‘Faustus’ and the Politics of Magic

Charles Nicholl

  • Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, edited by Roma Gill
    Black, 109 pp, £3.95, December 1989, ISBN 0 7136 3231 3
  • Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare by John Mebane
    Nebraska, 309 pp, £26.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 8032 3133 4
  • Robert Fludd and the End of the Renaissance by William Huffman
    Routledge, 252 pp, £30.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 415 00129 3
  • Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England by Patrick Curry
    Polity, 238 pp, £27.50, September 1989, ISBN 0 7456 0604 0

Marlowe’s Dr Faustus was an Elizabethan spine-chiller. People came for thrills, and early productions pulled out all the stops to provide them. ‘Shagge-hayred devills’ ran ‘roaring over the stage with squibs in their mouthes’. Drummers thundered backstage. Stage-hands hung aloft to ‘make artificiall lightning in their heavens’. At times the play seemed to generate a power more than dramatic. At one performance in Shoreditch the wooden walls of the theatre suddenly ‘crackt’ and ‘frighted the audience.’ At another, in Exeter, the players stopped dead in the middle of the conjuration scene, ‘for they were all perswaded there was one devell too many amongst them.’ They explained the situation to the audience, and said they ‘could go no further with this matter’. The audience promptly fled – ‘every man hastened to be first out of dores’ – and the players spent the night in unaccustomed prayer and meditation.

For some, such anecdotes suggest, Faustus was a disturbing experience: it brought real fears, real dangers, onto the stage. In doing so, the play might seem to serve an essentially reactionary purpose. Like some supercharged Morality Play, it summons up the devils and demons that await those who stray from the theological straight and narrow. This in turn agrees with the play’s ostensible message, which is that Faustus’s aspirations as a magician lead him into an alliance with the devil, and so to eternal damnation. ‘Regard his hellish fall,’ the Chorus grimly concludes, and do not presume to ‘practise more than heavenly power permits’.

It is unlikely that this reactionary, medievalist view was actually held by Marlowe. His own opinions – as recorded by colleagues like Kyd and Greene, and by informers like Baines and Cholmeley – were just the opposite. They show him as a young man who constantly and recklessly broadcast heretical, free-thinking views. He considered religion a political tool to ‘keep men in awe’. He persuaded people to atheism, ‘willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins’. Even allowing for overstatement, it is hard to reconcile these opinions with the message of Faustus, which seems intended precisely to uphold the ‘awe’ of religion.

To say the least, Marlowe would have been critically aware of other angles on the Faustus story, of ambiguous and heterodox sub-texts. These are there in the play, but they are heavily muted, and finally obliterated, by the demands of orthodoxy. Since the early texts of Faustus are full of corruptions, and in some cases glaring gaps, it seems possible that these elements of heterodoxy are part of what has been lost from the play, and that the textual difficulties derive, in part at least, from efforts to make the play palatable for public performance. These efforts cannot be reconstructed with any exactness, but they would involve both some suppression of original material – either by the censors, or by the play-company in anticipation of censorship – and some rewriting by various authors, including Samuel Rowley and William Birde, who were paid for certain ‘adicyones in Doctor Fostes’ in 1602.

If we could get back to the play as Marlowe originally wrote it, we might find its ‘message’ a more ambivalent, pluralistic one. The same would be true of its early audiences. Those anecdotes of credulity are only part of the story: there must have been other reactions. Marlowe knew how to wind up the groundlings, but he was also addressing a section of his audience that was like himself: intellectual, inquisitive, disaffected. For these playgoers the thrill of Faustus was something other than special effects and devilish nightmares. They might see Faustus, not as a sinner, but as a kind of doomed metaphysical adventurer. This is the allure of Faustus’s opening speeches, as he ranges angrily through his books, dismissing the gamut of conventional wisdom: logic, medicine, law – too ‘servile and illiberal’ – and finally divinity, the ‘basest’ of them all. These speeches are violent and daring, a demolishing of authorities. This is the first of the play’s thrills: ‘Divinity adieu!’ Faustus is about damnation – in the 1590s it could not be otherwise – but at this point it is about liberation.

There are two early editions of the play: the quartos of 1604 and 1616, now known as the A-Text and the B-Text. They provide different readings, and in some cases whole different scenes. In her excellent new edition of the play, Roma Gill argues fiercely for the A-Text of 1604. It is shorter by six hundred lines, but she believes it is ‘something more like the play that Marlowe wrote’.

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