Thursday, 22 June 2000

Christopher Marlowe: Doctor Faustus (c. 1590)

Edition: Nick Hern Books
Review number: 530

Compared to most plays, there is a fair amount of unknown information about Doctor Faustus. It was first performed sometime between 1589 and 1593, which doesn't really place it very surely within the obscure chronology of Marlowe's brief career as a playwright. Even the text is uncertain, the first extant edition of 1604 bearing an unknown relationship to one printed in 1601 and to another very different version. It is not uncommon for there to be multiple versions of Elizabethan plays; even Hamlet also exists in a "memorial" edition (that is, one compiled from the recollections of actors rather than written sources). In the case of Doctor Faustus, it is not known which version is earlier, or whether one is a memorial. The two are quite different, both including material not present in the other. In this edition, both versions are printed, which makes for an interesting game comparing them with each other.

The story of Doctor Faustus is a simple form of the Faust legend. Faustus sells his soul to the devil Mephistopheles in return for magical powers and occult knowledge. In this version, there is no pure Margaret to be loved and to turn Faust to redemption, and Faustus believes himself irrevocably damned at the expiry of the contract (the twenty four years of its duration being the period covered by the play). Much of the dramatic tension of the play is provided by this knowledge and Faustus' attitude towards it (sometimes fatalistic, sometimes desperate). The suggestion has been made that Doctor Faustus is an answer to the medieval mystery play, important precursor of Elizabethan drama. He gets dragged off to hell at the end instead of repenting and ascending to heaven (the standard ending to a mystery play). This experimental nature, if it is indeed the case, could be seen as evidence for an early date for the play.

The play also includes farcical slapstick scenes which have often been labelled out of place and inappropriate by commentators: Faustus travels to Rome and mocks the Pope, invisibly snatching food from him as he attempts to eat; Faustus' servant steals one of his books of magic, and makes inept attempts to cast spells. These scenes are not particularly funny on the page, but they perhaps seem to fit in better with the rest of the drama today when black humour is an important part of the late twentieth century literary scene.

The general tone of the play is serious, if not downbeat, and this is why the clown scenes can seem incongruous. The subject is clearly one which pulls the write in two directions, to the horrific fate which awaits Faustus when his contract expires on the one hand, and the revelry of him enjoying his present powers (and his servant aping these powers) on the other. Marlowe's inability to integrate these aspects of the story provide the big flaws of the play - though it does help to make it interesting.

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