The First New A-Text Edition of Doctor Faustus

[First published in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology 86. 3 (1987): 402-04.]


Review of Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus: The A-text, edited by David Ormerod and Christopher Wortham (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1985)

Christopher Marlowe, having studied for six years at Cambridge, seems not to have loved academics. He made dark comedy out of the murder of one of the most famous professors of his century (“... I say Ramus shall dye: / How answere you that? your nego argumentum / Cannot serve, sirra: kill him”). It might then be surmised that he would have found amusing the sometimes confused efforts of modern textual critics to establish a satisfactory text of his best-known play—the subject of which is of course the damnation of another more seriously muddled scholar.

Several decades ago the major textual problems in Doctor Faustus—those of the relative authority of the 1604 and 1616 quartos (termed by scholars the A- and B-texts), and of the relations between them—appeared to be more or less resolved. The A-text was denounced by Leo Kirschbaum in 1946 as a “bad quarto,” disfigured by memorial corruption, and in 1950 his arguments were massively supplemented by the superb parallel-text edition of W. W. Greg, who dated the B-version of the play to within a year or two of Marlowe's death in 1593, identified the A-text as a reduced form of this version, and proposed that the B-text, when conflated with certain obviously superior readings preserved in A, would represent something close to the form in which Doctor Faustus was first performed. Most of the editions which we and our students now use are based upon these arguments.

But in 1973 Fredson Bowers demonstrated that most of the passages unique to B are derived from a revision (which Greg presumed to have been lost) that was carried out in 1602 by two hack writers at the behest of Henslowe, the theatrical manager. In 1975 a brilliant article by Constance Brown Kuriyama made a strong case for the relatively greater authenticity of the A-text, including even its comic scenes, and in 1981 Michael Warren argued that with Doctor Faustus (as with King Lear) we should content ourselves with the exploration “of two quite separate and different plays ... each attributed to Marlowe”—an exploration which would obviously be facilitated by the existence of a critical edition of the A-text.

My own less stirring contribution to the debate, published in this journal in 1983, ended with a call for a new edition of Doctor Faustus based upon the A-version of the play. But, regrettably, the edition of Ormerod and Wortham is so seriously flawed that the invitation must remain open. Their introduction is in many places unsatisfactory; the theories about the texts of the play which it enunciates are in important respects ill-considered; and in their editorial decisions they have fallen victim to what Greg, in a seminal essay, termed “the tyranny of the copy-text.” To which it must be added that both text and notes are marred by errors. Marlowe's ghost, unfortunately, can be expected to derive further sardonic pleasure from this edition of his play.

There is a subtle but important difference between editing the A-text of Doctor Faustus and producing an A-version edition of the play. In the first case, one is committed to something close to a reprint of the 1604 quarto, modernized perhaps, as in the present instance, and incorporating the occasional reading from B, while avoiding any actual conflation of the A and B texts. In the second case, one would be able to recognize the greater authenticity of that form of the play preserved in the 1604 quarto without also conceding complete authority to what is obviously a defective text. Thus, while taking account of the corrupt state of the A and B texts, of their divergent ideological tendencies, and in particular of the compelling evidence that B is both an extensively revised and a systematically bowdlerized text, an editor could take A as copy-text, and yet admit B as having substantive value both in parallel passages where A's readings seem defective, and also for purposes of comparison in places where A's comic scenes appear to be out of sequence.

The former procedure could be justified by appealing to the need for an accessible reading text of the 1604 quarto (specialists are already well served by the Scolar Press facsimile and by Greg's parallel-text edition). But Ormerod and Wortham prefer to make the stronger claim that wherever B offers superior readings in parallel passages, “these can be put down to intelligent editorial emendation rather than access to a supposed manuscript by Marlowe” (p. xxviii). This opinion, reminiscent of Kirschbaum's no less extreme denigration of A, rests upon equally shaky foundations. In the chorus to Act 3, for example, A lacks fourteen lines which are present in B and which display none of the stylistic traits characteristic of the 1602 revisions. Ormerod and Wortham do not print these lines, having identified them, one must suppose, as editorial emendations.

The view that B is a wholly nonsubstantive text thus seems untenable. It would appear rather that while A and B do in certain respects form an ancestral or monogenous series (B is in part derived from the 1611 reprint of A), the relationship is also a collateral one: they have in many respects the features of a polygenous group derived by different paths of transmission from a lost common ancestor.

Their failure to engage with these complexities leaves Ormerod and Wortham wedded to the worst deficiencies of the A-text: a clowning scene which apparently has two distinct endings, and which, together with another clowning scene, is placed between the chorus to Act 4 and the scene in the imperial court which that chorus introduces. (An editor who felt free to consult the placing of the corresponding scenes in B would be able quickly to restore them to their proper setting: the first should follow the episode of the seven deadly sins, with which it dovetails neatly, and the second belongs after the scene in the papal court.) The same “tyranny of the copy-text” that makes Ormerod and Wortham prefer “terminine” (A: 670 in Greg's lineation) to B's “termine,” and to refuse an obvious emendation like “silk” for “skill” (A: 122), would seem also to have dictated the absence of act or scene divisions in this edition. The point is a debatable one, but their dismissal of the possibility that the play has a five-act structure takes no note of G. K. Hunter's essay on the subject, or of the evidence provided by the choruses, and by the act and scene divisions in 1 and 2 Tamburlaine, the only plays of Marlowe's which were printed during his lifetime.

In some of these largely theoretical issues my own judgments may appear contentious. This edition, however, also features many other less ambiguous errors. In the text itself one observes the misprint “Constanttinople” (p. 107), and the curious adoption of “Mephistophiles,” the spelling of Marlowe's main source, for a name that in the A-text is either “Mephastophilis” or “Mephastophilus” (and once, as in the B-text, Mephostophilis”): a minor point, until in a note on p. 46 we are informed that line A: 466 contains the reading “Mephostophilus.” (It doesn't.) Elsewhere, the notes are more radically untrustworthy as a guide to quarto readings. In A: 278 Ormerod and Wortham print the generally accepted emendation of A. E. Taylor (“Quin redis” in place of “Quin regis”), but ascribe it to the B-text, where this and the two preceding lines do not occur. More venial slips like “consenseus” for “consensus” (p. xlvii), and “Publius Syrus” for “Publilius Syrus” (p. 48) further reduce one's confidence in their work.

Nor does the introduction to this edition furnish evidence that these editorial faults are balanced by profound scholarship or good critical sense. In alluding to the origins of the legend, Ormerod and Wortham show themselves to be unaware of Frank Baron's important studies, Doctor Faustus from History to Legend (Munich, 1978) and Faustus: Geschichte, Sage, Dichtung (Munich, 1982), and their speculations on the relevance of St. Augustine's Contra Faustum could be replaced by a reference to J. P. Brockbank's 1962 monograph. They seem not to recognize the degree to which Renaissance demonological literature is riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions: it makes dubious sense to claim that the A-text is “orthodox” with respect to “Christian writings on witchcraft,” while B is “startlingly heterodox” (p. xxv). The more important question of the relations of the A and B texts of Doctor Faustus to the Calvinistic theological orthodoxy of Elizabethan England is largely neglected, while a discussion of Renaissance magic digresses rapidly into a competent but almost wholly irrelevant disquisition on numerology: the writings of Cornelius Agrippa, which are drawn on here, might have been more profitably mined in an analysis of Marlowe's sources for the first scene of the play, where Faustus aspires—but not on account of his numerological learning—to be “as cunning as Agrippa was” (A: 150).

One could go on at greater length in this vein. But it may suffice to say that this edition seems in several respects premature. To borrow George Kane's assessment of his own early work on the controversial Kane-Donaldson edition of Piers Plowman, Ormerod and Wortham appear to have been “deluded by the 'ideal' of conservative editing.” The lapses in their editorial theory and practice are not sufficiently balanced by other interpretive merits to make this an edition that one could recommend to students of Marlowe's play.