I keep thinking of Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
as if he had been his own Faustus, but he must have been tricked because he did not get his twenty-four years of devilish powers. Just a few, very few in fact.
He was a writer of sharp wits who could flex his Disputatio abilities better than a dagger, and had an impeccable formal education of a solidity that even his more famous contemporary would have wished for himself.
So soon he profits in divinity,
The fruitful plot of scholarism graced,
That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name.
Excelling all whose sweet delight disputes
In heavenly matters of theology
But he played with fire. Having attained the highest degree of erudition that an education in the temple of Cambridge could offer him, he wanted more. All the formal knowledge available was not sufficient. Marlowe turned to magic; he wanted to unveil the hidden and attain truth. He turned to the witchcraft of espionage – the truth in religion and the truth in power. He seems to have signed a pact with the secret service of Elizabeth I, at a time when religion was radioactive. He burnt himself even before he arrived, if he ever did, to Hell.
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.
It is both uncanny and remarkable and mystifying that Christopher Marlowe should have been attracted so easily to story of Faust. The original and anonymous German text had been first published in Frankfurt in 1587 and may have been translated into English as early as in 1588. Our writer may have encountered the original text either during his stay in the Continent or the translated version back in England. Either way, he was immediately fascinated by its story because it is thought that he was already working at his play as early 1588-89, even if it was not published until 1604, after his death. There are in fact two extant versions, unglamorously named A & B. The A is the one first printed and in 1616 the B version.
The latter is longer and therefore has material not present in A, but the earlier text also has some lines not present in the B version. Current scholarship holds the A text as the closest to Marlowe’s creation and the B as the result of modifications of subsequent productions.
I have read version A and watched a DVD with a production from 2009 filmed at the Greenwich Theatre in London and directed by Elizabeth Freestone
. The performance is also based on version A, which surprised me given the more dramatic nature of the B text.
Of course Marlow took very many elements from the German text. The structure of the plot is very much the same, with similar episodes involving The Emperor Charles V, the Pope, etc... Mephastophilis (sic) is also in the guise of a friar, and even the names of some secondary characters, such as Faust’s servant Wagner, are maintained as well.
But this is a work by Marlowe and it shows.
As a play that combines both prose and blank verse it has been dramatized into a form that follows, loosely, the tradition of the morality plays. This means that there is a fair amount of humour. Some scenes are unreservedly funny, and the best is the ridiculously popish Pope and the hilarious visit of the invisible Faust when with a series of silly tricks he and Mephistopheles disconcert the Roman curia. Apart from parody, there is also slapstick and clownish characters, and the audience certainly laughed out loud in the Freestone production when the desired bride for Faustus lifts her skirts and reveals muscular and hairy legs and a moving hip that thrusts forward its codpiece.
Marlowe’s signature is also felt in the importance given to debates, and he knows well the power of language (Be silent then, for danger is in words). As a master in argumentation, he plays with the traps of dialogue and embroilment in logical thinking.
Scholar – Where is your master?
Wagner - God in heaven knows.
Scholar – Why dost not thou know?
Wagner – Yes, I know, but that follows not.
Marlowe’s Disputatio abilities had of course been trained in Latin.
(Bene disserere est finis logices)
Is to dispute well logic’s chiefest end?
(Si peccase Negamus, fallimur
Et nulla est in nobis veritas).
If we say that we have no sin,
We deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us.
Why then belike, we must sin,
And so consequently die.
His logistical gymnastics and his passion for knowledge also approach him, dangerously, to an understanding of astrology that is not too divine. Again, we see Marlowe through his Faust when he questions the Devil’s envoy and the latter cannot give an explanation to the retrograde motion of the planets. The still Ptolemaic earth was very near its end.
(Faust) - Tush, these slender trifles Wagner can decide.
Hath Mephastophilis no greater skill?
Who knows not the double motion of the planets?
The first is finished in a natural day,
The second thus, as Saturn in thirty years,
Jupiter in twelve, Mars in four, the sun, Venus and Mercury in a year, the moon in twenty-eight days.
But it is in the ambiguity in his treatment of religion in Doctor Faust where we feel the mark of Christopher Marlowe. In dealing with Destiny and Free will, he offers us a Faust who was, from the very beginning, doomed. And his despair and rebellion at God’s deafness in his last request for Salvation was a modification by Marlowe of the original Faust.
If thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,
Yet for Christ’s sake, whose blood hath ransomed me,
Impose some end to my incessant pain.
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,
A hundred thousand, and at last be saved.
And as a gift to delight my readers, you shall have:Mephistopheles: I’ll fetch him somewhat to delight his mind (Act 2.1)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTudvo...