What’s up with Christopher Marlowe?

The official title of Marlowe’s dealing with the Faust legend is The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. It is based on legends circulating at the time, in which Faust makes a pact with the devil and sells his soul for power, riches, and general debauchery. When the time comes for Lucifer to claim Faust’s soul, Faust finds himself unable to repent and turn to God and his body is torn apart and his spirit descends to the infernos of hell.

While Marlowe generally follows the story line, his version is clearly not just a warning to the faithful. Marlowe plays a number of games in the text, and those who look to it for hints as to Marlowe’s personal beliefs often find themselves befuddled.  Of course, this kind of psychological inference has many pitfalls, but we do know that Marlowe was accused of atheism during his (too short) lifetime.

He would not, of course, be able to argue for a non-religious position directly. Not only would the censors of the day have disallowed it, it would have gotten him arrested as well. Religion was taken very seriously in Elizabethan times. Church attendance was mandatory, and missing Sunday services would invite a monetary fine. Atheism was a crime for which punishment could extend to being burnt alive as a heretic, though it was more likely that those accused would disavow any such tendencies after a little prison time or upon being “shown the instruments” (actual torture being officially illegal).

The first indication that things are going slightly askew is when Faustus first conjures up Mephistopheles. This devil, Faustus decides is too ugly in his “natural” form, and he is remanded to return in the guise of a Franciscan friar. Is Marlowe saying that priests and monk are no better than devils? Probably not, as this appears to be Catholic-bashing, which Marlowe will indulge in many times during the course of the play. To most of his audience, Catholics were nearly devils. Luther had equated the pope with the anti-Christ, and while the English wasn’t Lutheran, the Church of England was Protestant, and strongly influenced by the reform movements of Luther, Calvin, and the like. The pope had excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570, and she retaliated by declaring Catholicism treason. Marlowe has more fun with this theme in Act 3, when an invisible Faustus and Mephistopheles visit the papal court in Rome, and steal food, box the Pope’s ears, and give them a thorough beating.

There’s a more subtle difference from the legend in this scene as well. In the original tale, Faust invokes the devil, who is annoyed at being summoned. In Marlowe’s script, Mephistopheles tells Faustus that it was mere coincidence that he came by. Faustus’s incantations have no power to force the demon’s to obey. This makes Marlowe look like quite the skeptic, as he’s not buying in to the idea that these alchemists and magicians are quite so powerful after all. This is re-enforced structurally in the play, because almost every scene in which Faustus interacts with Mephistopheles is followed by a comic scene in which the action is parodied by a scene in which one of Faustus’s students abuses a servant or simpleton.

If Marlowe is parodying the Catholics and the alchemists/magicians, that means he’s a Christian on the side of the state church, right? Not necessarily. In the text, Marlowe makes much of the fact that Faustus has studied and become a professor at the university in Wittenberg. This is not only one of the most prestigious universities of the period, but it is also the center of Protestant learning, the place where Luther nailed his 95 thesis. In addition, Faustus queries Mephistopheles on how such a devil as he can wander so far from hell. “This is hell,” the latter replies. There is no physical inferno, hell is a state of mind, anticipating Camus’s No Exit by four centuries.

Of course, Marlowe doesn’t want to run afoul of the authorities, so the ending follows the original legend. But underneath the layers, there’s still ambiguity. While Lucifer does indeed claim Faustus, we only see him take Faustus’s physical body, there’s no direct mention of his soul. The play ends with the Latin “Terminat hora diem; terminat author opus,” the (midnight) hour ends the day; the author ends his work, which could be read as a covert acknowledgement that there is nothing after death.

Finally, we have to remember that all of this is supposition. After all, the play also contains a good deal of special effects:  trapdoors, angel and devil costumes,  (probably) a “hellmouth” indicating the border between earth and the underworld, and lots of fireworks. Perhaps Marlowe was simply the Michael Bay or James Cameron of his era, giving the audience a big wow without any underlying message: all sound and fury, signifying nothing.


One comment

  1. […] smacks more of blood-sport and spectacle than of sly tolerance and broad-mindedness. But, as with Dr. Faustus, just what he intended will probably never be […]

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