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The Nature of Evil in "Doctor Faustus"

Author(s): Warren D. Smith


Reviewed work(s):
Source: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Apr., 1965), pp. 171-175
Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3720056 .
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THE NATURE OF EVIL IN DOCTORFAUSTUS
Though the weight of scholarly opinion has conceded the I604 quarto of Marlowe's
DoctorFaustusto be more nearly authentic than the I616 quarto,' which includes
the ineffectual additions made by Rowley and Bird in I602, the earlier text has
also been under continual fire because of the general dissatisfaction with the
middle portion. Emphasis has centred on the glaring weakness of the magic
feats of Faustus2 in inartistic contrast to the titanic dimensions of the beginning
and ending of the play. Miss Ellis-Fermor3has gone so far as to declare the pro-
tagonist really guilty of nothing more than frivolity during the twenty-four years
of the contract with Mephistopheles, and Miss Lily B. Campbell,4 also unable to
detect evil in the antics of the hero, has come to the conclusion that the only sin
committed by Faustus during the course of the action is the sin of despair. Though
the jests are taken directly from either the English Faust Book5or the legend of
Simon Magus,6 the triviality inherent in the pranks played on the Pope, the
knight, and the horse-courser has been remarked upon by almost every writer.
The result is that the majority of commentators7 have concluded that the prose
sections were not written by Marlowe himself, and one critic,8 at least, has decided
they must have come from the pen of Thomas Nashe when his genius was at its
lowest ebb.
In contradiction I hope to demonstrate that the middle portion of the 1604
text is not only appropriate to the rest of DoctorFaustus,but that by means of the
prose sections the dramatist not only provides simple, crude, and effective relief
from the concentration, enforced by the story, upon the eventual damnation, but
also provides an interesting argument against sin by establishing evil, though
terrible in consequence, as actually petty in nature. Refusing to take evil as a
temptation worthy of an aspiring mind, he makes it completely unattractive by
reducing it to its essential smallness.
1 See T. M. Parrott in his review of DoctorFaustus, edited by F. S. Boas (1932) in M.L.., XLVIII
(I933), 398; Frederick S. Boas, Christopher Marlowe (1940), pp. 205-6; John Bakeless, The Tragicall
Marlowe (2 vols., 1942), I, 294; TypicalElizabethanPlays, ed. Matthew W. Black
Historyof Christopher
(1949), p. i35; and Philip Henderson, ChristopherMarlowe (I956), pp. 14-I5.
2 See Black, pp. 133-4; Michel Poirier, Christopher Marlowe (I951), pp. I35-6; and Harry Levin,
The Overreacher (1952), pp. 12o-1.
3 U. M. Ellis-Fermor, ChristopherMarlowe (1927), p. 78.
4 'Doctor Faustus: a Case of Conscience,' P.M.L.A., XLVII (1952), 222-3, 232. 237, and 239.
5 Noted in John Bakeless, ChristopherMarlowe (I937), p. 38; Beatrice Daw Brown, 'Marlowe,
Faustus, and Simon Magus', P.AI.L.A., LIV (I939), 121; Boas, pp. 212-3; and Bakeless, Tragicall
History, I, 284.
6 Noted in Bakeless, ChristopherMarlowe,p. 139; Brown, p. 102; and Bakeless, Tragicall History,,I,
284.
7 See Percy Simpson, 'The I604 Text of Marlowe's DoctorFaustus', Essays and Studiesby Members
of the English Association, VII (I92I), 144, 147, and 154-5; Ellis-Fermor, p. 6I; C. F. Tucker Brooke,
'Notes on Marlowe's Doctor Faustus', P.Q., xII (1933), 21-2; Parrott, pp. 399-400; Elizabethan
Plays, ed. Hazelton Spencer (1933), pp. 39 and 40; Bakeless, Tragicall History, I, 302; Paul H.
Kocher, 'Nashe's Authorship of the Prose Scenes in Faustus', M.L.Q., III (942), 39-40; Kocher,
ChristopherMarlowe,pp. 277-8; Black, p. 133; and Simpson, 'Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor
Faustus', in Studies in Elizabethan Drama (I955), p. io8.
8 Kocher, 'Nashe's Authorship', pp. I7-40.

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I72 The Nature of Evil in 'DoctorFaustus'
That from the inception of his contract with the devil the protagonist seems to
have made a bad bargain has puzzled several critics.1 The point Marlowe is
deliberately making, as I see it, is that the realization of sin falls far below the
original anticipation. As soon as the contract is sealed, Faustus learns of the
limitations of Mephistopheles's power. Believing that now he can have everything
he asks for, the hero ardently requests a wife to satisfy his 'wanton and lasciuious'
mood. But because marriage is a holy sacrament, Mephistopheles can supply
him only with a devil dressed as a woman, with 'fier workes', whom Faustus
immediately damns 'for a hote whore'. It is significant to note that in contrast
to the hero of the chief source, the English Faust Book,who takes beautiful women
to bed with him on several occasions,2 Marlowe's protagonist, since Helen herself
can be no more than a succuba,3 is never given the chance to make love to a real
woman. Faustus also quickly discovers,much to his disappointment, that Mephisto-
pheles will not or cannot tell him anything new about the universe. Because the
devil is not permitted to name God, the hero's question as to who made the world
goes unanswered. That Faustus is disappointed in the occult books he receives
is evident in his exclamation, 'O thou art deceiued' (6io)4 as he thumbs through
them. And the information about astronomy that Mephistopheles has to offer is
greeted with the scornful remonstrance:
Tush, theseslendertriflesWagner can decide,
Hath Mephastophilus no greaterskill?
Who knowesnot the doublemotionof the plannets? ...
Tush, these arefreshmenssuppositions,. . . (66I-8)
The irony of these first scenes is especially telling when we recall that originally
Faustus had abjured such studies as Philosophy, Law, and Physic because of their
triviality, only to discover that the devil has even less to offer in exchange for
his body and soul. The limitations revealed by Mephistopheles are calculated, I
think, to prepare the audience for the intentional pettiness of the magic feats to
come. Similar preparation, moreover, must lie behind the ludicrous parade of
the seven deadly sins, who, far from being awe-inspiring, are really little more
than clowns appropriately equipped with frivolous rejoinders. Levin has fittingly
called them gargoyles. But it has hitherto not been mentioned that what is most
significant about the sins is the smallness of their preoccupations: Pride wants
to be like 'Ouidsflea', in order to 'creepe into euery corner of a wench'; Covetous-
ness wants everything to turn to gold so that he can let it rot locked in a chest;
Wrath has foolishly run up and down the world wounding himself with his own
rapier; Gluttony wants nothing more profound than to be invited to supper;
Sloth complains about having been summoned; and Lechery 'loues an inch of raw
Mutton [a whore] better than an ell of fride stock-fish'. Faustus tells them to go
1 See Ellis-Fermor,p. 65; WillardFarnham,TheMedieval
Heritageof Elizabethan
Tragedy(I936),
pp. 402-3; Leo Kirschbaum, 'Marlowe's Faustus: a Reconsideration,' R.E.S., xix (1943), 240;
ClarenceGreen,'DoctorFaustus:Tragedyof Individualism',Science& Society,x (1946), 281; Poirier,
p. 134; Levin, pp. 18 and II9; and Henderson, pp. 33 and 35.
2 See TheHistoryof theDamnable LifeandDeservedDeathof DoctorJohnFaustus1592, ed. William
Rose (n.d.), pp. 98, 141, 192, and I94.
3 See Poirier, p. 142; Levin, pp. 126-7; and Henderson, pp. 35-6.
4 Quotationsand line markingsare from The Worksof Christopher
Marlowe,ed. C. F. Tucker
Brooke (g191).

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WARREN D. SMITH I73
hang or choke themselves. Yet Lucifer is apparently satisfied with the silly parade,
for after the disappearance of the deadly sins he has the temerity to conclude,
'Tut Faustus, in hel is al manner of delight'. Marlowe may be implying that
Satan himself is narrowly limited in perspective: he cannot see the pettiness of sin.
And this limitation in outlook is repeated through Mephistopheles as he persuades
Faustus, who would much prefer to 'see the monuments / And scituation of
bright splendant Rome',to stay instead at the Vatican and play feeble tricks on
the Pope: 'Where thou shalt see a troupe of bald-pate Friers, / Whose summum
bonumis in belly-cheare' (854-5). It is interesting that Faustus himself is to drop
to the low level of the friars, wasting his final precious moments with the students
at Wittenberg in belly cheer.
More significant is the heretofore unnoticed fact that throughout the prose
sections of the play, in the nature of the bits of magic which fill the middle portion,
Faustus himself is unconsciously revealing the insidious influence of the visitation
by the seven deadly sins: he illustrates the smallness of their preoccupations as he
proceeds and, at the same time, their vices. The pranks on the Pope, the snatching
away of the food and drink and the boxing of his ears, a far cry from the display
of supreme power for which the hero has bartered away his soul (though they must
have evoked hearty laughter from the original Protestant-biased Elizabethan
public playhouse audience), are really but illustration of the deadly sins of
gluttony, covetousness, and possibly wrath on the one hand and of folly on the
other. For a similar reason the trick Faustus plays on the knight at the court of
Charles V, differing in justification from that in the English FaustBook,is given the
motivation of the deadly sin wrath. The source merely has the hero come across
a knight asleep with his head out a window and give him horns so that to the
amusement of everyone present the man cannot pull in his head when he awakens.
But in the play Marlowe has his Faustus show irritation at the jibes of the sceptical
knight as the latter expresses his honest doubts about the power of the magician.
Hence the knight in the drama is punished because he has aroused the anger
of the protagonist. Later, it should be recalled, Faustus is to pander to the mild
gluttony of the pregnant Duchess of Vanholt by getting her grapes in January;
to illustrate the sin of sloth by falling asleep, despite the swift approach of doom,
in his chair; to evince the basest kind of lechery in wanting a Helen who, from his
inability to raise a flesh and blood Alexander and from Mephistopheles's inability
to give him a real wife, he must realize is but a demon; and to express irritable
envy of the Old Man who has tried to save him from his fate. His career is to end,
with the students, in such evident gluttony that even Wagner is moved to express
surprise at the behaviour of his master.
Equally appropriate to the theme of the pettiness, as well as the horrible con-
sequences, of evil are the calculated anti-climactic order of the personages whom
Faustus meets with - it is to be noticed that he proceeds downward in rank from
-
Pope, to Emperor, to Duke and Duchess, to horse-courser and also the increasing
pettiness of his feats. In the Vatican he achieves invisibility, elementary enough
to a magician, but at the court of Charles V he preoccupies himself with fixing
horns on a man's head, with the Vanholts he can think of nothing more startling
than fetching a bunch of grapes, and with the horse-courserhe sinks to the lowest
ebb of inspiration, cheating the man out of a few dollars and making him believe he
has pulled off the protagonist's leg. Faustus has thus prepared himself beautifully

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I74 The Nature of Evil in 'DoctorFaustus'
to commit the most foolhardy and unsatisfactory sin of all: demoniality with
the succuba named Helen, though an Elizabethan audience, to be sure, would
have been most interested in the act as a sure guarantee of eventual damnation.
For after all, what is most impressive about the I604 text of Marlowe's play is
the vast discrepancy between the actuality of the experiences of the hero after the
agreement with Lucifer has been made and his anticipation as he prepares to
sign the fatal document. Upon abjuring the four fields of legitimate study, Faustus
asserts:
All thingsthat moouebetweenethe quiet poles
Shalbeat my commaund,Emperoursand Kings
Are but obeydin theirseuerallprouinces:
Nor can they raisethe winde, or rend the cloudes:
But his dominionthat exceedesin this,
Stretchethas farreas doth the mindeof man.
A soundMagicianis a mightygod:
HeereFaustustrie thy brainesto gaine a deitie. (84-91)
Yet as the plot unfolds the speaker never comes to realize any of his aspirations:
he does not raise the wind nor rend the clouds (even offstage); he does not command
emperors and kings. He had dreamed also of having spirits do his every bidding:
of having them fly to India for gold, of having them ransack the ocean for orient
pearl, of having them read strange philosophy and tell the secrets of all foreign
kings, of having them wall all Germany with brass and make the Rhine circle fair
Wittenberg, and of reigning sole king of all the provinces. Valdes had given the
hero the false assurance that-
These bookes,thy wit and our experience
Shall makeall nationsto canonizevs,
As Indian Mooresobey their SpanishLords,
So shall the subiectsof eueryelement
Be alwaiesseruiceableto vs three ....
If learnedFaustuswill be resolute.(I48-62)

Though Faustus faithfully follows the advice of Valdes by being 'resolute', the
grandiose promise is never fulfilled. Not only so, but throughout the middle
portion of the play the hero falls far short of being the exalted monarch he had
hoped to be. Despite his vain dream of ruling over kings, he treats both Charles V
and the Duke of Vanholt with almost subservient respect. His speech to the
Emperor is all but obsequious:
My gratious soueraigne, though I must confesse my selfe farre inferior to the report men
haue published, and nothing anserable to the honor of your Imperial maiesty, yet for
that loue and duety bindes me therevnto, I am content to do whatsoeuer your maiesty shall
command me. (1019-24)
His parting remark is equally modest: 'Now my good Lord hauing done my duety,
I humbly take my leaue', which he almost repeats later to the Duke of Vanholt:
'I humbly thanke your Grace.' Very different is this humble man from the one
who initially had hoped to command 'All things that mooue betweene the quiet
poles'.
But such unaspiring speeches may possibly signify that Faustus himself has
been made aware of the smallness of the privileges permitted by the infernal bond.
It is at least interesting to observe that there are periodic signs in the text of the

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WARREN D. SMITH I75
hero's despairing because of the frivolity of the action as well as for the loss of his
soul. Thus it may be significant that immediately after the protagonist has been
disillusioned with the occult books that have been presented to him, he cries out:
'When I behold the heauens, then I repent, / And curse thee wicked Mephasto-
philus, / Because thou hast depriu'd me of those ioyes' (612-4). The next moment
of repentance occurs after Mephistopheles has flatly refused to answer his question
as to who made the world. As soon as he has sold the horse to the horse-courser
for the paltry sum of forty dollars, Faustus breaks into the words of lament:
'What art thou Faustusbut a man condemnd to die? / Thy fatall time doth drawe
to finall ende, / Dispaire doth driue distrust vnto my thoughts' (II1142-4). And
immediately after he has lain with the succuba Helen, he complains to his former
room-mate: 'Ah my sweete chamber-fellow! had I liued with thee, then had I
liued stil, but now I die eternally.' (1359-60). The fleeting pleasure (if it really is
pleasure) a man derives from doing evil is insignificant indeed compared to the
permanent joys awaiting the virtuous in heaven.
Thus the middle portion of the I604 quarto text of DoctorFaustus,in its shallow
frivolity, is a fitting dramatic contrast to the titanic desires of the protagonist of
the first part of the play and the profound despair at the end. The contract with
Mephistopheles reduces the stature of the great scholar, master of all legitimate
fields of study, to the pigmy dimensions of the ridiculous seven deadly sins. And
through emphasizing the essential pettiness of evil, Marlowe has established what
is probably a psychological truth, if not a Christian message: even without the
terrible consequences involved, sin is really not worth the effort.
WARREND. SMITH
RHODEISLAND
KINGSTON,

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