Discuss the contributions that the central scenes make to Marlowe's intentions in Doctor Faustus
Doctor Faustus was written by two men- Chris Marlowe, who has the credit for writing the play because his name is on the cover, and some other writer who we don’t know because his name does not appear on the title page of the play. Marlowe gave this ghostwriter man the basic ideas for some of the scenes and let him get on with it, while he concentrated more on the moral, philosophical and theological side to his play.
This second writer has wrote half of the play because the high-brow and low-brow scenes alternate. The central scenes are scenes 6 through to 12, and they are the scenes after Faustus’ deal with the Devil, and before his damnation. In them we see two ostlers try their hand at conjuring, Faustus visit Europe, Faustus play tricks on the Pope, the two ostlers Robin and Rafe once more play tricks, Faustus entertain the Emperor, Faustus trick a horse-courser, and Faustus entertain nobility. They provide a commentary on twenty-four years of the Doctor’s life, and show us just exactly what he gained for such a high price, his soul- basically, nothing.
The central scenes have little in the way of morality which is explicit. But the morality is certainly there. The central scenes have far more below the surface we don’t see at first glance. The first thing these scenes manage to do is, they illustrate the main points Marlowe had to make in his play by analogy, viz. the emptiness of Faustus’s life. The second thing they do is, they help to keep the groundlings happy. The humor is mostly low and base, even where Faustus is concerned (especially where Faustus is concerned) which would appeal greatly to the illiterate uneducated population who couldn’t afford seats, but this is not to say the more educated will look down upon the humor, thinking it below them- the central scenes provide an ironic commentary on the main plot which is probably better understood by the more educated.
Scene 6 is part of the alternate plot, and involves Robin and Rafe (sometimes referred to as Dick). These two are servants, and in the Platonic Great Chain of Being, are far beneath Doctor Faustus.
Robin has stolen one of Faustus’ books. He is illiterate- well, he can read, but not very good. His education probably did not exceed a year of elementary reading and counting. But nonetheless he hopes to use the book for some conjuring. What he hopes to do is to make girls dance for him nude. Just make girls dance for him. Not having imagination or intelligence, all he can think of is satisfying his baser self. With a devil working for him, he could distribute wealth equally so nobody in the world starved, he could cure all manner of diseases, or he could just live in a palace and be worshipped as a minor god. But all he thinks he really wants is to ‘see more than ere (he) felt, or saw yet’.
But in the twenty-four years Faustus is given with Mephastophilis, Lucifer’s right-hand man, no less, working for him, Faustus is doing exactly what Robin hopes to do. He is satisfying his low, base desires with sex and wealth and earthly pleasures.
In this way, Marlowe has shown us the asininity of Faustus. True, he is a graduate of Wittenburg University and a greatly respected doctor and master of every field, but in this scene we see the truth- that he, a doctor, a man so high up in the Great Chain of Being, is just the same as a servant.
Another point made in this scene also emphasises Faustus’ asininity. Doctor Faustus really did not think any of his plans through and now he is eternally damned. Robin, in scene 8, conjures up Mephastophilis- Mephastophilis does not come of his own accord but he was forced to come by the words uttered by Robin (we know this because Mephastophilis is vexed at having had to leave Faustus and Rome- if he had any choice in the matter he would have just stayed). Faustus had to hand his soul over to Lucifer for Mephastophilis to work for him. Robin did not have to sell his soul. He didn’t gain anything by his conjuring, other than being transformed into an ape, but in his simplicity this gave him as much happiness as Faustus beating the Pope about the ears. So by not selling his soul he gained about as much as Faustus did by having to sell his soul.
The two characters Robin and Rafe would have been recognised by the majority of the audience because they are generic characters and represent the whole of the poor population of London, or the rest of the world. In this way everybody, or at least the groundlings, can relate to the two and understand the points Marlowe is trying to make. The upper-classes only would be able to relate to the character of Faustus, but the majority of the audience is made up of the poor and uneducated, so by showing the whole continuum of 16th Century society, Marlowe can have everybody seeing what he’s trying to get at.
Scene 7 asks the question- is what the limited human imagination can come up with, really worth an eternity of pain and suffering, infinitely worse than what we are used to on Earth? Is a Grand Tour of Europe really worth such a high price?
In the twenty-four years Faustus is given to do as he pleases, what he does is this- see Europe. That’s basically the whole of it. Or, all we are told he has done. Surely an eternity spent in a place far, far worse than the worst place humanly imaginable doesn’t equal the things Faustus has decided to use his powers for.
All Faustus has done is: sit in a dragon-driven chariot and flown around Europe. He has seen Trier, his native Wittenburg, and in this scene he will visit the Pope at St. Peter’s feast. There is a lot of low-brow, slapstick comedy in this scene, which would be loved and would make the groundlings really pay attention to what’s going on.
The whole play asks the same question in different words- can an eternity of unimaginable torture, both physical and psychological, really be a price for twenty-four years of seeing Europe and playing tricks on people? Was Faustus ripped off?
What is ironic about all of this is that in scene 1, the Evil Angel promises he will ‘be::: on Earth as Jove is in the sky’. Only he isn’t. He is not worshipped as a ‘mighty god’. Indeed, when entertaining the Emperor, he bows down low to the ground and speaks humbly, like he knows his place- only his place is as emperor of the universe, higher up than any Emperor of the World. Isn’t Faustus a minor god?
Personally I think Faustus is greedy. Greedy and foolish. He is like the man who killed the hen who laid the golden eggs so he could get at the vast store of gold within the belly of the goose, but, of course, as soon as the goose died she stopped laying gold. Faustus is that man. He had it all- respect, fame, wealth, he was one of the most knowledgable men on the face of the planet. But he was evidently a fool. He was a fool to sell his soul for literally nothing. Okay, as close to nothing as one can get without actually getting to nothing. Maybe he performed one or two astounding feats, maybe he did go around invisible for a while (quite what the advantages of invisibility may be I do not know, one would be totally blind with light passing straight through one’s retinas, but then, it is 1604 the play was published- actually, wasn’t there already a node on E2 discussing the drawbacks of invisibility? I’ll find it.), maybe he managed to aquire some out-of-season grapes, maybe he did fly around in a dragon-drawn chariot. But in the same way as a day is infinitely longer than no time at all, his twenty-four years of the most paltry magic ever count for nothing against the eternity of horrendous pain and anguish.
Faustus could have been accepted by God into Heaven with open arms for all his services to mankind. He cured ‘thousand desperate maladies’. But Faustus wanted more, he wanted to be God, and it was for this same desire that Lucifer fell, that Adam fell (he wanted God’s Knowledge), that Icarus fell, and now Faustus will fall, and he was so, so close to heaven he could smell it. And he threw it all away, he signed away his soul literally for nothing. He willingly gave Lucifer the right to abuse him as he will.
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