Formal Closure and Catharsis in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

[First published in the Revue de l'Université Sainte-Anne (1981): 12-15.]



Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is a play about boundless aspirations and the enclosing spiritual and theological structure that renders them tragically absurd. As Edward A. Snow has remarked, Faustus's desires are endless in the dual sense of being without limit and of lacking purpose.1 And there is a heavy irony to the final inversion of these desires. The rhetorician who has poured contempt upon all disciplines which promise anything short of deification, and has anticipated the possession of power stretching “as farre as doth the minde of man” (A: 91),2 cries at last:

O no end is limited to damned soules, 
Why wert thou not a creature wanting soule? 
Or, why is this immortall that thou hast? 
Ah, Pythagoras metem su cossis were that true, 
This soule should flie from me, and I be changde
Unto some brutish beast....    (A: 1488-93)

It would appear, then, that the prologue and epilogue of Doctor Faustus constitute a kind of formal correlative to its most basic pattern of meaning. They enclose the action of the play in a manner analogous to that in which the action encloses Faustus, though of course with a quite different effect. For while Faustus's enclosure is disturbing, the formal closure of the play is, in contrast, reassuring to the audience or to the reader. The prologue offers us a man who has already fallen “to a divelish exercise” (A: 24), and the epilogue moralizes his final “hellish fall” as an example which “may exhort the wise, / Onely to wonder at unlawful things...” (A: 1513-15). We have been guided into a dramatization of the deepest fears of sixteenth-century Protestants, and out of it again intact—or even “wise,” if we attend properly to the moralizing voice of the epilogue. But how secure is this formal closure? I would propose that the closure of the play is subverted by a characteristically Marlovian ambiguity in the epilogue itself.

This ambiguity can best be approached through a consideration of the kind of tragic experience that Doctor Faustus offers to its audience. “The forme of Faustus fortunes” (A: 9)—that is, of the play as a whole—is such as might suggest that the dramatic action can be safely isolated as fiction, or stage illusion. And yet immediately within the enclosure provided by the prologue and the epilogue we find, at either end of the play, an extended and powerful soliloquy: our intimacy with Faustus is instant and unavoidable. In his last soliloquy, Faustus is addressing not only himself and the audience in the theatre, but also God. And in a sense he mediates between his two audiences, the visible and the invisible, as a kind of antichrist: this is the man, we remember, who signed away his soul with the words “Consummatum est” (A: 515). Faustus is carried off to hell, and we are left alone in the theatre with that other auditor, the God who has damned him.3

I would suggest that the tragic emotions we feel are only barely compatible with an attitude of faith in that God—who is, until we step outside our experience of the play, the only God available. For the moment at least, Marlowe has constructed in us an attitude to the God who reigns over this play which may, in some respects, be comparable to that with which Faustus began.

The pity and fear of which Aristotle spoke in his Poetics assume in this context a quite definite meaning—perhaps, in fact, too definite a meaning. For there is bound to be an uncomfortable degree of self-absorption in the anxiety of any audience faced with a mysterious necessity that operates not through the fulfilment in an individual destiny of a pattern that is also at once social and divine, but rather through the simple, repeated inability of an isolated will to assent to its own salvation. “There, but for the grace of God, go I”: the proverb is literally applicable to the effect of this play. But does this effect permit catharsis in the proper Aristotelian sense?

Doctor Faustus is a tragedy of vertigo. The basic identity of its protagonist is constituted by his recognition, in his recurrent self-definitions, of the inevitability of his damnation: “what art thou Faustus but a man condemnd to die?” (A: 1169); “Damned art thou Faustus, damnd, dispaire and die” (A: 1315). These self-definitions are self-authenticating: they could only cease to be true if Faustus were able to cease from making them. And conversely, according to the dominant theology in Elizabethan England, Faustus could only cease from making them if they were not true. The reprobate's lack of faith, as much as the elect man's faith, is a sort of gnosis—for it amounts to an intuitive knowledge of an objective state of affairs, a knowledge that constitutes not only the knower's relation to the eternal realities of heaven or hell, but also his very nature, as one who is bound for one or the other place. This knowledge presses towards fulfilment. The man of faith says (in the penultimate verse of the apocalypse), “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” Faustus cries, in words in which William Empson was the first to recognize the undertone of surrender, if not of consent, “Ugly hell gape not, come not Lucifer...” (A: 1507).

The pressure of this knowledge can be felt with increasing force throughout the play: “I, we must die an everlasting death” (A: 76); “Seeing Faustus hath incurrd eternall death, / By desprate thoughts against Joves deitie...” (A: 333-34); “hel, ah hel for ever, sweete friends, what shall become of Faustus, being in hel for ever?” (A: 1412-13). Faustus's eschatological knowledge takes on power in the reflecting mirror of his imagination; but the imagination is also his means of escaping or avoiding this knowledge.4 The resulting vertigo moves Faustus with loathing toward the pit of hell. Faustus, in this, seems to transcend St. Augustine's psychology; he is pulled by terror and disgust, as well as by delight—by the seven deadly sins, as well as by Helen.5 He is summoned, in each case, in the direction he was already going. His cry, “Earth gape, O no, it wil not harbour me” (A: 1473), undermines the resistance to his final shriek: “Ugly hell gape not...” (A: 1507).

To the degree that an audience shares in this vertigo, it is excluded from what S.H. Butcher (correctly, I believe) understood as the essential experience of catharsis:

What is purely personal and self-regarding drops away. The spectator who is brought face to face with grander sufferings than his own experiences a sympathetic ecstasy, or lifting out of himself. It is precisely in this transport of feeling, which carries a man beyond his individual self, that the distinctive tragic pleasure resides. Pity and fear are purged of the impure element which clings to them in life. In the glow of tragic excitement these feelings are so transformed that the net result is a noble emotional satisfaction.6

In Doctor Faustus there is no significant relation between the protagonist and his social context which might assist the audience in making that movement from an individually focussed pity and fear to a nobly impersonal contemplation which is implicit in catharsis (and which is characteristic of audience response to Shakespearean tragedy). If the example of the scholars in the last scene of the play is any indication, what little social context there is in Doctor Faustus tends rather to reinforce a self-absorbed fear:

Faustus Talke not of me, but save your selves, and depart. 
3. Sch. God wil strengthen me, I wil stay with Faustus. 
1. Sch. Tempt not God, sweete friend, but let us into the next roome, and there pray for him.   (A: 1436-41)

And that Marlowe's contemporaries felt a certain pressure to withdraw from a dangerous empathy to the safety of judgment is suggested by the editorial alteration of the line “Oh God, if thou wilt not have mercy on my soule” (A: 1483) to “Oh, if my soule must suffer for my sin” (B: 2067) in the quarto of 1616.

The epilogue quite obviously assists this drift to judgment. Catching our feelings of empathy and of a not wholly disinterested fear at their fullest flow, its first three lines appear to initiate an ennobling clarification of these emotions:

Cut is the branch that might have growne ful straight, 
And burned is Apolloes Laurel bough, 
That sometime grew within this learned man....    (A: 1510-12)

But the succeeding five lines which conclude the play prevent, I think, any properly cathartic tempering and reduction of these emotions “to just measure.”7 Instead, by prompting a prudential contraction of the audience's experience into moral categories, these lines seem to be encouraging a sub-cathartic expulsion of pity and fear:

Faustus is gone, regard his hellish fall, 
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise, 
Onely to wonder at unlawful things, 
whose deepenesse doth intise such forward wits, 
To practise more than heavenly power permits.    (A: 1513-17)

We are invited to identify ourselves as wise, and thus to dissociate ourselves completely from the fate of this forward wit. I would suggest, however, that these lines are booby-trapped.

It is clear enough to any reader of the play that the second adjectival clause in these lines is subordinate to the first, that the antecedent of the second “whose” is “unlawful things.” But this play, one must remember, was written to be heard and seen, not read; and while a reader can verify an understanding of the grammatical relations of a word or phrase by an anticipatory scan of what is yet to come, an auditor can only fix the meaning of a passage once it has formed an intelligible whole, echoing within the mind.

This distinction is important, and leads me to ask by what means, and at what point precisely, a listener who had no previous knowledge of the play could determine whether the second of the two syntactically parallel clauses which make up the last four lines of the epilogue is subordinate to the first, or whether both attach themselves to the same antecedent. It is, surely, possible to hear “whose deepenesse...” as referring, like “whose fiendful fortune...,” to “Faustus”; the syntactical parallelism of the sentence encourages this error. The expression “forward wits” does not in itself provide a clue to the proper subordination of the second clause, since “forward” could have favourable as well as condemnatory connotations in this period: the sixteenth-century examples cited by the Oxford English Dictionary include “a forward will to folowe (God's word)” (1568) as well as “forward pride” (1561).

The wrong fork of this temporary ambiguity of course leads quickly to an impasse. For should a listener attach both subordinate clauses to “Faustus,” then “such forward wits” would be understood as amplifying “the wise”— with the interesting result that the two clauses become almost antithetical: Faustus's “fiendful fortune” restrains the wise from a dangerous curiosity, while his “deepenesse” leads them on. This is an embarrassing consequence, especially for any listener who, like the First Scholar, would not want to 'tempt God' by too close an association with Faustus; and it is clear that the misinterpretation which the grammatical parallelism of these lines invites could be no more than momentary.

However, this ambiguity, though quickly resolved, is not therefore trivial. It is true that the correct meaning of the passage is quite clear on the printed page, and some editors, notably Paul H. Kocher and Leo Kirschbaum, have removed even the possibility of ambiguity by printing line A: 1515 without punctuation.8 But when the passage is spoken aloud, with (or perhaps even without) the slight pause after A: 1515 that the punctuation of both quartos implies, a firm determination of the antecedent of “whose deepenesse” becomes possible for the audience only once it has assimilated the contrasts between exhortation and enticement, and between “forward wits” and “the wise,” and has recognized, in the silence which follows the last line of the play, that “such forward wits” refers to Faustus and to those like him.

The attribution of “deepenesse” to Faustus is not an unnatural response to his last agonies; this character does embody a psychological depth which was unprecedented on the Elizabethan stage, and which even now will fail to impress only those critics whose responses have been distorted by the inferior 1616 form of the play.9 And if, as I suspect, the temporary confusion which the epilogue may cause was intended by the author, then it is a characteristically Marlovian effect.

This, one remembers, is the playwright who in 1 and 2 Tamburlaine offers a convincingly naturalistic explanation of his hero's invincibility and eventual physical burn-out, and who yet (apparently as a sop to religious play-goers) has the onset of Tamburlaine's fatal illness follow by a mere sixteen lines his burning of the Koran and his challenge to its Prophet—so that those who would insist on a swift punishment for blasphemy are thrown into the arms of Mohammed. Equally to the point is the pious resolution provided by the last two lines of The Jew of Malta—which is, in context, the most blatant piece of Machiavellian hypocrisy in the whole play.

Because our primary familiarity is with the printed text of Doctor Faustus rather than with the play in performance, it is difficult to assess the possible impact in the theatre of the ambiguity to which I have drawn attention. If, however, we can concede that, as part of an audience which lacked previous knowledge of the play, we might ourselves have been momentarily led astray, then we will have to revise somewhat our previous assessment of the play's formal closure. For when a cross-over from the wrong meaning to the correct one occurs, the reassigning of the relative pronoun references catches one in mid-stride between a fearful empathy and moral judgment, and interrupts what I have called a sub-cathartic—“pseudo-cathartic” might be better—expulsion of pity and fear. We may have made only a momentary conflation of “the wise” with “forward wits.” Nonetheless, we must ask ourselves whether it is with confident assurance, or with a degree of presumption, that we accept the epilogue's flattering invitation to identify ourselves as wise, and to concur in the dreadful judgment which the play has passed upon one forward wit.

In this context, the stories which circulated in the 1590s and after about the “visible apparition” of an extra devil on stage during performances of Doctor Faustus acquire an added significance. Whatever polemical intentions there may have been behind the publication of these stories, their bland assumption of plausibility suggests that audiences of this play felt any distinction between dramatic illusion and the realities being represented to be in this case somewhat precarious.10 For if Marlowe's incantatory rhetoric has raised a real devil, then the ambiguity which subverts the comforting moral of the epilogue permits that spirit to escape from the play into the audience.

In the third scene of Goethe's Faust, one remembers, a small break in Faust's magic pentangle was all that Mephistopheles needed in order to escape from the scholar's study.11 In the last scene of Doctor Faustus, the stage is also, for all the cosmic dimensions that it acquires in Faustus's last soliloquy, still the scholar's study. And the last five lines of that scene provide less insulation from the terrors of that scene than might appear to be the case. 




1  Edward A. Snow, “Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and the Ends of Desire,” in Alvin Kernan, ed., Two Renaissance Mythmakers: Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1975-76 (Baltimore and London: Johns Hokins University Press, 1977), pp. 70-110.

2  All quotations from the play are from W W. Greg, ed., Marlowe's Doctor Faustus 1604-1616 (1950; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968); u/v and i/j have been silently normalized. Quotations are identified by Greg's line numbers; the letters A and B refer respectively to the 1604 and 1616 texts.

3  Although it is also correct to say that Faustus damns himself, there are hints throughout the play (especially in the 1604 quarto or A text) that his wilfulness is subsumed by a larger controlling will.

4  The duality of Faustus's imagination is best illustrated by the words he addresses to Helen. He wants her, he tells Mephastophilis, in order that her “sweete imbracings may extinguish cleane / These thoughts that do disswade me from my vow...” (A: 1352-53). And he comes to her stained with his own blood, shed in the renewal of his pact with Lucifer (cf. A: 1340-41). Both this blood and the penitent thoughts inspired by the Old Man are quickly forgotten in the playful fantasy of his involvement as Paris in the Trojan War. But the fiery awareness of his predicament burns up through his imaginative attempt to escape from this knowledge: “Brighter art thou then flaming Jupiter, / When he appeared to haplesse Semele...” (A: 1372-73).

5  In Ad Simplicianum de diversis quaestionibus, Augustine came to the view that (in Peter Brown's words), “'Delight' is the only possible source of action, nothing else can move the will. Therefore a man can act only if he can mobilize his feelings, only if he is 'affected' by an object of delight” (Brown, Augustine of Hippo [1967; 2nd ed. London: Faber and Faber, 2000], p. 148, paraphrasing Ad Simplicianum I, qu. ii,13). But the fixations of delight can be erratic: “Who can embrace wholeheartedly what gives him no delight? But who can determine for himself that what will delight him should come his way, and, when it comes, that it should, in fact, delight him” (Ad Simplicianum, I, qu. Ii, 21; Brown's translation in Augustine of Hippo, p. 149).

6  S. H. Butcher, Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art (4th ed., 1911; rpt. New York: Dover, 1951), p. 267.

7  John Milton, preface to Samson Agonistes, in Complete Shorter Poems, ed. John Carey (London: Longman, 1971), p. 341.

8  Paul H. Kocher, ed., The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950), p. 61; Leo Kirschbaum, ed., The Plays of Christopher Marlowe (1962; rpt. Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1968), p. 393. Most modern editors (Dyce, Ward, Tucker Brooke, Boas, Jump, Steane, and Gill [1971]) have accepted the A-text punctuation of this line. The fact that editor of the 1616 quarto (the B text) changed the A text's comma to a colon—which shows clearly to the reader that “whose deepenesse” refers to “unlawful things”—might be taken to indicate that he recognized a possible ambiguity and wished to eliminate it.

9  Although the precise textual history of the 1604 and 1616 quartos remains a matter for conjecture, it seems clear that the 1604 quarto, while textually corrupt, is much closer to the original form of the play than is the 1616 quarto. See Fredson Bowers, “Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: The 1602 Additions,” Studies in Bibliography 26 (1973): 1-18; Bowers, ed., The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe (2 vols.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), vol. 2, pp. 123-55; Constance Brown Kuriyama, “Dr. Greg and Doctor Faustus: The Supposed Originality of the 1616 Text,” English Literary Renaissance 5 (1975): 171-97; and my own article “Verbal Magic and the A and B Texts of Doctor Faustus,” forthcoming in the Journal of English and American Philology.

10  For the stories in question see E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (4 vols.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), vol. 3, p. 424; and Millar Maclure, ed., Marlowe: The Critical Heritage 1588-1896 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 48.

11  Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Faust: Ein Tragödie, ed. Hanns W. Eppelsheimer (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1962), lines 1403 ff., pp. 45-47.