Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus From the Quarto of 1604The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus From the Quarto of 1604 by Christopher Marlowe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I tease my daughter incessantly about the true identity of Shakespeare, I have to admit that while a lot of evidence points towards Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare being the same person, I can't, in all honesty, hold up the play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus as a Shakespeare-worthy text. Yes, the magical element present in so much of Shakespeare's work is here, yes, there is a good dose of humor, and, yes, the writing itself is, well, Shakespearean. But Doctor Faustus' humor is less bawdy than that of Shakespeare's plays, by and large, and the melodrama is overwrought. Also, Doctor Faustus is, by the end, downright pedantic, and while Shakespeare had no fear of moralizing, his sermons were quite a bit more restrained than the typical medieval (or Renaissance) "Everyman" dramas.

Still, if one can recognize the religiously-condescending tone as a product of its age, there is a lot to like here. I'm particularly enamored of Doctor Faustus' dark sense of humor that demeans, rather than destroys, his enemies. With the power granted him through the devil, Mephistopheles, one might expect Faustus to simply run rampant over the earth laying waste to all those who find themselves in his path. Instead, Faustus shows a (twisted) humor by planting stag horns on those that have tried to kill him in order to shame them in front of their fellow man. He could have just snuffed them out of existence, with Mephistopheles' help, but loves to use magic to taunt his enemies rather than eliminate them.

And this may be why Faustus is simultaneously so darned likeable and abhorrent. He has access to infinite power, yet squanders it on such things as making the Pope and his cardinals play the fool. He's like a child with far more power than he knows what to do with. And, like an indecisive child who can hardly help his own bad behavior, he figures out, in the end, through the good grace of Helen of Troy, that he has gone too far for his regret to save him from the price he has agreed to pay for his fun. Rather than feeling that Faustus gets his just desserts, I'm inclined to feel a bit of sympathy for the guy whose blasphemy and denial of God seemed more like a joke than a true refutation of divinity. Then again, I would likely have been burned at the stake for saying so back in Marlowe's, or is it Shakespeare's day?

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