Thursday, February 19, 2009

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

I was feeling very proud of myself for noticing allusions to Faust in Conrad's Heart of Darkness when I realized I'd never actually read any version of Faust.I decided to start with Christopher Marlowe's version because, well, that's what I found on the shelf.

I'd been led to believe that Marlowe was Shakespeare with a more exciting personal life, better hair, and less PR. Sometimes it's unfortunate how expectations play into one's enjoyment of a story; I wasn't overly impressed with my first full-length Marlowe play.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is the source of the famous lines about Helen of Troy, a wonderful dialogue of Mephistopheles' about hell being wherever he is, "misery loves company" as an explanation of Satan's desire for Faustus' soul, and a truly pitiful closing plea by Faustus. In general, however, I found Marlowe's language less fluid and quotable than the best of Shakespeare. (Unless, of course, Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays, then... well, I still didn't like it as much.) Perhaps I'm just too familar with hellfire-and-damnation language, but I anticipated most of Marlowe's metaphors before I read them. The descriptions of hell and salvation seemed pulled straight out of morality plays. (You could, I suppose, attribute this to an underlying subversion of religion in Faustus--but often virtue and sin seemed equally dry.) Also, Marlowe's characters read like slightly rounder versions of morality play stand-ins. The only time I really believed Faustus' emotion was at the play's close. Faustus seems to switch between hardened sinner and piously fearful almost-penitent whenever Marlowe gets bored.

Typical Doctor Faustus scene (repeat as needed)...

Random person/angel who we will never see again: Faustus! Stop dabbling in black magic and making deals with the devil--you'll lose your soul!

Faustus: Oh no! I will? Woe is me! I must repent!

Mephistopheles: (Suddenly appearing.) Again? Geez, Faustus! Remember, you like evil. Also, I own you, nerd-boy.

Faustus: Oh, okay! Let's go raise people from the dead and recreate some more scenes from the Iliad!

Mephistopheles: (under his breath) Only twenty-four years, only twenty-four...

Doctor Faustus is obviously not my favorite Renaissance play, but P.M. Pasinetti (1979 Norton's Anthology of World Masterpieces introduction to Renaissance lit.) points out that Marlowe should be credited for creating a Faust/Doctor Faustus who sells his soul not merely for power but for knowledge; a temptation which is understandable to curious Renaissance audiences and scholars in all eras.

Speaking of which, I now have a great desire to read other versions of Faust and compare them to Marlowe's.

(Image from


  1. Well, to be fair, I believe "Dr Faustus is a textual problem for scholars as it was highly edited (and possibly censored) and rewritten after Marlowe's death." (Wikipedia, because I don't have time to look for a real reference.)It's also not entirely fair to compare Marlowe to Shakespeare's _best_, which were later on in his career. Comparing chronologies, most of Marlowe's few plays were written over the space of three years (there was a two year gap and then two more plays, neither of which I can comment on). And then look at Shakespeare's first plays, written over the course of three or four years: Henry VI, Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost. Some of those were really good plays, but I don't think any of those quite compare with, say, Hamlet either.

    It's certainly perfectly fair to say that Shakespeare was "better" than Marlowe. But I think a lot of the pro-Marlowe people would say that Marlowe could have produced equal or better works if he'd had the chance. He also was one of the first to write blank verse drama, so, you know, he gets bonus points added to his score ^_^.

    (Full disclosure: I sometimes go by "Kitten Marlowe" on the internet. I like to imagine Kit Marlowe being reincarnated into the body of a small kitten in some kind of dystopian post-apocalyptic future (continuing to dress in Renaissance garb), where he fights crime and causes drunken disturbances during performances of Shakespeare plays. Possibly I put way too much thought into my internet names.)

  2. Yay! I was hoping I'd be able to draw a response out of somebody (namely, you). A response to your response to follow soon...

  3. Soon-ish... My brain and internet are both remarkably slow today. It's taking ages just to get my post up.

  4. Okay. First, that's a very good point about Dr. Faustus being edited, censored, and rewritten. (I read that Wikipedia article too, but I think skimmed over that part.)

    Second, I do think it's fair to compare the best in Dr. Faustus to best in Shakespeare's Henry VI and Richard III. And frankly, I don't think Marlowe's language competes.

    Third, as writer, I appreciate Marlowe's contributions to literature, and more particularly, to the evolution of theatre. (Huzzah! for blank verse drama.) And I feel for a promising literary career cut short (I feel the same way about Anne Bronte, but that's another story). As a reader, however, I can only judge what is actually before me, not what could have been before me. (Also, I am always struggling between the academic "Isn't this interesting how this author changed literary history?" and the childish/sensualist "Bleh. I'm booor-ed!")

    Fourth, Kitten Marlowe is possibly the cutest screen-name I've ever heard.

    Fifth, your turn again. (Also, is there another Marlowe play you'd recommend?)

  5. Well, I haven't read a _vast_ amount of Marlowe, but Tamburlaine is the play I always hear about. And the only other one I've read. You might try that. I enjoyed it quite a bit, although I thought the pacing was a little bit off. I ought to re-read it one of these days, but, well, I have four hundred new things loaded and ready to go, so...

    I haven't read Richard, but I wasn't all that impressed by Henry VI, especially in relation to some of Shakespeare's other plays (I know, I just argued we shouldn't compare ^_^). Tell you what: at some point, post Ulysses (and maybe post the other two books we already have lined up) we can both read Tamburlaine and Henry, or Richard, and write up a comparison.

  6. YES! We may each be a million books away from this, but it sounds wonderful. I've always wanted a guest blogger.