My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am neither a Marlowe scholar in particular nor an early modernist in general, but as far as I can determine—with the aid of the contextual and critical materials collected in this Signet Classics edition edited by the late Sylvan Barnet—there are three main schools of thought about the meaning of Marlowe’s tragedy Doctor Faustus, the most famous and widely-read play of the English Renaissance not written by Shakespeare.
The meaning of this seemingly didactic Christian drama shouldn’t be as difficult to determine as it is. Doctor Faustus tells the story, derived from German lore, of a brilliant upstart scholar. Like Luther and Hamlet, Faustus studied at Wittenberg; like Marlowe, he was born to the lower classes before going on to higher education, exemplifying the period’s greater social mobility. This doctor of divinity is frustrated with the limits of the knowledge offered by the Christian curriculum and begins to study magic.
Soon he bargains away his soul to Lucifer for 24 years on earth during which he will be served by the demon Mephostophilis, who will explain to him the secrets of the universe (except for those divine truths that conflict with hell’s doctrines) and who will grant him worldly power. At first, Faustus uses this power to investigate the cosmos and the earth; then he explores the world’s kingdoms, bringing his literal magic show to the planet’s potentates and even comically intervening in the quarrel between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. In the meantime, his servant Wagner also adopts the dark arts and, in counterpoint to the main plot, involves himself in a number of comic scrapes.
Faustus’s own ambition, though, has so shrunk by the play’s middle that his actions—making a sleepy knight grow horns, for instance, or cheating a cart driver— are indistinguishable from the subplot’s comic business. By the end, the drama’s seriousness of tone resumes as Faustus wavers, pleading for his soul even as the devil comes to tear him apart. The moral of the story hardly needs explication. As an old man who enjoins Faustus to mend his ways puts it:
O 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.
Why should the significance of so homiletic a play be mysterious? For at least three reasons, as follows.
The first explanation for Doctor Faustus‘s elusive meaning is textual. The play was probably written and first performed in the early 1590s, shortly before its author’s notorious death, either in a bar brawl or in a politically-motivated espionage-related assassination (depending on your taste for conspiracies). It exists on paper, however, in two rather different texts, one from 1604 and one from 1616, the latter of which is longer and emphasizes the drama’s vein of crass comedy. Moreover, records indicate that two other authors were paid in 1602 for writing “additions” to the play, but we have no way of knowing what those additions are. Questions of authorship and of textual authority always make for interpretive questions.
More thematically, the writer of this seemingly straightforward cautionary tale had, in his own time and after, a reputation as rebel, freethinker, and queer rather than as any kind of pious believer. His erstwhile roommate Thomas Kyd, arrested for owning subversive literature after Marlowe’s death, claimed the blasphemous papers were Marlowe’s and (to quote from Kevin Dunn’s essay in this volume) further asserted that Marlowe used to “jest at the divine scriptures, gibe at prayers, and strive in argument to frustrate & confute what hath been spoke or write by prophets and such holy men.” No surprise, therefore, that Marlowe came into vogue in the late Victorian period as (to quote G. K. Hunter’s essay in this volume) “a harder and more gemlike Oscar Wilde.” If Doctor Faustus is seen as antithetical to its own overt Christian moralizing, as in fact a celebration of its reprobate anti-hero, then Marlowe’s radical reputation is one reason why.
Another reason is the play’s own seeming artistic disorder. Two serious acts, in which sober and lyrical blank verse predominates and comedy is diminished, frame three internal acts consisting mostly of slapstick and crude humor. In the middle of the drama, Faustus uses the powers furnished him by Lucifer in exchange for his soul to play tricks on everyone from the pope to a passing horse dealer. It is perhaps appropriate that a play whose hero dismisses Aristotle in his opening soliloquy will lack classical unity. Moreover, the disorder of the play is possibly meant to enact, rather than just representing, the chaos of life without faith. And in any case, this volume reprints much of Marlowe’s source, an English translation of a lively and even trashy late-16th-century German prose tale recounting the exploits of Faustus. Marlowe is faithful, in broad outline, to this source, but if anything he lessens its silliness in adapting it; nothing in his play is quite as earnestly ridiculous as this, for instance:
Lucifer himself sat in manner of a man, all hairy but of a brown color like a squirrel, curled, and his tail turning upwards on his back as the squirrels use; I think he could crack nuts too, like a squirrel.
In sum, we cannot know how to read this play because we cannot establish an authoritative text, cannot reconcile its overt message with the probable life and opinions of the author, and cannot even find dramatic unity in the script as we have it. This leads, as I said, to at least three possible readings.
The first interpretation, brilliantly articulated in a 1964 essay by G. K. Hunter, “Five-Act Structure in Doctor Faustus,” reprinted in this edition, holds that the play in fact possesses a hidden pattern, a figure in the carpet. Its structure, argues Hunter, embodies its theme. Marlowe opens with the scholar Faustus dismissing the intellectual disciplines of his time—liberal arts, law, medicine, and divinity—in favor of magical knowledge. But because magic, a form of human hubris that seeks spiritual power without God’s sponsorship, proceeds in the absence of the divine, it serves to degrade Faustus.
According to Hunter, then, the play dramatizes the proud overweening scholar’s fall back through the curriculum: having discarded divinity, he attempts to master cosmology and geography, but since he cannot learn these disciplines’ own final ends because the devil forbids him from making any Christian inquiry, these fail to satisfy. Hence, his next attempt to attain worldly political command, which eventually decays into his serving as crass court entertainer to popes and emperors, mere juggler in the halls of power. Sans public authority, he ends up in squalid circumstances, defrauding laborers and dissipating himself in masturbatory sexual reveries, before losing his soul entirely. The structure of the play, Hunter claims, is the order of knowledge reversed, from divinity back through worldly arts to ignorance and damnation.
Such a reading, which recovers the drama for Christianity, has much to recommend it. It makes sense of the plot, for one thing, finding a coherent theme that corresponds to the initially mysterious order of events. It also increases our admiration for Marlowe, discovering in him a profound erudition and capacity for creating philosophical argument onstage. And this reading even lets us find our own time’s preoccupations in the Christian text. We may or may not now share the theology, but our own era’s concern for the oppression of labor and the destruction of the natural environment entailed by global trade finds an early modern echo when Faustus uses magic to fetch unseasonable foods from across the globe for a pregnant duchess—a consumerist act we in the rich world may perform several times a week with only the magic of money:
Duke. This makes me wonder more than all the rest, that at this time of the year, when every tree is barren of his fruit, from whence you had these grapes.
Faustus. Please it your Grace, the year is divided into two circles over the whole world, so that when it is winter with us, in the contrary circle it is likewise summer with them, as in India, Saba, and such countries that lie far east, where they have fruit twice a year. From whence, by means of a swift spirit that I have, I had these grapes brought as you see.
Likewise, Faustus’s many proclamations of his political interest in world empire associates such dominance with evil, an opinion we probably nowadays also share, if in a less metaphysical register:
Had I as many souls as there be stars
I’d give them all for Mephostophilis.
By him I’ll be great emperor of the world,
And make a bridge through the moving air
To pass the ocean with a band of men;
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributory to my crown:
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate of Germany.
But there is another way to read the play, or two variants on the same way, which I find represented in this volume in Sylvan Barnet’s introduction and in Kevin Dunn’s essay, “Resolving Ambiguities in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.”
On this reading, the play is not a tragedy if there isn’t something sublime in Faustus’s ambition. Yes, that ambition collapses into the ugly and stupid spectacle of the scholar making himself invisible to slap the pope or eating all a horse-courser’s hay—a collapse that finds its cross-class echo in Marlowe’s subplot, which shows the even more absurd antics of Faustus’s servants—but his desire to explore all the possibilities of knowledge exemplifies the grandeur of the Renaissance, its gargantuan ambition rising out of the Middle Ages’ dogmatic slumber like Michelangelo’s late sculptures struggling from the marble. Is the drama’s most beautiful and quotable verse not consecrated to pagan beauty rather than to Christian piety?
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
According to Sylvan Barnet, we can read Faustus’s tragedy as at least a partial commendation of the Renaissance man, or at least as a summoning of his early modern glory as against medieval morality: “In him we occasionally hear the voice of the Renaissance humanist, the man refreshed by the greatness of the pagan past and anxious to live an ampler life than his father had lived.”
Barnet complicates this argument, though, when he notes that the Renaissance’s—and our own—attitude toward the Middle Ages is overly simplistic, as if the epoch of Dante and Chaucer could be dismissed merely as a time of barbarous superstition, as if modernity has not come at its own costs. Surely Marlowe’s own linguistic fun—original to him and not derived from his source—with the resources of medieval learning in Faustus’s opening speech bolsters this claim that the play is not some crude boosterism for the Renaissance:
Settle thy studies Faustus, and begin
To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess.
Having commenced, 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.
Bene disserere est finis logices.
Is to dispute well logic’s chiefest end?
Affords this art no greater miracle?
Then read no more, thou has attained that end.
Which historical ambiguity brings me to Kevin Dunn’s argument that Doctor Faustus is a play of and about ambiguity, without resolution:
Rather than asking us to choose the good, Marlowe asks us not to resolve ambiguities, not to reconcile our revulsion at Faustus’s choice with our fascination at his conjuring…but rather simply to marvel at the performance itself, the matter we see staged before us, “good or bad.”
Given all the hints Shakespeare obviously took from Doctor Faustus for his own best tragedy—both plays concern tormented intellectuals from the university at Wittenberg—it is possibly too easy to read Hamlet back into Faustus. Shakespeare’s art is of a much higher order, though. Marlowe brings good and bad angels onstage to squabble over the soul of the hero, whereas Shakespeare invents an inner life—and a dense, mysterious, paronomasiac language—for his characters that locates metaphysical struggle in the psyche rather than in heaven and hell. Hamlet is constitutively ambiguous, Faustus merely frustrating.
I prefer the first reading offered above by Hunter: Doctor Faustus can be seen as a structurally coherent poem affirming earnest faith. Any perceived ambiguity comes from the author’s ability to write such a poem without necessarily feeling such faith himself, hence the play’s moments of farce where we would expect terror and humanistic majesty where we would expect Christian humility.
Mephostophilis tells Faustus that hell is not a place but a confusion, a state of mind: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” So it is appropriate that this hellish play is itself confused, as if to damn the audience. But such a definition of hell would not be possible unless we knew what heaven was, as Mephostophilis so notably mourns for the holiness the devils have given up; so in literary terms does ambiguity rely on structure. Doctor Faustus has a discernible soul, even if author and character are tempted to exchange it for new knowledges and novel pleasures.