Faust Among Equals
Good Old-fashioned Evil
by Kyla Ward
First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#3, 1994
There are those that say the devil hears his name. If this is so, then writing about him is a damning proposition.
It isn't necessary, of course, to believe in any personification of evil to find the idea of depicting acts that are generally called evil, dubious; even with the intention of illuminating good by contrast. But in his place the devil is, to say, one hell of a metaphor. The personification of evil! In a Christian world, evil was the devil and the devil was evil; any evil act brought the perpetrator under the devils dominion, and anyone who approached the devil was evil. And we are talking about a Christian world.
We're talking about the sixteenth century, that juncture of Renaissance scholarship and scientific endeavour with massive trials and executions for witchcraft and heresy; when knowledge of the movements of the stars and the properties of chemicals was considered 'occult', in the literal sense of 'hidden knowledge'. Francis Bacon's The Advancement of Learning was published in the same time and country as King James VI of Scotland's Daemonologie, the former in 1603, the latter in 1597. The Daemonologie speaks of those who;
Having attained to a great perfection in learning, and yet remaining overbare (alas) of the spirit of regeneration and frutes thereof: finding all naturall things common, aswell to the stupid pedants as unto them, they assaie to vendicate unto them a greater name, by not onlie knowing the course of things heavenlie, but likewise to clim to the knowledge of things to come thereby.Francis Bacon was considered by many to be a sorcerer. He was one of the first empiricists, who in his books relates facts to his own experience. King James VI had, in 1589, prosecuted and killed a group of women headed by Agnes Sampson, the 'Berwick Witches', whom he believed had attempted to murder him by witchcraft.
"All naturall things" is a category that any society has. What lies outside this category is always regarded in some negative way. But what one society, perhaps a more secular one, will consider merely 'imaginary' or 'unreal', such a society as existed in England in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries considered 'evil'. And yet, there was a rash of plays and popular chapbooks that used the phenomenon, used its imagery and, in rare and isolated cases, made it the point of examination and criticism. Some of these works, and some of these authors, did not fare well.
In 1587, a small chapbook began to circulate in England.
It was purportedly a biography, of an actual German scholar Georg or Johannes Faustus, recently deceased with quite a reputation. This is the first version of the legend, and must have been the source for Christopher Marlowe's play, The Tragicall Hiftory of the Life and Death of Doctor Favstvs. The exact date of this work is unknown, the first printing occurring in 1604.
Marlowe's play is a contender for the first true horror on the Western stage. It's rival is The Spanish Tragedy, by Thomas Kyd in 1585, which involved ghosts, demands of revenge, eight murders and suicides, an execution and a man having his tongue bitten out, all to be performed in full view of the audience. But Marlowe is the one we remember, because Marlowe did something to the chapbook material that made it more than just a series of staged shocks, or lurid descriptions of devil-bought pleasures.
The opening scene eloquently describes Faustus's position. He is seated in his study, considering each avenue of learning in turn. Logic and rhetoric, medicine, the law, theology -- all are found wanting. He has mastered every branch of human knowledge;
Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.Faustus also brings together all the elements of popular demonology, as Macbeth later did for witch lore. Marlowe provides a detailed description of Faustus's process; this was given the title of necromancy, the raising of spirits. The nature of Christian spirits we shall consider with the other actant in the drama of damnation, the demon. One thing this era was not short on was familiarity with an astoundingly well-organised metaphysical world, and through Faustus and the Daemonologie, we today are familiar at least with the forms; the magic circle, the signs of the zodiac and the tetragrammaton -- the four Hebrew letters of the Divine Name. Details such as these turn up in the strangest places.
One of the common points of summoning involved commanding the demon to assume a pleasing shape. This was necessary both for the conjurer's presence of mind, and also for the demon's purpose. Most narratives involving sorcery, such as The Monk, by Matthew Lewis in 1795, make an especial point that the sorcerer is deluded.
Magic required formal alliance with the devil. "He that is grounded in astrology, Enriched with tongues, well seen in minerals, Hath all the principles magic doth require", but let there be no confusion. The Faculty of Theology at Paris University had determined in 1398, that sorcery implied pact. No human being could alter nature, and no human being could control a demon.
FAUSTUSWhere Marlowe's Faustus differs from other such dramas, like Don Juan; which was cast as a play for the first time in Spain in 1625 by Tirso de Molina; is that Faustus understands. From the first moment, as he questions his obliging apparition, he understands what he is doing and the price he shall pay. Mephostophilis is perhaps the only demon on record to seduce not with gifts or glamour, but with logic.
'Sweet Mephostophilis', this being is Marlowe's creation. There is no previous record of the name in any biblical, folk or classical reference. It has been suggested it is actually a pun on Marlowe's part, 'no friend to Faust' in ancient Greek being phonetically similar. Mephostophilis is, by admittance, of those
Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,Here, a spirit is a demon. In the latter part of the play, Faustus conjures the spirits of the dead, such as that of Helen of Troy. But by the metaphysical map, these are demons that have assumed the forms. When Faustus embraces Helen, he literally embraces Hell.
If this is Hell, I'll willingly be damnedAnd so he is, dragged off at the end of the play in great torment, by the same Mephostophilis and lesser spirits that have served him. This is the moral, as meant.
But Faustus is a voluptuous play. What does it mean, that three-quarters of the action is spent observing Faustus making use of his powers, and revelling in it? Of a surety, to underline that part of the moral concerned with the insufficiency of worldy pleasures, but they are pleasures. And they are depicted as such; the snappy dialogue between Faustus and Mephostophilis sparkles with self-satisfaction. Mephostophilis, constantly referred to by Faustus as 'sweet' or 'my', is Faustus's constant, in some scenes even devoted, companion. Mephostophilis serves him with absolute fidelity, and never in any instance lies to him. With inspiration coming from one or the other, they perform jokes on the highest of church dignitaries, intervene in matters of State with a flawless hand, and even right wrongs and performs acts of sheer generosity, such as obtaining for a sick, pregnant woman the food she craves. Perhaps, as also in the case of Don Juan, it is alright to enjoy these sights as a spectator as long as the guilty performer is punished at the end.
Marlowe' play is known to us from two printings; the one referred to above, whose text I have been using, and one following in 1616. This second text bears substantial changes, that in many cases seem to be in a different hand. In 1606, the Act of Abuses was initiated by her Majesty's government against blasphemy and immorality, and this indicates the issue was far from academic.
At the time of his death in 1593, Christopher Marlowe was facing charges of heresy and blasphemy. The following comments were attributed to him by his contemporary Richard Baines -- "That the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe... That Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest... (and) that all the new testament is filthily written."
What was excised from the second imprint of Marlowe's play were the arguments, that Faustus and Mephostopheles both use to keep Faustus from repentance.
Christ cannot save thy soul, for he is justThe matter is that, in the text amended, Faustus appears as another Don Juan. He is motivated only by the threats and promises of the spirits, who gather on stage to mock him behind his back. The inconsistency is that his appetites are somewhat cerebral for a Don Juan, and one must imagine boring for the audience come to see such a spread. Doctor Faustus, the legend, becomes so as fully aware, he struggles with his place in the universe of heaven, earth and hell, as he attempts to transcend his limits. He defies both heaven and hell. If all he can achieve by this is his destruction, then the play is a tragedy. The Faustian figure gains its power, in all it's later incarnations, from this rebellion. And it doesn't have to be against the Christian universe; any monolith will do. The most modern incarnation is the person, especially of a scientist, who rebels against Nature. The scientist too will have their rituals and mystical paraphernalia -- who couldn't recognise the laboratory equipment from Frankenstein?
It is tempting to confute Marlowe with his creation, for as well as a blasphemer, Marlowe was also a scholar and a scientist. There is also considerable evidence that he was an agent of the Elizabethan Secret Service; his professors received curt letters from officials, suggesting strongly that they overlook Marlowe's absences from Oxford; he stayed frequently in the house of the Queen's Spymaster, and was in the company of two known operatives when he was killed in a tavern brawl with them. He was twenty-nine, and both his company and the fact the men were pardoned soon after make it suspicious.
There were other tales of horror brought to the Elizabethan stage after Marlowe, most notably by John Webster, whose The White Devil (1612), and The Duchess of Malfi (1614) are revenge tragedies after the mould of Kyd. Webster had the gift of concentrating his terrors around a single figure, the unfortunate and virtuous Duchess, and the equally unfortunate but utterly evil Vittoria, the 'white devil'. The persecution and destruction of the Duchess is especially imaginative -- especially the bit where she realises the hand she is clutching in the dark is one freshly severed.
The Faustian figure, and the tale that accompanies it, is one that requires the interrogation of evil and that category of 'forbidden knowledge'. Such works, even by the most pious, which Marlowe most certainly wasn't, are always matters of contention. When Johann Wolfgang Goethe rewrote the legend and brought it back to Germany in 1831, performances were closed down until some of the speeches were excised. Goethe made his Faust plead for his freedom and rationalise it, in exceedingly unequivocal terms. Why would someone deliberately ally themselves with evil? There is only one safe way to answer this. Faustus is not safe.
Checklist* Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe, Roma Gill, (ed). "New Mermaids" Ernest Benn, 1975 (1604)
* A Mirror to Life -- A History of Western Theatre, Grose and Kenworthy, Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
 Chronicle of the World, Jerome Burne (ed), Chronicle, 1991, c1989
 A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, Pagans, Jeffery B. Russell. Thames and Hudson, London, 1980.
* Faust, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, trans. Sir Theodore Martin, Everyman, 1965, c1908. (1831). This is the version that introduces Margaret.
* Faust, the opera. Adapted from the Goethe by Charles Gounod in 1859, with libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre. This was the team who brought you the opera version of Polodori's The Vampyre. Faust is at least still performed occasionally. I understand that Ken Russell designed a rather interesting performance at the State Opera in Vienna last year, but I'm short on details. Except for the bit about Margaret being a sex-crazed Nun.
* Faust, the movie. Dr Faustus -- there's an Americanism for you -- was made in 1967 by Richard Burton, who also played the title role, for Columbia. Actually based on the Marlowe, it provoked the memorable comment from critic Judith Crist; 'It turns out to be the story of a man who sold his soul for Elizabeth Taylor.'
* Eric, Terry Pratchett, illus. Josh Kirby, Victor Gollancz, 1990. No, I'm serious. Anything benefits from a good comic workover.
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