Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

by Paul Mathers


Doctor Faustus was not as I remembered it.  I had a college course in my early 20s in which we were to read Faustus and I remember having a heated exchange with the professor over Marlowe’s standing in literature.  I recall that my position was that, had he lived and Shakespeare died in that bar fight, Marlowe would be to us what Shakespeare is to us.  Friends, I come before the world today repentant that those words ever passed my lips.

Let me explain that I was in the midst of one of those phases in that age group where I exclusively read Hunter Thompson and Charles Bukowski in my personal reading.  Yes, I was that guy.  I know I absolutely reveled in Shakespeare’s bawdier parts (still do), and, likely, had at that time an axe to grind against high-mindedness in art.  I felt that art should not seek to extend the reach of observable reality, which, at the time, I saw as an amoral miasma of cold floating existence with no more meaning than that with which we infused it.  I no longer feel that way, but let me take a moment to clarify what I am saying and what I am not saying.   I am not saying that the Three Stooges, for example, should be relegated to the rubbish heap of history by virtue of the latitude of their brow and because we have as sublime a contemporary of theirs in the same medium in Charlie Chaplin.  Each have their place, although, as most of you would imagine, I feel that, in a culture of ubiquitous low brow, one must aspire towards the high.  Not necessarily to the exclusion of the low; I’m not sure anyone is even capable of that at this point in history.  But, rather, because otherwise one will never encounter it.  Much like my Modernism Bubble, the great thing about seeking the high cookies is that you can also, then, travel up and down the ladder at will.  If you choose to live your life wallowing in the low, however, it stands to reason that the low is all you will ever see.

All of which sounds like I am leading up to bash Christopher Marlowe, but I also assure you that is not my intention.  My intention is to register surprise at how indelicate the slapstick scenes of this play are.  I am not the first to suggest that these scenes seem like they were inserted into Marlowe’s play by another party.  There will be fairly well crafted scenes, and then a scene where invisible Faust is slapping the Pope around or a clown is making jokes about local neighborhoods.  In my post about Faust, I mentioned that by Goethe’s time this play had evolved into a puppet show.  I now realize that it did not have far to go.  I am not willing to say outright that I think that these scenes were not penned by Marlowe.  I do suspect that this sort of humor sold tickets.

Marlowe’s Faustus is a much less sympathetic character than Goethe’s Faust.  Marlowe’s is, rather, a bit of a satyr.  There is no love and redemption in this version.  It is a cautionary tale plain and simple, although in our time one would likely need to take it as entirely metaphorical.  There is the deal with the Devil for earthly gain.  The Seven Deadly Sins make a personal appearance.  A good angel and a bad angel frequently make appearances to give Faust his options.  The devils literally drag Faustus down to Hell at the end.  In spite of all of these medieval echoes, I feel like this could play today.  Why?  Because human nature does not change.  I believe that is at the core of the endurance of the Faust legend.  The moral conflict is the impulse to indulge without restraint in self-gratification verses the possibility of an afterlife of torment in a place that may or may not exist.  All first hand accounts of said place are scant and suspect.  Which, in essence, is a temptation that we all give in to in some measure or another.  The purpose of the story is to reflect that impulse within ourselves.  The weakness of the story is that it ends there, at least in this incarnation.  Goethe points to salvation, Marlowe points to damnation.  A modern audience is no less susceptible to the doubts and temptations of Faustus.  We (most of us anyway) may not as readily accept anthropomorphic manifestations of abstract ideas as credibly as a 16th century London groundling, but we still lust and rage and demand our portion of wantonness with our meager portion of life.  We all think of ourselves as the bad-asses, the heroes of our own little movies, as deserving of nothing but pleasure due to our superior quality to the other saps polluting our airspace.

I was reminded just now of a local news story from the past two weeks.  There was an elderly man who hit, with his truck, and killed a cyclist.  The driver drove away from the scene of the crime and tried to cover up what he had done.  He took his truck to the repair shop a few days later telling them that he had struck a branch while driving in an orchard.  The repairman became suspicious because tree branches don’t usually leave blood and hair.  The authorities were alerted and the man was arrested.  I am haunted by the man’s reaction, which seems (albeit solely through the eyes and filter of the local news media) to be shame and embarrassment.  What disturbs me so much about this is the question: Would he feel shame and embarrassment if he had gotten away with it?  There is a significant difference between feeling shame and feeling guilt.  There, I think, lies the theme behind Faust.  We are what we would do if we weren’t concerned with the consequences.  Everything else is simply laws coercing us into civilized behavior.  This knowledge ought to inspire humility and penitence, a gentle walk and a desperation to possess the attribute of compassion.

I believe that Hunter Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and, indeed, Christopher Marlowe all came to this conclusion about human nature and lived (and wrote) accordingly.  I do not see strong evidence to indicate that any of the three successfully came up with a positive solution.

I have, of late, also been rereading Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons (which is a wonderful book.  If you have a young person in your life, you should get them a copy of this book, even if they have no aspirations towards that discipline).  It is a dialogue between a student (called The Creature) and the teacher (called I).  There is a section where The Creature asks how one can have an emotional memory if one is called, onstage, to play a murderer:

I: Oh, why do actors always ask me about murder?  The younger they are the more murders they want to act.  All right, you have never murdered anybody.  Have you ever camped?

The Creature: Yes.

I: Ever sat in the woods at the edge of a lake after sundown?

The Creature: Yes.

I: Were there mosquitoes around?

The Creature: It was in New Jersey.

I: Did they annoy you?  Did you follow one among them with your eyes and ears and hate until the beast landed on your forearm?  And did you slap your forearm cruelly without even thinking of the hurt to yourself- with only the wish to… end?

Which brings me back to my theater director friend who once turned down a role in a bleak and hopeless play about Vlad the Impaler.  The legend of Faust does not leave us without hope.  It, rather, urges one to amend one’s ways before it is too late.  The difference between these two plays is that the exit signs are a little more clearly marked in Goethe’s telling.

I feel that Dr. Eliot placed this piece advisedly in the middle of what would otherwise have been a volume entirely comprising the works of Goethe.  He placed it after Goethe’s Faust to show the origins of the story.  Eliot seems to have had a strong moralist streak, and so I feel he also placed it after so that the reader would identify Goethe’s as the superior work, taking those lessons more to heart than Marlowe’s protracted illustration of the depravity of humankind.