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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 7 April 2016

"Dr Faustus" by Christopher Marlowe

I saw the RSC production of this play on Saturday (matinee) 24th September 2016 at The Barbican Theatre in the City of London; it starred Sandy Gierson and Oliver Ryan as Faustus and Mephistopheles (Sloth was played by Richard Leeming who had so impressed me with Abel Drugger in The Alchemist the week before). The RSC made sense of the play but a lot of the drama comes from knockabout comedy and extravagant spectacle and I couldn't help thinking that if Shakespeare rather than Marlowe had written this play we might have had more sense of the existential crises suffered by Faustus; I might have cared when he was dragged to Hell.

This was an interesting experience! The copy that I have purports to reproduce the 1616 quarto edition of the play. It is not split into acts or scenes so I cross-referenced it with the Kindle edition, based on the First Quarto of 1604, the earliest extant edition, which has fourteen scenes (though no division into Acts). But there are significant differences in the text between these two editions.

The story: scene by scene
The basic story is the same. Faustus, a scholar, is dissatisfied with Logic, Medicine, Law ("This study fits a mercenary drudge, /Who aims at nothing but external trash") and Divinity (we are all sinners so we must all die: "What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera"). So he resolves to study Magic.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour and omnipotence,
Is promis'd to the studious artizan!
He asks his manservant Wagner to summon his friends Valders and Cornelius who will helps him to summon demons. Whilst waiting for them a Good Angel and a Bad Angel appear, warning and tempting. But Faustus is determined:
'Tis magic, magic that hath ravish'd me

In Scene 2, two scholars appear and engage in word play with Wagner.

Scene 3. In a grove at night Faustus speaks Latin and summons Mephistophilis. When he arrives, Faustus says:
I charge thee to return and change thy shape;
Thou art too ugly to attend on me: 
Go, and return an old Franciscan friar;
That holy shape becomes a devil best.
So M exits and then re-enters as a friar. This is just one of a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment that the play contains.
M now tells F about how Lucifer and his mates were cast from hell. And F asks
How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?
and M replies:
Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Thinks't thou that I, that 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?
This is great stuff. M is warning F of the consequences of rebelling against God and M regrest being a devil because of what he has lost. In this sense it is NOT "better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all" as Tennyson was later to claim in In  Memoriam.
Nevertheless, F offers his soul to the devil if in return he can have "whatsoever I shall ask".

Scene 4 is 'a street' and is a comedy routine between Wagner, the servant, and a Clown

Scene 5: we are back in Faustus' study. He is debating with himself (and the the Good and Bad Angels) about whether he should sing the contract. He tells himself "The god thou serv'st is thine own appetite" and the Evil Angel calls prayers the "fruits of lunacy". Then Mephistopheles appears and Faustus, using his own blood, signs the contract donating his sou to Lucifer, "Chief lord and regent of perpetual night". The blood dries up and Faustus cannot finish the contract till Mephistopheles brings fire to warm it back into liquid again. Then F says: "Consummatum est"; it is finished, the words spoken by Jesus on the cross in the Latin of the Vulgate Bible translation of St Jerome, the version Faustus mentions in Scene I.
This is surely an incredibly significant line. Marlowe is drawing parallels between Faustus and Jesus.

Faustus now reads the text of what he has just signed and, it being accepted by M, begins to seek knowledge from M. Learning is the motivation for F. But the King James Bible states: "For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." (In the Vulgate: eo quod in multa sapientia multa sit indignatio; et qui addit scientiam, addit et laborem; in Wycliffe's translation "for in much wisdom is much indignation, and he that increaseth knowing, increaseth also travail"). The first thing he wants to know is where is hell and M replies:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd
In one self-place; but where we are is hell
Very modern!
F now asks M for a woman:
For I am wanton and lascivious,
And cannot live without a wife.
But the "hot whore" M offers is rejected. It is not until much later that F sees Helen of Troy and falls in love.

In Scene 6, again in the study, F quizzes a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins; each tells him who they are and who their parents were. The Sins speak in prose (Wrath admits to "wounding myself when I could get none to fight withal").

Now there is another comic scene in which two rustics, Robin and Dick, have stolen Faust's magic book and wish to pronounce its spells, but they cannot read.

I guess this is the end of an Act or we are half way through the play because the Chorus who started us off and will finish comes on at this stage. The nest few scenes are Faustus and his side-kick Mephistopheles going to exotic places and, using fireworks and conjuring tricks, playing jolly japes on the locals. It seems that F has sold his soul so he can play some practical jokes. He spirits Bruno (perhaps Giordano Bruno the Dominican philosopher who was burnt at the stake for his heretical views regarding the Copernican system in 1600; this would have been too late for Marlowe (who died in 1593) and does not appear in the earlier Faustus, (my version remember is dated 1616 when it might have been topical), who is an anti-pope, away from the rather foolish Pope Adrian. F and M caper about, hitting cardinals and stealing food from the Pope; this so annoys the religious princes that they decide to excommuniate the 'ghost' and F says:
Bell, book, and candle, - candle, book, and bell, -
Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell!

Another comic interlude in which Robin and Dick have stolen a cup from a vintner and summon a grumpy Mephistopheles from Constantinople to help them. M turns Dock into an Ape and Robin into a Dog providing Robin with the wonderful innuendo:
A dog! that's excellent: let the maids look well to their porridge-pots, for I'll into the kitchen presently

More merry japes as Faustus meets the Hol Roman Emperor and plays tricks on his courtiers. When, later, they waylay him in a lonely place they cut off his head but he has a false head on and so, having seemed to die, he gets up again. As well as 'It is finished' from the cross, Faustus is now resurrected! Is Marlowe blaspheming or just drawing parallels?

In another comic interlude, Faustus tricks a horse dealer who chops his leg off (but it is a false leg ...)

Faustus is at a posh dinner party with the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt. F says "I have heard that great-bellied [I presume he means pregnant rather than fat] women do long for things that are rare and dainty." The horse seller and Robin and Dick and other clowns disturb the party with their complaints against F. More merriment.

Scene 13: Back home. Faustus has made his will. Some scholars ask F who the most beautiful woman in the world was and Mephistopheles brings in Helen of Troy. Faustus, who has been encouraged by an old man to the brink of repentance, is seduced:
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 ...
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars
Then Lucifer, Beelzebub and Mephistopheles walk in. Lucifer is here
To view the subjects of our monarchy
Those souls whose sin seals the black sons of hell
and they tell Faustus to prepare to surrender his soul that very night.

Now the scholars are back, concerned that F looks ill:
He is not well with being over-solitary.
The Good and Evil Angels are there, the Evil one smirking
He that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall.

The clock strikes 11 PM, half past,, then midnight and Faustus, protesting, pleading, is dragged to Hell.
The Chorus returns and says
Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight


It is not great literature. It is clearly written for the theatre. The comic interludes would be done these days before the curtain to enable scenery to be changed behind. They are there to lighten the mood of the play and to allow some rustic punning. It is almost formulaic in its structure, alternating serious drama with rustic comedy. But then the middle of the play is the opportunity for Faustus to tour the world being silly. One can see the dramatic potential in having fire-works whizzing about on stage and heads being chopped off and regrown and people sprouting horns from their heads but it is clumsy knockabout stuff.

Of course there are the classic lines but not so many that this play could be in the same league as, say, Macbeth.

Perhaps I need to read the 1604 version. Perhaps some of the things I liked least are the additions made by lesser playwrights after Marlowe's death.

In a lecture to the Gresham College 'How to be a Shakespearean atheist' Ryrie (2019) points oiut that Faustus "claims not to believe in Hell while having explicitly made a pact with the devil. The conventional caricature would call that an outrageous example of wishful thinking. In fact it is more like a defiant refusal to submit to reality."

I also recommend:
Dead Man in Deptford, a brilliant fictional biography of Marlowe by Anthony Burgess
Shakespeare and Co by Stanley Wells, a set of biographies of Shakespeare's contemporaries
Faustus by Leo Ruckbie, a biography of the German alchemist who may be the man behind the legend

April 2014; Not only did my edition not have scenes; it didn't even have page numbers! And I can't be bothered to count them.

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