April 14, 1997

Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus



Christopher Marlowe, the first master of blank verse, was born in 1564, and lived for twenty nine intriguing years The son of a shoemaker, he attended Cambridge University on a scholarship from the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he earned a Bachelor's degree. The scholarship had been given with the understanding that Marlowe would become a minister, but Marlowe seems to have had other ideas. Cambridge awarded him a M.A., but only at the behest of the Queen's Privy Council, possibly as part of his compensation for espionage conducted on the continent. He then left Cambridge to write plays for the blossoming theaters of London. A member of the School of Night, along with Sir Walter Raleigh and the mathematician John Dee, Marlowe was also suspected of homosexuality and atheism, and was actually picked up and questioned about the latter just days before his death in a barroom brawl--which itself has led to speculation about assassination--in 1593.

A sampling of the words others claimed to be Marlowe's:

Them that love not tobacco and boys are fools.
The first beginning of religion was only to keep men in awe.
If the Jews, among whom Christ was born, crucified him, they knew him best.

Doctor Faustus

The play both partakes of traditional forms--it is in some ways a medieval morality play, with its good and bad angels--and breaks with them--Faustus, for instance is the hero of this tragedy, which contains a classic chorus, but unlike the classic tragic character (though similar to Marlowe's own Tamburlaine) "... he is born of parents base of stock" (1.1.11). The proud Doctor Faustus himself appears as a liminal figure, straddling the ground between residual and emergent modes of behavior and thought, presenting to Marlowe's audience an aspect at times inspiring, but at others frightening, or worse, despicable. Faustus sells his soul for knowledge and power, but gets very little of either.

Before reading the play students were asked to keep in mind three questions:

What is knowledge? Where does it come from? What are its uses?

They are then asked to respond to those questions with a view towards our present world, and in light of Doctor Faustus.

What similarities or differences do you discern? Is knowledge out there somewhere, waiting to be found? Do we create knowledge? What motivates research? What ethical questions arise? What is the relationship between the issues in this play and 20th century issues like splitting the atom and genetic cloning.

At the play's outset it is clear that for Faustus, as for many at the time, knowledge was found in books, and in the play's first scene Faustus chafes against the limitations this has imposed. He has mastered--and now wishes to discard--the works of Aristotle, Galen, Justinian, and finally, Jerome's Bible. He wishes instead to have magic books, books that seem to contain forbidden knowledge, recalling at once the story of Eden, but also keeping to the notion that all knowledge which humanity was capable of, was that which God allowed to be revealed. (Students are informed of the scholastic tradition, and the work of explicators of Greek texts.) To do the work of a scientist, to investigate the natural world, was to attempt to read the book of nature. The ethical question up to this time revolved around whether, in failing, one was simply a poor reader, or if the text was intentionally hidden, and one had inquired too far. So for Faustus it seems knowledge still comes from books, but they are unauthorized texts, secret papers full of information somehow pirated by the devil:

Meph.Here, take this book and peruse it well.
The iterating of these lines brings gold:
The framing of this circle on the ground
Brings thunder, whirlwinds, storm, and lightning;
Pronounce this thrice devoutly to thyself,
And men in harness shall appear to thee,
Ready to execute what thou command'st.

Faust. Thanks Mephostophilis for this sweet book.
This I will keep as chary as my life. (2.1.161-69)

But there is a significant break with this traditional view of knowledge and its sources in the play, and it concerns astronomy. Faustus puts to Mephostophilis a series of questions in Act II about the nature of the universe, receiving standard Ptolemaic replies to all. The audience would recognize instantly the rejection of the Copernican theory, which was well known in a casual way to so many in England (in no small part due to Thomas Digges). It is likely better for Marlowe that he not distract from his drama by inserting a controversial opinion, but this matter continues offstage. The chorus tells us,

Learnèd Faustus,
To find the secrets of astronomy
Graven in the book of Jove's high firmament,
Did mount him up to scale Olympus' top:
He views the clouds, the planets, and the stars,
The tropics, zones and quarters of the sky
From the bright circle of the hornèd moon
even to the height of primum mobile: (3.1-10)

So even as Marlowe uses the metaphor of the book, he presents us with a Faustus who is still unsatisfied with the authority of books and of Mephostophilis, and who conducts empirical research. When the chorus speaks at the beginning of the fourth act, we find that Faustus has returned home to Wittenberg where he is questioned about

... what befell
Touching his journey through the world and air
They put forth questions of astrology
Which Faustus answered with such learnèd skill
As they admired and wondered at his wit. (7-11)

Faustus lectures on astronomy in the place where the Copernican theory was first taught. Yet all of this action has occurred out of sight, and therefore, though it is interesting in light of past work on the play to find and instance where Marlowe seems to say one thing, and yet believe another, of more significance in the context of this course is this moment when knowledge does not seem to come from books, when authority of tradition is rejected in favor of gathering new data for evaluation.

From the title page of the Lincoln College, Oxford, copy of the 1628 edition

Doctor Faustus Conjures

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