“If Shakespeare had died at the age Marlowe died, there would have been no question that Marlowe was the leading figure in English Renaissance drama”—I found this on the back of my copy of Marlowe’s The Plays. I have only read Doctor Faustus, so I could not fairly justify, but comparing Faustus with Shakespeare’s other non historical tragedies I have read so far, I must admit that (for me) Marlowe is in the lead.
I always feel Shakespeare’s humour was a bit tacky, while Marlowe’s was more elegant. Marlowe’s tragedy (again, I only read Faustus) is full of reflection, while Shakespeare’s are more dynamic. For people who like only to watch drama for amusement, Shakespeare’s would be more pleasant to watch. Marlowe’s is a bit darker and tends to make us think deeper. Maybe Marlowe’s are more suitable for reading.
Faustus is a learned man (he’s a Doctor anyway), and after having learned various sciences, he is not yet satisfied. So he learns necromancy and magic, with which he believes he could have limited power over the universe. He is guided by one of Lucifer’s servants, Mephistophilis, who promises him his unlimited service if he agrees to serve Lucifer. Despite of warnings from his own conscience and the good angel, Faustus blood-signs an agreement with Lucifer to swap his soul with power, knowledge, and pleasure.
Doctor Faustus is a reminder for us all how human fall to sin. Greediness is perhaps the seed of all sins; it is when man wants more than what he deserves to get. Faustus is provided for learning every science he wants, but it’s not enough for him. At this point the devil can easily buy him. But the fall of men to sin is usual story; the true tragedy lies in Faustus’ stubbornness in repentance, though God has offered His mercy.
There are two version of Doctor Faustus exists, the A-text (published in 1604) and B-text (1616), and it’s still on debate, which one (or both?) was really written by Marlowe. I decided to read both; so I started with the whole of A-text first; then continued on B-text but skip the same parts, only focusing on the alternate. I must say in the end that the B-text is slightly better. I loved particularly the ending in B-text, when the scholars found Faustus’ body ‘all torn asunder by the hand of death!’ . Maybe the A-text is more dramatic because, I imagine, were it performed on stage, Faustus’ last anguish shriek when he was brought by Mephistophilis would be heard as a hollow echo when everybody exited, before the chorus closed the play by announcing the horrific tragedy: ‘Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight’. But the scholars’ scene in the B-text allows us to feel the horror more intensely, although I think it would be too eerie to be performed on stage. But the best addition of the B-text is perhaps Scene 6 Act 4; the comical scenes of Robin and Dick, and Faustus and the horse-seller. It’s not as slapstick as Shakespeare’s, but it helped reducing a bit the dark atmosphere; funny but witty.
Interestingly, Marlowe put a historical figure in the play: Pope Adrian VI, who is dealing with his rival, Pope Bruno, whom was more favored by the Emperor. Only later did I learn that Pope Bruno was fictional character. I still did not understand why the Pope should be put here, other than became a ‘toy’ whom Faustus could chaff and play using his new power of magic (a symbol of how low Faustus has sinned, that he dared ridiculing a Pope?) . Or was Marlowe mocking or criticizing the political power of Catholic Church then?
Anyway, Doctor Faustus is a great tragedy from one of Renaissance greatest dramatists: Christophe Marlowe. The spirit of learning new things which colored the Renaissance era reflected in Faustus’ passion in knowledge. He has studied philosophies like many his contemporaries, but also economy, physic, law, and theology—which he finally put aside as they weren’t as tantalizing as necromancy. Play-wise, there was still trace of Greek plays in Doctor Faustus, i.e. the chorus at the start and the end. Besides that, Marlowe’s style was more freely flowing than Greek. His chaffing on Pope Adrian and the Church officials was perhaps reflecting how Renaissance era began to shake off the dominant power of the Church in Medieval era.
Five stars for Doctor Faustus, or originally The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.
I read the Wordsworth Classics paperback edition
This book is counted as:
1st book for Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 (A Classic Play)
86th book for The Classics Club Project