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On Friday night, I had the honour–and audacity–to participate in the Faust Live! Fundraiser for the Halifax Humanities. Four comrades and I read and performed Acts 2 and 3 of Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, as members of a team dubbed ‘The Faust and the Furious’ by our intrepid leader Hilary Ilkay. What does this play, a staple text in Section 3 of the Foundation Year Program and in Early Modern Studies Program courses, tell us about Renaissance culture–and perhaps ourselves?
Dalhousie Theatre professor and joint King’s/Dalhousie faculty member (as well as occasional EMSP instructor) Dr. Roberta Barker has argued in her FYP lecture that Doctor Faustus expresses the spirit of Renaissance ambition in the context of late sixteenth-century London, as well as of the extraordinary and tragic career of its creator, Christopher Marlowe. He was a playwright and government spy accused of atheism, sodomy, and other heinous crimes, and who died in a pub brawl in Deptford, near London, in 1593 at the age of 29. For his many critics and enemies, this controversial figure was an utter Marlowe-life.
At the outset of Doctor Faustus, written in the 1590s, the protagonist Johannes Faustus (based on tales of the German scholar Johann Faustus who sold his soul to the devil) is presented as a product of Renaissance humanism. He is surrounded by books of ancient philosophy, Roman law, and medieval theology. Yet, he is profoundly dissatisfied with such learning, as wittily performed by Dalhousie professor Dr. David Nicol on Friday. Faustus seeks magical knowledge and power for the sake of ‘profit and delight, / Of power, honour, and omnipotence’. Of course, the audience knows that this unnatural and unholy pursuit won’t end up well, and so we might say that the protagonist is doomed to be Faust on his own petard.
Faustus summons up demonic powers in the embodiment of the diabolical Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles presents himself as Faustus’s servant, but the question lingers of who is master and who servant here, as Faustus agrees to sacrifice his soul to eventual damnation in return for 24 years of unlimited power–and he doesn’t even take the prospect and reality of Hell seriously. What should be a veritable Faust of devilry is, instead, a series of superficial and rather childish uses of demonic powers. Hence, the comic subplots of the play–in which various underlings and commoners engage in cheap magic tricks with varying levels of success–underscore Faustus’s own folly. As Dr. Barker argues, this figure of Renaissance ambition foolishly brings about his own downfall. Instead of conquering the world, he is nothing more than Faust among losers.
The final scenes shift from the bathetic to the tragic. On the eve of his damnation, Faustus commands Mephistopheles to summon up Helen of Troy, whose face ‘launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium’. As Dr. Barker has noted, this scene shows Faustus as a seeker after classical beauty–but this Helen is, after all, only a demonic facsimile as well as a symbol of destruction, not of the immortality he so desires. It’s no use yellin’ at Helen that you want to live forever.
When the devils claim his soul at the end of the oh-so-brief 24 years of magical domination, Faustus fails to repent even up to the end. In despair, he offers to burn his books, and calls out the name of Mephistopheles–not the saviour Christ. In his Mephistofolly, Faustus is forced to confront the truth that Hell is not, as he earlier remarked, a fable; instead, it’s a gaping maw ready to receive his unrepentant soul. In this respect, Dr. Barker argues, Doctor Faustus represents humanity’s hubris in the Renaissance on the eve of the modern world. In its depiction of a man who seeks absolute control over nature but loses his own soul, the play is resonant with our self-willed destruction today. If so, then he who is Faust shall indeed be last.
’til next week,
Director, Early Modern Fausts of Fury Studies Program