‘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’.

It is certainly useful to have it: there is no good modern-spelling edition based on the A-Text. There are some rather antique ones – A was once favoured simply because it was the earlier – but these were swept out of fashion in the late 1940s by the bibliographical studies of Kirschbaum and Greg. They demonstrated that A was a typical ‘bad quarto’, based on actors’ reconstruction rather than on authorial copy, and argued that B was superior because based in part on MS copy derived from Marlowe’s own ‘foul papers’. Recently, however, the counter-argument has been gaining sway: that much of the material unique to B has no link to Marlowe at all, but is the patchworking of lesser writers like Rowley and Birde. A is an abbreviated and corrupted version, but this is preferable to a significantly altered one.

The problem cannot be solved by argument, but the A-Text certainly has practical advantages. It has more dramatic punch: it is, as Ms Gill says, ‘Elizabethan rather than Jacobean’. Reading it right through (rather than having to rummage around in appendices for it), one is struck by its pacy, episodic speed. This is partly a result of textual losses, but it is also an authentic feature of Marlowe’s stagecraft in plays like The Jew of Malta and Edward II.

The A-Text works also because of its closer concentration on Faustus himself. There is less extraneous material: the knockabout is pared down, the ‘Saxon Bruno’ episode goes. This focus stresses the psychological drama, as much as the cosmological one, and this suggests more fluid, interior values by which to measure Faustus’s struggle and degeneration. In this, perhaps, A is closer to its lost original.

The text’s effectiveness has been tested where it most counts, in the theatre, by Barry Kyle’s recent production at Stratford. This used the A-text, and an all-male ensemble, and achieved at least one moment of shock which nearly had me hastening for the doors like those terrified spectators in Exeter. Its virtues of pace and clarity are to be found in Ms Gill’s concise and accessible edition.

At the outset of Faustus’s adventures, one part of his mind urges him to turn back: ‘lay that damned book aside and gaze not on it.’ The other entices him to ‘go forward in that famous art wherein all Nature’s treasury is contained’. What animates the story – the ‘damned book’, the ‘famous art’ – is magic. The play is part of the Renaissance debate about magic: its powers, its permissibility, its pitfalls. It poses the basic Elizabethan question about magic: liberation or damnation?

There has been an upsurge of interest in Renaissance occultism recently, due partly to Jung’s interest in the psychodynamics of magic, and partly to the historical researches of scholars like Frances Yates, D.P. Walker and Peter French.

In Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age, John Mebane offers an inclusive, deeply researched overview of the subject. He examines the many component parts of Renaissance occultism. It was, in the spirit of the time, a recovery of ancient sources. Its philosophical base was Neoplatonic and Gnostic. Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translation of early Hermetic manuscripts, published in 1471, was a key text. Another Florentine, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, reworked the ancient Jewish occult tradition, the Kabbalah or Cabala. Other strands were revivalist remodellings of alchemy, astrology and Pythagorean mathesis. Renaissance magic was a package, a nexus of systems, generally summed up as an occult trinity: Magia, Alchymia, Cabala. The great magi of the 16th century – Paracelsus, Agrippa, Dee, Bruno, all of them contributors to Marlowe’s conception of Faustus – drew freely from all these sources.

Mebane also studies the interaction of occultism with other philosophical trends in the Renaissance: its relations with Humanism, and its involvement in the emergence of ‘genuine science’. He concludes that Renaissance magic, though often perceived as oppositional to both Humanism and science, was actually an evolutionary link, and that ‘philosophical occultism carried to its logical extreme the Humanists’ affirmation of the power of human beings to control both their own personalities and the world around them.’

As such, magic was not so much a bulwark against science as a springboard for it. In England, reputed ‘conjurors’ like John Dee, Thomas Hariot, William Warner and Robert Fludd were engaged in important transitional research in such areas as engineering, optics, cartography, pharmacy and metallurgy. They were early technologists, though still working within an animistic, non-scientific context. A formative influence here was the philosopher-healer Paracelsus, who embraced the full gamut of Hermetic-Cabalist magic, but directed it towards deeply practical, medicinal ends. His disciples, who flourished in England in the 1590s, were committed to what we would call ‘hands-on experience’. Knowledge, wrote Paracelsian chemist John Hester in 1591, must be ‘digged out of harde stones, blowne out from hot fire, raked out from foul ashes, with great cost and greater travail’.

This experimental rigour was part of the occultist challenge to conventional, book-learnt wisdom. More radically than Humanism, occultism entailed a rejection of established scholastic authorities, in favour of an alternative, secret tradition of revealed knowledge. Faustus’s discarding of authorities – Aristotle, Galen, Justinian and St Jerome are named in the opening soliloquy – is in the iconoclastic spirit of Paracelsus, who cast the medical Canon of Avicenna onto the St John’s Day bonfire in Basle, and of Cornelius Agrippa in his sweeping ‘declamation’, De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum (far better known in Elizabethan England than his overtly magical writings). True power, Faustus concludes, lies not with the scholar, the attainer of dead forms of knowledge, but with the ‘studious artisan’. The phrase carries the idea of the magician as technologist.

Marlowe was a close associate of Hariot and Warner, and of their free-thinking patrons, Sir Walter Ralegh and the Earl of North-umberland. He may have known Dr Dee as well. Dr Faustus belongs to, and comments on, this critical phase of magico-scientific transition. The fall of the magician is also the rise of the scientist, the technologist freed (for better or worse) from the metaphysical trappings of occultism. This is a paradoxical variation on the theme that the damnation of Faustus is, in this historical sense, itself a kind of liberation.

When Faustus first trod the boards in the early 1590s, Robert Fludd was a philosophical teenager studying at St John’s College, Oxford. Maybe he saw the play: he is the kind of spectator its more subtle points were aimed at. If he did, it perhaps prepared him for the controversies to come in his own career. Some thirty years later, in 1623, he was denounced by the French mathematician Marin Mersenne as a ‘heretical’ magician, a ‘propagator of foul and horrendous magic’, and other terms reminiscent of the orthodox line expressed by Faustus. Mersenne was indeed a devout defender of the established faith: he was a Minime friar in Paris, and the particular bone of contention was Fludd’s alchemical reading of the Biblical creation-story. But in scientific terms he was an early modernist, a friend of Descartes, an advancer of the new ‘mechanist’ philosophy. In his condemnation of Fludd and other occultists, Mersenne is advocating that same ‘liberation’ of scientific enquiry from its occultist framework. He represents that same pragmatic alliance between reactionary religion and progressive science, which is foreshadowed in Faustus.

A new biography of Fludd is very welcome. Next to Dee, he is the major English representative of Renaissance occultism, but before this the only full-length biography available was the rather creaky one by J.B. Craven, published in 1902. William Huffman’s well-balanced study treats Fludd as the last epitome of the Renaissance magical tradition. His work was synoptic, an attempt to synthesise the vast and labyrinthine tradition of the occult into one complete system, and thereby to ‘uncase and discover that universal nature which is masked in darkness’.

The word ‘synoptic’ should not be taken to suggest any idea of shortness. Fludd’s writings, said Anthony à Wood, sounding rather daunted, ‘were great, many and mystical’. His magnum opus was the Utriusque Cosmi Historia, which offered nothing less than a ‘technical, physical and metaphysical history of the macrocosm and the microcosm’. This appeared in parts between 1617 and 1621, in superb editions from the printing-houses of Theodore de Bry in Oppenheim and Frankfurt, but was never finished. Other works give a hint of Fludd’s compendious style: The Amphitheatre of Anatomy, The Proscenium of Truth, The Catholic Medicine.

Among his contemporaries Fludd was best known as a physician, though his election to the Royal College of Physicians in 1609 came after four years of controversy, mainly concerning his enthusiasm for the controversial ‘chymicall physick’ of Paracelsus. In his heyday he was a renowned healer, and his surgery at Fenchurch Street was patronised by the cream of Jacobean society. He employed a secretary and an apothecary: ‘the latter mixed and distributed medicines by day, the former received ideas that he had at night.’

There are two portraits of Fludd reproduced here. The first, which appears as the frontispiece to his Philosophia Sacra (1626), is conventional enough: a precise, balding, scholarly man with a spruce pic-à-devant beard. The second, five years later, seems to show another side: the brow is knitted, the eyes stare, there is a look of effort and exhaustion etched in the lines of the face. He was – according to a fellow doctor, Baldwyn Hamey – a ‘rather fervent’ man, ‘in whom many failed to find judiciousness’.

Fludd represents a bygone tradition, yet Professor Huffman concludes his book with a sentiment shared by everyone who has ventured into the rich, arcane territory of Renaissance magic. He urges a more balanced view of a man like Fludd, and of the tradition he represents. This might ‘allow us to incorporate the good from that era, which we lost in our headlong rush into modernity’. Rightly understood, that lost spiritual tradition can contribute to our ‘vision of the future’ and ‘give it a wholeness that it surely lacks’.

Though this transition from ‘magic’ to ‘science’ was real enough, it was by no means neat. The complex aspirations of Renaissance magic, though forced underground, still persisted deep into the Age of Reason. The research of Dobbs and others has unearthed the full extent of Newton’s covert interest in alchemy: he conducted experiments for nearly thirty years, and left alchemical manuscripts totalling some 650,000 words. In Prophesy and Power, Patrick Curry explores another item in the occultist repertoire – astrology – and effectively overturns the accepted view that astrology had become marginalised by the end of the 17th century. In many ways it was more popular than ever, and it prospered, often with an active political role, well into the following century.

One of the logistical reasons for astrology’s popularity was the collapse of official censorship, and of Stationers’ Company monopolies, in the early 1640s. A huge efflux of almanacs ensued. William Lilly’s Merlinus Anglicus sold nearly thirty thousand copies in 1649. In the first decade of the Restoration, it is estimated, almanac sales averaged about four hundred thousand per annum, enough to supply one-third of the country’s households.

Dr Curry gives a fascinating account of how astrological literature was used to promote and disseminate radical social ideas. John Booker, appointed licenser of astrological books by Parliament in 1643, penned almanacs full of bloodthirsty prophesies about the fate of Royalists and Catholics. Another fanatical anti-Royalist was Nicholas Culpeper – author of the famous Herbal (1653) – who practised ‘astrological physic’ (another legacy of Paracelsus). He was denounced as a sectarian and ‘absolute Atheist’. In all his prescriptions, claimed the Royalist news-sheet Mercurius Pragmaticus, you will find ‘some scruples, at least, of rebellion and atheisme’.

This strain of ‘socially radical mysticism’ brings me back to Professor Mebane’s book, and to Dr Faustus. As the ‘Golden Age’ part of his title suggests, Mebane is interested in the connection between occultism and the emergence of radical utopianism. At the heart of the occult philosophy lies the idea of redemption – the redemption of man, the redemption of matter. The transformations sought by the alchemist, the powers harnessed by the magus, the harmonies computed by the mathetist – each of these entails a purifying revelation of the spiritual (the anima mundi, the quinta essentia, etc) within the material world. Around the end of the 16th century – and particularly with the emergence of the mysterious Fraternity of the Rosy Cross in Germany – this became increasingly involved with ideas of social and political ‘redemption’. The Rosicrucian manifestos – Fama Fraternitatis (1614) and Confessio Fraternitatis (1616) – promised, amid much alchemical imagery, ‘a universal and general reformation of the whole wide world’, a global purification. There is much debate about the nature of this ‘fraternity’, and little is known about its chief apologists: Johann Valentin Andreae, Adam Haselmayer, Michael Maier et al. But whatever their provenance and purpose, the manifestos exemplify this conjunction of occultist aspirations with the kind of utopian, pacifist, New Age politics later to be heard in the more militant quarters of the Civil War.

This potentially explosive mix was clearly recognised by the authorities. The accusations of heresy and diabolism that pursue the magician seem like knee-jerk theological reactions, but they are also a political reaction to the possible links between heterodoxy and subversion. The witch-hunts of the period can also be seen as anti-sectarian (as well as anti-feminist), designed to eliminate subversive politico-religious groupings like the Waldensians. The whipping-up of fears about conjurors and witches concealed this political purpose ‘within folds of diabolic propaganda’.

As well as suppression there was assimilation. In Elizabethan England this ‘rhetoric of universal reform’, as Professor Mebane calls it, was channelled into the cult-imagery which surrounded Queen Elizabeth. She was depicted as a new Astraea, the Goddess of Justice returning to earth to usher in the Golden Age. By extension, this reformist rhetoric was also used to vindicate imperial ambitions. England’s first toe-hold in the New World, Virginia, was so-named to express this occultist propaganda. A virgin land dedicated to the Virgin Queen: colonisation as purification.

The spearhead of this marriage of occultism and expansionism was Dr John Dee, believed by many to be the primary model for Faustus. Another important figure was Ralegh, whom Marlowe knew personally. We may be nearer to the heart of Faustus if we see it, not as a reactionary piece of hell-fire against the practice of magic, but as an unsettling study of the misappropriation of magic to political ends. If we discard for a moment the damnation-formula, if we focus on the internal tensions of Faustus’s magic, we see that an important conflict is between magic’s potential for liberation and its vulnerability to political ambition. The ambition is planted there from the start – in Faustus’s first description of what magic promises him: ‘a world of profit and delight,/ Of power, of honour and omnipotence’. And it is implicit throughout the whole disappointing, self-gratifying rigmarole of Faustus as magus. The ‘demi-god’ magician proves to be a charlatan after all: a seeker of material power who, in his own words, ‘aims at nothing but external trash’.

In the context of the 1590s, this can be read as a cynical comment on Dee’s co-opted, imperialist magic. More broadly, it is a prophetic comment on the misuses of the awesome technology which Faustus is granted. The modern audience has its nightmares too, and Dr Faustus continues to scare us, as it did the Elizabethan groundlings, with its bursts of ‘artificiall lightning’.