Editor's Choice

What are the comic and tragic scenes in Doctor Faustus by Marlowe and their importance?

Quick answer:

Comic and tragic scenes in Doctor Faustus serve distinct purposes. Comic scenes, such as those involving Faustus's servant Wagner and the Clown, satirize scholarly pretensions and foreshadow Faustus's fate. Tragic scenes, like Faustus conjuring Helen of Troy and his ultimate damnation, highlight his internal conflict and pride, culminating in his eternal damnation. These elements enhance the play's themes of ambition and hubris.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Christopher Marlowe's classic Elizabethan play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus contains a seemingly inordinate number of comic scenes for a tragic play. Although some of the comic scenes appear to be wholly irrelevant or extraneous to the plot, all of the comic scenes nevertheless serve a purpose. Some comic scenes are satirical of the characters and subject matter of the play, some are ironic, and some even foreshadow coming events.

In the first comic scene, Faustus's servant, Wagner, wittily plays words with two scholars who have come to visit Faustus:

FIRST SCHOLAR. How now, sirrah! Where's thy master?

WAGNER. God in heaven knows!

SECOND SCHOLAR. Why, dost not thou know?

WAGNER. Yes, I know. But that follows not.

FIRST SCHOLAR. Go to, sirrah! leave your jesting, and tell us where he is. (1.2.5–10)

This exchange between Wagner and the scholars continues for a short time, during which Wagner references a Latin term, "corpus naturale," uses scholarly terms like "licentiate," "phelgmatic," and "precesian," and closes the witty exchange with " and so, the Lord bless you, preserve you, and keep you, / my dear brethren, my dear brethren" (1.2.33–34).

This scene is wholly satirical of the way that esteemed scholars like Faust converse with each other in a subtle battle of wits, and it represents the kind of elevated conversations that Wagner has likely overheard hundreds of times.

A scene involving Wagner and the poor, out-of-work, hungry, down-on-his-luck Clown occurs directly after Faustus has conjured up Mephistopheles, and the two of them discuss the possibility of Faustus selling his soul to the devil for unlimited wealth and power.

The comic scene between Wagner and the Clown satirizes the preceding scene and also foreshadows the scene in which Faustus actually makes the bargain for his soul with Mephistopheles:

WAGNER. Alas, poor slave! see how poverty jesteth in his
nakedness! the villain is bare and out of service, and so
hungry that I know he would give his soul to the Devil or
a shoulder of mutton, though 'twere blood-raw.

CLOWN. How! My soul to the Devil for a shoulder of mutton,
though 'twere blood-raw! Not so, good friend. By'r
Lady, I had need have it well roasted, and good sauce to
it, if I pay so dear. (1.4.7–14)

Wagner also mocks devils in the scene, fancies himself a fearless "kill-devil," and chases two devils away.

Comic scenes like these occur throughout the play. In act 2, scene 1, Marlowe, through Faustus, mocks and satirizes the "Seven Deadly Sins."

In the famous comic scene in act 3, scene 1, Faustus terrorizes the Pope with childish pranks and tricks. The scene is an example of very low comedy, and it's mean-spirited as well, but the scene serves to satirize the Pope, and by extension, the Catholic Church as a whole, which is one of Marlowe's themes throughout the play.

Marlowe likewise satirized the ruling class in act 4, scene 3, when Faustus attends the court of Emperor Charles V, where he fools the Emperor with tricks and illusions and humiliates the Knight. The irony of the scene is that Faustus has only been fooling and humiliating himself by his bargain with the devil.

Not all serious scenes in Doctor Faustus are tragic scenes. For the most part, the serious scenes in the play serve to move the plot forward to Faustus's ultimate tragic downfall.

The only truly tragic scene occurs very near the end of the play, when Faustus rejects his last opportunity to repent and to be saved from eternal damnation. His excessive pride and his lust for the pleasures of life simply won't allow him to humble himself before God and ask forgiveness.

As Faust is being dragged off by devils, he tries to repent at the last moment. Because his bargain with the devil must now be fulfilled, he's prevented from even raising his arms to heaven and is taken away to hell for eternity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Much of the comedy in Doctor Faustus comes from how Faustus uses his powers for pretty petty ends. With all the power he has, he instead decides to play tricks on others.

One of the major comedic scenes occurs when Faustus visits the pope. He and Mephistophilis disguise themselves as cardinals, then release a political prisoner the pope was hoping to detain. They proceed to turn themselves invisible and wreak havoc as the pope tries to have dinner, frightening both the pope and his attendants. This scene is filled with practical jokes and humor—partly because of what Faustus is doing to the pope and partly because it's a bit funny (if pathetic) how Faustus is childishly using the devil's own powers to spook the pope.

The tragic scenes tend to come in towards the second half of the play. The scene where Faustus conjures Helen of Troy fits this description. Some scholars ask Faustus to make Helen appear since she was supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world. He does so. During this scene, Faustus is tempted to renege on his deal with the devil, but he looks upon Helen and is struck by her beauty. He asks Mephistophilis to make her his lover before kissing her and claiming there is "immortality" in her lips.

This scene is not as dramatic as the tragic moment where Faustus is damned, but it is tragic nonetheless, because Faustus deep down does wish to be redeemed, but he is too proud and power-hungry to take the last step. His claim that "heaven is in these lips" after kissing Helen also shows he is still disrespectful towards God, putting the flesh above the soul.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Despite the fact that Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is ultimately a tragedy, much of the first half of the play (and some of the latter) are driven by dark comedy. Faustus is both well-studied and completely full of himself, and this produces comic effect from the beginning. In the former half of the play, we meet several comic characters -- Robin, Rafe, a clown, etc. Robin and Rafe, for example, attempt to practice magic in one scene, but it goes horribly awry. The clown, in another scene, is chased around by taunting devils. Dramatically, both of these scenes can be played to great comedic effect. Faustus' travels, after he makes the pact with Mephistopheles, are also comedic gold for audiences. In one scene, Faustus and Meph become invisible and visit the Pope, wreaking havoc on the Pope's banquet by lifting dishes and food off the table. This, of course, frightens the Pope and his guests to a point of retreat. In another scene, a so-called Horse Courser (who laughably calls Faustus "Fustian") threatens to get revenge on Faustus for selling him a horse that turned into straw upon entering water. Faustus had originally warned the Horse Courser not to ride into the water (this shows that Faustus' powers, despite being super-human, have limits) but the Horse Courser pays him no mind and starts to tug on Faustus' leg, trying to rip it off. The Horse Courser succeeds, shocked at his ability to pull the leg off so easily. He runs away, frightened and aghast. Faustus then reveals to the audience that (magically) he still has both legs, and laughs the Horse Courser out of the scene.

Although the foreboding scene in which Faustus seals a contract with Lucifer in the first half of the play could be seen as tragic, most of the tragic scenes occur near the end of the play. Faustus slowly begins to sense his mortality settling in on him, and as he nears the end of the earthly time he asked for, Meph and Lucifer arrive to collect their prize--that is, to drag Faustus to his rightful place in hell. One of the play's most tragic moments comes when Faustus tries to plea for his life as the clock is striking, each resounding gong speeding him closer toward death and eternal punishment. It would seem, ultimately, that the comic scenes in Faustus serve to not only relieve us from the weight of the tragic scenes, but to evoke Faustus' own blissful ignorance at his impending doom, and to show that Faustus' power, despite being great, is used for petty tricks of little consequence. So, the comic scenes in Faustus are certainly important for entertainment value, as Marlowe's work is a dramatic one. But they function on a higher level too--just as Faustus is putting off his eventual demise by performing useless magic tricks around the world, the comic scenes serve to prolong the inescapable dread Faustus will face in his final moments.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to 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
Last Updated on