philosophy.… The disciple of the first tries to conceal his practices because they are shameful and unholy; while cultivation of the second has always been the source of highest glory and renown in the arena of knowledge. No philosopher of merit, eager in the study of the beneficial arts, ever devoted himself to the first.… For just as that first form of magic makes man a slave and a pawn of evil powers, so the second form makes him their ruler and lord. That first form cannot lay claim to being either an art or a science; while the second, filled as it is with mysteries, comprehends the most profound contemplation of the deepest secrets of things and, ultimately, the knowledge of the whole of nature.

(trans. Arturo B. Fallico and Herman Shapiro)

Obviously, Faustus desires the power and knowledge made possible by Pico's second kind of magic; command of such magic would be an appropriate next step from the accomplishments he has already to his credit. Though somewhat self-centered, Faustus's aims for his magic are basically good:

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 make swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg; I'll have them fill the public schools with silk Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad.(1.85-90)

He plans to be a benevolent magician who, like Agrippa, or Greene's Friar Bacon, will command spirits for good, or at least harmless, purposes. His rationale for turning to magic suggests that he expects full control of the spirits with whom he will deal.

Faustus already has a number of the qualifications necessary to practice theurgic magic. He relies on his "wit" to make him an effective magician, after a few lessons in elementary magic techniques from Valdes and Cornelius. Magic is to be the crown of his intellectual achievements, the discipline that will be the real test of his abilities. The two student magicians clearly believe that Faustus will have powers greater than theirs due to his greater intellect: "Faustus, these books, thy wit, and our experience / Shall make all nations to canonize us" (1.118-19; my italics). Cornelius lists requirements for the skilled magician: "He that is grounded in astrology, / Enrich'd with tongues, well seen in minerals, / Hath all the principles magic doth require" (1.137-39). This list is comparable to, though not as extensive as, Giambattista della Porta's requirements for a magician: he must be a philosopher, a physician, an herbalist, know metals and distillation, understand mathematics, especially astrology, and be skillful in optics. "These are the Sciences," Porta concludes, "which Magick takes to her self for servants and helpers; and he that knows not these, is unworthy to be named a Magician." Faustus, with his considerable knowledge, is clearly the sort of person Porta describes.

As sources for Cornelius's enumerated requirements for magic, Kocher suggested a number of contemporary treatises on magic and witchcraft, but he deliberately refused to distinguish between what is necessary for a magician and what for a witch. By failing to distinguish, Kocher lost one of the crucial ironies of the magic scenes. For none of Faustus's reliance on intellectual achievement, proper qualifications, or elaborate incantation is necessary for contact with demons if Faustus merely wishes to make a demonic pact, to become a witch. The concerns he expresses suggest that he is preparing to command spirits, as Agrippa asserted man might do.

But Faustus's preparations are careless and inadequate; he constantly violates the rules set forth by the very treatises Kocher suggested were Marlowe's sources. In his haste to become immediately powerful—a haste characteristic of Faustus, who far too briefly considers and rejects his accomplishments in all major branches of learning—he neglects an important rule of magic, black or white. He resolves to conjure at once, and thus effectively makes impossible the purification, the ritual preparations, recommended by magical handbooks. (Such haste is not present in Marlowe's source, for in The Damnable Life Faustus has practiced magic for a long time before he calls up Mephistophilis to be his servant.) Kocher briefly summarized the handbooks' recommended magical procedures and drew conclusions about their omission from Faustus's preparations:

The magician cleanses himself by fasting and prayer to God for nine days before the act of magic. When the time for conjuration arrives, he consecrates the circle and all his instruments. If he prays, it is to God, and he never salutes the fiends but wields against them the adverse power of holy names. Theoretically, the wizard is still on the side of the angels. Marlowe casts aside this pretense and makes the ceremony a dedication to Satan from the beginning. He is thus falling in with the classical tradition and with the orthodox Renaissance theological doctrine that any kind of conjuring is a worship of the Devil. No attempt is made to show Faustus as engaged in justifiable operations of white magic.

But is it Marlowe or Faustus who casts aside the ordinary procedures? Faustus's haste guarantees that his conjurations will be futile. There is little hope that he will raise spirits to do his will; his methods suggest that he will fail even before Mephistophilis arrives onstage. Intoxicated by his own rhetoric and his de-sire for power, Faustus clearly destroys any possibility that his magic will actually work. (Lucifer, of course, is onstage from the beginning of the conjuration scene—he enters at 3.1—watching silently. He has obviously come because he wishes to witness the entrapment of Faustus, and his presence onstage makes it clear that hell and not Faustus is in control and that Faustus's conjuration is unlikely to work as he expects.)

Nothing in the play suggests that Faustus would have succeeded had he been more careful. The play rules out theurgic magic as a possibility for Faustus, although it does not make clear whether such magic is impossible because of Faustus's carelessness or because theurgic magic never succeeds. Had Marlowe intended a direct attack on the possibility of theurgic magic, however, he would more effectively have had Faustus follow all its rules and then fail. As it stands, the play chronicles Faustus's failure, not necessarily the failure of theurgy.

Faustus is blithely oblivious to his mistakes. He conjures; Mephistophilis obediently appears; and, filled with self-congratulation, Faustus asserts his power over the spirit.

FAUSTUS: I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live,

To do whatever Faustus shall command.

MEPHISTOPHILIS: I am a servant to great Lucifer

And may not follow thee without his leave;

No more than he commands must we perform.

FAUSTUS: Did not he charge thee to appear to me?

MEPHISTOPHILIS: No, I came hither of mine own accord.

FAUSTUS: Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee? Speak.

MEPHISTOPHILIS: That was the cause, but yet per accidens:

For when we hear one rack the name of God,

Abjure the scriptures and his saviour Christ, We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul; Nor will we come unless he use such means Whereby he is in danger to be damn'd.


At this moment, the basis of magic on which the play has apparently been built shifts. Mephistophilis has come voluntarily, not because Faustus compelled him. This is a change from The Damnable Life, in which Mephistophilis comes very reluctantly and only after Faustus's repeated commands. Unlike the Faustus of the source, Marlowe's character cannot command spirits by his magic; he is merely a sinner who, by blaspheming against God, attracts the attention of the devil.

Under the circumstances, Faustus sees no hope of obtaining power except by entering into a witch's pact with the devil, and this he immediately proposes to do. He is either so excited by the actual presence of Mephistophilis or so careless about the way he achieves power that he does not mind—or does not notice—that his original assumptions about his control of spirits are being drastically altered. Like his earlier haste to conjure, Faustus's quick offer of a pact is Marlowe's idea; in The Damnable Life, Faustus hesitates for some time, trying to find other alternatives to signing away his soul. But Marlowe's Faustus, desperately anxious for the power described by Pico, goes beyond even Agrippa's bounds and subjects himself to the devil. He becomes, although he probably does not realize it, what Pico described as "a slave and pawn of evil powers."

An Elizabethan audience, familiar with witchcraft lore, is likely to have been aware of the radical change in Faustus's position. He is not a magician who, like Friar Bacon, misuses his magical powers but rather a man who has no magical power—much as he desires it—beyond the scraps that the devil permits him in order to mollify him. At the play's opening, Faustus could convince us of his potential to achieve much, whether good or evil, through magic and the power of his intellect. But by the end of scene 3, he has been transformed into a man who so covets power that he is willing to give away his soul for its appearance. Ironically, of course, Faustus not only fails to receive true magic power but also relinquishes the power he already had to govern his own life on earth. He gives himself up almost totally to the guidance of Mephistophilis. The only indication that Faustus realizes the enormity of what he has done comes in a slight shift in his rhetoric. Before meeting Mephistophilis, Faustus continually bragged about his future accomplishments by reiterating "I will." Now he includes Mephistophilis as a necessary part of whatever he may accomplish:

Had I as many souls as there be stars, I'd give them all for Mephistophilis.By him I'll be great emperor of the world.(3.104-6; my italics)

The subsequent encounters between Faustus and Mephistophilis form a pattern. Faustus imagines or wishes for something: magical control of spirits, a wife, knowledge of the universe, a sight-seeing tour of Rome. Mephistophilis replies that what Faustus wants is forbidden or impossible and offers lesser alternatives: a pact with the devil, any paramour Faustus desires, a pageant, practical jokes on the Pope. Faustus accepts the alternatives, usually without argument. The relationship resembles that between a seasoned horse trader and an arrogant but naive novice. Faustus, cheated every time, hardly knows he loses anything, so great is his self-confidence. Only late in the play does Faustus gradually become aware of the importance of what he has given away.

The sense of loss that fills the play comes not so much from Faustus's own realization of loss as from a general failure of action to live up to words and promises. Faustus's aspirations soar above what he is able to accomplish, and Mephistophilis's promises far outstrip what he delivers. Having promised Faustus anything he wants, Mephistophilis cannot bring him a wife, cannot speak of heaven, cannot really do much to enlarge Faustus's knowledge. This sense of failure and limitation, which permeates the final four-fifths of the play, also accompanies, to a degree, the depiction of magical power in other plays. Bacon, Sacrapant, and the Friar in Bussy D'Ambois all find magic limited, operable only within certain restraints. In Faustus, however, these restraints are greater, both because Faustus imagines and dreams so grandly and because he is given so little personal power. Through much of the play, in fact, it is not Faustus but Mephistophilis who most resembles the stereotype of the stage magician.

Some deliberate reversals in magical roles early in the play seem to underscore Faustus's essential powerlessness. Functions traditionally the magician's are given in Marlowe's play to Mephistophilis, not to Faustus. Rather than performing in these magical roles, Faustus becomes merely the audience to Mephistophilis's accomplishments.

For example, Mephistophilis assumes the role of promoter of love affairs, as do the magicians in The Wars of Cyrus and John of Bordeaux. Though finding a sexual companion for Faustus is only a minor job in Mephistophilis's busy schedule, his promises sound very much like those of the magicians:

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.(5.153-58)

No results of this promise ever materialize, though Mephistophilis does, near the play's end, procure the shade of Helen for Faustus's enjoyment. Despite Helen's beauty, her presence in lieu of a live woman can be seen as another of Mephistophilis's deceptions. Faustus gets the shadow and not the substance, though, by the end of the play, the shadow is his own request.

More visually striking and more significant than magical pimping is Mephistophilis's function as spectacle deviser and presenter. Twice, when Faustus falters and seems in danger of repenting, Mephistophilis produces a show "to delight thy mind / And let thee see what magic can perform" (5.84-85). The first show, designed to divert Faustus from the "homo fuge" that appears on his arm, is a dance of devils who present Faustus with "crowns and rich apparel." Faustus is mere audience to this scene, which Mephistophilis creates and directs … The second pageant, the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins, enters in scene 6 to distract Faustus from Mephistophilis's refusal to tell him who created the world. This pageant is far more elaborate than the dance of devils and reminds us (though it fails to remind Faustus) that all the demonic world can offer is immersion in pleasurable sin. (One of the most interesting verbal details in Faustus is the shift in emphasis from power to pleasure as the ostensible object of Faustus's quest. Knowledge and power are continually alluded to in the early scenes; pleasure dominates the middle and especially the final scenes of the play.) Faustus is all that Mephistophilis might ask for in the way of enthusiastic audience for his shows, but he is far from behaving like a magician.

Only after the pleasures of witnessing such spectacles have dulled, after Faustus has seen the firmament, earth, and hell, does he attempt to assume the magician's traditional role as controller of spectacle and magical effects. Having been dissuaded by Mephistophilis from sight-seeing, Faustus finally asks that he be allowed some part in the next spectacle:

Then in this show let me an actor be, That this proud Pope may Faustus' cunning see.(8.75-76)

Mild, polite requests have replaced the commands that Faustus once addressed to Mephistophilis. The spirit permits Faustus to participate—"any villainy thou canst devise, / … I'll perform it" (8.87-88)—and from this point on Faustus apparently plans much of the magical action. But the scope of such magic is much reduced. There are no more pageants of allegorical figures or reported trips through the firmament. Rather the magic continually narrows, from shape-changing, stealing the Pope's dinner, and calling historical heroes from the dead, to homing a skeptic and providing grapes for a pregnant duchess. At last, the primary locus of the magic becomes Faustus's own body, as his false head and false leg provide clownish humor.

There is something terrifying in these middle scenes, despite their crude humor. Faustus's magic (or what he calls "his" magic) literally tears apart his soul. For the sake of magical jokes his body is pulled apart by clowns, as it will later be torn in pieces by fiends. Once Faustus begins to direct the magic, it deteriorates. His once-glorious imagination is reduced to recalling cliched magical tricks.

Of the change in Faustus, A. Bartlett Giamatti has remarked: "What Faustus does with his power totally undercuts what we heard Faustus claim for his power.… Over the play, the magician metamorphoses himself to a court jester, a fool." Perfectly true, except that Faustus is not a magician. He had hoped to be one, dreaming of himself in a far different role than that of witch. But his magical powers are from the start illusory, though he deludes himself about their nature to the end of his life.

Despite his weaknesses, his errors, and his illusions of grandeur and of magical power, Faustus is worthy of interest and respect as a character. Though he fails to become the demigod he aspires to be, his mistakes are symptomatic of his humanity. Faustus's concern is with temporal, worldly matters rather than with eternity. Accordingly, he responds to sensual experiences rather than to disembodied abstractions: "For the sceptical person the senses are the beginning and the end of human knowledge. Faustus, proceeding in the sceptical manner, doubts the existence of things he cannot directly perceive" (Clifford Davidson). That this is Faustus's method of cognition is demonstrated by his opening soliloquy, in which he measures his knowledge of logic by his victories in debate, his medical knowledge by his cures, and so on. Only the tangible interests Faustus.

This being the case, Marlowe weighted the dice in favor of hell's appeal over heaven's. Critics often remark on the balance of characters representing heaven and hell, good and evil: Good Angel and Bad Angel, good scholars and wicked scholars, Mephistophilis and the Old Man. But this balance is not as perfect as it first seems. The only "heavenly" character to appear onstage is the Good Angel; and not only is he balanced by the Bad Angel, but also Faustus shows no sign that he actually sees either of them. They may be merely external manifestations of his own internal conflict. Hell, on the other hand, has a number of very visible representatives: Mephistophilis, Lucifer, Beelzebub, and many unidentified devils and spirits. Their presence is a constant appeal to the senses; heaven provides almost none (quite rightly, of course, since heaven's business is the spiritual rather than the sensual).

Evil in the play is palpable and flashy. It intrudes into Faustus's temporal world: the devils put on shows for Faustus, parade riches before him, permit him to raise the dead—the tangible proof he had earlier desired of great medical power. All this appeals both to Faustus and to his audience. We understand how Faustus chose allegiance to Lucifer and why; we might have chosen the same way. In contrast to hell, which is constantly defined, described, and even visited by Faustus and Mephistophilis, heaven remains silent and unknown. Mephistophilis will not speak of it; it cannot be visited. Heaven becomes a forbidden, undefined term in the play. Though the deadly sins are revealed and transformed into a comic show that amuses Faustus, the virtues never appear. There is no psychomachia. In the didactic plays discussed [elsewhere]—plays such as A Looking Glass for London and England and The Two Merry Milkmaids—God's power is pitted against that of wicked magic, and heaven displays greater power than evil does. God and Jonah easily outstrip Rasni's magicians, and Justina's resolute chastity foils Cyprian's evil charms. But in Doctor Faustus God does not compete. Even Faustus's punishment is not presented as the active revenge of heaven but rather as hell claiming its own in the face of Faustus's spiritual inertia.

By some few effects, heaven does signal its presence: Faustus's blood congeals; the inscription homo fuge appears on his arm; and, in the last moments of the play, an empty throne descends from heaven. In each case, the warning is momentary; the blood soon runs freely again, the inscription disappears, and the throne is simply an emblem of what Faustus has lost. Even as the throne appears in the air, in fact, hell is "discovered," and it probably emits flame and smoke, while heaven's emblem remains inert and empty. These few signs, two of which are so small as to be visible only to Faustus and not to the audience, hardly balance the many visual wonders provided by the devils.

Faustus's repeated preference for what can be seen, and thus for hell's representatives, is evidenced not only by the ease with which he is distracted by Mephistophilis's shows but also by his response to Lucifer's entrance onstage at a moment when Faustus is apparently ready to turn back to God: "O, what art thou that look'st so terribly?" (6.89). The sight of Lucifer erases all thoughts of God. Against the appearance onstage of the demons, heaven remains an abstraction, an unknown whose joys are promised only in some vague eternity in which Faustus never quite believes.

How this worldly and temporally concerned scholar makes and continues in his fatal choice is understandable, though it is clearly mistaken. David Bevington has written, "Paradox is present in Faustus, in its moving tragedy of noble character and its explicit denunciation of moral failure, in its hero's sympathetic aspiration and deplorable degeneracy." Marlowe makes clear that Faustus was wrong, that faith and repentance would have been far better than despair and allegiance to the devil. But the careful onstage presentation of heaven and hell makes sympathetic nonetheless Faustus's terrible mistake.

The highly dramatic and eloquent encounters between Faustus and his demonic visitors usually overshadow the scenes of magical adventure that separate Faustus's pact from his death. The most generally accepted explanation of these scenes is that they show the gradual disintegration of Faustus's mind and body as he comes more and more under the domination of Lucifer and Mephistophilis. The different style and tone of the scenes have led many critics to believe they were written in large part by someone other than Marlowe, someone with less talent.

Certainly the magic that appears in these scenes is different from what Faustus envisioned earlier in the play. Though the character of Faustus has been said to portray the contemporary Renaissance magician, unencumbered by traditional literary formulas for magicians, the magic of the central scenes is much like that found in the narrative romances. Faustus's tricks might as well have been performed by Merlin in the course of one of his endless sagas. To fill a large portion of his play, Marlowe chose conventional magic, the sure audience-pleasers, provided by the English Faustbook. This magic distances us from Faustus and sometimes dehumanizes him—as when he is beheaded and delegged—as the romance magicians were often dehumanized. Yet this conventional material has been ordered and shaped to a purpose; the central scenes, awkward though they sometimes are, do more for the play than just represent the passing of twenty-four years.

Faustus had announced his original magical aspirations—to circle Germany with a wall, to stop rivers, to raise tempests, to change the political shape of Europe—when he believed he would be in control, compelling spirits to do his will. None of his ideas was specifically evil or harmful, and several were actually benevolent. This sort of magic, however, the devil is likely to forbid. Just as he can neither describe heaven nor allow Faustus to engage in the sacrament of marriage, Mephistophilis clearly will not permit him any significant magic, nor can he conceivably allow Faustus to perform benevolent magic. To set the Vatican in an uproar, to promote dissension by rescuing the second Pope, to feed the gluttonous desires of a pregnant woman, to raise warlike pagan heroes—these sorts of actions are perfectly all right. But Lucifer will not allow Faustus anything very important or very good. Since Faustus himself is unlikely to wish to do anything particularly evil, what remains is trivial magic that neither seriously helps nor harms anyone.

The process of narrowing the scope of Faustus's desires is gradual. Immediately after the pact is signed, he bombards Mephistophilis with questions about the firmament, philosophy, and the natural world. But, after receiving either no answers or very simplistic ones, Faustus learns to take the easier way, to immerse himself in sensory pleasure, to broach no complicated issues. Mephistophilis is willing to allow Faustus to appear as an ordinary (perhaps even an extraordinary) conjuror who performs standard magical tricks very well, but he allows him no more than this.

Tension arises intermittently in the middle scenes between what Faustus is and what he is believed to be by those around him. Almost all who meet Faustus assume that he is a powerful magician—the Emperor addresses him as "Wonder of men, renown'd magician, / Thrice-learned Faustus" (12.1-2), and Martino calls him "the wonder of the world for magic art" (11.11). In public Faustus puts on an excellent show:

The doctor stands prepar'd by power of art To cast his magic charms, that shall pierce through The ebon gates of ever-burning hell And hale the stubborn furies from their caves.(2.19-22)

But in a moment of solitude, Faustus reminds himself of his real position: "What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemn'd to die?" (15.21). An audience that has listened to Faustus's early aspirations can hardly watch him strutting and posturing with his petty tricks without feeling a deep sense of irony. Faustus displays a brave front to the world—even his friends, the scholars, learn only at the last moment the source of Faustus's power—and there are moments when he clearly enjoys the tricks he performs. But underlying all these scenes is his growing fear and despair. The confidence of the outer man, the powerful magician, and the indecisiveness of the inner man, the constrained witch, contrast throughout the latter scenes of the play.

If the cheap magic of the central scenes in some ways trivializes Faustus, he is not the only victim. His audiences—popes, Emperor, Duke—deserve the trivial magic he performs and apparently lack the wit to ask for anything more elevated. The Pope is concerned only for the removal of his rival and for the delicacies that furnish his dinner table. The Pope's silliness is best expressed by the words of the curse he orders:

Cursed be he that stole his Holiness' meat from the table.  Maledicat Dominus!Cursed be he that struck his Holiness a blow on the face.(9.101-3)

Similarly, the Emperor's most pressing desire is to see the mole on the neck of Alexander's paramour; having seen it he rejoices, "In this sight thou better pleasest me / Than if I gain'd another monarchy" (12.67-68). All Faustus's clients and victims are frivolous and ridiculous, popes and hostelers equally. Faustus is the least trivial person in the play (except perhaps for the Old Man), for he intermittently displays concern for important issues and for human achievement.

The magic of the clowns is, of course, a parody of Faustus's magic and clearly points out its inconsequence. By using Faustus's books and attracting devils onto the stage, Robin, Wagner, and Dick show us again that Faustus's own feat was worth nothing; anyone might have called Mephistophilis. The actual magic of the play, as D. J. Palmer has pointed out, is all on a par—and all worthless:

Faustus soon discovers the limits of the magical powers offered to him by the devil; they do not extend beyond the natural order.… Despite its subject matter, then, the world of Doctor Faustus consistently excludes the miraculous.

What is important, however, is the relative worth of the characters who attempt magic, as measured by the attention the devils pay to their summoner once they do arrive. Mephistophilis, who would do anything to get Faustus's "glorious" soul (3.51; 5.73), shrugs off the clowns impatiently. Faustus is important enough to be worth a great deal of time and energy; Robin and Dick are not. Mephistophilis's appearance at the summons of Robin has been used to support arguments for a second author on the basis of a textual contradiction: Mephistophilis specifically tells Faustus that he is not compelled to come by a conjuration; yet he arrives, grumbling, at the call of the clowns (10). But Mephistophilis responds to the clowns' blasphemy as he did to Faustus's. When he discovers whom he has come such a distance to tempt, however, he is disgusted and threatens to turn the clowns into apes and dogs. Robin and Dick have no power over the spirit; he is quite free to revile and punish them. The clowns thus serve as foil to Faustus in two ways: they demonstrate how worthless his magic is by duplicating it, and they suggest how important he is as a human being by the very different response they elicit from the devil. Only Faustus is worthy of serious attention.

One final issue that these central scenes illuminate both practically and thematic ally is the difficulty of dramatizing magic. Nicholas Brooke has been one of Marlowe's most sympathetic apologists in this regard:

It is impossible to show Faustus acquiring complete knowledge of the universe, for the obvious reason that Marlowe didn't possess it himself; so he simply states that Faustus did achieve it in two fine choruses and leaves the action to what can be shown, the power of human interference. The result is such a complete lack of balance, that the subject matter of the choruses is often forgotten, and Faustus accused of mere triviality in those scenes.

To this line of argument, Greg objected, "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." But the impossibility of staging certain scenes obviously limited Marlowe's creative potential. Much is prevented by the physical limitations of the theater, and much is impossible because of Faustus's desire to know more than any man. But simple dramatic considerations of what would play to an Elizabethan audience must have been responsible for some of Marlowe's decisions about what sort of magic to show onstage. To portray a truly philosophical magician whose only desire is knowledge is not possible; it is far more dramatically effective to watch Faustus's original desire for knowledge and power thwarted and perverted into a desire for pleasure and into cheap juggler's tricks.

For a drama that concerns man's struggle and failure to rise above the limits imposed by his humanity, Marlowe chose his scenes wisely. The poetry, the dreams, and the reported achievements all assure us of Faustus's original vision and allow us to understand why he does not denounce Mephistophilis as a fraud. But the cheap onstage magic forces us to see Faustus's limitations despite the magnificence of his vision. Words alone are insufficient to carry man beyond his station, but words are the only power Faustus possesses.

The power of words, of course, is one of man's greatest assets. Giamatti has suggested the basic analogy between man and the figure of the magician: "Because all men are users of the magic power, language, because all men are performers with words and transformers through words, the Renaissance could figure all men under the single image of the magus, the magician." Unfortunately, Faustus's magical powers remain almost wholly rhetorical. He makes his initial impression through magnificent aspirations that impress us for a while. But when the disparity between those words and what Faustus accomplishes is clear, the hollowness of both the magic and the rhetoric is apparent. A major mistake is Faustus's attempt to command spirits solely by words and signs, in contrast to the recommendations of many handbooks on magic that urge, in addition to the ritual preparations, special clothes for the magus, selected perfumes, music, and various pieces of magical equipment as helpful to proper conjurations. But only the language of magic interests Faustus:

These metaphysics of magicians And necromantic books are heavenly; Lines, circles, letters, and characters: Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.(1.48-50)

When Mephistophilis first appears, Faustus gloats, "I see there's virtue in my heavenly words" (3.29). This association of magic primarily with language persists throughout the play; even the clowns attempt magic by garbling words from one of Faustus's books. Dependence on words alone, however, does not work for Faustus; instead of the power he envisioned, his ritual words bring him only devilish temptation and a witch's pact.

Doctor Faustus is sometimes read as a humanist play, a great statement of man's ambition and faith in his human potential. But the play presents a very pessimistic view of man's possibilities. Faustus tries to reach beyond himself and fails miserably. Reluctant to give up his dream, he deludes himself into thinking that the witch's pact will give him the same power he sought as a philosophic magician. Instead of magic that is to grant him endless power and control over spirits, however, he gets enslavement and terror through his contract with the devil plus the crumbs of power with which Mephistophilis pacifies him. But none of the play's other characters has enough wit to achieve anything significant either. Marlowe's play trivializes rather than elevates mankind. Humanistic magic, which appears in the play only as a dream of Faustus, never becomes more than a dream. The demonic enslavement that replaces it in Faustus's mind and soul proves empty and ultimately degrading. The man who desired to become a magician becomes instead a witch and a slave. Magic indeed "ravished" the scholar of Wittenberg.

Johannes H. Birringer (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4055

SOURCE: "Faustus's Rhetoric of Aspiration," in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and Tamburlaine: Theological and Theatrical Perspectives, Verlag Peter Lang GmbH, 1984. Reprinted in Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 93-103.

[In the following excerpt, Birringer examines Doctor Faustus in terms of the protagonist's struggle against the limits of language, of theology, and of his personality.]

The theatrical presentations of the Scenes on which Faustus and Macbeth are going to act out their fatal transgressions quite distinctively create a sense of atmosphere that shapes the audience's perception of the emotions at work in the play-in-performance. Those emotions not only operate in the dramatic universe itself, but also on the spectator-as-participant. In terms of this "structure of feeling" … the atmospheric effects in Macbeth interpenetrate the fragmentary, visual presentation of individual characters. The element of the fantastical, the insubstantial, and the unreal pervade the fabric of the play, and the nature of the human events, actions, and experiences is to be conceived in correspondence with the atmosphere of paradox and unreality.

The collage of swift changes in the presentation of the internal and external events is an important structural device; the inside of Macbeth's mind and the paradoxical quality of its "fantastical imaginings" are dramatized as a kind of nightmare scenery. The competing forces we have become aware of through the visual movement of the play flow through Macbeth's dream-consciousness, and the "daggers" in Macbeth's mind reflect the audience's sense of the mystery and the dark processes which so intensely express themselves in the poetic effect of the whole.

The interrelationship between the internal and the external seems far less balanced in Doctor Faustus. Faustus confronts us directly and unmistakingly with an elaborate construction of his project and his aspirations. The nature of this construction, however, raises a number of difficult questions. The exposition of the play, first of all, introduces two Scenes, or planes of dramatic reality; we could call the Prologue's paraphrasing of Faustus's "Icarian" project the "external" Scene of Instruction. The expositor in his conventional role, reminiscent of the older morality form, sufficiently remains on the periphery of the actual theatrical event. The implicit reference to a twofold perspective—the supra-reality of a non-specific, eternal order "out of time" and Faustus's reality as a process "in time"—prefigures the dramatic clash of the external-internal and shapes our anticipation of the paradoxical simultaneity of pre-determination and assumed performatory "freedom."

Excelling all, whose sweete delight disputes In heauenly matters of Theologie, Till swolne with cunning of a selfe conceit, His waxen wings did mount aboue his reach, And melting heauens conspirde his ouerthrow.

And glutted more with learnings golden gifts,He surffets upon cursed Negromancy.(Prologue 19-23; 25-26; my emphasis)

In a short glimpse, we perceive the contraction and the breaking apart of two planes of time, and we move from the narrative (in the past tense) directly into the theatrical "now" ("And glutted now" B 24) where Faustus settles upon his experiment and sees himself making choices. Having been told that Faustus is already fallen, we then see him self-consciously formulate his aspirations and his experiment with himself, and the psychic drama that unfolds in front of our eyes gains a different kind of effect from our ambivalent participation in his flights of imagination.

If we take the Prologue's as well as the Epilogue's assertions of "heauenly power" (Epilogue 1517) to mean that this "power" implicates Faustus's downfall in a universally recognizable "theodrama" or "theatre of God's judgments," we are still faced with the ambiguous invitation to watch the performance of Faustus's "fortunes good or bad" (Prologue 9). How good or bad can Faustus's "fortunes" be if we are meant to trust the Prologue's censorious prediction that the outcome of the play is never really in doubt? Yet the appeal to "patient Iudgements" (Prologue 10) already allows us to ponder how successful the "forme" of Faustus's downfall may in fact be or appear to be if he—as we are to find out shortly—can manage actually to practice "more than heauenly power permits" (Epilogue 1517). The Prologue's critical outline is a tantalizing one because it ultimately introduces the very complex problem of Faustus's dream of freedom, and the question whether this dream collapses in or holds out against the ultimate acceptance of the limited role of the self-as-performner in God's Theatre cannot be as conveniently answered as the Prologue's paradigmatic outline suggests.

Marlowe creates considerable tension precisely by setting up the Prologue's critical summary in immediate contrast to Faustus's dramatic justification of his claims; the question whether they are good or bad is only answerable in the context in which they are now performed. Audience response begins to be manipulated in the very moment in which its involvement becomes stronger than the warning voice of the Prologue. And in view of the intensity of Faustus's soliloquizing and his absolute visual centrality on stage, the extent to which an audience becomes involved certainly depends on the effect created by Faustus's (the actor's) very immediate entry into the realm of argument, fantasy, and forbidden desire—a mixture which is explosive precisely because the moralizing Prologue has already denounced it beforehand.

Faustus's dream of freedom and transcendence is behind almost everything he says in the very beginning. "Word" and "act" articulate a sweeping revision of the prior instruction of the Prologue, and Faustus's speech of self-definition contains in itself the philosophical frame of the whole tragedy. Similar to Marlowe's other plays, reality in Doctor Faustus is constituted and presented largely through the rhetorical tours de force of the protagonist (cf. Tamburlaine, Barabas, the Guise, Mortimer). Together with his astonishing stage-craft, Marlowe's control over language seems to have been magnificently conducive to the intellectual fantasies of his poetic drama.

With a swift, disruptive vigour, Faustus leaps from his implicit appetite ("swolne with cunning"; "glutted") through his self-conceits to the all-consuming project ("his chiefest blisse" Prologue 28). The leap, as a means of asserting his freedom, is necessary and fundamental, and it is animated by the rhetorical style with which he voices his desires. In the centre of the Faustian ethos we therefore discover not only an intellectual concept but also a concept of the power of language, a Faustian poetics, so to speak, which corresponds to the implications of his breaking away from normative boundaries. Unlike Macbeth's half-realized, subconscious hopes and fears, Faustus's aspirations are fully and explicitly expressed; they are rendered desirable by the self-intoxicating power of the language Faustus uses.

What are the characteristics of Faustus's rhetoric of aspiration? And how are the rhetorical features related to the nature of his project? The poetic texture of Faustus's speeches exposes the precarious balance that is achieved by the heavily rhetorical quality of his "conceits." Faustus has to transform the stage into a platform for his overreaching project, and the imaginative level of his desires is transported to us by the power of persuasion through which Faustus can sustain the prospects for the future in the conceited space between desire and fulfilment. Rhetoric as persuasion thus forms one of the central stratagems in the organization of the argument. (Traditionally, persuasion has been regarded as the primary goal of rhetoric, and all rhetorical training was directed at the acquisition of oratorical skills. I am here concerned with the distinctive function of verbal organization and ornamentation in the dramatic context and in their relation to the thematic focus. Marlowe's educational background certainly exposed him to an extensive familiarity with the methods of rhetorical [oral] expression and its comprehensive applicability to all forms of writing in verse or prose.)

Settle thy studies Faustus, and beginne To sound the deapth of that thou wilt professe

Yet leuell at the end of euery Art, And liue and die.(A 1-2; 4-5)

The ambivalence of Faustus's rhetoric, its inner- and outer-directed appeals, is further complicated by the emotiveness and intensity of the Marlovian hero's all-or-nothing attitude, which characteristically propels the language of the play into the foreground; rhetorical modes often dominate the events on stage, and it is through Faustus's language that we must try to understand what he creates about himself inside his mind. This immediately opens the question whether we see "through" Faustus's pervasive rhetoricity into his mind—as we do in Macbeth's case—or whether we in fact cannot resist complicity with the powers of poetry that kindle our own imagination.

If we take Faustus's initial remark ("be a Diuine in shew" A 33; my emphasis) at face value, we are advised to pay attention, first of all, to the style and the function of language in the presentation of the protagonist. The energies of Faustus's idiom are complex enough to challenge a primary, rhetorical criticism that can stay clear of the interpretive problems which are bound to arise if one approaches the play either from a "romantic" or from an orthodox-moralizing point of view.

Marlowe, well versed in the tradition of rhetoric, had already shown a particular interest in Ovid when he translated the Elegies. I quote from the second book:

Verses reduce the homed bloody moon, And call the sun's white horses back at noon. Snakes leap by verse from caves of broken mountains, And turned streams run backward to their fountains. Verses ope doors; and locks put in the post, Although of oak, to yield to verses boast.(2.1.23-28)

The spell-binding force of rhetorical and poetical "charms" (the English word "charm," with its connotations of "magic" and "power," is derived from the Latin carmen—the word Marlowe correctly translates as "verse" or "song") and the momentum and violence that poetry can have (its power to "break") things apart) signal the essential function which becomes integrated in Faustus's poetic metamorphosis of his dream of freedom.

When we speak about magic or dream or power, we of course speak about a mode or style of self-expression and self-presentation which presupposes a certain attitude towards reality, "dramatic" or "real," that cannot readily be defined by the categories of the serious or "merely" rhetorical. Within the fictional worlds of poetry—and Marlowe's interest in Ovid's Metamorphoses and Amores speaks for itself—rhetorical style can very well have its own dynamic premises, and before we judge the kind of self Faustus poses in his opening soliloquy, we ought to be aware of the uneasy intersections between the contexts of rhetoric and action and the primary importance of style to which "reality" must yield.

The style of language or language-behaviour answers the questions about the dramatic persona who enacts and lives his role and presents himself in some kind of dynamic relationship with those boundary conditions that normally restrict man. In Faustus's opening speech we hear a great deal about boundaries and limita-tions, and if we listen to the tone and the content of what he says, our first impression of Faustus's mighty line need not ground itself in any traditional ethical dimension at all. It lies in the very nature of the kind of drama Marlowe wrote that we understand the rhetorical impetus of Faustus's speech as, first of all, a dynamic assertion of his will and his individual voice.

This sense of confidence and upward-moving desire is again quite beautifully expressed in another boisterous revision of Ovid's elegy on poetry:

[vivam, pasque mei multa superstes erit] I'll live, and as he pulls me down mount higher.(1.15.42)

It is this "leaping in poetry" that we encounter in the Faustian rhetoric. In the line from the Elegies, Marlowe deliberately employs the language of paradox, and the second part of the line, with its striking antithesis and its spirited assertion of immortality (we should also note the "overflow" in the extrametrical line), alerts us to the range of possibilities in the complex interplay of rhetorical figures and tonal qualities, and to the vigour and ease of the metrics and the many effects of ambiguity, irony, and paradox that can be evoked by poetic images.

We see, for example, how in the "snakes leap by verse" passage the central metaphor (the "transcending," breaking power of verse) is expanded into separate metaphors (distributio), variation on the theme, repetition (anaphora; epizeuxis), and then elaborated by the joining of tropes which tilt the meaning towards paradox and its often grotesque meanings ("horned bloody moon"; "the sun's white horses"; "leaping snakes"; "broken mountains"; "turned streams"; "verse" opening "doors"; etc.).

The expression "verses boast" hints at another major rhetorical figure which Marlowe uses throughout: amplification. It is clear from the conception of his overreaching hero that hyperbole, the trope of excess or of the "over-throw," forms an essential, necessary precondition for a project like Faustus's, because it is a mode of speech and thought, relating language to ethos, which sublimates the self's exultation in its own operations. From the very beginning, Faustus's speech shows a state of mind to which the desire to transcend appears as an imperative: limitations exist to be overcome. This insatiability had already been imaged by the Prologue's allusions to Faustus's "appetite," and those images were of course entirely negative. When Faustus begins to "professe" himself, the images of hunger and gluttony become much more ambivalent and puzzling (natural appetite/metaphysical longing; fullness/emptiness; learning/cunning; beginning/end).

Again, like the Ovidian "verses boast," the coupling of positive and negative connotations or ironic qualifications ("profites in Diuinitie"; "fruitfull plot"; "diuelish exercise"; "sweete magicke"; "chiefest blisse") creates a sense of disparity which progresses into the central Faustian rhetoric of paradox on which many of the play's symbolic disjunctions rest (external/internal; Heaven/Hell; reality/magic; infinity/human contingency). Faustus himself rushes out to confirm his paradoxical satiety, his longing, and his lack:

How am I glutted with conceit of this? Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, Resolue me of all ambiguities, Performe what desperate enterprise I will?(A 110-13; my emphasis)

What is his "conceit"? If we look at the soliloquy as a whole and examine its rhetorical divisions, we recognize the density of its verbal composition and the interrelationship of its individual figures and metaphors. In fact, the entire staging of Faustus's opening soliloquy—in the visual and verbal enactment of his own conception of himself—could be called hyperbolical. He ventures to break down all limits, all conventions, all restrictions. After the initial apostrophe ("Settle thy studies Faustus, and beginne / To sound the deapth of that thou wilt professe"), the soliloquy falls structurally into two parts (the review of the human sciences; the exposition of his magical enterprise); yet rhetorically one can see a rising curve of amplification. He is "heaping up" his unconscious desires before he leaps into the unrestricted realm of imagination and the Sublime.

The explosive energy of the strain of paradox is contained in various phases of distribution, division, accumulation, and progression, and culminates in the last lines of the soliloquy:

O what a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honor, of omnipotence Is promised to the studious Artizan? All things that mooue betweene the quie poles Shalbe at my commaund, Emperours and Kings, Are but obeyd in their seuerall prouinces: Nor can they raise the winde, or rend the cloudes: But his dominion that exceedes in this, Stretcheth as farre as doth the minde of man. A sound Magician is a mighty god: Heere Faustus trie thy braines to gaine a deitie.(A 83-93)

This is the powerful climax of a puzzling stage performance. Before he actually reaches this point, he seems to be involved in what one might want to call a piece of histrionic "extravaganza." With a lot of cunning and nerve, he energetically and impatiently hurries through his review of the human sciences, or at least those that he chooses to attack. His discourse shows a good sense of timing, and his argumentation, his overtly ingenious glossing and qualifying, his multilingual disputation and his impressive verbal and theatrical performance (his browsing through the books is accompanied by a great number of short exclamations, gestures, rhetorical questions, aphorisms, clever puns, witty sneers, and self-conscious assertions) make his lecture seem highly coherent and compelling. Commentators usually tend to overemphasize the ironic undertones and the hidden contradictions in the speech; in its theatrical immediacy, I should think, the Faustian rhetoric can quite successfully mobilize our imaginations and shelter the process of mystification that goes into his "role-taking."

The heroic promise in the hero's conceit and his emphatic visual centrality (he dominates centre-stage throughout the first 160 lines) help to magnify the attraction and curiosity that pull us toward him. Two further presentational devices seem noteworthy; first, Faustus intensively turns to the objects of his concern and his ravishment: his books. The references to certain passages and texts are theatrically underlined by his treatment of the prop. Surveying his books, Faustus will pick them up, open them, express dissatisfaction, and finally displace them by his quest for the nonreferential, abstract, and transcending "end" of desire. "Levelling at the end," striving for a goal and generating a final purpose, indicates a leitmotif that attains crucial significance in view of his "finalizing" act of trespassing (the pact with Lucifer).

Secondly, we should stress the visual immediacy of Faustus's self-presentation and his relentless enactment of what he creates as his identity. There is no gradual integration into the plot, as in Macbeth, but an emphatic eagerness and disposition to plunge right into the centre. The movement and urgency in his acting style create the impression of an onward surge, and this effect is reinforced and sustained by the poetry he speaks, by the progressive intensity of expression within the line or the verse paragraph. The association of technique with meaning becomes obvious in the very manner in which the speech builds up rhythmically towards the point when Faustus discloses his true objective and exclaims:

These Metaphisickes of Magicians, And Negromantike books are heauenly.(A 79-80)

Our perception of the protagonist's character is indeed formed by his use of language. His rhetoric conveys an impressive ability to originate and conclude ("settle"; "beginne"; "end"), and it seems as if he is drawing the borderlines of human knowledge ("euery art"; "chiefest end"; "Summum bonum "). His discourse is permeated by figures of amplification (superlatives, comparatives), by exclamation and rhetorical questions. There is a constant interplay of antithetical positions and an emphasis on the repetition of key-words ("end"; "nothing"; "but"; "all"; "every"), and the dominant pattern in the progression of the speech is the symmetry of question and answer, thesis and antithesis. It is quite possible that this accent on dichotomies and the rhetorical bent of this kind of dialectic are based on the teaching of Petrus Ramus who had devised new methods for the construction of arguments and formulated a number of highly interesting axiomata for the art of discourse.

Furthermore, Faustus often begins a section with a series of rhetorical questions (pysma) which he answers himself (subiectio), falling into his typical, provocative overstatements that implicitly intensify the underlying tenor of paradox.

Affoords this Art no greater myracle? Then reade no more, thou hast attaind the end

Are not thy billes hung vp as monuments, Whereby whole Citties haue escapt the plague, And thousand desprate maladies beene easde? Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.(A 39-40; 50-53)

Faustus confronts himself with the problem of mortality and finitude; the rhetorical progression moves from the external objects (the books from which he quotes) to the particular and defined worlds or orders they represent. Paraphrasing their individual idioms, Faustus concocts a discourse that translates and assimilates all other languages (Greek, Latin, Italian, English, and the jargons of the individual fields) into itself. His scornful review of the limited and limiting fields makes him arrive at "end-points," he moves from the outside to the inside, questioning his own status and capabilities. The terminations he arrives at paradoxically confirm his will to go forward, to transcend the limits. Of course he does not see the curious illogicality in some of his propositions. In his conscious rhetorical selfhood he seems simply to negate the limits of the generally accepted normative order which defines his human nature (his mortal body, his thinking), and he proceeds to redefine his own summum bonum.

His dream of freedom from limits explodes in his fantasies, and the speech in which he anticipates his magic power ("O what a world of profit and delight") is certainly the hyperbolical speech par excellence. As soon as Faustus steps outside the orthodox realm of normative tradition, outside his social and intellectual environment, his explicit formulations of his ambitions indeed convey an aura of "opening up." The speech becomes expansive, grandiose, soaring; its imaginative force opens upon abstract horizons. It is here that one feels Faustus's vision unfolding free from limits; it stretches itself and has that upward thrust ("mooue"; "raise"; "exceed"; "stretcheth as farre") which is so significant for the whole idea of leaping.

On the one hand, the rhetoric of paradox seems to enforce this poetic fusion of his self with his fiction. The paradoxical interplay ("Metaphisickes of Magicians"; "heauenly Negromantike books"; "Magiciangod") transports the Faustian vision onto another level; the contradictions overlap, burst, and set free. Faustus uses the language of paradox and daringly treats magic as if it was freedom, a means of transcendence, a private eschatology.

On the other hand, one can at least anticipate the tragic ironies within the act of liberation. The burst of freedom in its paradoxical nature contains an immanent fission at the same time. The disparate elements in the rhetoric can fall apart, regressively destroy the leap and restrict again. This is most likely to become visible in the relation between the vocabulary itself and Faustus's claim to freedom. His rhetoric frees him and restricts him at the same time. Throughout the play we become increasingly aware of this double effect of liberation and restriction. During his first assertion of his dream of power (A 79-93) it already becomes obvious that he is searching for "new" words, a "new" language; yet the "Negromantike books" he refers to will in turn establish their own limiting system of "lines, circles, sceanes, letters and characters" (A 81).

The language of magic that is supposed to set him free in fact merely constitutes another form of imprisonment and, ironically enough, borrows extensively from the idiom of Christianity. The greatest problem for Faustus is that he has yet to find out what his summum bonum really is or might be. In the "sage conference" (A 131) with his friends Valdes and Cornelius he is still trying to redefine his "ends" (cf. A 110-29). We already gain a feeling that Faustus's rhetoric of paradox cannot veil the discrepancy between his subjective "leaps" on the one hand, and his incapability of recurring to another code of language, on the other hand, which might indeed correspond to his dream of freedom.

This predicament, of course, lies at the heart of his tragic downfall.… The complicated relationship between Faustus's rhetoric of paradox and the dramatic conventions of self-condemnation which Marlowe enforces throughout is introduced and sustained in a manner which draws attention to the style of Faustus's transgression and not, as it is often argued, to the traditional, ethical context against which he defines his role. Christian metaphysics and ethics are referred to as an anti-background, so to speak; and this anti-background is brought into play by the energies Faustus sets free rhetorically. Whereas Macbeth recognizes his transgression—even before he has actually done the deed—as "horrible imaginings," as a bottomless dream which enmeshes him in the catastrophic consequences of an almost involuntary compulsion, Faustus celebrates his rebellious dreams of power and "heauenly" magic.

Faustus possesses the symbolic force of the will which can render him an archetype of a whole culture, or a spiritual attitude, and this force largely rests on the pervasive theme of man's desire to mount beyond natural limitation. As I suggested, Faustus's flights of imagination present a self that trusts its own power over language and, instead of allowing us to understand the precarious working of the mind, bedazzles itself and the audience with its hyperbolic mannerisms. Yet this mode of self-presentation is important for our perception of the play; unlike Tamburlaine, Faustus has no direct opponents and followers who would listen to him. He is alone with himself, and the battle is waged with the verbal, metaphysical, and psychological limitations which his very rhetoric purports to deny.

Jonathan Dollimore (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3637

SOURCE: "Doctor Faustus: Subversion Through Transgression," in his Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, University of Chicago Press, 1984. Reprinted in Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 105-14.

[In the following excerpt, Dollimore examines Marlowe's "subversion through transgression" of traditional religious values and behaviors in Doctor Faustus.]

One problem in particular has exercised critics of Doctor Faustus: its structure, inherited from the morality form, apparently negates what the play experientially affirms—the heroic aspiration of "Renaissance man." Behind this discrepancy some have discerned a tension between, on the one hand, the moral and theological imperatives of a severe Christian orthodoxy and, on the other, an affirmation of Faustus as "the epitome of Renaissance aspiration … all the divine discontent, the unwearied and unsatisfied striving after knowledge that marked the age in which Marlowe wrote" (Doctor Faustus, ed. Roma Gill).

Critical opinion has tended to see the tension resolved one way or another—that is, to read the play as ultimately vindicating either Faustus or the morality structure. But such resolution is what Doctor Faustus as interrogative text resists. It seems always to represent paradox—religious and tragic—as insecurely and provocatively ambiguous or, worse, as openly contradictory. Not surprisingly Max Bluestone, after surveying some eighty recent studies of Doctor Faustus, as well as the play itself, remains unconvinced of their more or less equally divided attempts to find in it an orthodox or heterodox principle of resolution. On the contrary: "Conflict and contradiction inhere everywhere in the world of this play." If this is correct then we might see it as an integral aspect of what Doctor Faustus is best understood as: not an affirmation of Divine Law, or conversely of Renaissance Man, but an exploration of subversion through transgression.

Limit and Transgression

Raymond Williams has observed how, in Victorian literature, individuals encounter limits of crucially different kinds. In Felix Holt there is the discovery of limits which, in the terms of the novel, are enabling: they vindicate a conservative identification of what it is to be human. In complete contrast Jude the Obscure shows its protagonist destroyed in the process—and ultimately because—of encountering limits. This is offered not as punishment for hubris but as "profoundly subversive of the limiting structure" ("Forms of English Fiction in 1848"). Doctor Faustus, I want to argue, falls into this second category: a discovery of limits which ostensibly forecloses subversive questioning in fact provokes it.

What Erasmus had said many years before against Luther indicates the parameters of Doctor Faustus's limiting structure:

Suppose for a moment that it were true in a certain sense, as Augustine says somewhere, that "God works in us good and evil, and rewards his own good works in us, and punishes his evil works in us." … Who will be able to bring himself to love God with all his heart when He created hell seething with etemal torments in order to punish His own misdeeds in His victims as though He took delight in human torments?

(Renaissance Views of Man, ed. S. Davies)

But Faustus is not identified independently of this limiting structure and any attempt to interpret the play as Renaissance man breaking out of medieval chains always founders on this point: Faustus is constituted by the very limiting structure which he transgresses and his transgression is both despite and because of that fact.

Faustus is situated at the centre of a violently divided universe. To the extent that conflict and contradiction are represented as actually of its essence, it appears to be Manichean; thus Faustus asks, "Where is the place that men call hell?" and Mephostophilis replies, "Within the bowels of these elements," adding:

        when all the world dissolves And every creature shall be purify'd, All places shall be hell that is not heaven.(5.117, 120, 125-27)

If Greg is correct, and "purified" means "no longer mixed, but of one essence, either wholly good or wholly evil" (Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Parallel Texts), then the division suggested is indeed Manichean. But more important than the question of precise origins is the fact that not only heaven and hell but God and Lucifer, the Good Angel and the Bad Angel, are polar opposites whose axes pass through and constitute human consciousness. Somewhat similarly, for Mephostophilis hell is not a place but a state of consciousness:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd In one self place, but where we are is hell, And where hell is, there must we ever be.(5.122-24)

From Faustus's point of view—one never free-ranging but always coterminous with his position—God and Lucifer seem equally responsible in his final destruction, two supreme agents of power deeply antagonistic to each other yet temporarily cooperating in his demise. Faustus is indeed their subject, the site of their power struggle. For his part God is possessed of tyrannical power—"heavy wrath" (1.71 and 19.153), while at the beginning of scene 19 Lucifer, Beelzebub and Mephostophilis enter syndicate-like "to view the subjects of our monarchy." Earlier Faustus had asked why Lucifer wanted his soul; it will, replies Mephostophilis, "enlarge his kingdom" (5.40). In Faustus's final soliloquy both God and Lucifer are spatially located as the opposites which, between them, destroy him:

O, I'll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?                      see where God Stretcheth out his arm and bends his ireful brows My God, my God! Look not so fierce on me! Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer.(11. 145, 150-51, 187, 189)

Before this the representatives of God and Lucifer have bombarded Faustus with conflicting accounts of his identity, position and destiny. Again, the question of whether in principle Faustus can repent, what is the point of no return, is less important than the fact that he is located on the axes of contradictions which cripple and finally destroy him.

By contrast, when, in Marlowe's earlier play, Tamburlaine speaks of the "four elements / Warring within our breasts for regiment" he is speaking of a dynamic conflict conducive to the will to power—one which "doth teach us all to have aspiring minds" (1.2.7)—not the stultifying contradiction which constitutes Faustus and his universe. On this point alone Tamburlaine presents a fascinating contrast with Doctor Faustus. With his indomitable will to power and warrior prowess, Tamburlaine really does approximate to the self-determining hero bent on transcendent autonomy—a kind of fantasy on Pico's theme of aspiring man. But like all fantasies this one excites as much by what it excludes as what it exaggerates. Indeed exclusion may be the basis not just of Tamburlaine as fantasy projection but Tamburlaine as transgressive text: it liberates from its Christian and ethical framework the humanist conception of man as essentially free, dynamic and aspiring; more contentiously, this conception of man is not only liberated from a Christian framework but reestablished in open defiance of it. But however interpreted, the objective of Tamburlaine's aspiration is very different from Pico's; the secular power in which Tamburlaine revels is part of what Pico wants to transcend in the name of a more ultimate and legitimate power. Tamburlaine defies origin, Pico aspires to it:

A certain sacred striving should seize the soul so that, not content with the indifferent and middling, we may pant after the highest and so (for we can if we want to) force our way up to it with all our might. Let us despise the terrestrial, be unafraid of the heavenly, and then, neglecting the things of the world, fly towards that court beyond the world nearest to God the Most High.

(On the Dignity of Man)

With Doctor Faustus almost the reverse is true: transgression is born not of a liberating sense of freedom to deny or retrieve origin, nor from an excess of life breaking repressive bounds. It is rather a transgression rooted in an impasse of despair.

Even before he abjures God, Faustus expresses a sense of being isolated and trapped; an insecurity verging on despair preexists a damnation which, by a preverse act of free will, he "chooses." Arrogant he certainly is, but it is wrong to see Faustus at the outset as secure in the knowledge that existing forms of knowledge are inadequate. Rather, his search for a more complete knowledge is itself a search for security. For Faustus, "born, of parents base of stock," and now both socially and geographically displaced (Prologue, 11. 11, 13-19), no teleological integration of identity, self-consciousness and purpose obtains. In the opening scene he attempts to convince himself of the worth of several professions—divinity, medicine, law, and then divinity again—only to reject each in turn; in this he is almost schizoid:

Having commenc'd, be a divine in show, Yet level at the end of every art, And live and die in Aristotle's works. Sweet Analytics, 'tis thou hast ravish'd me!

When all is done, divinity is best.

Philosophy is odious and obscure, Both law and physic are for petty wits, Divinity is basest of the three, Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile.(36, 37, 105-8)

As he shakes free of spurious orthodoxy and the role of the conventional scholar, Faustus's insecurity intensifies. A determination to be "resolved" of all ambiguities, to be "resolute" and show fortitude (1.32; 3.14; 5.6; 6.32, 64) is only a recurring struggle to escape agonised irresolution.

This initial desperation and insecurity just as much as a subsequent fear of impending damnation, suggests why his search for knowledge so easily lapses into hedonistic recklessness and fatuous, self-forgetful "delight" (1.52; 5.82; 6.170; 8.59-60). Wagner cannot comprehend this psychology of despair:

I think my master means to die shortly: He has made his will and given me his wealth

I wonder what he means. If death were nigh, He would not banquet and carouse and swill Amongst the students.(18.1-2, 5-7)

Faustus knew from the outset what he would eventually incur. He willingly "surrenders up … his soul" for twenty-four years of "voluptuousness" in the knowledge that "eternal death" will be the result (3.90-94). At the end of the first scene he exits declaring, "This night I'll conjure though I die therefor." Later he reflects: "Long ere this I should have done the deed [i.e., suicide] / Had not sweet pleasure conquer'd deep despair" (6.24-25). This is a despairing hedonism rooted in the fatalism of his opening soliloquy: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us. Why, then, belike we must sin, and so consequently die" (1.41-44). Half-serious, half-facetious, Faustus registers a sense of humankind as mis-created.

Tamburlaine's will to power leads to liberation through transgression. Faustus's pact with the devil, because an act of transgression without hope of liberation, is at once rebellious, masochistic and despairing. The protestant God—"an arbitrary and wilful, omnipotent and universal tyrant" (Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints)—demanded of each subject that s/he submit personally and without mediation. The modes of power formerly incorporated in mediating institutions and practices now devolve on Him and, to some extent and unintentionally, on His subject: abject before God, the subject takes on a new importance in virtue of just this direct relation. Further, although God is remote and inscrutable he is also intimately conceived: "The principal worship of God hath two parts. One is to yield subjection to him, the other to draw near to him and to cleave unto him" (Perkins, An Instruction Touching Religious or Divine Worship). Such perhaps are the conditions for masochistic transgression: intimacy becomes the means of a defiance of power, the newfound importance of the subject the impetus of that defiance, the abjectness of the subject its self-sacrificial nature. (We may even see here the origins of subcultural transgression: the identity conferred upon the deviant by the dominant culture enables resistance as well as oppression.)

Foucault has written: "Limit and transgression depend on each other for whatever density of being they possess: a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows" (Language, Counter-Memory, Practice). It is a phenomenon of which the anti-essentialist writers of the Renaissance were aware: "Superiority and inferiority, maistry and subjection, are joyntly tied unto a naturall kinde of envy and contestation; they must perpetually enter-spoile one another" (Montaigne, Essays).

In the morality plays sin tended to involve blindness to the rightness of God's law, while repentance and redemption involved a renewed apprehension of it. In Doctor Faustus however sin is not the error of fallen judgement but a conscious and deliberate transgression of limit. It is a limit which, among other things, renders God remote and inscrutable yet subjects the individual to constant surveillance and correction; which holds the individual subject terrifyingly responsible for the fallen human condition while disallowing him or her any subjective power of redemption. Out of such conditions is born a mode of transgression identifiably protestant in origin: despairing yet defiant, masochistic yet wilful. Faustus is abject yet his is an abjectness which is strangely inseparable from arrogance, which reproaches the authority which demands it, which is not so much subdued as incited by that same authority:

FAUSTUS: I gave … my soul for my cunning.
ALL: God forbid!

FAUSTUS: God forbade it indeed; but Faustus hath done it.(19.61-64)

Mephostophilis well understands transgressive desire; it is why he does not deceive Faustus about the reality of hell. It suggests too why he conceives of hell in the way he does; although his sense of it as a state of being and consciousness can be seen as a powerful recuperation of hell at a time when its material existence as a place of future punishment was being questioned, it is also an arrogant appropriation of hell, an incorporating of it into the consciousness of the subject.

A ritual pact advances a desire which cancels fear long enough to pass the point of no return:

Lo, Mephostophilis, for love of thee Faustus hath cut his arm, and with his proper blood Assures his soul to be great Lucifer's, Chief lord and regent of perpetual night. View here this blood that trickles from mine arm, And let it be propitious for my wish.(5.54-58)

But his blood congeals, preventing him from signing the pact. Mephostophilis exits to fetch "fire to dissolve it." It is a simple yet brilliant moment of dramatic suspense, one which invites us to dwell on the full extent of the violation about to be enacted. Faustus finally signs but only after the most daring blasphemy of all: "Now will I make an end immediately / … Consummatum est: this bill is ended" (5.72-74). In transgressing utterly and desperately God's law, he appropriates Christianity's supreme image of masochistic sacrifice: Christ dying on the cross—and his dying words (cf. John 19:30). Faustus is not liberating himself, he is ending himself: "It is finished." Stephen Greenblatt is surely right to find in Marlowe's work "a subversive identification with the alien," one which "flaunts society's cherished orthodoxies, embraces what the culture finds loathsome or frightening." But what is also worth remarking about this particular moment is the way that a subversive identification with the alien is achieved and heightened through travesty of one such cherished orthodoxy.

Power and the Unitary Soul

For Augustine the conflict which man experiences is not (as the Manichean heresy insisted) between two contrary souls or two contrary substances—rather, one soul fluctuates between contrary wills. On some occasions Doctor Faustus clearly assumes the Augustinian conception of the soul; on others—those expressive of or consonant with the Manichean implications of universal conflict—it presents Faustus as divided and, indeed, constituted by that division. The distinction which Augustine makes between the will as opposed to the soul as the site of conflict and division may now seem to be semantic merely; in fact it was and remains of the utmost importance. For one thing, as Doctor Faustus makes clear, the unitary soul—unitary in the sense of being essentially indivisible and eternal—is the absolute precondition for the exercise of divine power:

O, no end is limited to damned souls. Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul? Or why is this immortal that thou hast? Ah, Pythagoras' metempsychosis, were that true, This soul should fly from me and I be chang'd Unto some brutish beast: all beasts are happy, For when they die Their souls are soon dissolv'd in elements; But mine must live still to be plagu'd in hell.(19.171-79)

Further, the unitary soul—unitary now in the sense of being essentially incorruptible—figures even in those manifestations of Christianity which depict the human condition in the most pessimistic of terms and human freedom as thereby intensely problematic. In a passage quoted below, the English Calvinist William Perkins indicates why, even for a theology as severe as his, this had to be so: if sin were a corruption of man's "substance" then not only could he not be immortal (and thereby subjected to the eternal torment which Faustus incurs), but Christ could not have taken on his nature.

Once sin or evil is allowed to penetrate to the core of God's subject (as opposed to being, say, an inextricable part of that subject's fallen condition) the most fundamental contradiction in Christian theology is reactivated: evil is of the essence of God's creation. This is of course only a more extreme instance of another familiar problem: How is evil possible in a world created by an omnipotent God? To put the blame on Adam only begs the further question: Why did God make Adam potentially evil? (Compare Nashe's impudent gloss: "Adam never fell till God made fools" [The Unfortunate Traveller].)

Calvin, however, comes close to allowing what Perkins and Augustine felt it necessary to deny: evil and conflict do penetrate to the core of God's subject. For Calvin the soul is an essence, immortal and created by God. But to suggest that it partakes of God's essence is a "monstrous" blasphemy: "If the soul of man is a portion transmitted from the essence of God, the divine nature must not only be liable to passion and change, but also to ignorance, evil desires, infirmity, and all kinds of vice" (Institutes of the Christian Religion). Given the implication that these imperfections actually constitute the soul, it is not surprising that "everyone feels that the soul itself is a receptacle for all kinds of pollution." Elsewhere we are told that the soul, "teeming with … seeds of vice … is altogether devoid of good." Here is yet another stress point in protestantism and one which plays like Doctor Faustus (and Mustapha) exploit: if human beings perpetuate disorder it is because they have been created disordered.

The final chorus of the play tells us that Dr Faustus involved himself with "unlawful things" and thereby practised "more than heavenly power permits" (11. 6, 8). It is a transgression which has revealed the limiting structure of Faustus's universe for what it is, namely, "heavenly power." Faustus has to be destroyed since in a very real sense the credibility of that heavenly power depends upon it. And yet the punitive intervention which validates divine power also compromises it: far from justice, law and authority being what legitimates power, it appears, by the end of the play, to be the other way around: power establishes the limits of all those things.

It might be objected that the distinction between justice and power is a modern one and, in Elizabethan England, even if entertained, would be easily absorbed in one or another of the paradoxes which constituted the Christian faith. And yet: if there is one thing that can be said with certainty about this period it is that God in the form of "mere arbitrary will omnipotent" could not "keep men in awe." We can infer as much from many texts, one of which was Lawne's Abridgement of Calvin's Institutes, translated in 1587—around the time of the writing of Doctor Faustus. The book presents and tries to answer, in dialogue form, objections to Calvin's theology. On the question of predestination the "Objector" contends that "to adjudge to destruction whom he will, is more agreeable to the lust of a tyrant, than to the lawful sentence of a judge." The "Reply" to this is as arbitrary and tyrannical as the God which the Objector envisages as unsatisfactory: "It is a point of bold wickedness even so much as to inquire the causes of God's will." It is an exchange which addresses directly the question of whether a tyrannical God is or is not grounds for discontent. Even more important perhaps is its unintentional foregrounding of the fact that, as embodiment of naked power alone, God could so easily be collapsed into those tyrants who, we are repeatedly told by writers in this period, exploited Him as ideological mystification of their own power. Not surprisingly, the concept of "heavenly power" interrogated in Doctor Faustus was soon to lose credibility, and it did so in part precisely because of such interrogation.

Doctor Faustus is important for subsequent tragedy for these reasons and at least one other: in transgressing and demystifying the limiting structure of his world without there ever existing the possibility of his escaping it, Faustus can be seen as an important precursor of the malcontented protagonist of Jacobean tragedy. Only for the latter, the limiting structure comes to be primarily a sociopolitical one.

Lastly, if it is correct that censorship resulted in Doctor Faustus being one of the last plays of its kind—it being forbidden thereafter to interrogate religious issues so directly—we might expect the transgressive impulse in the later plays to take on different forms. This is in fact exactly what we do find; and one such form involves a strategy already referred to—the inscribing of a subversive discourse within an orthodox one, a vindication of the letter of an orthodoxy while subverting its spirit.

Malcom Pittock (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4238

SOURCE: "God's Mercy Is Infinite: Faustus's Last Soliloquy," in English Studies, Vol. 64, No. 4, August, 1984, pp. 302-11.

[In the essay below, Pittock argues that Faust is not doomed to damnation until a point during the course of his final soliloquy, underscoring the extraordinarily momentous nature of this scene in the tragedy. In the course of his discussion, Pittock counters commentators who have judged Faustus's final speech nonfunction in advancing the drama. because, they believe, Faustus lost his chance of salvation much earlier in the play.]

In the course of a discussion of Dr Faustus in The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge, 1968), Wilbur Sanders expressed some dissatisfaction with what, for others, is Marlowe's supreme achievement: Faustus's last speech. For Sanders it is 'histrionic' (239), and he alleges that its 'oscillation between extremes—heaven and hell God and Lucifer ("Yet will I call on him. 0 spare me Lucifer")—is part of the homiletic over-simplification that dogs the play' (240). He even goes so far as to ask '… can one be entirely happy about "See see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament"?' (239).

Sanders's strictures are only justifiable if Faustus's speech is thematically otiose; if, that is, all Faustus can do is to complain about a fate which is now inevitable. And that Faustus is irretrievably damned he begins his speech does seem, at present, to be received critical wisdom.

There are, of course, disagreements as to when. Following [W.W.] Greg's lead, the recent majority view is that Faustus is lost forever after intercourse with the demon impersonating Helen; and that, consequently, the Old Man's statement:

Accursed Faustus, miserable man, That from thy soul exclud'st the grace of heaven And fliest the throne of his tribunal seat!(ed. Jump, Scene XVIII, 119-21)

immediately after Faustus has retired with the Helendemon is authoritative. But an alternative view—that Faustus was damned when he had signed the covenant with Lucifer—can still be found though, admittedly, usually in pre-Greg commentators like James Smith.

I intend to argue against both these views. For I maintain that Faustus's last soliloquy is powerful because he is not damned before it but during it. It is true, however, that when Faustus begins his speech he believes that his fate is sealed:

Now hast thou but one bare hour to live, And then thou must be damn'd perpetually.(XIX, 134-35)

and, consequently, he can only fantasize an escape depending on a suspension of divinely decreed cosmic laws:

Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven, That time may cease, and midnight never come;(136-37)

This dream of escape is cloaked in a desperate imperative and one addressed to an agency of God's Providence, the celestial bodies, to which Faustus pretends to attribute autonomy. Moreover, Faustus's unregeneracy manifests itself in the god-like nature of the command itself, the counterpart of an egotism dreaming of a suspension of the laws of the universe for its own benefit. And yet his use of the singular 'heaven' instead of the more usual plural shows that he is aware that the 'ever-moving spheres' are not independent of God at all.

And then the content, though not of course the thrust, of the fantasy changes. Time is not to come to an immediate stop: it is to accelerate first:

Fair nature's eye, rise, rise again, and make Perpetual day;(138-39)

An awareness is struggling into consciousness of the paradise he thinks he has lost: the New Jerusalem, when (to paraphrase T. F. Powys) Time will have stopped and Eternity begun:

… For the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof… And there shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie; but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life.

(Revelations, A. V., Chap. 21, v. 23: v. 27)

As long as Faustus does not completely lose the apprehension of Paradise, however distorted by his fears his allusion to it, salvation may still be open to him: his heart is not utterly hardened; and a sign of this is that his escapist fantasy takes a new turn:

          Or let this hour be but A year, a month, a week, a natural day, That Faustus may repent and save his soul(139-41)

With 'let this hour be', he is moving from command to request, a staging post on the way to prayer. He is not now addressing God's creation, whether the stars, the sun, or nature, as if it were autonomous, but, by implication, God Himself. And now what may appear merely a continuation of his dream about time has, on the contrary, a new sense of reality about it. For Faustus asks not for time to cease but to expand. And though, objectively that is not possible, it is subjectively: moreover, God, in offered grace to the sinner can slow down his awareness of time:

Betwixt the stirrup and the ground Mercy I asked, mercy I found.

Indeed in Faustus's contraction of what is requested from a year to a day there is, beneath the obvious fright, even a faint adumbration of humility.

Though in line 141 the desire for repentance may have emerged, explicitly it is, for Faustus, at this point only a speculative possibility which haunts the actuality of his present state. And so, believing it to be impossible, though the very intensity of his desire hints that he may be mistaken, he does not for the moment pursue it.

O lente lente currite noctis equi! The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike, The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.(142-44)

Although, particularly with the quotation from Ovid, these lines may appear to mark a retreat from

That Faustus may repent and save his soul.

in actuality the momentum is retained. There is now an acceptance of the objective reality of the temporal world that he had dreamt of transcending: 'The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike, / The devil will come and Faustus must be damn'd'.

That this acceptance should be preceded by 'O lente lente currite noctis equi!' is not as puzzling as it might at first appear. Since Jump's note is misleading [he does not realise that Ovid is not necessarily spreaking in propria persona], it is necessary to describe the original context of the quotation. With a mocking pretence of taking traditional mythology seriously, the lover in Ovid's elegy had, in a sustained address to Aurora treated her as a slave driver and spoil-sport who rose so early only because of Tithonus's senility. And the lover's flippant fantasy climaxes with a vision of the biter bit: Aurora, like himself, adulterously in bed with a lover crying out in her turn for night to be prolonged:

at si quem manibus' Cephalum complexa teneres, clamares 'lente currite noctis equi!'(Amores, I, xiii, 36-7)

or as Marlowe has it:

But heldst thou in thine arms some Cephalus This wouldst thou cry stay night and run not thus(Marlowe: Works, ed. Tucker Brooke, Oxford, 1910, p. 577)

Ovid's tone, here at its most flippant, would seem at odds with the use to which Faustus with his misquoted but obviously significant repetition of 'lente' so anguishedly puts it. But Ovid's lover, in the very extravagance with which he plays about with the idea of avoiding the inevitable, accepts it—an effect beautifully captured in the concluding lines of the elegy:

iurgia finieram. scires audisse—rubebat. nec tamen adsueta tardius orta dies(Amores, 1, xiii, …)

['I will finish my nagging. You must have heard—she blushed'. (the apparently awkward change of person here signifying the beginning of an explicit, graduated transition to the always latent conception of a demythologised world) 'And day did not come later than usual']

Faustus, at the very moment when he wrests the meaning of Ovid's line to articulate his suffering, is aware of the significances generated by the tension between the old context and the new one. (Since Marlowe as the translator of the Amores would himself have been so aware, additional weight is lent to this line of argument): that Ovid's lover's gods were no gods and he, Faustus, knows that they don't exist, while the Christian God is a true God and he knows He does exist: that Ovid's lover was not even passionate but merely sensual, his very lightness of tone being a sign of his lack of engagement, while he, Faustus, could not be more passionately in need: that, anyway, Ovid's lover could come again the next night while he cannot; and lastly, that in his very unregenerate adulterous sensuality, Ovid's lover would appear to be damned like himself but could anyway never have had the opportunity of being saved since he was without benefit of Christian revelation.

Moreover, Faustus's despair ('The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd'), a despair of God's mercy for which Judas was damned rather than for his betrayal of Christ, is only momentary. His growing realism thrusts him past it not only to contemplate the possibility of repentance but to act on it.

0, I'll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?(145)

And yet, of course,—a remarkable touch this—there is a dash of arrogance here: even Faustus's turning to God is in a mode of prideful aspiration all too characteristic of him (and our apprehension of it is certainly accentuated if one takes 'Who pulls me down?' as roughly equivalent to 'There's no one to stop me is there?') which indicates why, even at this eleventh hour, it is virtually, though not actually impossible for him to repent.

But, tainted though it may be, the desire to repent is sufficient for the mercy of God, who gives Faustus a miraculous sign of offered grace:

See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!(146)

It is worth pausing here and pointing out to those who support the current wisdom that Faustus is finally damned before the speech begins that if this manifestation is not a genuine sign of grace it is the act of a malignant God; a cruel rubbing of Faustus's nose in what he has lost. This, the only alternative view to that I am propounding does not, however, fit the lines that follow. For seeing this miraculous offer of grace,

Faustus appears to realise that his soul can be saved:

One drop would save my soul, half a drop.(147)

and he begins to pray: 'Ah my Christ!—' (147)

Lucifer, however, is not going to let his prey go so easily. That he had the power to torture physically even those over whom he had no spiritual dominion we know from his frank admission as to the limitations of his power over the Old Man when asked by Faustus to torment him:

His faith is great; I cannot touch his soul, But what I may afflict his body with I will attempt, which is but little worth.(XVIII, 88-9)

and we can see from what the Old Man says the little worth of those very attempts:

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.(XVIII, 122-4)

When Faustus had turned to God before, Lucifer had threatened him with similar pains, a threat which alone was sufficient to keep Faustus in line. But now, for the first time that threat is implemented:

Rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;(148)

In breaking off a prayer to Christ to futilely command Lucifer not to do that which he has the power and will to do, Faustus shows that he is not going to be strong enough to take the offered grace.

But Faustus is not quite beaten:

Yet will I call on him.(149)

Then Lucifer appears to increase Faustus's torment: and so, finally and decisively, Faustus turns from Christ:

O, spare me, Lucifer!—(149)

Faustus has not been strong enough—his desire and capacity to repent have not been great enough. So grace is finally withdrawn and the vision of the redemptive blood of the Son is replaced by that of the angry Father:

          … and see where God Stretcheth out his arm and bends his ireful brows.(150-1)

That is the vision which is to remain throughout the rest of the speech and even after the devils have come to claim him:

My God, my God! Look not so fierce on me!(187)

Not to interpret the passage I have just been discussing as a genuine opportunity for Faustus to repent is to miss a terrible irony whose impact has already been heightened by the very different behaviour of the Old Man when exposed to similar torments even though he did not have the prospect of going to hell immediately before him. It is that prospect which emphasises the terrible self-destructiveness of Faustus's behaviour. He already knows what the torments of hell will be like and there is nowhere any trace of his former scepticism about its very existence. As the Bad Angel had told him:

There are the furies, tossing damned souls On burning forks; their bodies boil in lead; There are live quarters broiling on the coals, That ne'er can die:(XIX, 118-21)

and, of course, more to the same effect. Any torture the devils can inflict on him now is as nothing to what they will inflict on him when he is in hell. And there the pain will be eternal: here its shadow will be a brief prelude to salvation.

The ironic implications are appalling. When, in the morning, the scholars find Faustus's limbs 'All torn asunder by the hand of death' (XX, 7), this is not, as Wilbur Sanders might see it, mere melodramatic excess; it emphasises the agony that even here on earth Faustus was made to endure because, by seeking temporary relief, he preferred to ensure it rather than avoid it altogether. It must be the story of all drug addicts. And the point is underscored by the clear indication that the rending of Faustus's body was not instantaneous; it took time. Usually represented as bearing their victims promptly to hell at the appointed hour, the devils in Dr Faustus linger. As the Third Scholar says:

… 'twixt the hours of twelve and one, methought I heard him shriek and call aloud for help,(XX, 9-10)

The remainder of the speech may seem merely a long drawn out return to a futile fantasy of escape. But it is more than this. At first there is a reaction of pure terror as if Faustus knows that he has missed his very last chance; it takes the form of a desire, absurdly impossible of fulfilment, to hide from the God who is bending his 'ireful brows' on him.

Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me, And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!..

Earth, gape! 0, no, it will not harbour me.(152-3: 156)

But it soon modulates into a more subtle manifestation of Faustus's state of mind. And what we see at work is Faustus, the Renaissance Philosopher, with his classical learning, his curiosity about and knowledge of, natural phenomena, and his speculative turn of mind. And Marlowe, implicitly summing up the theme of the play, exhibits the dangers that beset a mind so characterised: that it is liable to generate evasion and confusion because of its ability to make play with a variety of perspectives and possibilities in order to avoid facing a truth which it really knows to be absolute. There had been a striking example of this earlier in the play when Faustus presumed to tell an emissary from Hell that it did not exist while knowing that that was the only place from which Mephistophilis could have come. For Faustus's invocation of him presupposed the existence of a theological scheme of which Hell was a necessary part.

Throughout the latter part of the soliloquy Marlowe shows how Faustus uses his learning to increase unreality. Most obviously he does so in his attempt to suppress and deny what has only just happened:

Yet for Christ's sake, whose blood hath ransom'd me, Impose some end to my incessant pain; Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years, A hundred thousand, and at last be sav'd.(167-70)

For this dwelling on a speculative possibility—that the pains of hell may not be eternal—is associated with misstatement and selfdeception. Not only, theologically speaking, is he wrong in trying to remake Hell in the image of purgatory, but he now chooses to pretend that he had not just rejected an offer of grace through Christ's redeeming blood because of his inability to endure not 'a hundred thousand' years of pain but a few moments' worth.

It is indeed typical of his powerful but disordered mind that not only should he try to, at one point, put the blame for his predicament elsewhere (though he can't after all do so without glancing at the possibility that he may be responsible himself):

Curs'd be the parents that engender'd me! No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer That bath depriv'd thee of the joys of heaven.(180-2)

but that this should be associated with the attempt to convince himself momentarily of the reality of an alternative world view, inconsistent with what he knows to be the true one, whereby his actions have been governed by a cosmic determinism which is not the expression of God's Providence.

You stars that reign'd at my nativity, Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,(157-8)

Further, and again revealingly, he plays with three different and mutually inconsistent possibilities, existing only in a world of speculation: first, that of having no soul like an animal ('Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?' [172]); second, that of having a mortal soul ('Or why is this immortal that thou hast?' [173]); and third, that of having a soul capable of transmigration. Significantly, he misrepresents Pythagoras:

Ah, Pythagoras' metempsychosis, were that true, This soul should fly from me, and I be chang'd Unto some brutish beast: all beasts are happy, For when they die Their souls are soon dissolv'd in elements;(174-8)

As he really must have known, transmigration was a continuous process: it didn't come to a sudden halt. The deflection here is obviously an emotional one. To continue to play with the idea of an irretrievably lost salvation as he had done as recently as 'So that my soul may but ascend to heaven' (173) is now too painful: the best he can imagine is extinction.

The perverted scientism which is an essential constituent of Faustus's mental set, had, indeed, been clearly manifested earlier in the speech where he had used his knowledge of the relation between evaporation, condensation, and cloud formation to try to persuade himself, by an implicit analogy which he knows to be false, that salvation is a process which belongs to the natural world:

You stars … Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud, That, when you vomit forth into the air, My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths, So that my soul may but ascend to heaven.(157-63)

The legerdemain behind this analogy is manifest in that last line. The soul is conceived as a material essence, which, though having evaporated with the body, does not, like it, re-condense but continues to ascend. Heaven then is merely regarded as a destination which the space-travelling soul, irrespective of desert, is bound to reach sooner or later. Faustus is still the man who from his 'chariot burning bright / Drawn by the strength of yoked dragons' necks [viewed] … Even to the height of primum mobile', (Chorus I, 5-6: 10), having sold his soul inter alia for a flying observation post. But in the passage under discussion the confusion between scientific and theological is not only fuelled by an obvious despair, it is a more subtle indicator of Faustus's mind. For what is behind the confusion is the idea of hiding from God, the too naked expression of the desire for which ('mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me', 152) he had had to reject as too obviously impossible; and the fear of the pains of hell, a fear which subliminally mocks at the hope to which he clings. For the 'smoky mouths' of the protective clouds inevitably suggest the very fires of hell, which he is trying vainly to distract his attention from. The speculative possibility that the soul may be a phenomenon governed by natural laws recurs with increasing anguish during the rest of the speech, though the comforting idea that it might, therefore, ascend naturally to heaven is tacitly dropped. Only the related conceptions of concealment and extinction remain dominant in 'For when they die / Their souls are soon dissolv'd in elements' (177-8); and, of course, in

O, it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air, Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell! O soul, be chang'd into little water drops, And fall into the ocean ne'er be found.(183-6)

I hope that I have demonstrated that if in this last speech Faustus is seen as having a real opportunity to repent then what might appear mere rhetorical overemphases can be given specific and complex meanings. There remains, however, one objection: it is that immediately previous to his last speech, both the Good Angel and Bad Angel had spoken to Faustus in a manner that had implied that damnation was certain:

Good Ang.…        And now, poor soul, must thy good angel leave thee;         The jaws of hell are open to receive thee. ExitHell is discovered.Bad Ang. Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare         Into that vast perpetual torture-house.(XIX, 114-17)

Both the Good and the Bad Angel, however, are semi-allegorical figures. They may have some objective status, but they are best interpreted as the externalisation of opposing tendencies and awarenesses in Faustus himself. As such they don't necessarily articulate more than what Faustus is aware of as the choices before him and the consequences of them. At this juncture, Faustus is quite understandably tempted to despair, and that the Bad Angel should encourage him to be so, is, of course, in keeping with his role throughout the play. But, it might be said, would the Good Angel join forces with the Bad to encourage Despair?

And yet, far from being an all but decisive argument against the interpretation I have been putting forward, that turns out, I think, to be a vindication of it. For if the Good Angel is solely an allegorical figure, his departure at this juncture is a sign that Faustus genuinely cannot comprehend the infiniteness of God's mercy, while, if he is a real angel, he manifests that partial vision, which as a created being, however superior to man he may be, he is bound to have. Thus in Paradise Lost, God knows that the angels guarding Eden will not be able to keep Satan out: they don't. And the Good Angel's departure—again on the assumpton that he is a real being—could also be taken to signify that God has decided to dispense with an intermediary and to communicate with Faustus directly through miraculous signs and a theophany.

Finally, the English version of the Faust book, which Marlowe used, lends colour to my contention. Here there is no last scene with Faustus by himself. What happens to him in his last agonising hours is retailed only indirectly through what the students see and hear at the time and what they discover of Faustus's remains afterwards. But, nonetheless, the possibility of a last minute repentance is there, though it has to be put back to Faustus's last meeting with the students:

But when the Students heard his words, they gave him counsel to do naught else but call upon God, desiring for the love of his sweet Son Jesus Christ's sake, to have mercy upon him, teaching him this form of prayer. 0 God, be merciful unto me, poor and miserable sinner, and enter not into judgment with me, for no flesh is able to stand before thee. Although, 0 Lord, I must leave my sinful body unto the Devil, being by him deluded, yet thou in mercy mayest preserve my soul … This they repeated unto him yet it could take no hold even as Cain, he also said his sins were greater than God was able to forgive.

(ed. Rose, London, 1925, pp. 205-6)

There is some confusion here, of course. The idea that the Devil could bear Faustus's body to hell while his soul went to heaven is not merely theologically unorthodox, it is theologically incoherent. But, nevertheless, salvation of some kind is regarded as a possibility, and Faustus's rejection of the prayer composed by the students as of no avail despite the apparent endorsement of the narrator ('yet it could take no hold' [my italics]) is to be interpreted, surely, as a manifestation of the sin of despair: no sin is impossible for God to forgive except the despair that He can forgive it. This was the terrible error that Judas made. As for Cain, he can provide no true parallel to Faustus's case as he lived before the Redemption.

It is, indeed, probable that, as Shakespeare habitually did, Marlowe glimpsed a possibility in his source that had not been properly developed and brought it to triumphant fruition.


1 Some editors read 'mavis'.

Lawrence V. Ryan (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7142

SOURCE: "Panurge and the Faustian Dilemma," in Stanford Literature Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall, 1985, pp. 147-63.

[In the following essay, Ryan compares the respective attitudes of the protagonists of Rabelais's comic romance Tiers Livre with Marlowe's Faust toward the possibility of spiritual salvation.]

As Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Dr. Faustus begins, the protagonist is discovered in his study lamenting his failure, through ordinary means, to satisfy the boundless desires of his intellect and will and so turning as a last resort to magic. The insatiable hunger of this dramatic character for impossibly attainable knowledge, power, and self-gratification has entered our modern mythology as the Faustian dilemma.

What can a creature, limited in capacity yet infinitely aspiring, do to exceed the limitations of our nature and achieve things inaccessible to ordinary mortals? And does making the effort to seize the absolute, "to gain a deity," inevitably lead to disillusionment, despair, and damnation? The attempt to go beyond the legitimately human has become depicted in literature and art through commerce with the occult or the demonic after a rejection of all that has been, or might be, gained through traversing the normal paths to knowledge and dominance. Often, as in Marlowe's play, these acceptable approaches have been symbolized by the four traditional faculties of early universities—philosophy, medicine, law, and theology.

In the opening lines of Goethe's Faust, for example, the disillusioned polymath complains,

Habe nun, ach! Philosophie, Juristerei und Medicin, Und leider auch Theologie! Durchaus studirt, mit heisem Bemuhn. Da steh' ich nun, ich armer Thor! Und bin so klug als wie zuvor;

Drum hab' ich mich der Magie ergeben …

Since Goethe, rejection of the conventional approaches to learning followed by search through forbidden ways for certain knowledge of, and superhuman power over, the secrets of creation—typically involving conjuration and a compact with the infernal—has been repeated in a number of other fictional, dramatic, and even graphic works based on the legend of Faust. In the earlier nineteenth century, Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, in a satiric narrative treatment of the story, describes, just before the hero summons up Mephistopheles, an "allegorical ballet" in which are paraded before the lords of hell figures representing the four faculties, each accompanied by the several vices that it engenders in human beings.1 More recently, in Valery's "Mon Faust," the doctor's disciple of one brief evening is shown all the books of the world—works of poetry, history, philosophy, theology, and natural science—by Mephistopheles, who, calling them all utterly useless, tempts the youth to ignore them and simply to be (etre), like himself and Faust. The disciple remarks (aside), "Cet etre me donne envie de fuir ou de l'etrangler," and then, asking his tempter whether or not it was at this point "que Faust a declame des mots fameux que tout le monde sait par coeur?" proceeds to quote the well-known verses from Goethe's tragedy.2

Thomas Mann and Dorothy Sayers do not quite repeat the rejection of all four faculties, though Adrian Leverkühn, the demonically possessed composer of Mann's novel Dr. Faustus, had studied in several of them, including theology, before his (perhaps) hallucinated compact with the diabolical. In Sayers' drama The Devil to Pay, the idealistic protagonist, lamenting that "The end of all our knowledge is to learn how helpless we are," finds "Divinity, philosophy, astrology … Physic" but a "barren desert of doctrine" which can afford no "comfort" to humankind. Therefore her Faust turns to magic, hoping that it may enable him "to resolve the mystery of wickedness, lay bare the putrefying sore at the heart of creation, break and remake the pattern of the inexorable stars …"3

A most enigmatic artistic treatment of the uselessness of traditional learning to solve the Faustian dilemma of how to liberate oneself from the constraints on human thought and activity is Max Klinger's aquatint Die Fakult?ten (1914). The print depicts Sisyphus striving mightily to push upward a great rock on which are seated four women garbed in costumes representing the four major disciplines. In the air to the right of this scene of profitless struggle is a dirigible (at the time a recent invention), apparently symbolizing, through its untrammeled flight, a magical new way of escaping human limitations.4

Thus, the opening lines to Marlowe's tragedy have provided modern literature and art with a topos for imaging the agonizing dilemma of being caught between the infiniteness of human aspirations and the finitude of the capacity for gratifying them. Yet if the later influence of Faustus' spurning the four faculties and his resort to magic in his desperation can be clearly traced, suggestions of possible inspiration for its dramatization by Marlowe have not included what is, if not its source, at least its closest analogue; namely, the Tiers Livre of Frangois Rabelais's Gargantua et Pantagruel.

Neither the German Faustbuch, nor the free English translation of it (1592) on which Marlowe's play is based, for instance, makes the doctor who turns in frustration to forbidden magic a disgruntled polymath. He is simply a discontented theologian who sometimes "would throw the Scriptures from him as though he had no care of his former profession … in so much that hee could not abide to bee called Doctor of Diuinitie, but waxed a worldly man, and named himself an Astrologian, and a Mathematician: and for a shadow sometimes a Phisitian …5 I There had been, of course, well-known earlier sixteenth-century attacks on the pretensions and ineptitude of the various professions, including the traditional university faculties. Erasmus' Folly has her say about them in the Encomium Moriae (Paris, 1511), and they are all taken to task in Henry Cornelius Agrippa's De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium (1526). Both works were available to Marlowe in English, the Erasmian satire as rendered by Sir Thomas Chaloner (London, 1549) and Agrippa's treatise in a recent version by James Sandford (London, 1569, 1575). Faustus, it is true, as he resolves to become a magus, does remark that he aspires to "be as cunning as Agrippa was, / Whose shadows made all Europe honour him."6 Still in neither of these earlier works does rejection of what can be learned from the four faculties and a turning to magic as well appear as a distinctive unit.7

Where such treatment of the disciplines of philosophy, medicine, law, and divinity, along with an excursus on magic, does occur is in Rabelais's Tiers Livre. It does so, moreover, in a manner similar to, if much more expansively and ambiguously than in, Marlowe's work.8 Panurge, having felt "la pusse than en in, l'aureille" to get married, faces what for him seems an unresolvable dilemma. If he should wed, will he, or will he not, become a cuckold and be beaten and robbed by his wife? Granted that his problem may not seem, at least superficially, so cosmic as Faustus', close comparison of the Elizabethan play with this portion of the French romance reveals suggestive resemblances between them. This is especially true if one keeps in mind that cuckolding is not the main issue, though it may appear so to him, in Panurge's quest for certainty about his future. Rather, as in Dr. Faustus too, it is really how one should live in an unpredictable and mysterious universe that is nevertheless ruled by divine providence.

Direct influence cannot be proved here, for although numerous editions of Gargantua et Pantagruel that include the third book were available to Marlowe, nowhere in his writings does he mention Rabelais or allude to any of the Rabelaisian characters.9 Still, in no other earlier work are the predicament and personal characteristics of the central figure so much like those of Faustus as they are in the Panurge of the Tiers Livre.

More than four-fifths of this book is occupied with Panurge's dilemma about marrying. In order to determine whether or not his cuckoldry is inevitable, besides seeking advice from Pantagruel and his other friends, he considers first various forms of divination and then consults the Sibyl of Panzoust, a mute named Nazdecabre, "ung vieil Poete Francois nomme Raminagrobis," the fool Triboulet, and the magician Her Trippa. After Panurge, disgusted with Her Trippa's offer to prove his inescapable cuckoldry through a variety of "-mancies," angrily dismisses him as the "sorcier au Diable, enchanteur de l'Antichrist," Pantagruel proposes that they seek the counsel "d'un Theologien, d'un Medicin, d'un Legiste et d'un Philosophe." His reason for calling upon the first three is that

Tout ce que sommes et qu'avons consiste en trois -conservation de chascun des trois respectivement sont aujourd'huy destinees trois maniers de gens: les Theologiens a l'ame, les Medicins au corps, les Jurisconsultes aux biens.10

In order to complete the mystical "tetrade Pythagoricque" and to benefit from the wisdom of all the learned faculties, he also suggests that they invite to their banquet Trouillogan, "le Philosophe perfaict," because he always "respond assertivement de tous doubtes proposez" (ch. 29, p. 206).

An intervening conversation with Frere Jan aside, the "consultations" with Her Trippa and the four savants constitute a distinct narrative unit in the Tiers Livre and reveal traits of character in Panurge that remind one of several in Marlowe's Faustus. Panurge is skeptical about the worth of what any of these representatives of learning can tell him that might help to resolve his dilemma. The fact that none of their answers satisfies him may be taken in two differing ways. Although Pantagruel has assured him that all of these men are "bons" in their metiers, in each episode there is nonetheless a trace of satire on the ineffectuality of the discipline concerned. With the theologian Hippothadee the touch of ridicule is slightest: he informs Panurge merely that he will escape cuckoldry "si Dieu plaist" (ch. 30, p. 211) and that the best insurance against the disgrace is to marry a virtuous, God-fearing woman. With typical professional pedantry, the physician Rondibillis explains the "natural" causes of cuckoldry and recounts a comic myth about how to avoid it. Trouillogan, the philosopher, instead of responding "assertivement" as Pantagruel had promised, when asked whether Panurge should wed or not will only answer equivocally "Tous les deux" and "Ne l'un ne l'autre" (ch. 35, p. 242). Finally, Bridoye, the judge who decides all cases by casting dice, seems such a simple fool that Panurge never asks him the burning question at all.11

Still, the fault lies less in the inadequacy or inappropriateness of their replies than within Panurge himself. A number of recent scholars have seen in him the sot who cannot discern the truth and come to a decision because he does not "know himself."12 Blinded by his own lasciviousness and self-love, he has been, as Pantagruel tells him, "seduyt" by "L'esprit maling" (ch. 19, p. 139). As a consequence, in his exchange with Hippothadee he fails to see that the solution lies in faith in God and trust in Holy Writ; he is insensitive to Rondibillis' response about human nature as the cause of cuckoldry, cannot see in the apparently two-handed replies of Trouillogan that in a puzzling case one must make up his own mind, and does not recognize the profound truth underlying Bridoye's naive confidence that in difficult judicial rulings the hand of God guides the dice.

In these episodes, therefore, while they undoubtedly involve a certain amount of ridicule of the ineffectuality of those who profess expertise, the four "bons" periti do speak a kind of wisdom that Panurge should heed in a world in which one must rest content with some uncertainty and, as best he can, act out his destiny, over which no one can ever hope to secure absolute control.13 Unlike the last person to whom Pantagruel advises him to turn for help, Triboulet the "fol de nature" who humbly accepts his limitations and consequently speaks and acts with a kind of Erasmian wise foolishness, the self-centered and morally myopic Panurge cannot make up his mind to act at all.14 Only those persons are capable of foresight and behaving wisely, says Pantagruel, who can "se oublier soymesmes, vuider ses sens de toute terrienne affection, purger son esprit de toute humaine sollicitude et mettre tout en non chaloir, ce que vulgairement est imputé à follie" (ch. 37, pp. 257-58).

As Pantagruel makes clear, Panurge is incapable of sound judgment and of self-knowledge because he is misl d by philautia (self-love): "Philautie et amour de soy vous decoit" (ch. 29, p. 204). Nor can he profit from the counsel of others: "Ni les oracles ni les sages n'ont pu faire sortir de sa perplexité … Il est trop engagé, trop domine par sa philautie."15 Unable to accept the "foolish wisdom" that might enable him to escape the prison of the self, and having exhausted all other external resources, Panurge finally will seek the resolution of his perplexity in "le mot de la [Dive] Bouteille" (ch. 47, p. 313), the journey to which oracle occupies the Fourth and the (uncertainly Rabelaisian) Fifth Books of Gargantua et Pantagruel.

The Tiers Livre thus incorporates matter more serious and profound than Panurge's mere dread of being cuckolded. Rather than this superficial farcical theme, the deeper concern of the book is the search for the truth about oneself that makes it possible to live successfully within the bounds marked out for human existence.16 It is this serious element, moreover, along with the scorning by the self-deluded Panurge of all the means to render that solution possible, which establishes an affinity, if not a connection by influence, between this part of Rabelais's comic romance and Marlowe's tragedy.

For Faustus, too, is so blinded by philautia that he cannot know himself. As is true of Panurge, it is his arrogant self-centeredness and willful self-delusion through misordered desires that make him succumb to stultitia and render himself incapable of benefiting from the guidance available in the sciences which he casts aside after claiming to have mastered them so thoroughly.

Like Panurge, Faustus is contemptuous of, and hence impervious to, whatever might be learned from the disciplines of philosophy, medicine, law, and theology. Marlowe's handling of the soliloquy in which his protagonist rejects them one by one is, however, different from the way Rabelais deals with them in the corresponding episodes in the Tiers Livre. First, Faustus "consults" the four faculties, not through human representatives; instead, alone in his study, he leafs over his books, standard texts of each of the branches of learning. Thus, from the outset he is already revealed symbolically as separated from the rest of humanity in his effort to "get a deity." Of this deliberately chosen isolation that continues throughout the play there can be no consequence but tragedy. In contrast Panurge, however stubbornly he resists all proferred advice, seeks it always from other human beings, in convivial circumstances among his circle of friends. In that difference, though within the Tiers Livre itself he achieves no salvation, lies hope, as will be shown later, for a happy resolution to his dilemma.

Secondly, the order in which Faustus in his soliloquy turns to the four disciplines and to magic differs from and more patently develops to a climax than does the sequence in Rabelais's work. In the Tiers Livre, Her Trippa appears first (ch. 25), followed by the theologian (ch. 30-31), the physician (ch. 31-34), the philosopher (ch. 35-36), and the episode of the judge Bridoye (ch. 39-43). There is, no doubt, a certain logic to the arrangement of Panurge's consultations, a descent in the hierarchical scale of human concerns from the more to the less important. After his failure to fathom the secrets of the universe through the arts of divination or the occult lore of Her Trippa, he is advised to consult those, as Pantagruel has explained, who concern themselves with the welfare of our souls, bodies, and goods—in turn, the theologian, the physician, and the lawyer. The one anomaly seems to be the placing of the interview with the philosopher who should properly, being concerned with the good of the intellect, rank next after the theologian, rather than the physician. But it is clear that the movement is generally downward in the scale of values. It also seems significant that the encounter with Triboulet should come after all the others. Since neither the "responses des saiges" nor Her Trippa's divinations can satisfy Panurge, perhaps he may be reached by someone who is "sage et presage par aspiration divine," someone who has been able to escape the self; namely, the fool.

Faustus impatiently dismisses in turn philosophy, medicine, civil law, and theology before resorting to magic and making his compact with Mephistopheles. The sequence of his rejections follows the traditional pattern of university education and, in ascending order, the hierarchy of the professional faculties. One first proceeded through the curriculum of the faculty of arts, or philosophy, the core of which was the study of logic, requisite for admission to the higher schools. Hence Faustus, seeking to "level at the end of every art" (i, 4), claims already to have attained the principal aim of logic, which is simply, he reads in his book, "to dispute well." Abandoning philosophy therefore in favor of a "greater subject," medicine, he asserts that he has also achieved everything of which this art is capable. Yet because it cannot teach one how to "make men to live eternally / Or being dead raise them to life again" (11. 24-25), he likewise forsakes "physic." The law, in his view, consists of nothing but cases of "paltry legacies," and only

           fits a mercenary drudge Who aims at nothing but external trash, Too servile and illiberal for me.(11. 34-36)

Taking up next his Vulgate Bible, because the acknowledged queen of the sciences is theology, Faustus finds in Romans 6:23 that "The reward of sin is death" and in the first epistle of John 1:8 that "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us" (11. 39-43). Considering the two passages as the major and minor premises of a syllogism, he concludes that if sin in human beings is inevitable, obviously "we must die an everlasting death" (1. 45). Since damnation must come—"Che sarà, sarà" (1. 46)—he resolves to give over all other studies, abandon God, and turn to "necromantic books" (1. 49), hoping that through his conjuring he may indeed "get a deity," become "a demigod.17

What Faustus has done in his soliloquy is to reject every legitimate branch of learning, starting with the most elementary and proceeding in order through those intellectual disciplines which benefit the body and the social order to that which provides for the most important good of all, the salvation of the soul. He has done so because he is already possessed, not by desire for true knowledge but by his lust to command "a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence" (11. 52-53). His inordinate appetite for sensual gratification, knowledge, and power, to be "on earth as Jove is in the sky, / Lord and commander of these elements!" (11. 75-76), has even blinded him to the genuine ends of the sciences that he so cavalierly dismisses.

When he leaves off considering "on kai me on" (1. 12), being and non-being, the central issue of metaphysics, the highest branch of philosophy, he loses the capacity to distinguish between reality and illusion and surrenders himself to a world of shadows and phantoms. With medicine he is discontented because he mistakes its legitimate goal, which is preservation of health but not the immortality of the body. Despite his reputation for almost miraculous cures, moreover, his purpose in effecting them has not been to benefit his neighbors, but selfishly to "heap up gold" (1. 14). In the Justinian code he can find only trivial statutes regarding the disposition of property; yet the intent of the civil law is not merely to regulate the shifting of material goods from one person to another, but to order human society justly. Further, it seems ironic that in order to rationalize his abandonment of legal studies he should quote from the Institutes the phrase "Exhereditare filium non potest pater, nisi—a father cannot disinherit his son unless …" (1. 31). Those words should have been a hint to him, just before taking the fatal step of abjuring God, that he could not have been deprived of his inheritance of paradise unless he had chosen recklessly to forsake it.18

The supreme irony is that Faustus has even failed to profit from his most basic studies, his training in formal logic. For, as Virgil K. Whitaker has pointed out, he deliberately ensnares himself into perverting the revealed word of the New Testament about salvation, by fashioning an invalid syllogism. Both of the scriptural verses he uses to justify his despairing conclusion he takes out of context. The sequel to the first is "but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord"; to the second, "But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."19 Because he has already made up his mind to find excuses for giving himself over to necromancy and other forbidden arts, he is impervious to the truth and wisdom offered him by the legitimate sciences. His philautia and lust for wrongful knowledge and pleasures have corrupted his heart and mind and prepared him for diabolical seduction. As Pantagruel had warned Panurge, "hors aequité par l'esprit maling est l'affection depravée" (ch. 7, p. 66). Hence, Mephistopheles gloatingly tells Faustus just before his death, "when thou took'st the book / To view the scriptures, then I turn'd the leaves / And led thine eye" (xix, 94-96).

Both Panurge and Faustus, then, are fools whose spiritual blindness is self-inflicted and has rendered them incapable of knowing themselves. As Gargantua had written in his famous epistle to Pantagruel when the latter was engaged in his youthful studies at Paris, "science sans conscience n'est que ruine de l'âme."20 Panurge, of course, has neither knowledge (science) nor self-knowledge (conscience). Faustus, the pretended polymath, may also have neither, but in any event it is his lack of true self-awareness that renders his vaunted learning useless to him. For both characters, moreover, though for different reasons, the resort to magic to solve their difficulties is the beginning of their downfall.21 This is evident, even if sequentially Panurge's visit to Her Trippa precedes the conferences with the "bons" savants while Faustus' taking up the "necromantic books" and his rendezvous with the conjurers Valdes and Cornelius come after his renunciation of all other means to knowledge.

Actually, as M. A. Screech has pointed out, Her Trippa's conclusions through divination that a promiscuous, self-loving fool like Panurge is bound to be cuckolded are just as sound as the answers he receives i the subsequent episodes. While the reader rightly laughs at the magician as "the butt of the comedy," ironically he is less foolish than Panurge, who "takes the ultimate step of the man blinded by philautia: he accuses Her Trippa of his own blinding vice!"22 From this point onward, Panurge will listen to no counsel whatsoever with an open mind, but willfully misinterprets every response that he receives in his own favor. At length he cannot even penetrate "the wisdom of folly … Having failed to become the wise fool, he regresses to become a more foolish fool than he had ever been before."23

Faustus likewise becomes an increasingly "foolish fool" as, in conjuring up Mephistopheles, he gains nothing but phantasms as the reward of conveying his soul to the devil. In the central scenes of the tragedy he employs his infernally assisted powers, not for the loftier deeds that he had envisioned performing early in the play, but in such trivial pranks that some critics have doubted whether Marlowe was responsible for dramatizing them. Yet they are appropriate to a character whose deliberately induced intellectual and spiritual corruption had led him into a bonding with unreality that can only drag him downward in the scale of being to a state of disordered folly. These farcical episodes in the tragedy, though obviously derived from the Faustbuch, suggest yet another parallel between Faustus and Panurge, particularly as we first encounter the latter in the book of Pantagruel. Again like Panurge, Marlowe's protagonist follows his own inordinate impulses rather than the path of moderation, the path insisted upon by the humanistic Rabelais. He becomes mainly a clownish perpetrator of practical jokes upon unsuspecting victims.24 He who had aspired to be capable of doing everything becomes, except in his agonized moments of regret over his ill-considered bargain, a wanton trickster like Panurge, whose name in Greek (panourgos) means a clever knave, ready to do anything, especially anything wicked.25

Besides both being immoderately self-indulgent fools who deliberately ignore God's grace and thus allow "L'esprit maling" to seduce them, who waste their wits in devising ridiculous pranks, in certain other respects Panurge and Faustus are similar in character. Among the resemblances are their disordered attitudes toward wealth and their lasciviousness. Properly used, both riches and sexuality make life more worthwhile and can enhance human character. But Panurge is a wastrel who defends his prodigality against Pantagruel's championing of careful husbandry with a wittily sophistic oration "a la louange des presteurs et debteurs" (chs. 3-4). And Valdes promises the avid Faustus, who craves to "heap up gold" without measure, that the spirits he raises through his conjuring will bring him the contents of Venetian argosies "And from America the golden fleece / That yearly stuffs old Philip's treasury" (i, 130-31), the wealth with which Faustus dreams of doing world-shaking deeds that he never accomplishes.

Both he and Panurge also have the urge to marry, but with neither of them is it for the appropriate reasons, nor does either succeed in achieving the wedded state. Fear of the stigma of cuckoldry inhibits Panurge, despite his itching lust, from deciding to take the step, while one of the first things that Faustus demands of Mephistopheles is a wife. He would have "the fairest maid in Germany / For I am wanton and lascivious / And cannot live without a wife" (v, 141-43). But since marriage is a sacrament and confers divine graces, the devil can scarcely allow him to wed. After Presenting him, instead, with "a woman devil," Mephistopheles promises to find him "the fairest courtesans / And bring them every morning to thy bed" (11. 153-54). Since Faustus simply wishes to gratify his lust, he accepts this promise and, ironically, is granted as his last phantom pleasure upon earth the embraces of the mere shade of Helen of Troy.26

Most strikingly of all, Panurge and Faustus resemble each other in their degeneration from extreme self-confidence in their earliest appearances to indecisiveness and inability to make choices as their histories unfold. In Book Two Panurge comes on as boastfully self-assured, bold in asserting and demonstrating his independence and resourcefulness. Throughout the Tiers Livre, however, his fears about the risks in marriage render him less and less certain about acting, and in the voyages of the Fourth Book his cowardice increases comically to the point where he is barely recognizable as the sometime swaggerer of Book Two. Faustus, in turn, who would do things on a divine scale as the tragedy begins and who boasts of infinite self-reliance, can rashly forswear "the joys of heaven" then and, in his ignorance, tell the devil himself to learn from him "manly fortitude / And scorn those joys thou never shalt possess" (iii, 87-88). Yet amid the dubious pleasures supplied him in the ensuing scenes, whenever he tries to break with Mephistopheles and Lucifer he finds himself less and less capable of doing so. At last, in his great final soliloquy, he who had confidently abjured God in order to strive for divinity itself is unable to accept the Lord's mercy and can only beg whimperingly for annihilation as he desperately struggles to avoid an eternity in hell.

In the Tiers Livre Panurge, and in Marlowe's tragedy Faustus, thus fail to resolve the dilemma of the incompatibility between longing for absolutely certain knowledge, the fulfillment of inordinate desires, and the limitations of the human condition. Acceptance of that condition would have enabled both to come to terms with themselves and with the realities of their worlds. But where for Faustus, even with a last-minute chance to grasp at redemption, the end must be despair and damnation, for his Rabelaisian counterpart there is a promise of hope for resolution. Not in the Third Book, for there he remains the fool blinded by self-love and his appetites who cannot find the answer he seeks even though it is continually being set before him. But the voyage to "la Dive Bouteille" that he undertakes in Books Four and Five does end in his chance for, perhaps actually in, his enlightenment. The oracular answer, "TRINCH," is only what was already within himself and also what Pantagruel had been placing before him throughout the Tiers Livre:

Il se y convient mettre à l'aventure, les oeilz bandez, baissant la teste, baisant la terre e se recommandant à Dieu au demourant, puys qu'une foys l'on se y veult mettre. (ch. 10, p. 81)

The revelation having been made in a single cryptic word, Bacbuc then explains how one must conduct the quest for truth and self-understanding in this life:

Car tous philosophes et saiges anticques, [pour] bien suirement et plaisamment parfaire le chemin de congnoissance divine et chasse de sapience, ont estime deux choses necessaires: guyde de Dieu et compaignye d'homme.27

Faustus unfortunately had abandoned both of these necessary things, had isolated himself from God and his fellow human beings to live with phantoms and illusions in a pact with nothingness. Hence he could never attain the knowledge and the wisdom that he had pursued along forbidden pathways. But Panurge, though remaining a fool throughout his quest, is finally freed from his doubts and hesitation by the command of the oracle, and with his good companions will return to the "navires au port" which are waiting to bear the voyagers back to the just and life-fulfilling Rabelaisian kingdom of Utopia.28

While it is true, then, that no direct connection between Gargantua et Pantagruel and The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus can be established and that Marlowe could have derived almost everything in his play from the Faustbuch and the writings and legendary reputation of Agrippa, it is evident nevertheless that Panurge and Faustus, in a number of characteristics and in their inability to remain content with the limitations on knowledge and action imposed by their human condition, are more than superficially akin. The Faustian dilemma seems to have been anticipated in Rabelais's Tiers Livre (or, given the priority of its composition, should one rather speak of the "Panurgean dilemma" experienced a generation later by Marlowe's protagonist?). Whether by mere coincidence or not, in two of the most seminal works of early modern literature remarkable similarities exist in the treatment of this dilemma of trying to master one's destiny absolutely while most imperfectly knowing and mastering the self.


1Fausts Leben, Taten, und Hollenfahrt (Frankfurt am Main, 1964), pp. 24-27.

2 Paul Valery, "Mon Faust" (ebauches) (Paris, 1946), pp. 164-74.

3 Dorothy L. Sayers, The Devil to Pay (New York, 1939), pp. 27-28.

4 Tipped into an issue devoted to Klinger of the Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, n.s. 2 (November 1915).

5The Sources of the Faust Tradition, ed. Philip Mason Palmer and Robert Pattison More (New York, 1936), p. 136. The original German says that Faust "hat die Haylig Schrift ein weil hinder die Thur / vnnd vnder die Bannckh gesteckht / Das wortt Gottes nit Lieb gehalten /… Wolt sich hernach kein Theologum mehr nennen lassen / ward ein Weltmensch / Nennt sich ein Doctor Medicinae, ward ein Astrologus vnnd Mathematicus / nvvd zum glimpffen ward Er ein Arzt /…" (Das Faustbuch nach der Wolfenbüttler Handschrift, ed. H. G. Haile [Berlin, 1963], p. 32).

6 Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, ed. John D. Jump (London, 1962), scene i, 11. 116-17. All quotations will be from this edition and honceforth will be cited within the text by scene and line numbers within parentheses.

Faustus is thinking of Agrippa here, perhaps as the author not of De vanitate, but rather of his earlier De occulta philosophia (1510), a compendium of magic on which, in part, his dubious reputation as a magician was based.

Association of, and confusion between, Faust and Agrippa began in the sixteenth century, particularly as players of cheap tricks on unsuspecting victims, and the connection remained long in the popular mind. Thus, the playwright and poet Thomas Heywood could write:

Of Faustus and Agrippa it is told, That in their trauels they bare seeming gold, Which would abide the touch; and by the way, In all their Hostries they would freely pay. But parted thence, myne host thinking to finde, Those glorious Pieces they had left behinde, Safe in his bag, sees nothing, saue together Round scutes of home, and pieces of old leather.(The Hierarchy of the blessed Angells [London, 1635], p. 574)

Catherine M. Dunn has remarked that "Agrippa's anguished doubts in De vanitate, as well as in the De occulta, helped to mold the legend of Faust, which in many ways symbolizes the intellectual crisis of the sixteenth century." She notes the similarity of "Agrippa's attitudes" to those of both Marlowe's and Goethe's heroes (Introduction to Sandford's translation Of the Vanitie and Vncertaintie of Artes and Sciences [Northridge, Calif., 1974], pp. xxxii-xxxiii). Charles G. Nauert, Jr., also observes that "Like Agrippa, Goethe's Faust mastered and came to loathe all four faculties of university learning … Faust's opening speech sounds almost like a summary of De vanitate" (Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought [Urbana, 1965], p. 331).

7 In his edition of Dr. Faustus (p. 6 n.), Jump does suggest that "In this earlier part of Faustus' soliloquy, Marlowe seems to owe something to Lyly's Euphues." There the hero, having been disillusioned in love, resolves that "Philosophie, Phisicke, Diuinitie shal be my studie. O ye hidden secrets of Nature, the expresse image of morall vertues, the equall ballaunce of Iustice, the medicines to heale all diseases, how they beginne to delyght me. The Axiomaes of Aristotle, the Maxims of lustinian, the Aphorismes of Galen, haue sodaynelye made such a breache into my minde that I seeme onely to desire them which did onely earst detest them" (The Complete Works of John Lyly, ed. R. Warwick Bond, 2 vols. [Oxford, 1902], I, 241).

It is clear that in the passage quoted all four faculties are mentioned. Still, in this speech Euphues is forswearing the life of self-indulgence for that of the mind and speaks favorably of all these branches of learning, unlike Faustus, who scorns them. Marlowe, of course, could have been making Faustus invert the sentiment if his intention was to parody the passage in Lyly's romance.

8 A number of years ago I suggested the possibility to Judith Weil of a connection between Panurge's "consultations" and Faustus' opening soliloquy. In her Christopher Marlowe: Merlin's Prophet (Cambridge, 1977), Weil has remarked that "Both Erasmus and Rabelais had already used the four professions to exemplify learned folly" (59), but without pursuing further any comparison with Marlowe's play. John Cowper Powys did call Rabelais "in the fullest Spenglerian sense a Faustian writer" but linked him only with Goethe's drama and with Goethe's own "meddling with the occult" in his youth (Robelais [London, 1948], p. 70).

9 Before Dr. Faustus could have been written, the Tiers Livre had appeared in at least twenty-eight editions of Rabelais, half of these during Marlowe's own lifetime. In 1588, for example, in time for him to have seen it before writing his play, the complete Gargantua et Pantagruel, including the possibly spurious Fifth Book, was published at Lyon by Jean Martin. That Marlowe ever read the Rabelaisian romance, however, cannot be established. Further, except for the anonymous writer of the anti-Martin Marprelate pamphlet An Almand for a Parrat (1589), the few Elizabethan authors who did mention or apparently allude to the work, such as Gabriel Harvey and Sir Philip Sidney, did so in writings that were not published until after Marlowe's death (Huntington Brown, Rabelais in English Literature [Cambridge, Mass., 1933], pp. 34-35).

10Le Tiers Livre, ed. M.A. Scheech (Geneva; Paris, 1964), ch. 29, pp. 204-05. All quotations of the Third Book are taken from this edition. In subsequent citations only the chapter and page numbers will be given, in parentheses, following the passage quoted.

11 V.L. Saulnier has argued that it is impossible for any of these persons to give true advice to Panurge since they are mere "techniciens" who can provide answers only in their own fields and since, like Panurge, none of them knows himself. Some are seen as immediately ridiculous. "D'autres introduissent dans leurs reponses d'utiles conseils, mais sans repondre plus resolument. Au total, tout est toujours plus ou moins science sans conscience" (Le Dessein de Rabelais [Paris, 1957], p. 112).

12 Besides Saulnier, others who have seen Panurge in this light include Edwin M. Duval, "Panurge, Perplexity, and the Ironic Design of Rabelais's Tiers Livre," Renaissance Quarterly 35 (1982), 392-93; Walter Kaiser, Praisers of Folly: Erasmus. Rabelais. Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), pp. 105, 172-81; and M. A. Screech, Rabelais (Ithaca, New York, 1979), pp. 235-38.

13 "Panurge's borrowed sarcasms against the three professions are rejected by Pantagruel: we are to get the advice of a truly Christian theologian, a good prophylactic doctor and a selfless lawyer. A philosopher is thrown in for good measure … Rabelais is aided in his artistic and philosophical aims both by his comic insight, which can find subjects for laughter in the most arid of Renaissance treatises, and by his gift for condensing complex ideas into a few meaningful words" (Screech, Rabelais, pp. 245-46).

14 Kaiser, pp. 172-74. Kaiser sums up his analysis by observing that "it is because Panurge is incapable of becoming the perfect fool and because in his imperfect folly 'the malign spirit misleads, beguileth and seduceth him' that he cannot make up his mind. Therefore he cannot act. The answer to his question can never be found in the repositories of worldly wisdom; it can only be found within himself (181).

15 Screech, Introduction to Le Tiers Livre, pp. xvii-xviii. Further, notes Screech, "pour les humanistes chretiens du xvie siecle, la philautie etait le pire des vices: le malorum omnium fons de Platon, une perversion diabolique de l' ôüðç chrétienne" (p. xv).

16 Kaiser, p. 125.

17 "Demi-god" (1. 61) is the reading in the 1616 quarto, on which Jump bases his edition. In the quarto of 1604, the phrase is "mighty god," an even more inordinate aspiration.

18 In The Overreacher (Boston, 1964), p. 113, Harry Levin appears to have this same probability in mind when he observes that "the Roman statute that Faustus cites at random does not seem to be wholly irrelevant; it has to do with the ways and means whereby a father may disinherit a son."

19Shakespeare's Use of Learning (San Marino, 1953), pp. 241-42. Earlier M. M. Mahood had noticed in Faustus the same faulty reasoning based on willful ignorance or deliberate suppression of parts of the quotations (Poetry and Humanism [New Haven, 1950], p. 69).

20 The full text of Gargantua's sentence makes the phrase even more applicable to the condition of both Panurge and Faustus: "Mais, parce que selon le saige Salomon sapience n'entre poinot en ame malivole et science sans conscience n'est que ruine de l'ame, il te convient servir, aymer et craindre Dieu, et en luy mettre toutes les pensees et tout ton espoir, et par foy formne de charite, estre a luy adjoinct en sorte que jamais n'en soys desampare par peche" (Rabelais, Oeuvres completes, ed. Jacques Boulenger [Paris, 1951], p. 228). Levin has also cited this passage in treating Faustus' lack of self-awareness (108).

21 Duval considers the interview with "the Faustian diviner Her Trippa" the "centerpiece" of and the "key to understanding the Tiers Livre" because the magician promises the impossible and is "the only malign and vindictive one in a long series of charitable or innocuous consultants" (388-90).

22Rabelais, p. 236. Screech goes on to say that "The inevitable product of self-love is moral, philosophical and spiritual blindness. A man who loves himself can get nothing straight; he certainly cannot both love himself with philautia and know himself (238).

23 Kaiser, p. 178.

24 What Florence M. Weinberg has written of the excesses of Panurge applies equally to Faustus: "Panurge chooses to serve his appetites rather than God, subjecting his higher nature to his baser impulses … Once he has deviated from the golden mean, he is out of balance, a state which may lead to any sort of disorder, including wickedness …" (The Wine & the Will: Rabelais's Bacchic Christianity [Detroit, 1972], pp. 138-39).

25 The term panourgos, observes Screech, is "applied, rarely in a good sense, to a man ready to do anything … Anybody who knew Greek in any of its forms would have 'placed' Panurge at once: a trickster ready for anything. Not perhaps a trickster, but the Trickster: craftiness personified" (Rabelais, p. 70). Screech also calls him "a darker and more disturbing fool as diabolical madness takes over his mind. His folly is always laughable, but, progressively, far from merely laughable" (225).

Both Panurge and Faustus indulge in the kind of carnivalesque pranks—Faustus with his beating of the clergy at the pope's banquet, placing the cuckold's horns on the knight who had scoffed at his powers, tricking the hostler, etc.—that Mikhail Bakhtin has dealt with so illuminatingly in Rabelais and His World, tr. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass., 1968). Bakhtin notes, too (244), that the theme of the Tiers Livre "is closely connected" with such carnivalesque features as "uncrowning (cuckoldry), thrashing, and mockery" and, further, that "looking into the future hazards of matrimony is a grotesque debasement of higher level sooth-saying" (as, one might add, the conjuring of Faustus also becomes).

26 In the chapter of the Faustbuch on which this passage in the play is based, it is likewise fear that keeps the protagonist from marrying. He is terrified out of his request for a wife by an infernal whirlwind that throws him down fiercely and nearly destroys his house. That Helen, incidentally, is not simply a ghost, but rather a demon in woman's form, has been suggested nicely in productions of Dr. Faustus where, as in his delusion Faustus admires her "face that launched a thousand ships," the figure unmasks itself for the audience and turns out to be Mephistopheles!

27 "Cinquieme Livre," Oeuvres compltes, ch. 47, p. 911.

28 Abel Lefranc believed that the oracle of the bottle "nous devoile l'enigme de la destinee humaine, dont Rabelais place la solution dans un determinisme peu compatible avec la liberte" (Rabelais, Etudes sur Gargantua, Pantagruel, le Tiers Livre [Paris, 1953], p. 309). Weinberg, on the contrary, insists that in Rabelais's work, men's wills are free, though "at times, caught in a dilemma, they need divine help … All mankind (and the more foolish the better) can be saved in the end. Rabelais's circular structure begins and ends with the exhortation to Everyman, the thirsty seeker, 'Boozers … Trinch!'" (150). She regards the oracular message as having been given to Panurge, rather than to his companions, because he is "an illustrious boozer, a sincere seeker driven by his desire to know the truth. His philautia blinds him to the truth when he is shown it; he must be granted a special gift of grace before his eyes can be opened" (145).

Neil Forsyth (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4076

SOURCE: "Heavenly Helen," in Etudes de Lettres, Vol. 4, 1987, 11-21.

[In the excerpt below, Forsyth examines the depiction of Helen in Doctor Faustus as an ambiguous, destabilizing character, comparing this presentation with her appearance in several classical texts.]

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed.

Dr. Faustus, 2.1.120

Mélange curieux d'éléments divers, l'image traditionnelle de la belle Héléne est pleine de contradictions. Le dramaturge anglais Christopher Marlowe exploite cette tradition ambiguë dans sa pièce Dr. Faustus, afin de pousser plus loin encore les paradoxes de la beauté à la fois séduisante et destructrice—beauté des femmes, mais aussi des mots. C'est 1'évocation de l'ombre d'Hélène vers la fin de la pièce qui rend inévitable la damnation de Faustus, mais dans sa passion pour ce qui est absent ce héros de Marlowe devient en même temps le représentant (un peu parodique) de l'esprit de la Renaissance.

The doubling of Helen began early in the literary tradition. Euripides makes her stay in Egypt and sends a simulacrum to Troy with Paris to start the Trojan War. Gorgias writes an encomium filled with paradoxes about destructive beauty. This traditional ambivalence Marlowe used for his own purposes, and I want to suggest in this essay that he pushed it farther than has normally been noticed. The radical instability of allusive context and language that we shall find in this scene gives to the play as a whole its disquieting power, and even threatens the terms in which all human judgment is formulated. Faustus' humanist quest to transcend limits probes the very notion of limit or term.

Helen's appearance on stage near the end of Dr. Faustus is the moment that confirms the hero's damnation. He begs for "heavenly Helen" as his paramour in order, as he puts it, that her "sweet embracings may extinguish clear" his thoughts of repentance. Having watched the scene, even the kindly character called Old Man has no further hope: "Accursed Faustus, miserable man, That from thy soul excludst the grace of heaven."1 Helen may be heavenly, but she damns her lover to hell. Heaven itself in the world of this play carries two opposed meanings. Indeed, almost everything about the Helen scene is (at least) doubled.

To begin with, Helen herself appears twice in the play. The first time at the request of his students Faustus offers the vision as a sign of his power. One of these scholars responds:

No marvel though the angry Greeks pursued With ten years war the rape of such a queen Whose heavenly beauty passeth all compare.


The three-line speech echoes the well-known reaction of the Trojan elders on the Skaean gate in Iliad III, 156-58:

No blame on Trojans or well-greaved AchaeansThat for a woman like that they suffer long hardshipsFor she is terribly like immortal goddesses in the face.

The echo is explicit, even if Marlowe's English condenses the Homeric violence—the anger, the rape, the war. When the apparition is repeated, Marlowe again alludes to the Homeric scene. Homer's Helen is attended by two handmaidens, as convention dictates, when she appears on the walls of Troy, but Marlowe's, says the stage direction, enters again, "passing over between two Cupids." Behind this image is the classical picture of Aphrodite-Venus attended by the Graces, but Marlowe has added a Renaissance eroticism2.

The Roman allusion clearly shows the doublesidedness of the Helen figure in the literary tradition. In Virgil's Aeneid II, 567-87 occurs a famous scene in which Aeneas catches sight of Helen as Troy burns all around. She is cowering beside the altar of the temple of Vesta (of all places) and in a sudden frenzy Aeneas thinks of avenging his burning homeland by killing the cause of it all, Fury and unholy3 as she is. Only Venus, Aeneas' mother and the source of Helen's grace, can restrain his rage—and she has to appear to him in her full glory as a goddess in order to do so.

Faustus' reaction to Helen's second appearance picks up this traditional ambivalence and extends it further.

Was this the face that launched a thousand shipsAnd burned the topless towers of Ilium?Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

It was her beauty as "that peerless dame of Greece" that Faustus' students had wished to see—and they were content to contemplate it briefly. But Faustus wants her now, not simply as a face but as the stimulus of all that action and agony—and he wants her as his paramour. In fact the natural stress on "Was this the face …" implies almost disappointment, and Faustus typically presses for more, for sexual union beyond death, trying as always "To glut the longing of my heart's desire" (5.1.88). Immediately he loses his soul to this consuming succuba of a Helen, and has to beg for it back:

Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,And all is dross that is not Helena.

The patriotic fury of Aeneas has flipped back to the sexual fascination (and fear) it concealed. And a metaphysical conceit is here acted out on stage, as if the extravagance of lovers' language has become literal truth.

The language of the scene epitomizes the magical idea at the heart of the play. According to W.H. Auden, "poetry makes nothing happen," but in the dream of magic words have immediate effect. Indeed words are themselves the event, as the pun in the word "spell" reminds us. Magic answers the desire to abolish the gap between sign and referent, to make the sign become itself the signified. The bread—and the word—becomes flesh. But this time the flesh is to be female, and pagan.

In its non-magical aspect, Renaissance culture may be seen as a series of efforts to establish relations, however incomplete and unsatisfactory, between the two poles of its own historical present and the classical past. In a letter to Pico about philologists, Poliziano says that they are "worthy of eternal honours who in whatever degree have succeeded in understanding things so remote and forgotten." Commenting on this passage, Thomas Greene remarks that Poliziano "embodies with singular clarity that rage for contact with the past which remains unblinded by its partial success and recognizes any mitigation of its estrangement as an achievement." But, he goes on, in practice "the satisfaction of learning is repeatedly subverted by the confrontation with its tragic limits." To illustrate, Greene quotes a letter from the scholar and architect Fra Giocondo to Lorenzo de Medici: even if the texts of classical authors were not corrupt, their writings "would not sufficiently fill our desire unless we could see the things which they saw."4 What troubled Renaissance humanists such as Valla, Poliziano or Fra Giocondo was the central problem of history, the pastness of the past. This difficulty the complex Renaissance system of imitation and textual allusion was intended both to recognize and in some degree to mitigate. So the impact of an allusion to Helen will depend to a certain extend on her remoteness as a Greek.

It is this necessary humility that Faustian ambition would violate. In his magical world, Faustus would collapse the two poles of past and present and himself be Paris. It is the reductio ad absurdum of Renaissance allusiveness, at once astounding aspiration and self-annihilation, the wish both to assert and to lose the self.

I will be Paris, and for love of thee Instead of Troy shall Wittenberg be sacked, And I will combat with weak Menelaus And wear thy colours on my plumed crest, Yea I will wound Achilles in the heel And then return to Helen for a kiss.(5.1.103-108)

Faustian magic thus has this diachronic aspect, in that it would abolish the sense of the past on which the Renaissance recovery of history depended, just as Faustus would deny synchronically speaking, the twosidedness of the Saussurian piece of paper which figures for us the relation of sign and signified.

The paradoxical result of the denial of doubleness is an increased insistence upon it. The hard consonants make up the aggressive emotions of the scene (combat, colours, crest) and alternate through the speech with the sybillants and other soft sounds of love (sweet, soul, see/face, flies). The essential paradigm of this dialectic is given by the reversal of sounds in the two words kiss: such, and in a more complex way by the sequence that extends from suck through sacked to kiss again in line 108 ("return to Helen for a kiss"). The emotions generated by Helen were traditionally both sweet and violent, but in this speech the two aspects are intensified to the point of desperation.

In the sharp clarity of Homer's world, love and war define and reinforce each other even when the narrative switches rapidly between them. Paris proposes single combat to Menelaus but the duel is cut off by the anxious concern of Aphrodite for her favourite. She snatches Paris from the battle and returns him, wrapped in a mist, to his perfumed bedroom. Then she fetches Helen to him, also in secret. Helen taunts him with cowardice, but Paris responds simply: "Come, let us go to bed and turn to love-making. For never before has passion so inflamed my senses."5 In Marlowe, Faustus would do combat with Menelaus wearing Helen's colours, like a medieval knight, and Marlowe collapses this allusion with the lush Ovidian scene in which Paris, of all people, is responsible for Achilles' death. Faustus-Paris would go out "to wound Achilles in the heel And then return to Helen for a kiss." Just as Faustus gave all the active verbs to Helen in his first words, so now he shifts the point of victory from the battle to the bedroom, or rather to a lingering and unsatisfied eroticism. Behind this Paris lies Ovid's "womanish man" who is contrasted with the Amazon Penthesilea, a manly woman. So the great conqueror, Ovid comments (meaning Achilles), was conquered by a coward and seducer6.

When he is first mentioned in the play, Paris is in fact called by his regular Homeric name, Alexander (2.2.27). And what is stressed is his death at the feet of Oenone, the woman he loved before meeting Helen. His namesake, Alexander the Great, actually appears on stage, summoned by Faustus at the behest of the Emperor, and what is more he too has his "paramour" (4.2.29). We may assume a deliberate pairing of the twoGreek warriors for the sake of the ironic contrast between them. And Faustus, in that scene, has to stop the Emperor from trying to embrace Alexander and his woman, since "these are but shadows, not substantial" (4.2.55). By now, though, Faustus is ready to cross the barrier himself into the world of the shades.

These insubstantial pageants of Faustus take their places as instances of that rich Elizabethan reflection on the paradoxes of theatre itself. A dramatic performance exploits the desire of the audience that the actors incarnate their roles, that the dialogue and action be the real presence, that secular playgoing be, at least in this respect, sacred ritual7. Here, as often in Shakespearean theatre, we have an actor who, whether playing Emperor or Faustus, represents the audience of the spectacle and wants to leap the gap from crowd to stage, ravish the apparition and partake in the rite. The drama would abolish itself and become magic. It is clear that Faustus is intended actually to kiss the Helen figure, even more, and his own earlier refusal to allow the Emperor to "embrace" the spirits must give an extra frisson for the audience now, as its own separation from the action threatens to evaporate. The eroticism of the scene gives further emphasis to the desire for magical union. Like the figures in Prospero's masque, these actors are spirits and shall dissolve like the baseless fabric of this vision—but in this play the word spirit means "devil". As the language of the speech suggests, Helen is actually a succuba,8 and no different from the devil who earlier in the play when Faustus asked for a wife (2.1.147), entered fizzing and exploding with fireworks. Or to put it another way, these our spirits are but actors: the lovely woman before us is really a boy dressed up.

A deliberate sexual ambivalence plays around the figures of the scene. In Marlowe's early play, it was Dido who first used the famous conceit, "He'll make me immortal with a kiss," and who also compared herself to Helen9. Now Faustus takes over the female part, and the sexual and psychological ambivalence continue in the rest of the speech. Faustus invokes for comparison the appearance of Jupiter to Semele, but it is he himself who, according to the logic of the analogy, becomes "the hapless Semele," utterly consumed as she was by the brightness of flaming Jupiter.

O 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.

Helen, here, is also the sun, and Faustus the watery nymph in whose arms he (the sun) lay. The two comparisons reverse the apparent sexes of the speaker and his beloved, and connect the violence and destructiveness of this passion with instability of sexual identity.

Other aspects of the scene's language contribute to this sense of instability. The text of the play survives in two quite different versions, and the subject of the play as well as its popularity seem to have made for sharp differences of interpretation between the versions. For example, in the Helen scene, the Old Man is omitted from the B-text, reducing the distance between audience and hero. And in the first appearance of Helen, the scholar's reaction which points the allusion to the Homeric original is present only in the A-text, while the stage direction announcing that Helen is attended by two Cupids is given only by the B-text. In general the A-text is shorter and requires less elaborate staging, so it could be performed in more primitive theatrical conditions. So we might account for this particular difference by suggesting that Marlowe wanted the Homeric allusion clear whichever kind of audience was watching the play.

Even when the two texts are more or less identical, as in Faustus' Helen speech, the language hides various threats to its integrity. There is much play with sounds and names, as in the phrase "wanton Arethusa's azured arms," but especially around the name of Helen herself. In the middle of the speech, Faustus imagines he will "wound Achilles in the heel, And then return to Helen for a kiss." Heel-Helen. Beneath the contrast of wounded Achilles and safe, consoled Paris, the homophony suggests something else: just as Achilles is vulnerable only in his heel, so Faustus is to be wounded in his Helen. And this word-play opens another possibility, given the sexual ambivalence, for the name of the woman, sliding over to "heel," contains the word He. In Dr. Faustus, word magic generally is stressed, and in writing as well as sound. "Lines, circles, signs, letters, characters—Ay these are those that Faustus most desires," he claims early on (1.1.50-51); he delights in finding Jehova's name in a circle, "Forward and backward anagrammatized" (1.3.9); and he signs his name to a written contract which is both the source of his power and his damnation. Given the flexibility and play of the verbal texture, that fixed and unchangeable text written in congealed blood is doubly ironic.

More important, and more obvious, is the other wordplay in Helen's name. She is not simply a devilish sprite, she is herself Hel. Marlowe spells it thus, although he probably did not know that Hel was the name of the old Norse goddess of the underworld. Nonetheless, a certain play with personifications and sexual ambivalence is apparent in the uncertainty of the pronoun in the following sixteenth-century version of Wycliffe's Bible at Isaiah 5.14: "Therefore helle spredde abord his soule, and openede her mouth withoute any terme."10 And indeed a hellmouth, an obsolete stage property from the mysteries, was revived for Dr. Faustus and is dicovered on stage at the words of the Good Angel, "The jaws of hell are open to receive thee" (5.2.115). The language of this play is frequently oral-narcissistic,11 but we should not miss the obvious and specific parallel between this hellmouth and those devilish lips of Helen that suck forth Faustus' soul.

Hell, indeed, has several meanings in the play, and is a much discussed topic. Mephostophilis defines it in the famous non-localized terms that Milton later emulated: "Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it" (1.3.78). His language anticipates Faustus' own longing for a face: "Think you that I who looked upon the face of God, And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, Am not tormented with ten thousand hells?" And his second version of this speech makes the terrifying possibility even clearer: just as the meaning of words cannot be kept firm, and puns show how they can spill into each other, so

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 be short, when all the world dissolves, And every creature shall be purified, All places shall be hell that is not heaven.(2.1.122-26)

As here Marlowe frequently stresses the opposition of heaven and hell, and this makes the "heavenly Helen" of the key scene, demon that she is, that much richer in ironic suggestion.

Marlowe's metaphysical punning is similar to, though not so pervasive as, that Shakespearean quibbling which Samuel Johnson, developing a parallel idea, called "the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it."12 The idea is recurrent that there is something female and seductive about puns, and once one becomes aware of this aspect of Marlowe's work it is hard to know where to stop. Faustus' great plea "Resolve me of all ambiguities" (1.1.79) produces its opposite, a radically unstable language where the boundaries between words constantly shift. Probably there is no conscious suggestion of Helios when Helen is compared to "the monarch of the sky," yet the punning mania seems generally to affect the products of hell. Lucifer introduces Beelzebub, his "companion prince in hell" (giving a physical population to a local hell again), and then he adjures Faustus to think on the devil. "And his dam too," adds his witty companion (2.2.94).

Even one of those staid medieval characters, the seven deadly sins, introduces herself as the "one that loves an inch of raw mutton better than an ell of fried stockfish: and the first letter of my name begins with lechery." "Away to hell, away," says Lucifer (2.2.160-63). An ell is a large extent of something, in this case of dried up bits of cod (which suggests sexual impotence), but it is also a letter of the alphabet, as the joke acknowledges, and in some dialects would sound the same as "hell"—hence the appropriateness of Lucifer's dismissal (a hellish prayerbook).

One of the more touching aspects of the constant punning with "hell" is the irony of Faustus' brazen assertions of the "I think hell's a fable" kind. The first of these occurs when Mephostophilis tells him the shortest way of conjuring, to "pray devoutly to the prince of hell." Faustus replies, speaking of himself in the third person, that "This word 'damnation' terrifies not him, For he confounds hell in Elysium: His ghost be with the old philosophers" (1.3.58-60). Overtly the confusion Faustus boasts of is to mix the classical and Christian afterlife, but the words themselves, not just their meanings, are mixed up. The word hell spills into the first syllabe of Elysium, and this word in turn was Elizium in Marlowe's spelling, or the manuscript's, suggesting a further play with another female name, and a highly evocative one for a contemporary audience. No wonder Marlowe's contemporary and rival, Thomas Nashe, complained of those writers who thrust Elysium into hell13.

From this perspective, then, what is threatened by Faustus' games with langauge seems to be not only the separation of pagan and Christian, or of the medieval distinction of hell and heaven, but the idea of limit itself, that which gives us the very word term. Terms as essentially different as heaven and hell blur together in the figure of the play's "Heavenly Helen." So language keeps escaping from the constraints in which we would place it, and scandalously welcomes the instability of hell: word-mouth, hell-mouth, Helen-mouth would all suck forth the soul of their lovers.

How we feel about such confusions will depend on more than this play, of course. But readings of the play tend to follow the critic's desire to enforce the limit or to celebrate its Bacchanalian overthrow, to be orthodox or heretic. And in fact, there is yet another Helen present to the scene, and the one who made a Helen scene de rigueur in the play. One source of the name Faustus is the Latin cognomen given to Simon Magus. He went about, they tell us, accompanied by a whore from Tyre named Helena. According to his Gnostic religious system, she was, he claimed, the Thought of God, the Ennoia or general soul abducted and dragged down into the material creation. He, Simon, was come to redeem her14. In the eyes of the church fathers, however, this new incarnation of the Helen topos was a sign of her lover's damnation through his devil-inspired heresy. In his own eyes he was God, or his representative, but the context in which the name of Simon Faustus survives damned him. The radical ambivalence of the Helen tradition could not be taken further than with this whore who was also the real heavenly Helen.


1 Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus, 5.2.119-120.I use the New Mermaid edition of Roma Gill (London: Ernest Benn, 1965; reprinted A. & C. Black, 1985). Subsequent references are incorporated in the text. The problem of the different texts of the play is discussed briefly below. Modern editions are all indebted to W.W. Greg, Marlowe's 'Dr. Faustus' 1604-1616: Parallel Texts (Oxford, 1950); a useful review of the question is in the introduction to The Revels Plays edition by John Jump.

2 I have discussed these Homeric allusions in "The Allurement Scene: A Typical Pattern in Greek Oral Epic," California Studies in Classical Antiquity 13 (1979), pp. 107-120, and "Homer in Milton: The Attendance Motif and the Graces," Comparative Literature 33 (1981), pp. 137-155.

3Nefas, literally "unspeakable", Aeneid II, 573, 585, cf. 337. The scene is clearly unfinished, and its authenticity, aptly for a Marlovian source, is in dispute. It was preserved not in the manuscript tradition but only in Servius' commentary. See the argument of R.G. Austin in the Oxford edition, p. 218.

4 Thomas M. Greene, The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (New Haven: Yale UP, 1982), p. 9.

5 Homer, Iliad III. 441-442. The translation is my own.

6 Ovid, Metamorphoses 12. 608.

7 See especially the various forms of Stephen Greenblatt's case for a link between the rise of Elizabethan drama and the banning of exorcism: "Shakespeare and the Exorcists," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartmann (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 163-187, and "Loudun and London," Critical Inquiry 12 (1986), pp. 326-346.

8 W.W. Greg, "The Damnation of Faustus," Modern Language Review 41 (1946), pp. 97-101, first made this point clear to all.

9 Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage, 4.4.123, 5.1.148. In Edward 11, the "Greekish strumpet" Helen is compared to the king's homosexual lover, Gaveston (2.4.15).

10 Cited in OED, s.v. Hell, 3a.

11 Edward Snow, "Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and the Ends of Desire," in Two Renaissance Mythmakers, ed. Alvin Kernan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977), pp. 86-89.

12 Samuel Johnson, Preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765), in Samuel Johnson's Literary Criticism, ed. R.D. Stock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, Regents Critics, 1974), p. 151.

13 'Thomas Nashe, Preface to Greene's Menaphon (1589), widely quoted, for example in Roma Gill's New Mermaid edition of Dr. Faustus, p. 18.

14 A convenient account is Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), pp. 103-111. Marlowe and his contemporaries could have known these traditions in a variety of sources; see Judith Weil, Christopher Marlowe, pp. 190, 195.

Kay Stockholder (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6536

SOURCE: "'Within the massy entrailes of the earth': Faustus's Relation to Women," in "A Poet and a filthy Play-maker": New Essays on Christopher Marlowe, edited by Kenneth Friedenreich, Roma Gill, and Constance B. Kuriyama, pp. 203-219, AMS Press, Inc., 1988.

[In the following essay, Stockholder explores the erotic element of Faustus's magic and offers a psychological discussion of imagery pertaining to Faustus's desires for and simultaneous fear of women."]

All images or portrayals of extrahuman figures, gods and devils, ghosts and witches, are necessarily extensions and exaggerations of human characteristics, for human characteristics are all that we know. To isolate a human characteristic and portray it as belonging to a devil, or an angel, is to express an attitude toward that characteristic; to tell, or to dramatize, a story involving supernatural happenings necessarily involves allegorizing human affairs, whether or not the author believes in the literal truth of the supernatural happenings. The imaginations of secular humanists find resonant meaningfulness in such works as the Divine Comedy because those works express powerful evaluations through their heightened portrayals of facets of our common humanity. Accordingly, in discussing the role of women in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus I am going to naturalize all supernatural events. That is, I will regard supernatural elements as expressions of an attitude toward or judgment of a natural or ordinary version of such an event or figure.

The Faustus that we encounter as the play begins is a man who, having devoted his youth to study, has risen from lowly origins, from "parents base of stock," to eminence in learning. Despite his achievements in enterprises that once "ravished" him, he now feels depleted and restless, wondering at life's lack of savor. It is not clear how old we are to imagine him, but the experience rendered seems easily analogous to those that today might be described as midlife crises. In order to escape the emptiness that has overwhelmed him he turns to the forbidden, which seems to promise, as the forbidden always does, a deep and general fulfillment of undefined desire. Faustus expresses this vague desire initially in terms of a magnified vision of the satisfactions he has already—of power, praise, and knowledge. His first imagination of the delights to be found in necromancy extends the range of his past achievements, but does not initiate new realms, except for one slight suggestion. Faustus's life, as described by the prologue and by himself, has been notably barren of sexuality, women, and love. His imagination touches on the realm of the sensuous when he anticipates that the spirits will "fly to India for gold … And search all comers of the new-found world / For pleasant fruits and princely delicates." He approaches a slightly more sensual note when he says, "I'll have them fill the public schools with silk, / Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad" (I.i. 109-113, 117-118).1 Though most of his dazed visions are of the power and status he associates with forbidden knowledge, rather than of love, his expression of delight in the magic that is to realize them is suffused with the aura of the sexual: "'Tis magick, magick, that hath ravish'd me" (I.i. 137). That suffused swoon suggests that we should see Faustus as a man whose sexual and erotic energies have been diverted into the successful pursuit of knowledge and fame, and who is therefore left with a vague feeling of unsatisfied emptiness, the satisfaction of which he associates with powers that derive from forbidden knowledge.

One would not expect a person like Faustus to be aware that he seeks erotic satisfaction through forbidden magic, since if he knew what he wanted he would not need magic to get it. One would expect, as is so in the play, evidence of the nature of his desire to come only slowly into view. Accordingly, in this anticipatory section the sensual notes are distanced into metaphors and images. Cornelius says that the spirits will "fetch the treasure of all foreign wrecks, / Yea, all the wealth that our forefathers hid / Within the massy entrailes of the earth" (I.i. 173-174). The image suggests not only lost sexual potency—the treasures, hidden within the feminine earthy entrails—but also the deep past, containing for Faustus parental images, associated with that potency, that in turn suggest some of the difficulties involved in recovering it. Faustus responds, with a kind of swooning sensuality, "O, this cheers my soul! / Come, show me some demonstrations magical, / That I may conjure in some bushy grove / And have these joys in full possession" (I.i. 178-180). The image of the "bushy grove" rings in the same range as the "massy entrails," vaguely suggestive of genitalia, but the first images of women appear in a distanced and aestheticized association with diabolical spirits when Valdes says that they will appear "like women, or unwedded maids, / Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows / Than has the white breasts of the queen of love" (I.i.154-156).

The association of women, both in their sexual and aesthetic ranges, with forbidden magic appears more obviously when Faustus succeeds in conjuring Mephistophilis. Faustus's fearful ambivalence toward his enterprise is suggested not only by the ugliness of Mephistophilis's first appearance, but also by the opposition between Mephistophilis's "fainting soul" at the mention of the "everlasting bliss" of which he is forever deprived, and Faustus's scornful dismissal of his futile yearnings. Faustus prescribes "manly fortitude" for Mephistophilis's heart-sickened sense of deprivation, but as though in consolation for his own parallel deprivation, asks for twenty-four years of "all voluptuousness" (I.iii.319-320). Mephistophilis's poignant nostalgia echoes Faustus's yearnings for the joys he anticipated in magic, which will culminate when he foregoes the asexual Christian heaven, for which Mephistophilis yearns, in exchange for the sensuous heaven of Helen's kiss.

Faustus's mind veers sharply from dreams of voluptuousness to the more familiar ones of the power to be found in forbidden knowledge, but the hidden association of that forbidden realm with the sensual is suggested first by the rapidity with which Faustus's mind moves past his first request, and second by the fact that one doesn't generally have to make a pact with the devil in order to live voluptuously. These considerations indicate that Faustus associates sensuality both with forbidden knowledge and power, and with ensuing diabolic punishment, and that, moved by frustration, he has embarked on magic in a desperate effort to achieve the sensual, despite the fear with which he surrounds it. He remains only half aware that the forbidden knowledge he seeks derives, at least in part, from his desire to know, in the biblical sense, a woman. After his first slight motion in that direction he deflects his attention to less problematic fantasies of power, which only extend what he has already achieved in more ordinary ways. He can scarcely entertain images that betray the true nature of his desire.

The issue of women arises a second time in a context similar to the first. Faustus, having signed the pact, questions Mephistophilis about hell only to dispute with him about its existence. Since he is talking to a devil, his dispute seems illogical; and equally illogical seem Mephistophilis's assurances not only that hell exists, but also that he, even at that moment, inhabits it, for a clever devil would be happy for Faustus to doubt his and hell's existence. But the illogic of the sequence emphasizes its emotional content as Faustus's mind moves toward and away from the vision of hellish deprivation that he has already associated with sensuality. That association is deepened when Faustus says,

 let me have a wife, The fairest maid in Germany, for I Am wanton and lascivious And cannot live without a wife.(II.i.527-530)

While Faustus might have trouble getting the "fairest maid in Germany" for a wife without a devil's aid, the relative innocence of his demand is striking, even to the association of the "wanton and lascivious" with the legality of marriage. But the degree to which Faustus feels not only the sensual, but also the domestic realm embattled and colored with the diabolical appears clearly when Faustus perceives the "wife" that is brought as a "she-devil" and a "hot wrote." In effect, as he approaches his desire for forbidden sensuality he associates it with the familial and domestic in asking for a wife, but an approach to a fulfillment of his embattled desire appears to him in hideous and threatening images from which he again retreats. Faustus finds himself in a dilemma wherein tainted images of women pervade the innocent domesticity by which he tries to avoid the forbidden sexuality. Accordingly, Mephistophilis supports Faustus in his declaration that he will have no wife, saying, "Marriage is but a ceremonial toy: / And if thou lovest me, think no more of it," and promises Faustus sexual satisfaction, but in images that, like those earlier, are remote and aestheticized:

I'll cull thee out the fairest courtesans, And bring them ev'ry 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.(II.i.535-542)

The sexual overtones are diminished in part by the mythological removal, but also because the "fairest courtesans" are imagined coming to Faustus's bed "ev'ry morning," rather than in the darkness of night in which pacts are made. The issue of women becomes even more remote when women's beauty is expressed in an image of male beauty, "As was bright Lucifer before his fall," in a way that homosexually colors the erotic content.2

But these floating promises do not emerge from image into action, for in the next scene Faustus is in the throes of suicidal despair, alleviated only by the "sweet pleasure" he derives from "blind Homer's" songs of "Alexander's love and Oenone's death." Faustus associates his despair with regret for the lost joys of Heaven, but actually experiences an intensified form of the same ennui that prompted his efforts in necromancy. The lascivious delights he anticipated have been so meagerly provided that it is little wonder that Faustus ignores the good angel's voice, and pursues the course toward Helen's heavenly kiss. He distracts himself by seeking more knowledge from Mephistophilis, but the deeper drift reappears when Lucifer and Beelzebub tell him not to call on Christ or think of God, but rather to "Think on the devil. / And on his dam too" (II.ii.645-646). Once again, an image of coupling, or of marriage, is associated with the diabolically ugly, in contrast to the aestheticized and distanced sensual images which are defined as an alternative heaven. However, this sublimated sexuality is still thought of as leading to hell, which contains the more immediate, and therefore uglier, images of closer relationship and sexuality.

Some of the psychological sources of Faustus's estrangement from sexuality are suggested in the show of the seven deadly sins by which Mephistophilis diverts Faustus. Somewhat surprisingly, Pride's speech has more sexual content than Lechery's. The latter says, "I am one that loves an inch of raw mutton better than an ell of fried stockfish, and the first letter of my name begins with Lechery" (II.ii.707-710), an adequate self-definition, but one notably lacking an aura of sensual delight. When Faustus closely approaches sexuality, it appears to him in its most debased version. Within the comic debasement of Pride's speech, however, more sensual resonance is allowed. He says,

I am Pride. I disdain to have any parents. I am like to Ovid's flea; I can creep into every corner of a wench; sometimes, like a periwig, I sit upon her brow; next, like a necklace I hang about her neck; then, like a fan of feathers, kiss her lips, and then turning myself to a wrought smock do what I list. But, fie, what a smell is here! I'll not speak another word, unless the ground be perfum'd, and cover'd with cloth of arras.


Pride's claim of parentless self-authorship is traditional, but his disdain, when coupled with the diminutive sexual exploration suggested by the images that follow, suggests a person acting like a small child in order to steal sensuous gratification from a mother-like, because so much larger, woman. The image that suggests the fulfillment of a sexual act—"turning myself to a wrought smock do what I list"—brings with it disgust—"what a smell is here! I'll not speak another word, unless the ground be perfum'd."

When we naturalize the sequence, that is, see it as Faustus's fantasy, it suggests that in order for Faustus to generate images of heterosexuality he has first to eliminate parental images. Only having done so can he make the sexual claim, which for him still involves the sin of pride. But having strategically disdained to have parents, he reintroduces elements of a parent/child relationship in the image of the flea's sexual exploration, which in turn generates the disgust associated with sexuality that he sought to eliminate along with parents. The context in which this episode occurs justifies the significance I have attributed to this passage, for as a precondition to this diversion Faustus has promised Lucifer that he will "never look to Heaven," and never more name God. Since the idea of God extends from an image of paternal authority, Faustus has his glimpse of sexuality only when he declares himself in prideful rebellion from that authority. The sequence reveals that Faustus thinks himself unworthy of making a sexual claim, and fears paternal reprisal for seeking sexual knowledge, in both senses of the word. The sequence anticipates in little the structure of the entire play.

The kind of punishment he fears appears in the events which he encounters on his journey with Mephistophilis, which turn either on delight in ridiculing others or on fear of being ridiculed. The ridicule takes the specific form of jests about cuckoldry, though the emblematic horns first appear disjoined from the wayward women who make them grow. While those jests, which bear on Faustus's relation to paternal authority, occupy the foreground of the action, Faustus's relationship to women continues in the background. There images of women take fuller and more solid shape, but do so in a context of Faustus's demonstration of his necromantic skills to figures of authority rather than in association with his own desire.

The cuckoldry theme takes shape in parodic form when Robin plans to practice conjuring with the help of Faustus's stolen magic books. Dick warns that Faustus will conjure him in punishment, to which Robin boasts "an my master come here, I'll clap as fair a pair of horns on's head as e'er thou sawest in thy life." Dick says he need not bother, for "my mistress hath done it," and then suggests that Robin has been "sneaking up and down after her" (II.iii.737-739).

That episode preludes those that occur after Faustus, having quenched his thirst for more abstract knowledge on a pretechnological flight with Mephistophilis, arrives at the Pope's palace, where he wishes now to be "an actor." In this sequence the theme of cuckoldry intertwines with the challenge to authority, both of which are introduced and brought into alignment with another reference to Faustus's desire.

When Faustus and Mephistophilis are in the Pope's court to witness the celebration of his "triumphant victory" Faustus says,

Sweet Mephistophilis, thou pleasest me, Whilst I am here on earth, let me be cloy'd With all things that delight the heart of man. My four and twenty years of liberty I'll spend in pleasure and in dalliance, That Faustus' name, whilst this bright frame doth stand May be admitted to the furthest land.(III.i.836-842)

The reference to pleasure and dalliance has no obvious connection to the Pope's triumph, nor does it logically follow that such dalliance should bring Faustus fame. However, the lapse in ordinary logic emphasizes the emotional links between sexual desire, or dalliance, the desire for fame into which it is deflected, and the connection between both factors and the need to undermine figures of authority through ridicule. For while no appropriate action emerges from the image of dalliance, what emerges instead is the portrayal of a pettily cruel tyrant, who wishes to use Bruno as the footstool to his papal throne. The cuckoldry theme, though not expressed through action, is linked to the Pope's humiliation when, after the reference to dalliance, Mephistophilis suggests to Faustus that he may

… dash the pride of this solemnity; To make his monks and abbots stand like apes, And point like antics at his triple crown: To beat the beads about the friars' pates, Or clap huge horns upon the Cardinals' heads.(Ill.i.859-865)

As Mephistophilis and Faustus succeed in rescuing Bruno from the Pope,3 and mock his spiritual power, Faustus temporarily asserts his superiority to this version of paternal authority, separated as it is from women and sexuality. However, that authority will overwhelm him most fully at the time he most closely approaches women and sexuality.

The cuckoldry theme reappears, still separated from, but now juxtaposed to, an image of women when Martino announces Faustus's intention to show the emperor all his progenitors, and to "bring in presence of his Majesty / The royal shapes and warlike semblances / Of Alexander and his beauteous paramour" (IV.i.1 167-1172). This mention of a heterosexual couple brings immediately in its wake a reference to Benvolio, through whom the cuckoldry theme will be most fully articulated. As Faustus dares to "pierce through / The ebon gates of ever-burning hell" (IV. i. 1224) in order to entertain the Emperor, the thrice-repeated line, "Great Alexander and his paramour," resonates through the dumb-show in which the shade of Alexander kills Darius, places his crown upon his paramour, and embraces her; it echoes as well in the Emperor's longing to see the mole on her neck. Though doubly distanced, this action represents the closest approach so far to that pleasurable dalliance Faustus has so desired. This distanced satisfaction is linked to cuckoldry when Benvolio, who has mocked, "and thou bring Alexander and his paramour before the Emperor, I'll be Actaeon and turn myself into a stag" (IV.i. 1256), wakes to find his now enhorned head caught in the window-frame.4 The cuckoldry motif acquires menacing tones by being articulated through the myth of Actaeon, who was turned into a stag and dismembered by his hounds for having stolen a glimpse of Diana naked. The association of cuckoldry with dismemberment, which in turn prefigures the hellish punishments Faustus is to incur, explains the tentative and uneven approach to the issue of sexuality we have observed. As Faustus moves into contact with actual women or female spirits, even though they are distanced from him by being associated with other men, references both to cuckoldry and to dismemberment develop in crescendo proportions. This interweaving suggests that Faustus, to approach sexuality, must encounter an image of himself not only humiliated but also dismembered. The comic sequence here displaces onto other figures the price which Faustus, in the final tragic action, will pay for his glimpse of Helen.

All the action between this sequence and the next serious demonstration of Faustus's power turns on these motifs. Benvolio, in revenge for having been humiliated, cuts off Faustus's "false head," vowing that he will "nail huge forked horns" on it, and Faustus turns the tables by enhorning the heads of Benvolio and his companions so that they must slink into obscurity to hide the disgrace of their "brutish shapes." This action slides into the episode of the horse-courser, which recalls the Actaeon image when the horse-courser thinks he has robbed the sleeping Faustus of his leg. The horse-courser and carter episodes elide with the Robin and Dick plot line when Faustus disposes of all those figures in the Duke of Anholt's court, where he also, for the first time, experiences domestic warmth. When the duke appears with his pregnant wife, Faustus gently attends to her, and seeks to please her by sending Mephistophilis to fetch grapes from the other side of the world. As he meanwhile demonstrates his knowledge of the globe's seasons, that rather charming domestic episode brings him, in the sequence of the drama, to the brink of his damnation.

Before discussing the last episode, however, I should note that so far the uses Faustus has made of his pact with the devil have been as innocent as possible. Despite Faustus's desire for twenty-four years of lasciviousness, there have been neither sexually suggestive episodes nor references to behind-the-scenes sexuality. Despite his aspiration for power over all worldy potentates, Faustus has only saved Bruno from a tyrannically cruel Pope, entertained the Emperor by showing him a vision of Alexander and his paramour, and brought the Duchess a bunch of grapes. It would seem that the most damnable thing he has done is to anticipate modern technology by getting grapes out of season and by achieving an aeriel view of the world.

The forbidden knowledge and power he so desired has been used either trivially or generously; he hardly seems to have become an evil man, and the last episode in the court of the Duke of Anholt suggests only gentle domesticity. That disproportion between the relatively benign naturalist portrait of Faustus and the aura of the damnable which surrounds him casts into relief the significance of the last episode, which places Helen, the first realization of the long-promised sexual pleasure and the immediate cause of his damnation, not in distant places but in the domestic comfort of Faustus's home. That home is characterized by lovingly attentive friends, at whose request he first raises the apparition of the "peerless dame of Greece." Her appearance takes on an intimacy and an immediacy to Faustus's ordinary life lacking in the other episodes, and that domesticity, in combination with Helen's more than mortal beauty, suggests an alternative to the Christian heaven. But that alternative heaven is also associated with sexually fraught contention: "No marvel though the angry Greeks pursued / With ten years' war the rape of such a queen / Whose heavenly beauty passeth all compare" (V.i.1698-1701).

The association of Helen with strife might be attributed only to the traditional tale were it not that the aura of contention that she carries intensifies and becomes part of Faustus's personal drama.5 Just as Helen, unlike the other sensual figures, enters into Faustus's domesticity, so now does the warning voice approach Faustus not in the relatively abstract form of a good angel, but in the unexplained but quite naturalistic form of the Old Man. With his appearance the elements previously suggestive of Faustus's fears of woman and sexuality take dramatic shape. The Old Man's words, their force increased by the lack of circumstance to explain his appearance, carry tones of affectionate paternal concern—he calls Faustus "gentle son." Though he does not mention Helen, his entry immediately after her first appearance suggests that his intense description of Faustus's evil flows from Helen's appearance. He says,

O gentle Faustus, leave this damned art, This magic, that will charm thy soul to hell, And quite bereave thee of salvation. Though thou hast now offended like a man, Do not persever in it like a devil.(V.i.1706-1709)

Though he refers to magic in general, the image of its power to "charm thy soul to hell" carries forward the resonance of the images surrounding Helen, and the last quoted lines suggest that all that has gone before can be regarded as ordinary, or manly, offense, but that only Faustus's traffic with Helen makes him "like a devil."

The aura of diabolic sexuality associated with Helen comes into sharper focus when the Old Man says,

For, gentle son, I speak it not in wrath, Or envy of thee, but in tender love, And pity of thy future misery. And so have hope, that this my kind rebuke, Checking thy body, may amend thy soul.V.i.1719-1723)

Since Faustus is not at the moment satisfying his bodily desires, the warning words, "checking thy body," can only function to highlight Faustus's sexual desire for Helen. The vision generated by the Old Man's words centers the play's most extreme polarity around the figure of Helen. On the one hand, she is associated with the most dire imaginings of unspeakable hellish pain, while on the other hand she is associated both with the bliss of an alternate heaven and with a kind of domestic peacefulness. That ironic disparity heightens the portrait of Faustus as a man for whom the sexual has become so permeated by a sense of evil and fear of punishment that it has swept into its orbit all related areas of life—all association with women and the comforts of domesticity. The drama can be seen in this light as Faustus's uneven efforts to reclaim that lost area of his humanity, interpreted by him as diabolical. His approach to Helen, his most daring and most direct approach to the sexual, consequently releases the most horrendous images of inner corruption and of avenging fury, both in the Old Man's distinctly paternal appearance, and in supernatural threats.

Since for Faustus the theological heaven excludes so much that is ordinarily human, it is small wonder that he cannot quite manage a repentence that would leave him in the state of emptiness implied at the play's beginning. Though he is moved by the Old Man's words, which "comfort [his] distressed soul," instead of remaining in the protective presence of this seemingly benevolent figure, he sends him away, leaving himself more vulnerable to Mephistophilis's powers. In a sense he chooses Helen along with the fearful punishments and the self-loathing he associates with her. Mephistophilis threatens that if Faustus should revolt from Lucifer he will "in piecemeal tear thy flesh," as Actaeon was dismembered by his hounds, and as Faustus will finally be dismembered, but for having claimed rather than for having disclaimed Helen.

Faustus's vision of Helen finally fulfills the promises of "four and twenty years of dalliance." Once again signing a pact in blood, this time Faustus explicity trades his soul for Helen's kiss:

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 clean Those thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow, And keep my oath I made to Lucifer.(V.i.1759-1765)

If one leaves aside the moral obliquy that surrounds necromancy, and if one sees the supernatural and diabolic contexts in which she appears as expressive of Faustus's interpretation of his sexual longings as diabolic, and of his consequent inability fully to actualize an image of a woman's body, the scene itself renders heightened erotic passion with an almost Lawrentian mystique. Helen's incredible beauty suggests an alternative to Christian immortality, and to her kisses is attributed a kind of sexual transcendence: "Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies." The line may have been intended to show the demonic power of the spirit, but naturalistically it renders an orgasmic passion that Faustus immediately associates first with the challenge of another man, and then with a heroic version of courtly love. He says,

Come, Helen come, give me my soul again. 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 sack'd; And wear thy colours on my plumed crest: Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel, And then return to Helen for a kiss, O, thou art fairer than the evening's air Clad in beauty of a thousand stars; Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter When he appear'd to hapless Semele; More lovely than the monarch of the sky In wanton Arthusa's azured arms: And none but thou shalt be my paramour!(V.i.1772-1787)

After expressing his love in the image of her encompassing beauty, he imagines himself struggling for her. But he seems also to imagine himself in struggle with paternal images to achieve her, since he thinks of himself as Paris fighting Menelaeus. Aside from the fact that Menelaus, as a king, becomes an elevated paternal image, and that Paris is a king's son, such a reading is supported by two details. First, Faustus adds rather needlessly that "Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack'd." Since at the beginning of his necromantic career he envisioned himself as Wittenberg's protector, directing spirits to "wall all Germany with brass, / And make swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg," his desire now to see Wittenberg destroyed places his desire for Helen in opposition to the service of his city. The implication is that he equates himself with the son-like prince Paris, whose violation of the older man's marital rights resulted in Troy's destruction. Second, his desire for Helen is further linked to his challenge to paternal authority when the Old Man, who has already acquired paternal force, re-enters just as Faustus declares his love. Though the Old Man previously claimed that it was not from envy that he warned Faustus against Helen's enchantments, his reappearance at just this moment suggests exactly that.6 These details together suggest that Faustus's desire for Helen is embedded in the oedipal fears earlier suggested by Pride's speech, which he momentarily overcomes in his vision of an heroic courtly union with her. He envisions himself wearing her colors on his crest, and returning to her for a kiss, a kiss which elides with the domestic when he compares her beauty to that of the "evening air"—a contrast to the morning in which he previously envisioned beautiful paramours coming to his bed. Though the heterosexual vision is distanced by Helen being defined as spirit rather than as body, and by her beauty being compared to Jupiter's rather than to Semele's (as in the previous image of the fairest courtesans), the passage as a whole overcomes the psychological barriers to an imaginative knowledge of heterosexual love.

Faustus has won his moment of freedom, the one kiss that is all that he realizes of the limitless sensual pleasure he anticipated. He has challenged but not dispersed the fears and dark associations that cling to images of heterosexuality. The naturalistic rendering of the scholars, who maintain their loving friendliness toward Faustus even when told of his pact with the devil, and his benevolent concern for them, contrast startingly with the aura of damnation, highlighting the disparity between the sense of evil evoked by the good and bad angels, and the naturalistic portrayal of a genially benevolent man who has broken out of his scholarly monasticism to kiss a girl. Since most of the action is supernatural, to naturalize it is necessarily to see it as representing the psychic consequence of Faustus's association of evil and guilt with the sexuality he has chosen.7 He does not experience himself as having chosen Helen and the domestic aura that she brings in her wake, but rather as being compelled by unknown forces that pull him down when he thinks he wants to "leap up to my God." Either way, he experiences himself as castrated, impotent, dismembered; Lucifer will tear him apart if he submits to God or if he does not, and submission to God represents a filial abasement to a paternal authority that equates sexuality of any kind with forbidden knowledge, civic destruction, and eternal torment. He tries to find a middle way between a heaven occupied by an angry father and the gaping jaws of a hell that contains the "devil and his dam"8 by seeing himself absorbed into an undifferentiated mist.

He struggles to evade the polarities evoked by his desires for and his fear of women by retreating from the impossible alternatives of an oedipal struggle to an infantile, preindividualized, state. After the angels show him visions first of the heaven he has lost, and then of the torments of hell, which must be "[his] mansion, there to dwell," he sees Christ's blood streaming in the firmament. That disembodied air-born vision still carries the restrictive definitions of heaven, and so he experiences himself pulled down by an unknown force. Next he pleads to become a "foggy mist" drawn "Into the entrails of yon lab'ring cloud" so that his soul might, like smoke, rise to heaven. He abandons the compromise flight toward the father when he imagines first his soul dispersed into the great round of metempsychosis, then the insensibility of beasts, and finally the total loss of self when he desires that his soul "be changed into little water-drops, / And fall into the ocean, ne'er be found!" (V.ii. 1927-1980). But that strategy fails, for his sense of himself, a self that has risen from peasant origins to high prestige, will not succumb to a de-individuating oral merger. Instead he chooses hell and heterosexuality rather than yield to a heaven that contains only a forbidding God. Thought of in this way, the tragedy is not that Faustus is damned, but that he thinks himself damned for his desires, even as he claims them.

I am not arguing that Marlowe intended Faustus's damnation to be perceived in this way, though it is quite possible that he did so. I am arguing that a naturalized version of events that are defined as supernatural makes the contrast between the fierce supernatural condemnation of Faustus and the relatively benign figure that emerges when we see Faustus naturalistically revelatory of the psychological consequences of holding such beliefs. The play remains a rendering of those consequences whether Marlowe himself held those beliefs, wrote the play to expose them, or was hampered in the latter project by remnants of the former.


1 All citations are to Doctor Faustus in The CompleteWorks of Christopher Marlowe, 2, ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973). Though I have used the B text, the A text bears out substantially the same interpretation. Most of the passages on which I rely appear in both texts, but in subsequent notes I will indicate where the variations in the texts alter the emphasis (For the A text I use The Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910]).

2 Constance Brown Kuriyama, in Hammer or Anvil, Psychological Patterns in Christopher Marlowe's Plays (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1980), pp. 95-136, uses evidence like this to argue for a previously homosexual association with necromancy. While I do agree that homosexual elements are strong in the play, I believe the strongest struggle depicted is toward the heterosexual.

3 This reference, based on a story in Foxe's Book of Martyrs, to a rival for the papal diadem might, as has been suggested, also be seen as a veiled reference to Giordano Bruno, whose challenge to church authority in general could be expressed in this way. If that is what Marlowe intended, then the action in which Faustus and Mephistophilis rescue Bruno from the Pope might be seen as Marlowe's devious way of supporting the magic for which Faustus seems condemned, against orthodoxy as represented by the Pope. If one reads the sequence that way, it augments the argument that the tragedy is not that Faustus was damned, but rather that he succumbed to conventional attitudes toward damnation. To read the play in this way involves supposing that Marlowe constructed the play as a psychomachia. Many aspects of the play make that thesis plausible, particularly the appearances of the good and bad angels, and of the Old Man, and it would make the play into a very sophisticated psychological analysis of the mechanisms by which institutional authority maintains itself through engendering deep-seated guilt. That is the direction in which this reading tends, but I think it more likely that Marlowe's ambivalence appears in the two readings that the end makes possible. The reference to Bruno, however, does not appear in the A text, and its authenticity has been questioned, but the argument for the psychomachiac reading remains plausible on the other grounds.

4 In the A text the cuckoldry motif appears more subtly; while Benvolio's counterpart grows horns, he is not stuck in the window frame, and Robin says to Rafe that "my master and mistress shall find that I can read, he for his forehead, she for her private study: she's borne to beare with me, or else my Art fails" (938-940). On the other hand, the theme of dismemberment gets greater emphasis. Robin, while using Faustus's conjuring books to make "al the maidens in our parish dance at my pleasure stark naked before me," tells Rafe to "keep out, or else you are blowne up, you are dismembered, Rafe" (933-935). Also, Wagner echoes Pride's speech when he says to the Clown that he will "turn al the lice about thee into familiars, and they shal teare thee in peeces" (378-380).

5 It might be said that when Faustus brings a woman into his all-male but tranquil domestic life, all hell breaks loose.

6 The Old Man might be seen as appropriately punished for prying into Faustus's sexual life when he says that Satan begins to "sift me" in his pride.

7 Seen in this way, the two theological puzzles that emerge from the final action appear in a different light. Those puzzles are, first, that despite the doctrine stated in the play that repentance can never be too late, Faustus's damnation after his glimpse of Helen seems inevitable. The old man, after witnessing that scene, gives up on him, declaring "Accursed Faustus, miserable man, / That from thy soul exclud'st the grace of Heaven, / And Fliest the throne of his tribunalseat!" (V, i, 1739-42), and the good angel, though in a tone of sad lament rather than of glee, concurs with the bad angel in the inevitability of Faustus's damnation. Second, the doctrine of free will is undermined by hints of determinism when Mephistophilis reveals that he "damned up" Faustus's passage to heaven, that he actively sought Faustus and was not passively called to him, a deterministic suggestion that is echoed when Faustus blames "the stars that reign'd at [his] nativity," the parents that "engender'd [him]" and Lucifer, as well as himself, for his damnation. These disparities show the theological concerns of the play warped by the psychological pull of the protagonist who, confronted with a vision of Heaven void of women and inhabited by an angry, father-like God who seems an extension of the Old Man, and a Hell full of torture and torment but nonetheless containing images of women, chooses the latter.

8 The A text omits the "devil and his dam," making slightly less overt the link between hell and heterosexuality, but it includes a passage that gives a much more emotionally full sense of self-disgust and loath-someness in association with Helen when the Old Man, pleading with Faustus to mend his ways, says,

Break heart, drop blood, and mingle it with tears, Tears falling from repentent heavinesse Of thy most vilde and loathsome filthinesse, The stench whereof corrupts the inward soule With such flagitious crimes and hainous sinnes As no commiseration may expel.(1277-1282)

Colin Manlove (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8783

SOURCE: "Marlowe: Dr. Faustus," in his Christian Fantasy from 1200 to the Present, University of Notre Dame Press, 1992, pp. 73-92.

[In the following essay, Manlove explores some contrasts between Marlovian dramatic characters Tamburlaine and Faustus, focusing on the pursuit that each undertakes of materialistic and earthly rather than spiritual attainments.]

Our soules, whose faculties can comprehend The wondrous Architecture of the world: And measure every wandring plannets course: Still climing after knowledge infinite, And alwaies mooving as the restles Spheares, Wils us to weare our selves and never rest, Until we reach the ripest fruit of all, That perfect blisse and sole felicitie.…(Tamburlaine Part 1, II.vii.21-8)

These remarks might just have been made by Dante, whose Commedia was partly the product of a desire to fathom the furthest limits of reality, while at the same time being the expression of a scientific urge to know and to chart the unexplored. Dante, however, was both more and less ambitious, in that he was exploring a more than natural universe, one-in which his imagination was to be directed and educated by realities beyond it. Tamburlaine's universe has much less of the divine in it. His ruling principle is nature, not supernature; and nature gives us our aspiring minds, not God (11. 18-20). The speech quoted ends rather strangely, for, instead of telling us that he seeks the final key to the mysteries of the world, as we might now expect, Tamburlaine says that his 'perfect blisse and sole felicitie' lies in 'The sweet fruition of an earthly crowne'. We come down to earth and vulgar reality with rather a jolt. But in this Tamburlaine becomes like all Marlowe's other aspiring heroes. For, while their spirits lift them beyond the earth, they cannot put their ultimate desires in any other but earthly terms. This is to be seen most tellingly, and with most condemnation, in Dr Faustus, Marlowe's scholar-magician, who, unlike Tamburlaine, lives in the world of intellectual conquests, and could have found best satisfaction for his thirst in theology, which would have taken him beyond the limits of the earth; but chose instead to go in search of worldly pleasures. Tamburlaine, as military conqueror, has to fall back on earthly prizes as his goal. We should look back to the comment of Theridamas, Tamburlaine's chief captain, for the understanding of that last line:

And that made me to joine with Tamburlain, For he is grosse and like the massie earth, That mooves not upwards, nor by princely deeds Doth meane to soare above the highest sort.(11.30-3)

In other words, for all his aspiration, Tamburlaine has his feet on the ground, indeed cannot leave it. Theridamas perceives that the upward spiritual urge here expresses itself as what we may call a horizontal drive outwards. He is the practical man who knows 'what it comes down to', as Tamburlaine's speech literally came down to its seeming bathos.

But, while this is what happens, there is also for us still the sense of strain in converting or reducing the spiritual impulse to a mere material satisfaction. And this is what, in greater or lesser degree, these heroes of Marlowe's register: the sense that somehow they have mistranslated. Much of Tamburlaine's speech is restless, involving continual movement towards some grand object. That the named object should be so mean, so abrupt, can only suggest its inability to satisfy; and that is what we find in the play, where no sooner has Tamburlaine gained one crown than he seeks another, and then more, until he wears himself out. Only in his vision of his queen Zenocrate does he retain something of the spiritual thirst that in part animated the speech we have quoted (Part 1, V.i. 160-73; Part 2, II.iv.15-37). And just as with Tamburlaine, but far further back in his psyche—indeed, on the evidence, long before the play in which he is the protagonist begins—we feel that Faustus had an imaginative energy more nearly associated with the life of the universe, but one which he has let dwindle to mere secular ambition.

Nevertheless there are real differences between Tamburlaine and Faustus, who makes a pact with the devil to grant him the powers his impatient imagination seeks. Where Tamburlaine's energies are directed at overthrowing mortals, Faustus challenges the authority of God himself, and seeks to violate the laws on which nature is founded. Tamburlaine portrays the energy that drives him as the same as impels the gods and nature both:

The thirst of raigne and sweetnes of a crown, That causde the eldest sonne of heavenly Ops, To thrust his doting father from his chaire, And place himself in the Emperiall heaven, Moov'd me to manage armes against thy state. What better president than mightie Jove? Nature that fram'd us of foure Elements, Warring within our breasts for regiment, Doth teach us all to have aspyring minds.…(Part 1, II.vii. 12-20)

Despite various blasphemies by Tamburlaine he still portrays himself, particularly in Part 2, as a scourge of God, His mortal agent, in his overthrow of heathen empires and corrupt Christian armies alike.1 But Faustus does not go with the grain of reality like this. Initially at least he wants to be a 'Demi-god' and do as he pleases,

Be it to make the Moone drop from her Sphere, Or the Ocean to overwhelme the world.(Dr Faustus, I.iii.266-7)2

And to do this he allies himself with God's prime enemy, Lucifer. Of course, the very fact of having a Christian moral scheme of good and evil in this play alters our attitude to him; and not just by imposition, but in truth, because we see how much Faustus, in contrast to Goethe's Faust, wants for himself. Part of the difference between Tamburlaine and Faustus lies also in the fact that Tamburlaine releases some of his ambitious energies in practical warfare and expresses them in almost limitless territorial expansion, whereas Faustus is an intellectual who can range freely only, in Sidney's phrase, 'within the Zodiack of his owne wit', and thus tends to be more extreme and inaccurate in his ambition. Therein lies much of the tragic potential of the play; but the moral edge is much keener, and involves the indictment of a man whose intellect may be vast but whose true imagination is very limited. The effect in any case is that, whereas Tamburlaine's imagination can wonder at the fabric of the universe as it is, Faustus can only become excited at the thought of changing it. For all Tamburlaine's ceaseless battles, he is the one really capable of contemplating the universe; by contrast the scholar Faustus does nothing but act and move.

Further, Tamburlaine's imagination is such that he can look beyond himself, to wonder at the heavens and, every wandering planets course' or become lost in the contemplation of the nature of beauty through his beloved Zenocrate: he is in a way a genuine intellectual. We sense the force of Tamburlaine's imagination throughout, whether in the impulse that drives him to conquest or in his continual flights of aspiring verse. But the imagination is not so evident in Faustus. There is restlessness and desire for power, but the limited instances of this occur only at the beginning of the play. And all of them are directed not at going out to the world, but at bringing all things into the self:

     I'le be great Emperour of the world, And make a bridge, thorough the moving Aire, To passe the Ocean with a band of men, I'le joyne the Hils that bind the Affrick shore, And make that Country, continent to Spaine, And both contributary to my Crowne. The Emperour shall not live, but by my leave, Nor any Potentate of Germany.(I.iii.332-9)

I'l e … I'le … my … my': it is all self-directed, absorptive, centripetal; the irony is that, in contrast to Tamburlaine, Faustus can only do it in league with other powers. The syntax is chipped and broken up, a little shopping-list of greedy ambitions: this is no Michelangelo, but a Pizarro. There is only one moment in the play where the imagination of Faustus really soars like Tamburlaine's, and that is when as the end approaches he asks for Helen to be brought to him.

O thou art fairer then the evenings aire, Clad in the beauty of a thousand starres: Brighter art thou then flaming Jupiter, When he appear'd to haplesse Semele: More lovely then the Monarch of the sky, In wanton Arethusa's azur'd armes, And none but thou shalt be my Paramour.(V.i.1781-7)

But, unlike Tamburlaine's Zenocrate, this Helen is an infernal succuba, copulation with whom is damnation: Faustus's wonder here is at once glorious and corrupt.3 Further, the soaring syntax of the lines is an index not so much to a soaring soul as to one driven by terror at approaching hell-fire; the passionate lyricism here expresses the use of Helen as a respite. Indeed it is arguable that in Faustus the most powerful imaginative moments come not from aspiration but from desperation: not from a secular imagination but from one made helplessly aware of Christian realities.

O I'le leape up to my God: who puls me downe? See see where Christs bloud streames in the firmament, One drop would save my soule, halfe a drop, ah my Christ. Rend not my heart, for naming of my Christ, Yet will I call on him: O spare me Lucifer. Where is it now? 'tis gone. And see where God Stretcheth out his Arme, and bends his irefull Browes: Mountaines and Hils, come, come, and fall on me, And hide me from the heavy wrath of God.(V.ii. 1938-46)

Whereas Tamburlaine's restless spirit has always been moving towards some object, Faustus spends much of his energy in running away from one, whether God or hell: the force of his imagination is, as it were, negative.

Faustus is the only 'fantasy' Marlowe wrote, a fantasy set in a world surrounded and interpenetrated by a heaven and a hell, a devil and an incarnated Christian God. For much of the play we see present on the stage Mephostophilis, one of Lucifer's agents, as he seeks to secure Faustus's soul for his master. Just as in the play Everyman, and in contrast to Dante's Commedia, there is no fantastic world as such here, aside from the presence of Mephostophilis—unless we say that this world is made fantastic by being portrayed as so much of a platform between two supernatural realms. The presence of God, however, is more immediate and pervasive than at first appears. The play is one in which it seems that Faustus alone decides his ultimate destiny; but in fact that destiny is determined and shaped by the collision of his will with God's and the ultimately supernatural character of reality. God is as it were present by His absence: the more Faustus turns from Him, the more he activates divine opposition to him; at the end he is acutely aware of 'the heavy wrath of God' (V.ii.1946). That opposition is seen through a number of surrogates—Faustus's own extraordinary ignorance, the devils themselves, the process of erosion of the capacity to repent, and the ironies and collapsing structure of the play itself. We are told in the prologue that Faustus' 'waxen wings did mount above his reach, / And melting, heavens conspir'd his over-throw' (11. 21-2): the natural law of melting by the sun is the means through which the heavens work. The play thus testifies to God's power; but not to His cruelty, for Faustus continues to invoke only a dark image of Him: indeed His aspect and Faustus's wretched experience are a direct reflection of Faustus's wretched soul.

Two forms of 'fantasy' are opposed in Faustus (as, if differently, in Pearl and The Faerie Queene). Faustus himself is a mere fantasist who wants to remake the world to suit with his own desires. He thinks that the universe is a composite of adjustable matter:

All things that move betweene the quiet Poles Shall be at my command: Emperors and Kings, Are but obey'd in their severall Provinces: Nor can they raise the winde, or rend the cloudes: But his dominion that exceeds in this, Stretcheth as farre as doth the mind of man: A sound Magitian is a Demi-god, Here tire my braines to get a Deity.(I.i.83-90)

But, while Faustus is enjoying such limited powers as his pact with the devils gives him, it is Mephostophilis who on question tells him of the immutable character of the universe; Mephostophilis the devil who depicts for him a cosmic and spiritual 'fantasy' he cannot comprehend:

FAUSTUS. Think'st thou that Faustus, is so fond to imagine,

That after this life there is any paine?

Tush, these are trifles, and meere old wives Tales.

MEPHOSTOPHILIS. But I am an instance to prove the contrary: For I tell thee I am damn'd, and now in hell.

FAUSTUS. Nay, and this be hell, I'le willingly be damn'd.

What, sleeping, eating, walking and disputing?


The materialism of Faustus here is of a piece with his conception of the soul as a solid commodity: 'Had I as many soules, as there be Starres, / I'de give them all for Mephostophilis ' (I.iii.330-1).4 Faustus is condemned through the failure of his own fantasy, the fact that his earthly imaginings blind him to the far more miraculous and here terrible truths of the universe. In effect the play becomes a critique of that fantasy which tries to exist in opposition to Christianity.

For all the glorying by Faustus in the pictures created by his impatient imagination, one of the central ironies of this play is precisely how lacking in imagination this ambitious wizard is. The devils 'do their best' to tell Faustus of the true nature of what he is doing, even appear to warn him against it:

FAUSTUS. Where are you damn'd?


FAUSTUS. How comes it then that thou art out of hell?

MEPHOSTOPHILIS. Why this is hell: nor am I out of it.

Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God,

And tasted the etemall Joyes of heaven,

Am not tormented with ten thousand hels,

In being depriv'd of everlasting blisse?

O Faustus leave these frivolous demandes,

Which strike a terror to my fainting soule.

FAUSTUS. What, is great Mephostophilis so passionate

For being deprived of the Joyes of heaven?

Leame thou of Faustus manly fortitude,

And scome those Joyes thou never shalt possesse.


This 'ubiquitarian' notion, whereby 'Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd, / In one selfe place: but where we are is hell' (II.i.510-12), could be said to be a means of further heightening Faustus's materialism: he thinks of hell as a solid place of physical torments if it exists at all (and he is eventually given his own image of it); he does not understand the notion of hell as separation from God.5

At least, he does not understand it yet: he has come very close to realising and experiencing this truth by the time of his last, agonised soliloquy. It is here that we encounter one of the organising principles of the play: the spiritual law of action and reaction by which, the nearer to his end Faustus comes, the more he comes to believe in the reality of a God whom his refusals have made him unable to serve, and of a hell which he cannot avoid. At first he thinks of Mephostophilis as some sort of a genie he has called out of a bottle, and does not believe the devil when he tells him that it was not his supposed necromantic powers that called him up, but the peril into which he had placed his soul, 'For when we heare one racke the name of God, / Abjure the Scriptures, and his Saviour Christ; / We flye in hope to get his glorious soule' (I.iii.275-7). Gradually, however, he becomes more nervously aware of the possible reality of the divine system he has so scorned. And, as he does so, the fantastic powers he has derived from his league with Lucifer are increasingly used not to satisfy his ambition but as anodyne or diversion, to shut out the disturbing thoughts that begin to plague him. It is, to say the least, ironic that Faustus should be reduced to using the powers granted to him by the devils simply to wall off the dawning knowledge of what he has done; whenever he suffers anything like an attack of repentance, he is glad to have his mind entertained by a pageant of the devils, the Seven Deadly Sins or a succuba of Helen, 'That heavenly Hellen, which I saw of late, / Whose sweet embraces may extinguish cleare, / Those thoughts that do disswade me from my vow, / And keepe mine oath I made to Lucifer' (V.i.1762-5). It is not surprising, therefore, to find that pleasures used for the avoidance of pain rather than for their own sake should be often trivial or absurd: anything, even a pageant of Seven Deadly Sins or playing silly tricks on a horse-courser, will serve to divert.

The other spiritual law in the play is the Christian one by which Faustus's frequent refusals of God make him ultimately unable to repent—the law of despair. The man who had all freedom of choice ends with none, out of his own heart. At first he would have spirits 'Performe what desperate enterprise I will' (I.i.108): that word 'desperate' takes on an aspect of mordant anticipatory humour when seen in the light of its usage later in the play; as again when, during his bargain with the devils, Faustus uses what is to him theological gibberish in saying that he has 'incur'd eternall death, / By desperate thoughts against Joves Deity' (I.iii.316-17). Later, after the Good and Evil Angels have view for attention in his soul, he begins to sense that

My heart is hardned, I cannot repent: Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven, But feareful ecchoes thunder in mine eares,Faustus, thou art damn'd.…(II.ii.569-72)

After this and some bullying by Lucifer, Faustus is almost unable to use his will at all, and the pattern of his behaviour switches from thoughts of repentance to despair at his inability to repent: the apparently active mind of the first scenes becomes wholly passive. Typical is his reflection during his pranks with the Horsecourser:

What art thou Faustus but a man condemn'd to die? Thy fatall time drawes to a finall end; Despaire doth drive distrust into my thoughts. Confound these passions with a quiet sleepe: Tush, Christ did call the Theefe upon the Crosse, Then rest thee Faustus quiet in conceit.(IV.iv.1478-83)

After a last-minute visit by a good Old Man, who still bids him 'call for mercy, and avoyd despaire', Faustus is powerless: 'I do repent, and yet I doe despaire' (V.i.1733,1740). Though he desires to repent he can no longer will it. He asks for grace, here and later, and yet despairs of receiving it. This psychic hell is brought to a pitch of immediacy in the last speech and hour of his life. And, throughout, the growing confinement of his will is imaged: first in the fact that the devils give him powers far narrower than he had expected; then in the gradual reduction of the time available to him; and then in the place of final constriction which he reaches simultaneously with the paralysis of his will.6

These two processes—the growing awareness of the reality of heaven and hell, simultaneous with an increasing inability to do anything with this knowledge—give the play an extraordinary symmetry and ironic intensity. These ironies and principles are activated rather then generated by Faustus: his behaviour and his psychological development become means of throwing into relief the divine realities which ultimately govern them. Certainly if one continually chooses in one direction, habit if nothing else makes it impossible to choose in the opposite; but despair, the belief that God is hostile, is another matter. God is no humorist here: the ironic neatness of the psychic inversions does not reflect His local choices, but rather the action of the universal order, the symmetry of the spiritual cosmos, that Faustus has persistently ignored and sought to violate with his chaotic greeds.

It is, we may add, in that stoppage of the will at the moment of maximum perception of what it will cost not to be able to use it that what there is of tragic effect in Dr Faustus lies—not in any frustration of a supposedly adventurous intellect by a jealous God and the snares of hell. There is little about Faustus for much of the play to awaken our sympathy or admiration. Our involvement with him grows to the extent that he grows in the spiritual awareness of his position. And our sense of waste comes from the loss of this growth of soul in his inability to do anything with it. It is a sense which as said is keenly edged with irony, but it is not the less tragic for that.

A remarkably complex network of ironies and structures governs the entire play—a play which has often been seen as lacking in organisation. If Tamburlaine's imagination and mind could be said to dilate through the play, the process in Faustus's case is one of shrinkage, in conflict with divine reality. As said, the devils give him less than he asked for: indeed the man who expected to have the power to make 'the Moone drop from her Sphere, / Or the Ocean to overwhelme the world' (I.iii.266-7) is allowed only to play tricks with fireworks on the Pope or to call up a succuba or enjoy practical jokes with a stupid horse-courser or a rude knight. The great and swelling necromancer of the early scenes turns into an obsequious household conjurer, amusing the Emperor by calling up a shade of Alexander, or fetching grapes from the other side of the world for the pregnant Duchess of Vanholt.7 Even more remarkable is the fact that Faustus never repines at these limitations: indeed he derives much pleasure and a certain Lilliputian pride from his trival exploits.8 And 'Lilliputian' may be the apposite word; for perhaps we are to picture his ambition as having been shrunk to pygmy size during the play. These middle scenes of the play are often poorly written, without much creative intensity; and on those grounds they have been argued to leave the play without a dramatic centre. It may be, however, that at a deeper level that is, in effect, the point. The void in the play might be said to express the void that is in Faustus. Alternatively, we may see these scenes as simply random and disconnected episodes of delusive pleasure thrust by Faustus between his initial act and its consequence—this serving to collapse the two ends of the play together.

This notion of a spiritual vacuum, a hollowing-out of a centre so that the peripheries collapse in on one another, is evident from the first. The prologue begins with negatives, 'Not marching in the fields of Thrasimen … Nor sporting in the dalliance of love … Nor in the pompe of proud audacious deeds, / Intends our Muse to vaunt his heavenly verse': we learn about Faustus by way of what he is not. The starveling announcement of the play's subject comes as anticlimax:

Onely this, Gentles: we must now performe The forme of Faustus fortunes, good or bad, And now to patient judgments we appeale, And speake for Faustus in his infancie.

The suspense created by the previous lines and the grand pause with which they end suddenly give way to stumbling rhythm and banal, repetitive-sounding diction ('performe I Informe of Faustus fortunes'). Now we are warned that this figure will tax our patient judgments. We are told that the prologue will speak for Faustus 'in his infancie': in fact it does no more than tell us that he was born of base parents in the German town of Rhode. The rest of the speech is a remarkable piece of temporal telescoping.

At riper years to Wittenberg he went, Whereas his kinsmen chiefly brought him up; So much he profits in Divinitie, The fruitfull plot of Scholerisme grac'd, That shortly he was grac'd with Doctors name, Excelling all, whose sweet delight's dispute In th'heavenly matters of Theologie, Till swolne with cunning of a selfe conceit, His waxen wings did mount above his reach, And melting, heavens conspir'd his overthrow: For falling to a divellish exercise, And glutted now with learnings golden gifts, He surfets upon cursed Necromancie: Nothing so sweet as Magicke is to him, Which he preferres before his chiefest blisse; And this the man that in his study sits.

We are given an account of Faustus's total history in advance (this is quite in contrast to Marlowe's other plays): 'swolne with cunning of a selfe conceit, / His waxen wings did mount above his reach, / And melting, heavens conspir'd his over-throw'. The sequence of events is distorted, for the speech then returns to talk of Faustus's growing fascination for necromancy: one feels his beginning and end come together.9 This is also conveyed by frequent switches of tense: 'Now is he borne', 'to Wittenberg he went', 'his kinsmen chiefly brought him up', 'he profits in Divinitie', 'shortly he was grac'd with Doctors name', 'His waxen wings did mount above his reach', 'heavens conspir'd', 'glutted now', 'He surfets', 'Nothing so sweet as Magicke is to him', 'he preferres', 'this the man that in his study sits'. The whole is a microcosm of the temporal shrinkage that we are to witness throughout the play.

This kind of depiction of the 'hollowing-out' of Faustus is done with such extraordinary subtlety that it seems fair to speak of a magical use of words that far outmatches his own use of spells. The magic that is the play is used for a spiritual end, the instruction of other souls; but that of Faustus is used only for himself. The one expands outwards; the other contracts. 'Of course' Marlowe wrote the play; but who wrote Marlowe writing it? The vatic notion of creation was one particularly prominent in the Renaissance:10 it was the period's rendering-down of the literature of granted vision to the literature of ventriloquism. At any rate, we need not suppose this far just now: it is sufficient that the evacuation of Faustus's soul shows the existence and the workings of spiritual law in the universe of the play.

The same process is at work in Faustus's opening speech, where he reviews all branches of learning and opts for necromancy. This speech might appear a condensed history of Faustus's deliberations over a number of years, or as a review of the current state of his intellectual life before he selects magic. But in fact we have already been told that Faustus is a necromancer:

For falling to a divellish exercise, And glutted now with learnings golden gifts, He surfets upon cursed Necromancie: Nothing so sweet as Magicke is to him, Which he preferres before his chiefest blisse; And this the man that in his study sits.(Prologue, 11. 23-8)

The whole of Faustus's soliloquy thus becomes redundant. While he looks as though he is choosing, he has already made his choice. Then what is the soliloquy for? It is a way of giving spurious rationalisation to a predeterrmined choice—a choice made not from any love of superior learning, but out of greed for power. The soliloquy, with its apparently careful weighing of the arguments for each discipline before moving on to the next, is in fact a sham, a skin of rationality over a void of power-lust and materialism, so that Faustus may persuade himself that the process by which he arrived at necromancy was inevitable. The central instance of this twisting of evidence is Faustus's summary dismissal of divinity as he flicks through the Bible:

Stipendium peccati mors est: ha, Stipendium, & c. The reward of sin is death? that's hard:Si peccasse negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veritas: If we say that we have no sinne we deceive our selves, and there is no truth in us. Why then belike We must sinne, and so consequently die, I, we must die, an everlasting death. What doctrine call you this? Che sera, sera: What will be, shall be; Divinitie adeiw.(I.i.74-83)

Faustus here omits the saving clauses concerning Christ's grace and mercy to repentant sinners: 'but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord' (Romans 6.23); 'If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness' (1 John 1.9). It is unlikely that Marlowe intended to portray Faustus here as ignorant of the very theology of which we have just been told he is a master (Prologue, 11. 15-19).11 Unless we are prepared to accept at face value and apply retrospectively Mephostophilis's claim near the end of the play (V.ii. 1886-9, not in the A text) that he directed Faustus's reading of the Bible, it is clear that sense is made of the scene only when we view it in terms of Faustus directing and limiting his own reading. And certainly Mephostophilis did not claim responsibility for the earlier distortion of texts from logic by Faustus,12 or his contemptuous citation from law (I.i.34-8, 55-63). Thus what seems to be a consideration is not really a consideration at all: even as Faustus appears to treat law or divinity as if they could matter to him, he is intent on proving them worthless, nonentities, by any means. The very mention of other disciplines before they are dismissed increases the sense of shrinkage.13 As we follow the speech it shrivels away to nothing, a perverted conjuring-trick. Faustus presents us with apparent substance only to reduce it to shadow; the irony of the play is that he himself is to turn from substance to shadow, under the spiritual laws of a magician far greater than he. It is certainly interesting that we first see Faustus at work perverting words, and in particular the Word: as suggested earlier, far greater Words that have become flesh, not to mention the true-speaking spell that is the play, are to conjure with him.

This greater conjuring is evident throughout the first soliloquy, where we are always aware of larger truths which make nonsense of what Faustus is doing. Indeed the very existence of irony suggests an intellectual perspective of which he is incapable. He is himself already a hollow man: an intellectual with no real wisdom, a man involved with creations of mind whose only interest is in personal and physical gratification, a theologian who knows neither truth nor virtue. He tells himself to 'sound the depth of that thou wilt professe' (he often thus addresses himself as someone else): he does not know to what depths that will lead him. He bids himself apply his selected branch of learning to being 'a Divine in shew': this rejection of the spiritual for the material and external recurs on Mephostophilis's first arrival, when Faustus, finding him too ugly, tells him to assume the garb of a Franciscan friar, since 'That holy shape becomes a devill best' (I.iii.254). (Incidentally, since the devils portray themselves as relatively helpless beside God's power, Mephostophilis's holy disguise, worn throughout the play, may become other than a mere blasphemous joke, and he appear to us as the agent of God he may in fact be construed indirectly to be.) Faustus takes leave of analytics, saying, 'Bid on kai me on farewell', but it is precisely not farewell that he is taking of the issue of being and not being: he may turn away from metaphysics, but it will not release him. Moving on in distaste from medicine, because it can do no more than repair the body, Faustus asks, 'Couldst thou make men to live eternally, / Or being dead, raise them to life againe, / Then this profession were to be esteem'd': we are suddenly aware that this fantastic power is at the centre of the Christian religion,14 and that it is God's power not man's; and to this ignorant blasphemy is added further irony, for Faustus will experience the fact of eternal resurrection, and it will not be the joy he thinks it. The latter of his legal quotations—'Exhereditare filium non potest pater, nisi—' ('A father cannot disinherit his son, except—')—is also ironic, for it can obviously be applied to Faustus's relation to God and the reasons for his own disinheritance.15 Turning in revulsion from the discipline of law Faustus tells us,

This study fits a Mercenarie drudge, Who aimes at nothing but externall trash, Too servile and illiberall for mee.(I.i. 61-3)

From someone who has just bid himself 'be a Divine in shew', and who is about to gloat over the material gain and applause he will derive from the practice of magic, this can only be crushingly ironic; less directly so is the 'servile and illiberall', which describes precisely the imprisoned condition of Faustus's spirit during the exercise of that magic power designed to free it. With truth beyond his wit Faustus now says, 'When all is done, Divinitie is best'. And, when he moves on to consider necromancy, his spiritual stupidity is strikingly caught in his assertion, 'Negromantick bookes are heavenly'.16 His complete ignorance of spiritual matters, his allegiance to nothing but the physical, is in large part to be his undoing in his relations with the devils.

It would be a mistake to see Faustus only as a remarkably obtuse scholar. It would be fairer to say that, just as he limits his reading here, so he limits and reduces himself by going against the grain of spiritual reality. The ironies show that he is out of touch with true value, or they would not be operative. His poverties of mind and spirit are in part the product of his belief that he can be a god altering reality as he will—in short, the consequence of a megalomaniac imagination which, meeting with divine fact, erodes the faculties of its owner.

Other ironies scatter the play. Faustus calls men's souls 'vaine trifles' (I.ii.289), but it is he who is the vain trifler, he too who pursues trifles through necromancy. He tells Mephostophilis not to be so gloomy about hell but to cheer up (I.iii.311-14). He enters into the bond with Lucifer, "Seeing Faustus hath incur'd eternall death, / By desperate thoughts against Joves Deity' (I.1. 317): it is a mere formula to him here, but is later to become all too real, especially the 'desperate thoughts'. It is ironic that throughout the play Faustus should show more terror of God than of the devils. His belief that Mephostophilis will protect him from God shows him approaching the kind of 'doom of Nonsense' that has been seen in Milton's Satan;17 the process goes one stage further when, seeing the inscription 'Homo fuge ' on his arm after he has signed the bond with Lucifer in his own blood, he asks, 'whether should I flye? / If unto God, hee'le throw me downe to hell' (II.i.466-7).18 Nor are the scenes in which the clowns try to use Faustus's magic books for their own purposes without an element of satire. Their triviality reflects on that of Faustus; and their poverty makes their need for magic more real. Wagner, Faustus's servant, says of Robin, 'I know the Villaines out of service, and so hungry, that he would give his soule to the devill, for a shoulder of Mutton, tho it were bloud raw' (I.iv.349-51). When Robin replies, 'Not so neither; I had need to have it well rosted, and good sauce to it, if I pay so deere, I can tell you', we are left in no doubt how much more practical, and aware of the reality of hell, this supposedly ignorant man is.19

The last scene of the play is full of dramatic inversions of the first,20 which collapse the two ends of the play together. The man who' surfeited' upon necromancy is now himself eaten—'The jawes of hell are open to receive thee'—and will be fed with 'soppes of flaming fire'.21 The man who sat restlessly in his chair at the outset of the play is now shown a burning chair in hell on which he will sit writhing for all eternity. The 'Demi-god' who said, 'All things that move betweene the quiet Poles / Shall be at my command', now finds himself the victim of their inexorable movement:

Stand still you ever moving Spheares of heaven, That time may cease, and midnight never come.

The man who has tried to live beyond the bounds of nature is now at nature's mercy:

Faire nature's eye, rise, rise againe and make Perpetuall day: or let this houre be but A yeare, a month, a weeke, a naturall day, That Faustus may repent, and save his soule.

The third line parallels the shrinkage of time to this point in the play itself, and also, analogously, the shrinkage of Faustus's desires throughout. This is also seen in the way that Faustus, who once asked to be a god, now asks to be less than a beast or even an object, a mere gas (11. 1952-6); and in his crazed haggling for the blood of Christ which he sees as streaming in the firmament—'One drop would save my soule, halfe a drop, ah my Christ'. Now Faustus realises only too immediately the full natures of hell, heaven and the immortality of the soul which he treated as a mere commodity. Earlier, when his blood became too thick for him to sign the bond with Lucifer in the words' Faustus gives to thee his soule', he asked, 'Why shouldst thou not? is not thy soule thine owne?' (II.i.456-7); now he finds how truly it is his own.

Why wert thou not a creature wanting soule? Or why is this immortal] that thou hast?

The question of who is 'running the show' is one that is continually present in this play. The very subject of learning that Faustus chooses to permit him to change the world is the one that offers that urge least scope. For a necromancer helped by devils, every change in the world, every metamorphosis or magical being, is an illusion constructed by demons. Faustus's fantasy is built on the phantasmal, the unreal: it is literally a lie, not even a fiction. What he becomes he becomes in show only; and this adds to the sense of a void at the centre of the play. Further, it is a show stage-managed by Lucifer, Mephostophilis and the other devils, who are the most evident 'playwrights' within the play. In their play, it is not Faustus who controls them but they who control Faustus: he has the chief part in their 'fantasy'; and their fantasy will grasp reality in the shape of Faustus's soul. In their greed and ambition they are in a sense another version of Faustus; in their cool insight into the true issues at stake, however, they differ from his self-deluding imagination. As said earlier, it is all a matter of perspective to some degree. Who is writing this play, this fantasy? Is it Marlowe? Faustus? Mephostophilis? Or is it God? (Even Marlowe's actual authorship of parts of the play is in doubt.) Faustus is a magician; the clowns of the play practise magic too; and there is larger magic beyond both, in Marlowe as the creator of the play, and in God as the maker of the universe. This tapering, and the constant ironic perspective, give the play its 'ripple effect' outwards. For, as for Mephostophilis himself, he may have power over Faustus through Faustus's assent, but he can himself be viewed as an agent of God's justice. As said, even his ironic guise of Franciscan friar can be seen as hell itself in the habit of heaven. Nor are the devils free agents. They cannot accomplish the dramatic upsets of nature that Faustus first asks of them (I.iii.264-70). They cannot name who made the world. They cannot give Faustus a wife. Nor can they tell Faustus much more of the planets, stars and heavens than is already familiar knowledge to him.22 And the strange thing about these devils, or at least about Mephostophilis, is that they apparently cannot lie.23 They make no attempt to conceal from Faustus what they are, or the nature of hell, or the fate of his soul.

The fantasy of this drama may as we have suggested be conceived as one engineered by the deity. It is a fantasy in which a supernatural creation, a soul, is seen to shrivel and shrink before our eyes, under the direct action of its collision with divine laws it has sought to negate. Through the destruction of a perverted man the play then becomes a picture of God's power in action. It might appear that that picture is a harsh one, involving as it does the casting of a human soul into endless torment; but it can equally be argued that it is a picture of divine love, both because Faustus was offered every chance possible to repent, and because heaven thereby asserts itself to be a place which only love and those who love could understand or enter. Further, we have suggested that the darkened nature of Faustus's soul determines the nature of what he sees, and that the frowning God and the apparently inaccessible Christ of the play are the only forms of them that Faustus could understand. In this light their seeming remoteness from him expresses his from them; and the much greater presence of hell than of heaven in the play depicts his refusals. In the same way it can be said that the self-enclosure and blinkering in Faustus's mind as we see it in the opening soliloquy is extended in his bargain with Mephostophilis, and even in the enclosed aspect of the Christian universe of sin and punishment that comes to surround him.

Marlowe has often been seen in Dr Faustus as tom between sympathy with the ambitious imagination in Faustus and the need to judge it as damnable. Faustus is viewed as a product of the expansive Renaissance spirit, which from the evidence of most of his other plays, particularly Tamburlaine, Marlowe is said to have admired. It is certainly true that an impatience with knowledge based on bookish and outdated authority is a feature of many Renaissance thinkers, not least the Swiss doctor Paracelsus, on whom the Faustus story was founded.24 It is true too that in the Renaissance the freedom given to the creative imagination (as we now call it) was far greater than before, so that, for example, Pico della Mirandola in his Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) could have God tell man that

The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. We have set thee at the world's centre that thou mayest from thence more easily observe whatever is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honour, as though the maker and moulder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power out of thy soul's judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.25

One should observe, however, that Pico was fully aware of how one who abused this freedom could find himself a path downwards to the bestial. There is not one Renaissance thinker of moment who allows complete licence to the imagination: all at some point demand that its flights be constrained within the bounds of good doctrine or sense. Faustus, of course, flies against those prescriptions. For him there is to be no limit, and no moral directive to his mind's ambition; and for this very reason, in the divine medium of the play, his imagination is shrunken and damned. Moreover, it is difficult even to see Faustus as a Renaissance seeker after knowledge. He is impatient with his existing knowledge, but does not seek to extend it; rather, what he wants is more power: 'O what a world of profite and delight, / Of power, of honour, and omnipotence, / Is promised to the Studious Artisan?' He has the bookish scholar's desire to be the centre of the world's attention, even so far as being a 'Demi-god', a 'Deity' (I.i.80-2, 89-90). In this, it may be remarked, he contrasts strikingly with Goethe's more intellectually inquiring Faust, who seeks for true experiential knowledge of nature's essence through magic, and who helps others rather than himself. For these reasons, while there is sympathy for Faustus's sufferings, the waste of his talents and his inability to repent, the play seems to cast him far more as a moral example than as a fully tragic figure. And the moral analysis is set partly in terms of Faustus's failure to comprehend the Christian fantasy that is the universe, and his preference for a materialist and selfish fantasy which proves no more than empty illusion—indeed turns literally into illusion in the form of the fraudulent pleasures given to him by the devils. The theme of a materialist and selfish fantasy was also seen in Pearl, but there the dreamer came to a truer understanding of spiritual things and the beginnings of an approach to heaven; Faustus portrays the opposite movement, the refusal and then the inability to absorb spiritual truths, and a steady journey towards a materialistic hell.

The Christian fantasy of Faustus lies precisely in the clash between the corrupt imagination of the protagonist and the spiritual frame of the universe. It is a Christian vision which for the first time in our survey exists in terms of a continued and unresolved struggle. While in Faustus the corrupt imagination is judged and put in its place (which here is hell), the conflict of the two sides is not overcome. That, we may say, marks the play as a Renaissance work: it registers the pull of the renegade human imagination against the divine. More important for our purposes, we will find that the issue of how far the imagination should be restrained or liberated is behind Christian fantasy from now until the nineteenth century.

The following abbreviations are used in references to journals.

E in C
Essays in Criticism
English Literary History
English Literary Renaissance
English Studies
Journal of English and Germanic Philology
Modern Language Notes
Modern Language Quarterly
Modern Philology
N & Q
Notes and Queries
Philological Quarterly
Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
Studies in Philology
Texas Studies in Literature and Language
University of Toronto Quarterly


1 Paul H. Kocher, Christopher Marlowe: A Study of his Thought, Learning and Character (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946) pp. 79-86, gives a thorough critique of this view.

2 References to Tamburlaine and Dr Faustus are to the texts in Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Works, ed. Fredson Bowers, 2nd edn, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

3 W. W. Greg, 'The Damnation of Faustus' (1946), repr. in Clifford Leech (ed.), Marlowe: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964) pp. 103-6, sees Faustus as committing 'the sin of demoniality, that is, bodily intercourse with demons' (p. 106). Judith Weil, Christopher Marlowe: Merlin's Prophet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977) pp. 73-5, points out the blasphemies and corruptions of the speech in its perversions of biblical and other Christian language; and at p. 195 n. 39 argues the weakness of one case made against that of Greg—by T. W. Craik, in 'The Damnation of Faustus Reconsidered', Renaissance Drama, 2 (1969) 192-6.

4 J. C. Maxwell, 'The Plays of Christopher Marlowe', in Boris Ford (ed.), The Pelican Guide to English Literature, 2: The Age of Shakespeare (Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1963) p. 173. On Faustus's materialism see also Leo Kirschbaum, 'Religious Values in Dr Faustus' (1962), repr. in Willard Farnham (ed.), Twentieth Century Interpretations of 'DrFaustus ': A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969) pp. 77-87; Michael Mangan, Christopher Marlowe, 'Dr Faustus ': A Critical Study, Penguin Masterstudies (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1987) pp. 45-6.

5 Cf. The New Catholic Encyclopaedia, 17 vols (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967) IV, 1007: 'separation from God is the theological idea of hell'.

6 For other aspects of confinement in Faustus see Frank Manley, 'The Nature of Faustus', MP, 66 (1968-9) 220-1; Marjorie Garber,' "Infinite Riches in a Little Room": Closure and Enclosure in Marlowe', in Alvin Kernan (ed.), Two Renaissance Mythmakers, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1975-6, n.s., I (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977) pp. 5, 17-21.

7 Roland M. Frye, 'Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: The Repudiation of Humanity' (1956), in Farnham, Twentieth Century Interpretations, pp. 56-7.

8 See also A. L. French, 'The Philosophy of Dr Faustus', E in C, 20 (1970) 137.

9 See also James Smith, 'Marlowe's Dr Faustus', Scrutiny, 8 (1939) 39-40, 49.

10 See for example C. D. Baker, 'Certain Religious elements in the English Doctrine of the Inspired Poet during the Renaissance', ELH, 6 (1939) 300-23.

11 French, however, is prepared to accuse Marlowe of such blatant self-contradiction (E in C, 20, pp. 126-30).

12 On which see Mangan, Dr Faustus, pp. 31-2.

13 J.B. Steane, Marlowe: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965) p. 165, finds this sense of shrinkage one of the dominant impressions conveyed by the play.

14 See also French, in E in C, 20, p. 128; and Roy T. Eriksen, 'The forme of Faustus fortunes ': A Study of 'The Tragedie of Doctor Faustus' (1616) (Oslo: Sorlum; and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1987) p. 36.

15 Eriksen, 'The forme of Faustus fortunes, p. 37, also makes this point.

16 See also Mangan, Dr Faustus, p. 34.

17 By C. S. Lewis, in his A Preface to 'Paradise Lost' (London: Oxford University Press, 1942) p. 95.

18 Weil, Marlowe: Merlin's Prophet, p. 62, cites James H. Sims, Dramatic Uses of Allusion in Marlowe and Shakespeare (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1966) p. 25, referring Faustus's reaction to the 'Homo fuge' ('If unto God, hee'le throw me downe to hell') to Psalm 139. 7-10 on the omnipresence of God, in hell as in heaven. Weil remarks, 'For the joyful psalmist, God is everywhere. In order to express his hope of escape, Faustus has chosen words which point to an inevitable reunion with God.' This further extends the idea of all in Faustus happening within the divine presence.

19 See also Steane, Marlowe: A Critical Study, p. 135.

20 On such inversions see also, for example, Smith, in Scrutiny, 8, pp. 36-7; Helen Gardner, 'The Damnation of Faustus' (1946), in Farnham, Twentieth Century Interpretations, p. 39; J. P. Brockbank, Marlowe: 'Dr Faustus' (London: Edward Arnold, 1962) pp. 56-9; Leonard H. Frey, 'Antithetical Balance in the Opening and Close of Doctor Faustus', MLQ, 24 (1963) 350-3.

21 C. L. Barber, '"The form of Faustus' fortunes good or bad" ', Tulane Drama Review, 8 (1963-4) 106-12.

22 Michael Hattaway, Elizabethan Popular Theatre: Plays in Performance (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982) pp. 175-6, remarks, 'Mephostophilis' answers disappoint Faustus.… The devil's knowledge is drab.… All he [Faustus] draws from Mephostophilis is a denial of the crystalline sphere introduced to explain the phenomenon of planetary trepidation. Marlowe may have been indebted to Augustinus Ricius for this modification of orthodox Ptolemaic cosmography, but the dramatic point is that this sphere is invisible and that Faustus is unable to entertain any knowledge that is not empirical.'

23 Cf. Mangan, Dr Faustus, p. 86: '[Mephostophilis] rarely lied to Faustus. Indeed we have seen him being astonishingly honest with Faustus … hardly ever lying or deceiving.' This of course does not suggest that the devils could not lie, only that it is amazing that they did not.

24 Henry M. Pachter, Paracelsus: Magic into Science (New York: Henry Schuman, 1951) pp. 12-16.

25 Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller and John Herman Randall, Jr (eds.), The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948) p. 225 (tr. Elizabeth Livermore Forbes). A similar view, of the poet as creator, is advanced by Sidney in An Apologie for Poetrie (quoted above, pp. 71-2).

David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13460

SOURCE: "Introduction," in their Doctor Faustus A- and B-Texts (1604, 1616): Christopher Marlowe and His Collaborator and Revisers, Manchester University Press, 1993, pp. 1-15, 42-48, 62-77.

[In the following excerpt from the introduction to their edition of Doctor Faustus, Bevington and Rasmussen survey the controversies surrounding the A- and B-texts, as well as assessing the evidence for the date, the sources, the staging, and the authorship of the play.]


Among the myriad uncertainties about Doctor Faustus, the first is the question of when it was written and initially performed. Two dates vie for our attention, one c. 1588-9 and one c. 1592. The matter is of consequence to our view of Marlowe's career as a dramatist, for, despite their general proximity, these dates nearly span the productive career of this precocious and seemingly doomed young artist. Did Marlowe write Doctor Faustus shortly after his great success with the two parts of Tamburlaine, the second of them performed probably on 10 November 1587, or is the play perhaps his last and greatest creation before his sudden death at a Deptford tavern in May of 1593?

The case for the earlier date, generally now in critical favour, rests on a number of considerations. The anonymous play called The Taming of a Shrew, widely regarded as an earlier version of Shakespeare's play employing a good deal of free-wheeling plagiarism from other sources, or else a 'bad' quarto of Shakespeare's play, unquestionably takes some of its plagiarised material from Doctor Faustus. Even though A Shrew can arguably be dated any time from about 1588 to 1593, its dependence on Doctor Faustus tends to push back the datc of the earlier play.1 Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, already an old play (perhaps as early as 1589) by the time it was performed by Lord Strange's Men on 19 February 1592, seems manifestly to have been written under the influence of Marlowe, of whom Greene was openly resentful and emulous. The possibility that Greene may have pioneered in bringing a famous magician on stage seems implausible in view of Greene's other blatant attempts to capitalise on Marlowe's success, as in Alphonsus, King of Aragon (1587-8) and its nearly parodic depiction of the overreacher Tamburlaine. A line in Perimedes (SR 29 March 1588)—'Such mad and scoffing poets that have poetical spirits, as bred of Merlin's race'—sounds like another of Greene's irritated references to Marlowe and specifically to Doctor Faustus. Clearly there was a new demand in 1588-9 for plays about magicians and their spectacular tricks; Anthony Munday's John a Kent and John a Cumber is another of these.2

Doctor Faustus may well have been the pacesetter for this fashion; even if it was not the very first, we can scarcely imagine Marlowe waiting until 1592, some four years after the height of the vogue. A Looking-Glass for London and England, written by Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene before August 1591, is yet another play that appears to have plagiarised material from Marlowe's play, though W. W. Greg argues the minority position that Doctor Faustus is the debtor. Unmistakable borrowings from Doctor Faustus in A Knack to Know a Knave, first performed on 10 June 1592, indicate that Marlowe's play was well known at least a few months before that date.3

'A ballad of the life and deathe of Doctur Faustus the great Cunngerer', entered in the Stationers' Register to Richard Jones on 28 February 1589, is probably essentially identical with a Faustus ballad later registered on 14 December 1674 and preserved in late seventeenth-century broadsides. This ballad, as MacD. P. Jackson shows, displays acquaintance with both Marlowe's chief source, the Damnable Life, and with the play itself, and may belong to a group of ballads based on plays written around 1590 including Titus Andronicus and Arden of Faversham.4

Doctor Faustus may have been performed in about 1588 at the Belsavage playhouse, if we can trust William Prynne's considerably later (1633) reference to 'the visible apparition of the devil on the stage at the Belsavage playhouse, in Queen Elizabeth's days, to the great amazement both of the actors and spectators, whiles they were there playing the History of Faustus, the truth of which I have heard from many now alive, who well remember it, there being some distracted with that fearful sight'.5 The Belsavage was in use, ordinarily by the Queen's Men, until 1588 and perhaps as late as 1589; other acting companies more reliably associated with Marlowe, such as Lord Strange's Men and Pembroke's company, may also have acted there.

The case for a date in 1592 rests chiefly on the publication date of Marlowe's chief source, P. F.'s English translation of the German Faustbuch, under the title The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. The earliest extant edition was printed by Thomas Orwin in 1592. This, however, is apparently not the first edition, since its title page speaks of its being 'newly imprinted, and in convenient places imperfect matter amended'. An entry in the Court Book of the Stationers' Register on 18 December of that year seemingly points to a now-lost edition (published by Abel Jeffes) in May; even this need not have been the first edition. Perhaps Marlowe consulted not the extant Orwin edition but some other, quite possibly earlier in date.6

One way or another, Marlowe may well have had access to the Damnable Life before 1592. The ballad entry of 28 February 1589, whether or not it refers to the ballad preserved in seventeenth-century broadsides, does seem to suggest the existence by that date of some English version of the Faust story, for ballads of this sort ordinarily sought to exploit a phenomenon that was sensational and widery known. Since the German Historia von D. Johann Fausten, dem weitbeschreiten Zauberer und Schwartzkünstler was first published in 1587, with several reprints in that same year attesting to its instant popularity, we are left with only a short period of time for the story to have gained notoriety in England and for a translation to have been made by P. F.—one to which Marlowe may have had access. Paul Kocher in fact argues that an edition of the English Damnable Life had appeared by 1590, perhaps in November of 1589 or even a year before that, at Cambridge.7 Harold Jantz goes still further to posit a lost Latin original of the Faustbuch that was perhaps widely disseminated before the German version appeared in 1587 and that Marlowe might have consulted at Cambridge.8 A reference to Pope Sixtus in the present tense in the English Damnable Life might indicate that the translation was done before his death in August of 1590.9

Stylistically and thematically, the case for a date in 1588-9 is as strong as for 1592 and probably no stronger; as Fredson Bowers was fond of saying in cases like this, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Either Marlowe followe up his study of fortunate striving after earthly felicity in Tamburlaine with a more dispirited anatomy of ambition foiled by its own dark energies,10 or he waited until after The Jewof Malta and Edward II, not to mention The Massacreat Paris, to give the world his most mature and exalted vision of tragic waste.11 Since the historical evidence tends to support the earlier date, we will approach the question of Marlowe's development accordingly.

Sources and Background

Marlowe found in P. F.'s The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus (often referred to as the English Faust Book or EFB) a wealth of material to which he could turn for the substance of virtually all the scenes in his play. The strong correlation between the prose source and the play in fact argues the likelihood that Marlowe, working seemingly with a collaborator,12 conceived of the plan as a whole in which the comic scenes played an integral part. Deprived of the comedy, Doctor Faustus would bear an implausible relation to the Damnable Life.

The Damnable Life and its German original give us a collection of stories gathered around one Georgius of Helmstadt, who enrolled in the University of Heidelberg in 1483 and evidently later came to be known as Johann Faustus. This man had already become in-famous by 1507, it seems, for on 20 August in that year the Abbot Trithemius of Wuirzburg wrote to Johann Virdung about a vagabond and knave calling himself 'Magister Georgius Sabellicus, Faustus junior, fons necromanticorum, astrologus, magus secundus, agromanticus, pyromanticus', and still worse. We hear a second complaint on 7 October 1513, this time in a letter from Konrad Muth, Canon at Gotha, to his friend Heinrich Urbanus, about 'a certain chiromancer named Georgius Faustus, Hemitheus Hedelbergensis [the demigod of Heidelberg], a mere braggart and fool'. Both 'Faustus' and 'Sabellicus' appear to be Latin cognomens in the style of many a Renaissance humanist. Possibly the name 'Faustus', meaning 'auspicious', was bestowed upon this man (whose family name is unknown) in recollection of St Clement's father, a legendary magician who engaged in a battle of devilish tricks with Simon Magus, or of the Manichean bishop with whom St Augustine engaged in debate.13 The name Johann or John Faust may also represent a confusion with Johann Fust, an early practitioner of that sinister art known as printing. Many of the tall tales that collected around Faustus bear a generic resemblance to stories told also of Simon Magus, Roger Bacon, Empedocles, Virgil, and others, and hence are not to be taken too literally.

Marlowe and his collaborator undoubtedly relied on the Damnable Life's free translation rather than on the German original. Examples of direct indebtedness to the English version for language not found in the German include the account of Virgil's tomb and of 'the highway that he cut through that mighty hill of stone in one night, the whole length of an English mile' (compare Doctor Faustus, A-text, III.i.13-15),14 the description of four bridges over the River Tiber in Rome, upon one of which 'is the Castle of S. Angelo, wherein are so many great cast pieces as there are days in a year' (III.i.37-41); the fourth article of Faustus's pact with the devil, which began as two separate articles of agreement in the German original; Faustus's giving the Pope a box on the ear (III.i.80.2) rather than blowing in his face as in the German version; the Pope's curse by means of 'bell, book, and candle' (III.i.82-4); and others.15 Nowhere does the play rely on the German text; the spelling (in both texts) of 'Trier' (III.i.2) corresponds with the German rather than the Damnable Life's 'Treir', but anyone could have corrected this error.

As Harry Levin observes, the Damnable Life 'is at once a cautionary tale and a book of marvels, a jestbook and a theological tract'.16 Despite its episodic character, the work falls naturally into three parts: Faustus's contract with the devil and his inquiries into the secrets of the universe, his adventuresome travels and magical demonstrations, and finally his despair and damnation. The formal divisions of the text into 'the Second Part' at ch. 17 and 'the Third and Last Part' at ch. 29 (out of 53 chapters in all) nearly but not precisely demarcate such a beginning, middle, and end, since the third part includes some episodes showing 'after what sort he [Faustus] practised necromancy in the courts of princes' as well as 'his fearful and pitiful end'. Even so, the shape of the overall conception is plain enough, and leaves little doubt as to why the controversial middle of the play is so much taken up with horseplay and entertaining spectacle.

Marlowe and his collaborator borrow many details in their adoption of this tripartite scheme, including the admonition 'Homo, fuge' and the need 'for warm ashes' to reheat Faustus's coagulated blood (ch. 6), his journey through the heavens and 'the principal and most famous lands in the world' (ch. 22), including Rome and the Papal palace, his conjuring up Alexander and his paramour, his putting horns on the head of an obstreperous knight, his hoodwinking a horsecourser, his providing grapes for the delectation of the Duchess of Anholt (Vanholt in the play), his showing the spirit of Helen of Troy to some students, his being torn apart by devils while the students listen fearfully in an adjoining room, and much more. To be sure, the play excises and compresses a good deal of material. Time is radically shortened in the dramatised version of Faustus's negotiations over his contract and in his questioning of Mephistopheles about the universe—events that in the prose source take place over an extended period of time. The prose account indulges in more episodes of a spectacular nature than a stage play could efficiently and convincingly accommodate, carrying Faustus on a visit to hell, into the universe, and on a far more extensive earthbound journey than in the play. Among his various pranks, Faustus conjures away the four wheels of a clown's wagon and deceives four jugglers who have cut off one another's heads and set them on again. He indulges in a 'swinish and epicurish life' by sleeping with the seven most beautiful women he has seen on his travels (ch. 53). Some of this excessive lore in the Damnable Life would prove irresistible to Rowley and Birde when, in 1602, Philip Henslowe decided that enough already was in fact not enough.17 To view the original plan of the A-text against the Damnable Life, on the other hand, is to be persuaded of the constraint and tact exercised by Marlowe and his collaborator. The comic degeneracy was a part of the original conception, as found in the source, but it needed the discipline of dramatic form.

No less significant are the changes in Doctor Faustus's presentation of its protagonist. The play explores motivation and inner conflict in a way that is largely missing in the original. The prose source is content, by and large, to relate events and to offer orthodox moral condemnation of a life from which 'all Christians may take an example and warning' (ch. 62). Some of this moralising finds its way into the play's Epilogue ('Regard his hellish fall', etc.) and elsewhere, and accordingly the play retains much of the source's ambivalence of attitude between disapproval and fascination. Yet the prose source does little to explain how Faustus got started on his career as a necromancer. We are simply told that Faustus, 'being of a naughty mind and otherwise addicted, applied not his studies, but took himself to other exercises' (ch. 1). The motivation, in so far as we can intuit it, is a combination of desires for worldly pleasure, power and forbidden knowledge.18 The impatience with traditional learning and the rejection one by one of rhetoric, medicine, law, and theology are the play's rich elaborations. Faustus's inquiries into astronomy are far more detailed in the play than in the prose source, and manifestly more aware of current scientific controversy.

So too with the play's portrayal of inner conflict. The Good and Evil Angels, not to be found in the prose source, focus attention on Faustus's conscious choice of evil. And because Marlowe studies the matter of choice so intently, he opens up theological questions of free will and determinism that call upon a wide acquaintance with the burning theological issues of his day. The prose source, for all its patriotic Lutheran anti-Catholicism and its orthodox understanding of the power of evil set in motion when 'my Lord Lucifer fell from heaven' (ch. 14), shows virtually no interest in the great issue of what the story implies about the human condition in general and the plight of the intellectual in particular. Marlowe gives to Faustus the initiative in offering his soul to Lucifer, whereas in the source Mephistopheles is the proposer. Marlowe's protagonist perseveres in his determination, unswayed by all that he has been told about hell and damnation, whereas in the source the discussions about hell follow the signing of the contract. These reversals heighten Faustus's responsibility for his damnation and intensify the puzzle of his choice of evil. Despair is ever-present in the play, only fitfully and belatedly so in the source. The hell of the prose account is the hell of folklore, replete with fireworks and gruesome physical tortures; Marlowe's hell is the hell of theology, one grounded 'in the personal responsibility of free human choice and the inevitable consequences of that choice'.19 The protagonist of the Damnable Life is not Everyman; our attitude towards him is one of astonishment, curiosity, and rejection. Marlowe, aiming at tragedy, puts issues of choice and reprobation at the centre of his concern.

Other sources and traditions can help illuminate the art of Doctor Faustus. Faustus's mythical ancestry is widely dispersed in Christian and classical lore. The Book of Genesis tells of humanity's first disobedience towards God, through a choice that opens the eyes of humanity to the knowledge of good and evil and thus forfeits all right to paradise. The choice is both an act of hubris and quintessentially human. In Greek mythology, Prometheus and Icarus prefigure Faustus's championship of human self-assertion and the punishment that inevitably follows.20 Circe and Medea conversely anticipate the darker aspects of enchantment and bestial transformation. The pact with the devil is an ancient tale-type, repeatedly surfacing in such works as the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman Adam and the Legenda Aurea.21 Theophilus of Syracuse, in the sixth century, is reported to have sold his soul to the devil for an archdeaconship, though he was saved at last by the intercession of the Virgin Mary; a version of this story appears in a play by the tenth-century nun Hrotsvitha. St Cyprian is the subject of a similar account. Apocryphal stories about Zoroaster, Moses, and Solomon credited them with magical powers; Solomon's magical ring was thought to have given him authority to control nature, animals, and spirits of all kinds.22

Legends such as these, widely available, were part of the tradition lying behind the Damnable Life and its German original as well as Marlowe's play. So too were the stories circulated about Simon Magus of Samaria. Like Faustus, this legendary figure of the first century reputedly called on demons to aid him in performing miracles before the Emperor and at Rome, summoned the spirits of those long dead, debated issues of cosmology, traversed the heavens in a fiery car, turned a horse into hay, apotheosised Helen of Troy, and suffered defeat (at the hands of St Peter) when he attempted to fly up to heaven. He was reputedly a masterful rhetorician. Simon's career as a great philosopher-magician and self-indulgent sensualist was amply set forth in the second-century apocryphal Acts of Peter and in the fourth-century Recognitions of Clement of Rome, texts that Marlowe would have had no difficulty in obtaining. Whether he did so in fact is a matter of debate. Those who argue for direct indebtedness point to particular moments, such as Faustus's 'O, I'll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?' (V.ii.77), a line that perhaps recalls Simon's boastful and failed attempt to fly. More significant for Marlowe's purposes, though harder to argue as a specific source, is Simon Magus's heroic stature and potential as a figure of tragedy.23 Both the Acts of Peter and the Clementine Recognitions pose questions about the nature of good and evil that are given little attention in the Damnable Life. Certainly in any case the fall of Simon Magus captured the imagination of many painters in the Italian Renaissance, including Raphael (in a painting now at the Vatican), and the iconography was widespread in Europe. At the same time Simon Magus was, like Faustus, an ambivalent figure, both heroic and debauched; negative views of him, based in part on the equation of this Simon with the sinister necromancer of Acts viii.9-24 who attempted to buy the power of the Holy Ghost, cast Simon in the role of witch and Antichrist.

Other philosopher-magicians and heretics are in ways comparable to Faustus. Roger Bacon and Piero d'Albano are both named in the play at I.i. 156, as is Virgil at III.i.13-15. Paracelsus (1493-1541) was a Swiss-born doctor who became legendary for his sympathies for rich and poor alike, his eccentric habits of dress and drink, his medical heterodoxy, his battles with university doctors, and his practising of alchemy.24 Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, a renowned doctor, philosopher, and theologian, was similarly enshrined in the popular imagination chiefly as a magician whose alchemical skills opened to him the secrets of eternal youth and other forbidden knowledge. Like Faustus, his power lay in books. His De occulta philosophia became notorious, even before it was published, and, though he retracted what he had done in his De vanitate (translated into English by James Sanford in 1575 as Of the Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences), he later published the De occulta philosophia along with the retraction, as though wanting to have it both ways. His enemies, including Philipp Melanchthon, accused him of having as his companion a devil in the shape of a dog.25 The twelfth-century Manichean bishop named Faustus, whom St Augustine attacked so vehemently in the Confessions and in a tract Against Faustus for his dualist and Gnostic heresies, anticipated his later namesake in daring to ask whether evil is coextensive with good in the battle of creation. Giordano Bruno and John Dee had become legendary as heroic questers after knowledge of the universe.26

Marlowe's indebtedness to the English morality play for his portrayal of inner spiritual conflict is plainly evident in the soul-struggle, the opposition of Good Angel and Evil Angel, the temptation to evil that is both comic and serious, the contrast between Faustus and the exemplary figure of the Old Man, the oscillation between comic depravity and homiletic edification. As in Everyman and Mankind, we are shown in brief span the life of a representative erring mortal whose fall into sinfulness propels him relentlessly towards the day of judgement and death. The expository Prologue and Epilogue follow the morality tradition of laying out for the audience what it is supposed to gather from the object lesson before it. Doctor Faustus uses dramatic techniques found in virtually every kind of morality play. The Good and Evil Angels, seldom in fact seen on the morality stage, go back to The Castle of Perseverance, of the early fifteenth century—a play that Marlowe may well not have known directly. Faustus's eminence as a scholar obsessed with corrupted learning mirrors concerns of the educational moralities so dear to the hearts of sixteenth-century humanists and Calvinists like John Rastell and the anonymous author of Nice Wanton (1547-53). The antithetical pairing of Faustus and the Old Man as reprobate and God-fearing mortal is reminiscent of Calvinist morality plays of Elizabeth's early reign, such as The Longer Thou Livest the More Fool Thou Art and Enough Is as Good as a Feast.27 Mephistopheles, though unlike the morality Vice in that he is not aggressively the tempter, is motivated by the Vice's malign purpose. The play's structure, medieval rather than classical, owes as much to the morality tradition as it does to the tripartite scheme of the Damnable Life. Doctor Faustus is, in Clifford Leech's words, 'both the supreme example of the genre and simultaneously the play marking the genre's ending, its merging into tragedy'.28

To point out such indebtedness is, at the same time, to call attention to Marlowe's extraordinary alterations, even subversions, of the form he inherited. Especially when we compare Doctor Faustus with an early morality like Everyman, we see in the earlier play a testimonial to God's promises towards frail humanity as embodied in the sacraments of the Catholic Church, whereas Marlowe portrays the anxiety of a post-Reformation intellectual whose salvation rests on the unfathomable question of faith.29 Marlowe's play is, to be sure, closer to a number of Calvinist morality plays of the 1560s and 1570s in which similar issues of reprobation and election are prominent, but even here the Marlovian sympathy for a tragic protagonist is radically different from the alienating laughter directed at worldly fools who confirm their own innate depravity by choosing evil. Nathaniel Woodes's The Conflict of Conscience, with its despairing hero sympathetically modelled on the spiritual biography of one Francesco Spiera or Spira (born in 1502) and its alternative endings in repentance or damnation, is potentially closest to Marlowe's play,30 and yet even in this instance the orthodox pattern of sin and its edifying terrible consequences is undercut by Faustus's restless questioning of the idea of a divine plan.

In a similar fashion, argues Susan Snyder, Marlowe inverts and problematises the native homiletic tradition of the saint's life. Taking the fundamental hagiographical elements of early life, conversion to the true faith, reception into the church, struggles with temptation, performance of miracles, the undergoing of mystical experiences, and holy death, Doctor Faustus proceeds instead to tell the life of one who is 'converted' to evil, is ritually received into a diabolical church, is tempted by the Good Angel and his own conscience, performs miraculous stunts, sees heavenly visions (of Helen of Troy, among others), and is gathered up at death by his eternal master, Lucifer. The pattern helps explain the necessity of the scenes of comic degeneracy in mid play, since they depict the kinds of bogus miracles traditionally associated with Antichrist.31 Similarly, the Ars moriendi tradition offers Marlowe rich lore about preparation for death that he can at once exploit and invert; he retains in his play the central Christian scheme of salvation and its focus on judgement, while at the same time generating feelings of uncertainty and conflict towards the ideals of contemptus mundi upon which the Ars moriendi tradition necessarily rests.32

Marlowe's use of homiletic sources is vastly enriched by his familiarity with the controversial debates of his generation between humanistic faith in transcendence and Calvinist emphasis on human depravity. His Cambridge education exposed him to an intense revaluation of the issue of human worth and self-sufficiency. The Oration on the Dignity of Man, written in 1486 by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), offered Marlowe a spirited manifesto on behalf of human aspiration. Beginning with the questions, 'why man is the most fortunate of creatures and consequently worthy of all admiration and what precisely is that rank which is his lot in the universal chain of Being', Pico depicts his human protagonist as able 'to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills'. As God explains to Adam, the latter is 'constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will'. Neither mortal nor immortal, but something of both, Adam is free to 'fashion thyself into whatever shape thou shalt prefer'.33 (Lucifer's statement to Faustus in Doctor Faustus, 'thou shalt turn thyself into what shape thou wilt', II.iii. 172-3, is ironically close to Pico.) Hermetic magic and Cabbalism can be a means to this end of self-fashioning. The Christian humanism available to Marlowe blends a Thomistic emphasis on the limited but real capacity of the reason to approach God with a still more optimistic Neoplatonic faith, as expressed in the writings of Pico, Bruno, Ficino, Pomponazzi, and Telesio, in an almost unlimited ability to transcend earthbound limitations.34 As Faustus exults:

O, what a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honour, of omnipotence, Is promised to the studious artisan!(I.i.55-7)

Yet Doctor Faustus is manifestly a critique of humanistic aspirations, not simply an endorsement of them. Even in the lines quoted above, we hear already the note of sensual gratification and longing for sheer power, along with the excitement. Faustus's anthropocentric daring captures the optimism of the Italian Neoplatonists, but it does not sufficiently account for the limitless depravity of human nature that is also deeply inscribed in the world of Doctor Faustus. St Augustine had posed long ago the question that Faustus cannot resolve: 'What can cause the will's evil, the will being the sole cause of all evil?'35 Augustine's insistence that human nature cannot hope to know the reasons for God's rejection of some reprobate sinners was enormously influential in Reformation England among Puritans and Anglicans alike. William Perkins, fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, when Marlowe was a student at that university, makes clear his indebtedness to St Augustine:

The cause of the decree of God in rejecting some is unsearchable, and … it doth not at all depend upon any foreseen contumacy towards the grace of God offered in the Gospel.… For if it were otherwise, we might easily give a reason of God's decree. Augustine, epist. 105, saith very well: Who (saith he) created the reprobates but God? And why, but because it pleased him? But why pleased it him? O man, who art thou that disputest with God?36

Here then was a theology that rejected the very premises of Neoplatonic optimism, in that it refused to acknowledge a perfectible free will capable of self-fashioning and would not even allow that the causes for failure were knowable through human reasoning.

Certainly Doctor Faustus faces a Protestant dilemma. The stunning mood of alienation and loss that we experience in the play owes much of its force to a new sense of the isolated human soul in Luther's and Calvin's views of salvation. Both of these thinkers, and the English Church as well, denied to the individual Christian the comfort of the miraculous that had been so abundant in the medieval Catholic faith. A Homily 'Of the Worthy Receiving of the Sacraments' rejected any conception of the Holy Communion in a corporeal and magical sense; to consider it thus was 'but to dream a gross carnal feeding'.37 The reassuring family constellation of the Trinity and the Virgin Mary, together with all the saints, progressively gave way to a more direct confrontation between the individual sinner and his or her angry God. In these circumstances, penitence became not a sacrament administered by the Church but a process of wrestling with one's conscience—a struggle at once essential to salvation and yet unmeasurable in effect. Despair, not uncommon in the turmoil of intense personal deliberation, was variously interpreted as potentially healthy (by Luther) or as a sign of predestinate evil (by Calvin).38

How was the individual to know whether he or she was saved or predestinately damned? The consequences were immeasurable. As the seventeenth of the Thirty-Nine Articles put it:

As the godly consideration of predestination and our election in Christ is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons … so, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God's predestination is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the devil doth thrust them either into desperation or into recklessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.39

No Christian could consider these alternatives without longing for reassurance. Yet Luther and Calvin alike insisted that God's motives in this regard were unfathomable.

Luther's God is, as Paul Sellin aptly describes him, terrible and majestic, omnipotent, eternal, 'incomprehensible, inscrutable, infallible, immense, awesome, and above all hidden'.40 We as humans cannot understand him through his works and can have no certainty of his intentions, especially in particular cases. That God has evidently decreed salvation for some mortals and damnation for others can be deduced from experience. God foreknows all that he wills, and for that reason sin must be understood to be inevitable, and yet, says Luther, 'it must be laid to the charge of our own will if we perish'.41 The fault 'is in the will which does not receive Him'. Moreover, 'why the Majesty does not remove or change this fault of will in every man (for it is not in the power of man to do it), or why He lays this fault to the charge of the will, when man cannot avoid it, it is not lawful to ask' (pp. 191-2). God hardens the hearts of the reprobate, and yet is not himself to blame: 'God works evil in us (that is, by means of us) not through God's own fault, but by reason of our own defect'. God finds Satan's will to be evil rather than creating it so; God moves that evil which way he wills, and yet Satan 'will not cease to be evil in virtue of this movement of God' (p. 193). The question that heretically arises at this point, whether God is not ultimately the author of Satan's evil, is one that Luther will not address. Nor will he say why God will not move to virtue the hearts of the reprobate other than to say that the question 'touches on the secrets of His Majesty' (p. 195). Election or reprobation cannot depend on our merits, nor is the Church in a position to provide institutional redress; the Church is instead a community of the elect, and its sacraments are signs of a grace already abounding for those who have been chosen.

Calvin's position is alike in many respects, especially in the view of God as the awesome and unknowable author of predestination. For Calvin, as for Luther, 'it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God's will'.42 Calvin accentuates this mystery by insisting on the one hand that God hardens the hearts of the reprobate and on the other hand that God's doing so is to be seen as a vital element in his plan, one that we must glorify even while perceiving that the impenitent sinner is utterly doomed by it. Far from challenging God's majesty by imputing evil to him, Calvin sees double predestination as the perfect embodiment of God's mercy and justice. Human failure is a part of God's plan. Since the grace of salvation 'was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth', that salvation is his to bestow or not as he wishes; we may not repine that 'by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation'.43 Calvin's views were to be found everywhere in the official positions of the Anglican Church, as for example in the ninth of the 'Lambeth Articles' approved by Bishop Whitgift in 1595: 'It is not placed in the will or power of every man to be saved.'44

The consequences for humankind, and for Doctor Faustus, are sobering. If, in the Calvinist view, even Adam chose not freely but 'because he could not resist the ordinance of his God',45 Faustus's ability to resist temptation or find contrition in his heart cannot be said to exist at all. Conscience is no certain help, since it may be only the censoring voice of one's own innate evil.

Marlowe was, as M. M. Mahood argues, 'acutely aware that he was living in an age of revolt, whose intellectuals were making the claims of self-sufficiency in innumerable ways. Marlowe may have shared in that revolt; but he had a clearer understanding than any of his contemporaries of its disastrous effects, and for this reason his tragedies record the disintegration of humanism'.46 Marlowe was thus, as Richard Hardin puts it, 'of two minds about the sufficiency of the knowledge offered by Cicero, Isocrates, and Homer'.47 In part this uncertainty was the result of the Lutheran-Calvinist challenge to human self-sufficiency. And nowhere in England could Marlowe have encountered a more vigorous debate between the extreme Calvinist position and its challengers than at Cambridge.48 His Cambridge education exposed him both to a disputatious, rhetorical study of classical texts, including Aristotle, Homer, Demosthenes, Hesiod, and the like, and to exercises in the handling of scripture and doctrine.49

Doctor Faust us attests to a wide-ranging if impatient acquaintance with classical learning and a thorough conversance with the Bible and liturgy.50 The play's author is well acquainted with the basics of Elizabethan psychology51 and with Seneca.52 In popular vein, Marlowe seems to be in touch with folklore tale types of the wasted wish and the foolish bargain, and is well versed in lore about witchcraft. (Faustus is clearly a witch, as defined by William Perkins: 'A witch is a magician who, either by open or secret league, wittingly and willingly consenteth to use the aid and assistance of the devil in the working of wonders.")53 The comic scenes, with their emphasis on dismemberment and curing, recall the action of folk plays, especially of the swordplay type.54 The play's vernacular roots go back to burlesque rituals of communal gargantuan feeding as found earlier in the Secunda Pastorum and other cycle plays,55 and to country mummings of the 'eldritch' type in which the grotesque comedy of false limbs and severed heads borders on the demonic.56 The very diversity and range of Marlowe's learning ought to prepare us for a play in which dialectical conflict and contrasting points of view form a basic rhetorical vocabulary.

The Orthodox Framework

The polarities of Marlowe's fascination with Lutheran-Calvinist determinism and with Italian humanism are amply evident in the play itself, and in critical responses to it. Few plays have called forth such a divided response. Leo Kirschbaum speaks for a large number of orthodox readers when he declares, 'there is no more obvious Christian document in all Elizabethan drama than Doctor Faustus'.57 Conversely, Harry Levin, Paul Kocher, and Irving Ribner speak for those who find the essence of Faustus's tragedy in his Promethean daring and his doomed but heroic attempt to gain for humanity some access to the secrets of the universe and some mastery over our fate.58 The very fact of this divided response may be significant, suggesting as it does a sustained ambiguity for which the dialectical form of drama is especially well suited.59 The debate centres on the hard question of sympathy for the protagonist. Are we meant to assent to Faustus's doom, and is it just?

The opening Prologue, derived as we have seen from conventions of medieval homiletic drama, certainly offers disapproving comment that any orthodox reading of the play takes to heart. Faustus profits in his studies in divinity, we are told, until, 'swoll'n with cunning of a self-conceit', he strives to 'mount above his reach' on 'waxen wings' and is brought down. His aspiration is a 'devilish exercise', disfigured by gluttony and surfeit. 'Cursed necromancy' means more to this magician than 'his chiefest bliss'—presumably his immortal soul. At the same time the image of waxen wings conjures up the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, a story that could iconographically signify satanic presumption or an aspiration in which humanity's chief fault was to have challenged the prerogative of the gods. The Chorus's insistence that the heavens have 'conspired' Faustus's over-

The play's imagery of aspiration draws our attention to the dominance of the vertical dimension. The flight of Icarus, the topless towers of Ilium, the star-threatening 'aspiring top' of Venice's temple (III.i. 18) all remind us that Faustus 'Did mount himself to scale Olympus' top', where, seated in a dragon-drawn chariot, he can see the planets and the stars.146 Moreover, in the Elizabethan theatre these verbalised pictures are yoked to our visual perception that the 'heavens' are above and hell beneath. The theatrical spectacle reinforces a disjunction between 'height' and 'depth', as Johan Birringer argues; 'this visual allegory can be proved against the background of the stage business in the play, especially in Faustus' relation to "heaven" and "hell" and to the diabolical trinity overlooking his desperate attempt to flee from himself'.147 Faustus looks up to see Christ's blood streaming in the firmament and hopes that his soul 'may but ascend to heaven' (V.ii.95), but he knows that hell beckons instead (I. 88). In the theatre, Faustus's interest in the movements of the heavenly spheres takes on a spatial dimension. Similarly, the devices and props used to stage this play take on imagistic value: the theatrical business of 'discovery', the books in Faustus's study, the stage blood that is identified imagistically with his soul, and many others all contribute to a vertical and antithetical balance around which the play is visually organised.148 All aspects of style and imagery, then—the debased logic, the rhetorical bag of tricks affording no sure foundation, the ambivalent diction, the subverted visual images in the theatre—reinforce a reading of Doctor Faustus in which magic and poetry are at once the immortal achievement through which the play lives and the source of disillusionment and despair.

Staging and Themes in the 1616 Quarto

The analysis presented thus far has been based on the A1 Quarto of 1604, for reasons outlined in the discussion on text. There are in fact two different early versions, however, and we must consider in what ways the later text, the Bi Quarto of 1616, invites a different interpretation from that of the earlier text. One place to begin is with staging, since the later text adds extensive material and thereby places new demands upon the playing space.

Most of the scenes presented in common by the two texts, to be sure, do not differ materially in their staging requirements. In both texts, Faustus begins 'in his study: having perhaps been 'discovered' there as the Prologue draws aside a curtain or otherwise gestures towards Faustus as the Prologue exits. The phrase 'Enter Faustus in his study'in the A-text probably does not ask for different staging from the B-text's'Faustus in his study '; the use of the word 'Enter ' for the action of 'discovering' a character in this fashion is well attested to in the Elizabethan theatre.149 Probably Faustus is intended, in both texts, to come forward from the 'discovery area' so that he can be clearly seen and heard on the Elizabethan stage, though he must also be seen in relation to the books and other artefacts of his study that are perhaps illustrated in the 1616 title-page woodcut.150

The study is in any event a recurrent location of thematic significance. Faustus appears there thrice in the play's first half, where he converses with Wagner, Valdes and Cornelius, the Good and Evil Angels, Mephistopheles, Lucifer, Beelzebub, and the Seven Deadly Sins. We are probably meant to imagine him there sleeping 'in his chair' (A-text; in the B-text he 'sits to sleep') during his encounter with the Horse-courser after his return 'To Wittenberg' (A-text, IV.i. 105 ff.) from his travels. The play's final action takes place there; a banquet is served 'into Faustus's study' by devils (B-text, V.i.0.1-2; compare A-text V.i.8), and the three scholars eventually retire 'into the next room' (A-text, V.ii.56). In both texts, then, Faustus's study serves as the locus of his 'devilish exercises' and their terrible consequences.

Away from Wittenberg as well, staging requirements are often similar when the two texts essentially agree. The A-text's stage directions for the scene in the Pope's chamber are more explicit than the B-text's—'The Pope crosseth himself', 'Cross again and Faustus hits him a box of the ear'—but are implicit in the B-text's dialogue. The clowns vex the Vintner with a stolen 'silver goblet' (A) or a 'cup' (B). The Horse-courser enters 'wet'. Mephistopheles carries out Faustus's magical trick at the court of the Duke of Vanholt by fetching 'the grapes, probably exiting and re-entering here and on similar errands for Faustus even when the stage directions are sparse. When Faustus despairs, Mephistopheles 'gives him a dagger' (A-text, V.i.51.1, B-text, V.i.54.1). Helen 'passeth over the stage', explicitly escorted by Mephistopheles in the B-text (V.i.26.2-3; see also 1. 93.1), implicitly so in the A-text (11. 25.2-3 and 90.1).151

On the other hand, the B-text additions generally call for more characters on stage, more props and special effects, and more exploitation of physical space. Whereas in the A-text Faustus enters 'to conjure' alone (l.iii), B specifies 'Thunder' and 'Enter Lucifer and four devils'. The B-text's scenes in Rome add to the cast Bruno, the German pope; Raymond, King of Hungary; two Cardinals of France and Padua (whereas the A-text has one Cardinal of Lorraine); the Archbishop of Rheims; Monks and Friars (whereas the A-text has Friars only); and Lords. At the Emperor's court we are introduced to the Duke of Saxony, Martino, Frederick, and two speaking Soldiers who take part in an attempted ambush of Faustus, in addition to Benvolio (the equivalent of the A-text's unnamed Knight). The B-text's dumbshow of Alexander and his paramour adds King Darius as a mute. Beelzebub, silent in the A-text, is a speaker in the B-text. A Carter and a Hostess add to the scenes of ribaldry and carousing at the Emperor's court, and two mute Cupids accompany Helen in her second appearance in the B-text. Added extras such as soldiers swell the numbers still further. At the beginning of Act V, the B-text brings on devils carrying a banquet to Faustus's study.

These added persons contribute to elaborate ceremonial processions in the B-text, as when the Cardinals and Bishops enter 'some bearing crosiers, some the pillars', with Monks and Friars 'singing their procession ' followed by the Pope and the King of Hungary 'with Bruno led in chains' (III.i.88.1-6). The Emperor Alexander overthrows Darius in dumbshow, to the accompaniment of trumpets and other 'music' (IV.i. 102.1-9). Sennets and other fanfares announcing the arrival and departure of dignitaries are more common than in the A-text (see III.i.97.1, III.ii.0.1, IV.i.47.3, and IV.i.102.2). A devil plays a drum (IV.ii.105.1) in a scene not found in the A-text. Fireworks displays are sometimes specified in the B-text for scenes not included in the A-text, as when Mephistopheles sets upon the ambushing soldiers with fireworks' and drives them out (IV.ii. 105.3-4). Extra props are required, such as the false head used to convey the illusion of Faustus's decapitation. The horns bestowed on the Knight in the A-text sprout into a small forest of horns for Benvolio and his associates in the B-text (IV.iii.0.3).

As Bernard Beckerman notes, the B-text displays a pattern of redundancy: that of occasionally dividing up the A-text's speeches to accommodate more speakers. When Lucifer arrives to warn Faustus about his wavering loyalty, for example (II.iii), the A-text gives 11. 90-3 entirely to Lucifer, whereas the B-text assigns the material to Beelzebub and Lucifer in alternating single lines. The phenomenon is part of a larger move in the B-text to augment the number of devils on stage, as when Lucifer and four devils are silently added to I.iii and when the three chief devils are brought on in Faustus's final scene. The effect, both theologically and theatrically, is to increase the odds against Faustus and to foredoom his attempts at self-determined action. The choric presence of devils in I.iii, II.iii, and V.ii lends a chillingly sardonic atmosphere while also encouraging visual spectacle.152

Along with its increased requirements in casting and in use of stage properties, the B-text also makes new demands on theatrical space. The A-text, as Glynne Wickham shows, could have been performed on a raised and removable platform standing in front of a dressing room from which it was separated by a wooden or canvas partition featuring two doors. The A-text does not require a terrace or gallery above rear stage, nor is there need yet for a throne to be rai