What Marlowe would have wanted

Charles Nicholl

The best, perhaps, has survived, but a great deal of Elizabethan drama has not. The number of titles mentioned in contemporary documents – the account books of the impresario Philip Henslowe, the registers of the Stationers’ Company, and so on – far exceeds the number of plays now extant as texts. Many never made it into print. Some did and have since perished: booksellers sold their wares unbound, and plays were often considered too trashy and ephemeral to merit the cost of binding. Many must have ended up ‘bequeathed to the privy’ or ‘stopping mustard pots’ – the literary chat of the period is full of such references – and others would have gone up in the fires that commonly broke out in the crowded wood-built cities.

The losses are heaviest among the first wave of playmakers working in London in the late 1580s and early 1590s, the so-called ‘pre-Shakespearean’ period. Not a single play by the sonneteer Thomas Watson remains, though he was described in 1592 as one whose ‘daily practyse and living’ was writing for the theatre. Thomas Nashe certainly wrote for the public playhouses in the early 1590s – his friend Greene takes him to task for it in the Groatsworth of Wit – but his only dramatic piece to have survived is a private ‘shewe’ he put on for Archbishop Whitgift at Croydon. There was an early version of Hamlet, possibly by Kyd; a prototype Henry V, starring Dick Tarlton and William Knell. And, a little later, there were the first ventures of Ben Jonson – Hot Anger Soon Cooled, written with Thomas Dekker and Henry Porter, and Robert II, with Henry Chettle – now just bodiless titles in an old theatrical ledger.

The case of Marlowe is, as always, more ambiguous. In some senses we can be grateful. Seven of his plays remain, and there is no real evidence that any whole works have been lost. The brevity of his opus is a matter of tragic circumstance: he was just 29 when he was stabbed to death in Deptford. But though the ratio of transmission seems good, the quality is not. At least two of his plays survive only in texts so mangled as to be almost unworkable. One is The Massacre at Paris. The other is Dr Faustus, arguably the greatest of all the ‘pre-Shakespearean’ plays.

In a sense, the true nature of Faustus is as tantalisingly ‘lost’ as its vanished contemporaries. The play survives in two early editions, widely diverging, both badly flawed. Great chunks of magnificent poetry have come through largely intact, but structurally the play is all over the place: a mass of narrative anomalies, descents into banality and slapstick, a suspiciously glib conclusion. We have almost grown used to these problems, as if they were somehow intrinsic to the play, another aspect of its murky, difficult ambience.

Modern scholarship has established at least a working consensus about the play, based largely on the studies of Leo Kirschbaum (1946), W.W. Greg (1950) and Fredson Bowers (1973). But a consensus is not necessarily the truth, and any serious attempt to tackle anew the textual problems of Faustus is to be welcomed. When the tackling is done by that great and maverick scholar William Empson, it is even more welcome. By a sad irony, Empson’s full thesis is also lost to us: it was left unfinished at the time of his death in April 1984. His various drafts and notes have been ‘recovered and edited’ by his colleague, John Henry Jones. The result is often as maddeningly fragmentary as Faustus itself, and it is festooned with more footnotes than a redaction of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it has all the Empson hallmarks – the density of ideation, the abrasive wit, the marvellous lateral twists – and out of it emerges a bold and original theory: one that needs to be tested against the facts and the play; one that will be built on by other scholars; one that might well prove revolutionary in our conception of Dr Faustus.

The early history of Dr Faustus is skeletal. The date of composition is unknown: some place it quite early in Marlowe’s brief career (c. 1589); others make it his last work, begun in the summer of 1592. A vital factor in the dating is the publication of what was undoubtedly Marlowe’s major source, The Historie of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus. This was a translation, by one ‘P.F., Gent’, of the anonymous Historia von D. Iohan Fausten (Frankfurt, 1587). Unfortunately the earliest extant edition of the Damnable Life, published by Thomas Orwin in 1592, is not the first. The title page announces it as ‘newly imprinted’, with ‘imperfect matter amended’. According to Greg, the first edition had been published earlier the same year. An entry in the Stationers’ Company ‘court book’ refers to another printer, Abel Jeffes, having ‘claymed’ the copyright on the Damnable Life in May 1592, and Greg argues that since this claim is not in the usual form of a licensing entry in the Company register, it must have been in the form of publication. Many feel that this inference is questionable, given the rapacities and inconsistencies of Elizabethan publishing, and arguments for an earlier date for the Damnable Life, and hence for Faustus, have equal voice. Evidence for this view is circumstantial. The huge popularity of the German Faust-book would certainly have encouraged speedy translation; the registering in February 1589 of a ballad about ‘Doctor Faustus the Great Cunngerer’ and the Faust-ish allusions in Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590) may be pointers. Empson, who disagrees with Greg on just about everything, favours the earlier date.

There is no actual record of a public performance of Faustus before 30 September 1594 – over a year after Marlowe’s death – when it was played by the Admiral’s Men at the Rose theatre. The takings were high (£3 12s.) but Henslowe did not mark the play as new, and this was almost certainly a revival. A reminiscence by Thomas Middleton of a performance ‘when the old Theater crackt and frighted the audience’ may refer to an earlier run at the Theatre in Shoreditch. The play continued in the Admiral’s Men repertoire, but by January 1597 receipts were down to 5s., and it was taken off. Props and costumes for the play – a dragon, a backdrop of Rome, the ‘ierkin’ and ‘clok’ worn by Alleyn in the title role – continue to appear in the company’s inventories. In November 1602 another revival was under way, possibly connected with Alleyn’s return to the theatre from retirement, and a pair of Henslowe’s hacks, Samuel Rowley and William Birde, received £4 for writing certain ‘adicyones in doctor fostes’.

The publishing history of Faustus begins on 7 January 1601, when the publisher Thomas Bushell licensed a copy of the play at Stationers’ Hall. The earliest extant edition (generally known as the ‘A-text’) appeared in 1604, published by Bushell and printed by Valentine Simmes. Again this is probably not the first edition. A gap of three years or more between licensing and printing would be unusual. The title-page refers to the acting company (formerly the Admiral’s) as ‘the Erle of Nottingham his servants’, whereas the troupe had passed under the patronage of Prince Henry in 1603. So it is likely that the 1604 text is actually a reprint of an earlier edition. Some years later Bushell sold his copyright to another publisher, John Wright, who issued reprints in 1609 and 1611. Then, in 1616, Wright issued a very different edition of the play, now known as the B-text. This is much fuller than the A-text (2121 lines of print as against 1517), though whether it is also better is a moot point. In part, it derives from the A-text (in particular from the 1611 edition), but about three-quarters of it is based on MS copy quite distinct from that used for the earlier text. Its transmission of the tragic sections is sometimes superior, but it badly fudges some of the most beautiful poetry in the final scenes.

These are the facts, such as they are. There has been much debate as to the provenance of the two texts and the relationship between them. The Kirschbaum-Greg consensus, briefly, is that the A-text is a fairly typical ‘bad quarto’, based on an actor’s ‘memorial reconstruction’ of the play, rather than on authorial copy; and that the B-text, though published later, is actually based on an earlier and more authoritative MS, possibly even on Marlowe’s own ‘foul papers’ – his working draft of the play – though in a partial and fragmentary state. On the strength of this argument, all modern editions of Faustus are based, however reluctantly, on the B-text. The ‘bad bits’ in both quartos, which most agree cannot be by Marlowe, are variously assigned. Some of those peculiar to the B-text can be identified with the ‘adicyones’ by Birde and Rowley, and some of those peculiar to the A-text can be explained as the usual slapstick addenda found in texts based on actors’ reconstructions. Not all can be explained in these ways, however, and many posit a third source for the non-Marlovian bits: namely, an original collaborator with Marlowe. For this role Nashe has been canvassed – an attribution strong on circumstance, but unconvincing stylistically.

Onto this dark glass William Empson throws a single word which may just polish away some of the opacity, and give us a glimpse of the ‘lost’ masterpiece behind it. The word is ‘censorship’. It is Empson’s contention that both Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and P.F.’s Damnable Life were subject to the unwelcome attentions of the ecclesiastical censor. He identifies four parts of the play where there is clearly something missing, and in each case ascribes the loss to censorship. The first is the lost Chorus before Act Two. The second is a scene between II i and II ii in B (midway through Scene Five in A): most agree something is lost here, because in neither text is there anything to convey the sense of time having passed since Faustus’s signing of the blood-pact with Mephostophilis, and of Faustus having enjoyed the fruits of his pact. The third is a dragon ride to the Sultan’s court at Constantinople (as in the Damnable Life) which should immediately follow the visit to the Pope’s court (III ii in B, Scene Seven in A). The chorus before Act Four speaks of them having visited ‘courts’ in the plural, but as it stands they have only been to the Pope’s. The fourth concerns the comic scene at the end of Act Four, featuring Robin, Dick and the horse-courser. This is missing in A (but appears in B, Empson says, because it was ‘won back’ from the censor). The last two cuts are relatively unimportant – ‘malignant rather than doctrinal, that is, they were intended to make the play unactable in London’ – but the first two ripped the heart out of the play.

Empson’s scenario is broadly as follows. Marlowe wrote Faustus in 1589 or early 1590, drawing on the lost first edition of the Damnable Life. It was first performed at the Theatre in 1590 (the occasion recalled by Middleton), but was hauled off the boards by order of the censors after a few performances. The Damnable Life, presumably, fell foul of the censor as a result of Marlowe’s more public and more drastic dramatisation of the story. Like Greg (though differing in the dating), Empson believes that the play was first performed by Pembroke’s Men, and that some time later, fallen on hard times and forced to pawn various plays to rival companies, they sold their prompt-copy of Faustus to the Admiral’s Men, playing at Henslowe’s Rose theatre. They continued to tour the provinces, however, and for this purpose reconstructed the plays they had sold. In due course they touted their reconstructions around the book-sellers. Three of the five plays associated with Pembroke’s Men in the early 1590s have come down to us as ‘bad quartos’, and the copy of Faustus acquired by Bushell in 1601 may well be another. Thus the shorter A-text represents the play as it appeared on the provincial stage, after the ecclesiastical blue pencil had done its surgery. In general, this accords with Greg’s scenario for the provenance of the A-text, except that it alters the dates, and that it blames censorship, rather than faulty reconstruction, as the major reason for lacunae.

The original prompt-copy MS, on which the censor’s cuts were marked, was now in the possession of Henslowe at the Rose. As time passed and the furore died down, Henslowe tried to get some of the cuts reinstated, but only succeeded with one of them (the horse-courser scene at the end of Act Four). He then had his hacks write in some new scenes, to plug the gaps and to give the play an overall moralistic slant acceptable to the authorities. These are the non-Marlovian bits which critics have assigned to a collaborator. It was this version of the play – much altered and bowdlerised from Marlowe’s original – that was performed at the Rose theatre in September 1594 (and, Empson adds, it was the paying public’s disappointment with this version that led to the rapid falling-off of receipts and the play’s withdrawal from the repertoire). Further padding was provided by Birde and Rowley in 1602. The result of all this cobbling and tampering is the B-text of the play, published by John Wright in 1616.

Textually, the drift of Empson’s argument is to refute Greg’s claims for the authorial provenance of the B-text, and to reinstate the A-text as (faute de mieux) the superior of the two. With the exception of the horse-courser scene, Empson takes none of the extra material in B to be the original work of Marlowe. The B-text is no more than a pietistic patchwork, a mercenary effort by Henslowe and his inkmen to cash in on the reputation of Faustus, while actually offering a very different, sanitised version of it. The A-text, though shot full of gaps and imperfectly transmitted, is at least closer to the original. It has undergone surgery to remove things, but not transplants and additions.

In terms of text, and of the known facts about the play’s early history, Empson’s censorship thesis fits well enough. There is a lot that is plausible about it in background, too. As he points out, critics have underestimated the power and range of Elizabethan censorship, particularly after 1589 or so, when Archbishop Whitgift assumed special powers in the matter. Having written a life of Marlowe’s friend Thomas Nashe, I would certainly not underestimate the state’s vigilance. Nashe’s paranoia about the ‘mice-eyed decipherers’, and their ‘anatomising’ of his pamphlets for political content, is well-known, and it proved well enough founded. In July 1597 his play, The Isle of Dogs, was suppressed within a few days of opening, with dire consequences for the actors and himself, and two years later, an official edict decreed that all his books should be ‘taken wheresoever they maye be founde’, and none ‘bee ever printed hereafter’. It is possible that his early death in 1601 was connected with this removal of his sole source of livelihood. This same edict also prohibited a work of Marlowe’s, his translation of Ovid’s Amores, but this was for its erotic rather than political content.

One difficulty with the Faustus censorship theory is that nothing at all remains on record about it. Empson mentions the case of The Isle of Dogs, and says it shows how effectively the authorities could suppress a play. Yet really this example doubles back against him, for the point is that we do know about this, from many sources: from Privy Council minutes, Henslowe’s diary, prison records, Nashe’s pamphlet Lenten Stuffe, a letter of Ben Jonson’s eight years later when he was in trouble again after writing Eastward Hoe, and so on. The play was effectively smothered, but the fact of censorship was not. So why – particularly in the flurry of documents concerning Marlowe’s bad habits that were circulating at the time of his death – do we not hear one single mention of the fact that his divellish play of Doctor Faustus had been called in by Her Majesty’s censor? This is a question-mark against the theory.

The fascination of the censorship thesis is that it gives a kind of meaning to the misshapenness of Faustus. The passages that are missing or corrupted are not so because of the random vagaries of transmission, but because of a reasonably coherent policy of subtraction. The hopelessly broad question, ‘What is wrong with Faustus as we have it?’ becomes a much more pointed inquiry: ‘What is the censor likely to have objected to in Faustus as it originally was?’ And if Marlowe’s source book, P.F.’s Damnable Life, was also censored, the inquiry can be narrowed further, for in the case of a translation we have an original to compare it with.

This comparison is a good deal more complex than it sounds. It calls for rummaging around in the various recensions of the Faust story that preceded P.F.’s: he seems to have been familiar with versions other than the Frankfurt Historia. It requires the sifting of material that may simply be his own interpolations or omissions: like most Elizabethan translators, he was pretty free with his original, and his departures from it are not necessarily tokens of outside interference. Empson points to the phrase ‘seen and allowed’, which appears on the title page of the Damnable Life. Certainly this might imply that the previous edition had been censored, but as a work of this sort would have to be seen and allowed by the censor anyway, it doesn’t actually prove it.

Nevertheless, Empson’s close study of P.F.’s relationship with the German Faust-books convincingly identifies certain key areas of ‘stress’: deviations and omissions, awkwardness and special pleading, the kind of thing that would arise if a translator were trying to plaster over something in his original. These areas may well suggest the anxieties of the censor at a time of political and religious unrest, and they may well be transferable to the case of Dr Faustus itself.

One recurring motif is the determined presentation of Mephostophilis as a full-blown devil, rather than as a mere spirit. In the German original, Meph (as Empson matily calls him, to avoid the proliferation of spellings in the various versions) describes himself with these words: ‘I am a spirit [Geist], a flying spirit, and my realm is here beneath the heavens.’ There is no evidence he has been in Hell at all, or that he has any particular sympathy with the Devil and his works. This is changed in P.F.’s version, where Mephostophilis is described as an actual ‘prince in Hell, ruling the northern quarter’, and where the pronoun in various passages referring to infernal goings-on is changed from ‘they’ to ‘we’. Empson believes this is a product of doctrinal censorship, and he suggests that Marlowe’s original reading of Mephostophilis might have harked back to the Historia’s more ambiguous, easy-going presentation.

This sort of distinction strikes our ears as quaint and silly, but to the Elizabethans it was important, because it contained the vital question as to the permissibility of the magician’s modes of power and knowledge. The orthodox view, such as a censor might insist on, was that the magician could only achieve his ends by diabolic assistance. The counter-thrust of the Renaissance magical tradition, as practised, for instance, by Dr John Dee, was to insist on its intense godliness, its communing with angels and spirits: ‘by good meanes to mount above the clouds and starres’, as Dee put it. We are entering here that arena of controversy which the studies of the late Frances Yates illuminated so brilliantly. This arena was as much political as philosophical, and the threat (as it was perceived) of occultist-oriented cliques like Ralegh’s ‘Durham House set’ was taken very seriously. We know that Marlowe was connected with the Ralegh circle, and particularly with one of its leading lights, the mathematician and (in the popular view) ‘conjuror’, Thomas Hariot. Faustus as we have it seems unequivocally lined up beneath the orthodox, anti-magian banner: that is how Yates saw the play, as deliberately debunking the Renaissance notion of the magus by placing it in the old medieval-diabolic context. Empson’s censorship argument allows us to glimpse a different treatment, in Marlowe’s original.

Another, related danger from a doctrinaire point of view would be that Faustus might appear too sympathetic. It is clear from the German Faust-books that the historical Faust – an eccentric scholar-magician, an alumnus of Heidelberg, who died in about 1541 – had become the vehicle for two essentially distinct legends. These are summarised by Empson: ‘One Faust has committed the unforgivable sin and is the enemy of mankind, knowing himself to be doomed to eternal torture; the other is an avatar of the demi-god rogue, found in practically all ancient literatures and surviving oral cultures.’ This latter aspect – comic and iconoclastic, a Falstaffian wizard-figure drawn from various chapbook anecdotes and carnival traditions – is present in some of the material in the German Historia. It is clearly an unwelcome part of the myth for those who wished to stress the punitive Christian moral of the story. Was this a motive for excising Faustus’s visit to the Sultan’s court, doubtless a jokey episode in the play?

Both these points – that Mephostophilis is actually a ‘middle spirit’, and that Faustus has this likeable, pranksterish side – lead into the most important point of all: the point about damnation. If the censor had one requirement above all others, it was that there should be no question at all, no ambiguity, about the punishment. The only permissible Faustus was a Faustus damned to everlasting hellfire for his over-reaching aspirations.

It is Empson’s most challenging assertion that Marlowe’s original play contained at least the possibility of Faustus’s escape. Faustus has a loophole, at least to begin with, and it is the expression of this, in the Chorus before Act Two and in the lost scene before II i, which the censor had to suppress. As Marlowe wrote the play, Empson explains, Mephostophilis was a middle spirit who only pretended to be working for the devil. It was his real ambition that he, not Lucifer, should obtain Faustus’s soul. (That it was the desire of middle spirits to kidnap human souls – just like the fairies of folklore, which they much resembled – was well-known to the Elizabethan audience.) Faustus, hungry for the knowledge and power that Mephostophilis promises, surrenders his soul to the spirit. He is aware that this is doctrinally dangerous, but believes it is not damnable. Here Empson adroitly weaves in a Socinian thread. It is known that Marlowe was interested in Socinianism: his former chamber-fellow Thomas Kyd got into trouble in 1593 after a Socinian tract of Marlowe’s was discovered among his papers. It was one of the Socinians’ desacralising tenets that ‘the souls of the wicked perish with their bodies’ – trangressors suffer oblivion, rather than damnation. Thus the heretical message expressed in the lost Chorus before Act Two, as summarised by Empson: ‘The censors demanded to have it cut because it told the secret; that Faust does not believe Meph to a devil at all, only a Middle Spirit telling lies as usual, and as usual wanting some man to give it his immortal soul. Faust does not believe in Hell, and also believes he has already incurred Hell by his desperate thoughts against God ... If he can become a Middle Spirit, and this is his first demand in the pact, he will die like a beast, just as they do: an immense relief.’

Thereafter, of course, the fear of damnation comes to haunt Faustus, but Empson’s altering – or, rather, his recovering – of this basic premise of the play changes its entire thrust and mood. It makes Faustus’s pact more persuasive psychologically, more recognisable: dangerously so, no doubt. He gains his magical powers, not at the cost of perpetual torture in Hell, but by trading in his after-life (perhaps with this sardonic, very Marlovian implication that he didn’t really want it anyway). In our mangled versions of the play, the concept of damnation is static, a datum: Faustus knows he is damned from the outset and sure enough, 24 years later, down he goes to Hell. The grandeur of Marlowe’s poetry remains in the text, but the grandeur of Faustus’s gamble, this element of metaphysical brinkmanship which Empson opens up, is quite lost.

I should stress that this is a partial and simplified version of a tortuous argument: an accurate version, I hope. In the book it is backed up by much material on Elizabethan demonology, by minute considerations of the Faust tradition, by some highly speculative but delightful aperçus about the character and circumstances of the shadowy ‘P.F.’. At times Empson can be stubborn. He fulminates against the idea of a collaborator working with Marlowe: it arises, he says, from the ‘mandarin superstition’ of Greg and his ilk that ‘one can always “spot” an author, as if he were a glass of port.’ This is witty, and he may well be right in this case, but the evidence is plain that the writers of the 1590s did collaborate, in the most slapdash and unsatisfactory ways, and Empson’s distaste for Greg’s magisterial dicta cannot gainsay the fact. Some will say his prejudices against Greg – or rather against the Victorian, Christian aesthete’s values that underpin Greg’s scholarship – tend to get the better of him. But in the end this matters little. This is a thrilling book, and when Empson sits back after a particularly virtuoso paragraph and says, ‘All this part is so brilliant when restored that I feel I cannot have gone wrong,’ one can only agree.

With the evidence and the argument assembled, Empson provides a rereading of Faustus that is intimate, profound and at times moving. His primary theme – the excised heresy of Faustus’s escape – is carried right through, used like a torch to illuminate the complex psychological recesses of the play, to reveal rich ironies of intimacy and betrayal in the relationship between Faustus and ‘Meph’, to retrieve subtleties in the much-maligned comic scenes, and finally to redefine the tone and meaning of Faustus’s last utterances. With a resonant piece of quibbling about the superiority of the A-text’s ‘Ah Mephostophilis!’ over the B-text’s ‘Oh Mephostophilis!’, Empson suggests that Faustus dies not with Hell gaping before him – another crude addition by Henslowe’s penny-a-liners – but in an exhausted assurance that the profound peace of oblivion awaits him. This is indeed a magnificent ending, ‘exalted and sardonic’ in tone, its ‘abrupt calm’ rounded off by the epilogue. ‘It is,’ says Empson, ‘so much what Marlowe would have wanted.’

Much of Empson’s radical presentation of the play strikes me as what Marlowe would have wanted. And if Empson has ‘rescued’ Faustus for us, or at least begun that task, he has done so with an element of justified anger: not just at Greg and his ‘neo-Christian misreading’ of the play, but at anyone who has thought or written about Faustus. His theory is so challenging because it throws back at us our complacency about the play, and about the brilliant, drastic young man that wrote it. How is it, we must now ask, that we have accepted for so long the implications of the extant Faustus? The implication that Marlowe could have trotted out – even for the sake of badly-needed shillings – the vapid orthodoxies at the end of the play. That, in the debate then current on the subject of the supernatural, he would have sided with the witch-burners. It is their voice that is heard in the jeering lines that consign Faustus to hell at the close of the B-text. Empson jettisons these lines with contempt – Henslowe’s ‘sadistic additions’ – and surely he is right to say that Marlowe would feel ‘bitterly ashamed’ to know that, just a year after his death, ‘his play was being twisted into recommending eternal torture.’

Faustus, it now seems, was not so much lost as actively hidden away. There was something in it that was thought too startling, too dangerous, for people to see. The suppression of the play in 1590 may well prefigure a more palpable suppression three years later, when Marlowe was murdered in a huddle of government agents at Mistress Bull’s house in Deptford. In a wider sense, perhaps, it prefigures the blundering paternalism of all state censorship. The state’s particular anxieties have changed in four centuries, but its preference for the safe and the unstartling is perennial. So Empson’s last work becomes something more than a pioneering piece of literary detective-work. It is an oblique but passionate warning against orthodoxy: against its numbing convenience, whether ecclesiastical, political or scholarly. It is a championing of troublesome questions and ambiguities. Its motive is freedom. All this too, I think, is what Marlowe would have wanted.