Adventures in Bookland: Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Dr Faustus
Dr Faustus

Dr Faustus first made his pact with the devil on the London stage in 1572. It’s hard reading it not to think that Christopher Marlowe had concluded his own bargain a year or two before – and like the hero of his play, they were both short changed. Reading it now, after Reformation, Enlightenment, wars world and otherwise, Modernity, Post-Modernity and everything else, it still shocks; its impact near five centuries earlier in the middle of the religious upheaval of the Tudor dynasty must have been overwhelming.

Dr Faustus, speaking with the devil’s own despite, pours scorn over all, but most particularly the religion that had formed, then broken apart, the civilisation of which Marlowe was part.

Philosophy is odious and obscure.
Both law and physic are for petty wits.
Divinity is basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vile…

But when men make God the reason for their hatred, is it any wonder that others heap coals upon this image and make pacts with a devil who must seem the lesser of the two calamities. What Marlowe really believed is unknown, buried beneath lies and rumours and slanders, aimed not so much at him but the richer and more powerful men, notably Sir Walter Raleigh, with whom he was associated. Tudor power politics was a blood game but its rules were laid with ink: was Marlowe the heretic, the atheist, the sodomite and blasphemer the Baines note suggested he was, or were these the casual calumnies of the underworld of spies and recusants, traitors and fanatics and rogues where Marlowe swam. That he was enlisted as a spy by the Privy Council seems fairly clear, but beyond that, it’s difficult to know anything for certain in this murky time. In one sense, Dr Faustus is a medieval morality play, updated, yes, but still with a clear sense of evil (although a rather shakier sense of the good), and justice is done, and seen to be done, in Faustus’s condemnation and damnation at the end of the play. But, on the other hand, Faustus’s almost complete lack of sense for the power of redeeming grace suggests powerfully that Marlowe may also have felt that absence in the milieu of the burnings and executions of the Reformation.

Maybe Marlowe fascinates so because he seems at once a thoroughly medieval man and yet, also, the first truly modern one – in fact, almost post-modern in his scepticism of the rules and mores of his society. Dr Faustus looks at the world around him and has the courage to call it all a sham, and there lies the tragedy: for there is a clarity of vision there that is then clouded and blurred into the petty lusts and (really rather funny) ragging of Pope and cardinals. Dr Faustus is, clearly, the work of a young man, with all the rage of the young fresh burning against the mess they have discovered their elders and supposed betters have made of the world. It burns still.


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