Cornelius Agrippa’s Double Presence in the Faustian Century

Exponents of the current of thought and interpretation that for present purposes I have labeled the "Faustian paradigm" were [largely] excluded from positions in the institutions of higher learning. [....] Surprisingly, perhaps, analogous patterns of exclusion persist within contemporary scholarship. Historians of humanism, for example, have tended to exclude "speculative humanists" like Reuchlin and Agrippa from full membership in the tribe, while confessional and disciplinary boundaries have produced similar deflections within the historiography of the Reformation [...]. 

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Self-Image and Spectacle in Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus

[Presented as a conference paper at the XXXII Colloque du Centre d'études supérieures de la Renaissance (Université de Tours, France, 29 June-8 July 1989), this essay was first published in Spectacle et image dans l'Europe de la Renaissance, ed. André Lascombes (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993), pp. 103-34.]


The spectacle is the existing order's uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power in the epoch of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence.

Guy Debord, La société du spectacle1


Faust. What meanes this shew? speake Mephostophilis.
Meph. Nothing Faustus but to delight thy mind, 
And let thee see what Magicke can performe.

Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (B: 475-77)2



However one interprets Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the lines I have quoted here come at a critical moment in the play. With a resonant blasphemy—Consummatum est—Faustus has signed his pact with Lucifer. But when his own blood appears to form an inscription on the arm from which he has drawn it, he is reduced to a state of dithering terror:

Homo fuge, whither should I flie? 
If unto God hee'le throwe thee downe to hell, 
My sences are deceiv'd, here's nothing writ: 
O yes, I see it plaine, even heere is writ
Homo fuge ... (A: 518-19, B: 467-69)

My purpose in juxtaposing Faustus’s anxious question and Mephostophilis’ blandly reassuring answer about the meaning of “this show” with Guy Debord’s diatribe against the non-stop electronically-mediated spectacle by means of which power is exercised and maintained in our own social order is to highlight a tension, at once ideological and formal in nature, in those tragedies of Christopher Marlowe with which I will be concerned here. For although the spectacle which Debord wished to analyze is very much a phenomenon of the electronic age, Elizabethan England was also, if in a quite different manner, “une société du spectacle”—one in which power legitimized and reproduced itself through progresses, civic processions and pageants,3 through public rites of celebration and of punishment, through an appropriation of the potentially subversive popular forms of carnivalesque festivity4, and finally through such overtly fictive forms as the court masque and the various dramatic genres which flourished on the public stage. But while the public theatre undoubtedly served, on balance, to legitimize constituted authority, its products amounted to something far removed from what Debord naively calls a “laudatory monologue.” Dialogic in its very form, the theatre also became a site of contestation, a public space in which the pageants of authority could be interrogated (“What meanes this shew?”), and in which its discourse could be represented as traversed by contradictions and ambivalence.

By the early seventeenth century the genre of tragedy, as J. W. Lever observed, had become one in which “man’s inborn freedom, his natural state of equality, his right to rebel against tyrants, were canvassed as vital issues.”5 Tragedy participated in what Franco Moretti describes as “the deconsecration of sovereignty”;6 and its challenge to religious orthodoxy, Jonathan Dollimore has argued, “generate[d] other, equally important subversive preoccupations--namely a critique of ideology, the demystification of political and power relations and the decentring of ‘man’.”7 But some two decades earlier, at the moment when this genre was being shaped—in reaction, as the Prologue to the first of Christopher Marlowe’s Two Tragicall Discourses of Mighty Tamburlaine, the Scythian Shepheard would have it, to the “jygging vaines of riming mother wits, / And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay” (lines 1-2)8—a deeply ambiguous subversion of power and authority, both civil and religious, was already being essayed. Marlowe’s 1 and 2 Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus are in a sense totalitarian plays; they are (to borrow Debord’s words) portraits “of power in ... its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence.” But in another sense they give away the show—in the Tamburlaine plays, by exposing the “scenicall strutting,”9 the manipulations of image and spectacle by which a would-be monologic authority constructs and legitimizes itself; and in Doctor Faustus by revealing what the puritan divine Thomas Beard was shortly to call The Theatre of Gods Judgements to be an intolerable edifice.10 In the lines which I have quoted as a second epigraph, Mephostophilis attempts to close down Faustus’s question as to what the demonic spectacle which he has just witnessed means: “Nothing Faustus,” he says, “but to delight thy mind, / And let thee see what Magicke can performe.” As I shall argue, however, Doctor Faustus is not itself a closed spectacle; the question “What meanes this shew?” resonates in the theatre even after the last lines of its epilogue.



My approach here to Marlowe's 1 and 2 Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus will take the form of an exploration of certain aspects of the relation between image and stage spectacle. Twenty years ago Catherine Belsey offered a suggestive analysis of what she punningly called "the subject of tragedy.” My subject is also the subject—or rather, since dramatic spectacle and imagery are alike a matter of the representation and self-presentation of human figures on stage, the construction of an imaged subjectivity. I shall be concerned with three closely-related aspects of the construction of subjectivity in these plays: with the emblematic tableaux which are a prominent feature of the stage-spectacle; with another kind of spectacle which, since it is a matter of verbal imagery, I shall call “virtual”; and with the obsessive self-definitions by which the protagonists contribute to their constitution as subjects within the dramatic spectacle.

These Marlovian subjects invite one to construe them in what I would suggest is a double—perhaps also a duplicitous—manner. They can be understood, in a Coleridgean sense, as active agents in whom the self “becomes a subject by the act of constructing itself objectively to itself”—and at the same time, in Catherine Belsey’s words, as figures “held in place in a specific discourse,” of whom it can be said that “In so far as signifying practice always precedes the individual, is always learned, the subject is a subjected being, an effect of the meanings it seems to possess.”11 As Belsey goes on to say, subjectivity is discursively produced. But the discourse of drama is specular as well as verbal. Subjectivity is also an effect of the dramatist’s specular organizing of the gaze—that of the spectators as well as that of the stage figures, who construct themselves and are constructed through their capacity to hold themselves and others up to inspection, and through their function as spectacle (at once actual and imagined) in the eyes of others. It is thus in large part through the interaction of self-image and of spectacle (both actual and virtual) that the doubleness of which I have spoken becomes evident.

The most obvious point of contact between image and spectacle in these plays is provided by their recurrent emblematic tableaux—“sights of power,” as Tamburlaine calls them,

Wherein as in a mirrour may be seene,
His honor, that consists in sheading blood,
When men presume to manage armes with him. 
(1 Tamb. V. ii, 2256, 2258-60)

Such moments occur also in Doctor Faustus, but as ‘sights’ of what Constance Brown Kuriyama, in a helpful portmanteau coinage, has termed “omnimpotence”12: one thinks, for example, of the magus gazing with horror at the bloody inscription on his own arm; or of the terrifying appearance, in response to his appeal to Christ, of a demonic trinity.

The imagery, here, is actual: we are looking at costumed bodies on a material stage. But on another level, that of poetic imagery, one can speak (misappropriating a term from optics) of “virtual” spectacle—of representations which, for all their vividness, are verbal constructions alone, and are realized as spectacle only in the imagination of the beholder. On this level, it is relevant to observe that the poetic imagery of these plays insistently reflects, not the organic components of the cosmos (where other Elizabethan writers found a reservoir of social and behavioural norms, a structure of natural law and natural morality), so much as its astronomical, elemental, inorganic and daemonic constituents. This imagery thus contributes both to the notorious interpretive reticence and ambivalence of the dramatic spectacle, and also to one’s sense of Marlowe himself as an extremist—as a writer, that is, who in giving voice to the discursive extremes of his era never appears to suggest with any conviction the possibility of a centre which might give them coherence, and in which they might meet and be reconciled.13 Marlowe’s subjects move through a polarized, de-centred world of warring elements, glittering artifacts, and fetichized objects of desire, “heaven and earth the bounds of [their] delight” (Dido, I. i, 31). The intermediate order of organic nature, of normative analogies to organic processes, and of an attendant network of natural law, is in most scenes conspicuously absent.

As Clifford Leech remarked, drawing attention to their constructed rather than mimetic nature, Marlowe’s characters are “sick elementals” on a “rhetorical stage.”14 This hint can be elaborated: Tamburlaine is sick because he is elemental; and Faustus, because of the nature of his confinement “Within the bowels of these Elements, / Where we are tortur’d, and remaine for ever” (B: 511-12). And what Leech called a “rhetorical stage” is another way of talking about that virtual spectacle the interaction of which with actual spectacle contributes largely to the representation of subjectivity in these plays.

I shall be also be concerned here with a related aspect of the linkage between image and spectacle—one which arises out of the protagonists’ own language. Tamburlaine and Faustus (who are themselves central stage images in the plays which bear their names) are represented, and present themselves, in a succession of different attitudes. We witness in both figures a process of rhetorical self-fashioning. But how, and from what elements, do these images construct themselves? A principal clue is provided by their obsessively self-referential language.

Tamburlaine presents himself through third-person self-reference as a talismanic object: his elemental constitution makes him an operator of a kind of ambiguously astrological or daemonic magic for which Marlowe’s principal source, I will suggest, lay in Ficinian interpretations of the Hermetic Asclepius. The constitution of this reified subjectivity is mirrored in the stage images, the “sights of power,” to which Tamburlaine refers.

Faustus, in contrast, may experiment with a Tamburlainean third-person rhetoric. But the habitual, indeed characteristic, mode of speech by which his dramatic identity is constructed is second-person self-address. The initial effect, of a split between the active self who delivers the quasi-Agrippan declamatio invectica of the first scene, and the passive silent self who in some sense stands in need of these persuasions, quickly modulates into something rather different: a Calvinistic trap of self-authenticating predication in which Faustus’s despairing self-definitions (“What art thou Faustus but a man condemn’d to die?” [B: 1546]) are validated by the fact that he cannot cease from making them. The mirror in this case is an internal one, of a kind described by Fulke Greville in one of his Caelica poems as a “fatal mirror of transgression”; and the magic involved is not transitive, but subjective.15 However, the ‘sights of omnimpotence’ in which this predicament is objectified are again directly linked to a rhetorically-produced self-image. Here, as in Tamburlaine, the stage spectacle corresponds to and is produced by the rhetorically-constructed self-image of the protagonist.



An interplay between what I have called actual and virtual spectacle is one of the structural principles of the first part of Tamburlaine the Great. Shortly after his first appearance on stage, Tamburlaine reveals the warrior’s armour which has been concealed beneath his shepherd’s garments:

Lie here ye weedes that I disdaine to weare,
This compleat armor, and this curtle-axe
Are adjuncts more beseeming Tamburlaine.
(I. ii, 237-39)

The emblematic gesture, with its suggestion that Tamburlaine is no more a protector of flocks and herds than his followers are the “silly country Swaines” (243) that they appear to be, is quickly supplemented by Techelles with an explanatory simile which amounts to another, virtual emblem:

As princely Lions when they rouse themselves,
Stretching their pawes, and threatning heardes of Beastes.
So in his Armour looketh Tamburlaine:
Me thinks I see kings kneeling at his feet....

Shortly thereafter, Tamburlaine responds to Zenocrate’s and her attendant lords’ pleas for their release with a speech which, envisioning her in a position of power and authority, attended by a hundred Tartars “Mounted on Steeds, swifter than Pegasus,” and drawn by “milke-white Hartes upon an Ivorie sled” (289-90, 294), obscures the fact of her captivity. But with the arrival of the Persian general Theridamas, Zenocrate is made part of a quite different tableau. Standing beside his three captives (whom one might imagine to have remained in a suppliant posture), and backed by his supporters, Tamburlaine declares: “I hold the Fates bound fast in yron chaines, / And with my hand turn Fortunes wheel about...” (369-70). Zenocrate has for the moment become an image of the forces over which her captor claims mastery. And the treasure looted from her, the “golden wedges” which Tamburlaine has ordered to be laid out so that “their reflexions may amaze the Perseans” (335-36), complements the image of himself as one who enjoys divine favour and protection: “See how [Jove] raines down heaps of gold in showers, / As if he meant to give my Souldiers pay” (377-78).

Tamburlaine’s improvisations, which include a re-interpretation of his initial gesture of self-revelation—

Jove sometime masked in a Shepheards weed,
And by those steps that he hath scal'd the heavens,
May we become immortall like the Gods
(I. ii, 394-96)

—are of course brilliantly successful. The eloquence of a man who, to the Persian court, was no more than a “sturdie Scythian thiefe” (I. i, 44) is now compared by the Persian king's chief captain to that of a god: “Not Hermes Prolocutor to the Gods, / Could use perswasions more patheticall” (I. ii, 405). (Hermes, one may want to recall, was also the patron of thieves.) Tamburlaine’s reply, “Nor are Apollos Oracles more true, / Then thou shalt find my vaunts substantiall” (407-08), is at once another vaunt and an expression of the operative principle of his rhetoric. He substantiates his vaunts, not as yet by deeds, but by supplementing their virtual spectacle with the material spectacle of staged tableaux. Thus the piled-up heaps of Zenocrate’s gold, interpreted as evidence of divine favour, ‘substantiate’ the hyperbolic claim of the immediately preceding lines:

Draw foorth thy sword, thou mighty man at Armes,
Intending but to rase my charmed skin:
And Jove himselfe will stretch his hand from heaven,
To ward the blow, and shield me safe from harme. 
(I. ii, 373-76)

When it comes to deeds, a similar interplay of actual and virtual spectacle is evident. The farcical battlefield scene in which Tamburlaine returns the crown, the emblem of sovereignty, to Mycetes, “the witty King of Persea” (II. iv, 686), but only so that he can wrest it from him again once his victim is properly “hem’d with armed men” (701), becomes a model for his treatment of Mycetes’s brother. Having in the next scene invested Cosroe with the crown of Persia, Tamburlaine is so struck by Menaphon’s exit line—“And ride in triumph through Persepolis”—that he bids Cosroe return “to war with us, / That onely made him King to make us sport” (II. v, 754, 805-06). The imagined spectacle of a triumphant entry into the Persian capital is the hinge which links Tamburlaine’s destruction of two kings, the regal clown Mycetes and the king-for-a-day Cosroe, who is reduced by this repetition of Tamburlaine’s gesture of giving and taking away to the stature of a saturnalian mock-king.

But none of this should be taken to suggest that Marlowe is inviting a moral condemnation of his protagonist. For even if the playwright can be seen as foregrounding the verbal and specular rhetoric by means of which Tamburlaine imposes himself, he is at the same time engaged in a thoroughgoing mystification of authority. This takes the form of a recurrent emphasis upon the subjecting power of the heroic gaze, which exerts a projective power over what it beholds and establishes its possessor as irresistible in a sense at once military and erotic. Mycetes tells Theridamas: “... thy words are swords / And with thy lookes thou conquerest all thy foes” (I. i, 82-83). The first encounter between this Persian hero and Tamburlaine is an erotic duet in which, it would seem, their eye-beams (like those of Donne’s lovers in “The Ecstasy”) become twisted and entwined. Standing face to face, they construct one another through third-person address as heroic objects of desire:

Ther. His looks do menace heaven and dare the Gods,
His fierie eies are fixt upon the earth,
As if he now devis'd some Stratageme:
Or meant to pierce Avernas darksome vaults,
To pull the triple headed dog from hell. 
Tamb. Noble and milde this Persean seems to be....
With what a majesty he rears his looks.... 
(I. ii, 352-57, 360)

Tamburlaine’s “strong enchantments” overcome Theridamas, who is, he confesses, “Won with thy words, & conquered with thy looks” (419, 423).

In the following scene this power of enchantment in one whom Cosroe describes as “the man of fame, / The man that in the forhead of his fortune, / Beares figures of renowne and miracle” (II. i, 456-58), is explained by Menaphon in a bizarre literalizing of his master’s metaphor:

                          ... twixt his manly pitch,
A pearle more worth, then all the world is plaste:
Wherein by curious soveraintie of Art,
Are fixt his piercing instruments of sight:
Whose fiery cyrcles beare encompassed
A heaven of heavenly bodies in their Spheares:
That guides his steps and actions to the throne,
Where honor sits invested royally....
(II. i, 465-72)

These qualities, it would seem, make it possible for Agydas to divine from Tamburlaine’s wrathful eyes, “That shine as Comets, menacing revenge” (III. ii, 1059), the inevitability of his own death—and they enable Tamburlaine, shortly before his own death, to defeat a whole army, “Like Summers vapours, vanisht by the Sun” (2 Tamb. V. iii, 4509), merely by showing his face.



This strange figure whose eyes encompass a kind of celestial microcosm would seem to be in some way related to that microcosmic man whom Giovanni Pico della Mirandola described in his Heptaplus as recapitulating, like the tabernacle of Moses, the entire structure of the cosmos by which he is contained. There are, for Pico, three worlds: the sublunary, the celestial, and the supercelestial—and also “a fourth world in which are found all those things that are in the rest.” As an inverse metonymy of the universe, this fourth world, man, is thus in a position to dominate the order of nature.16

Marlowe appears to be making a defiantly secular appropriation of Pico’s quasi-mystical ideas. But the “soveraintie of Art” which allows Tamburlaine to satisfy his thirst for sovereignty may suggest that the playwright also made use of other closely related materials in constructing this virtual image of his protagonist.

Like other exponents of the Renaissance Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition, Pico was intrigued by the teachings concerning human dignity and spiritual rebirth or deification which recur in the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, among them the Asclepius. 17 The Hermetic Asclepius, however, also alludes to another kind of god-making: Hermes claims that the power and force of man are exemplified by his capacity to fashion animated statues which, endowed with sense and spirit, can perform marvels, predict the future, provoke and cure diseases, and apportion misery and happiness to us according to our desserts.18 These earthly gods, he explains, are made by invoking demons or angels and introducing them by means of sacred and divine rites into statues which already incorporate certain natural virtues; the idols then “have the power to work both good and evil.”19

Pico’s older contemporary Marsilio Ficino (whose Latin translation of other Hermetic texts had prompted a surge of interest in this wholly legendary Egyptian sage), understood the Asclepian statue-making as a species of astrological magic,20 and as being closely related to Hermes’s divinely-inspired teachings about deification. On occasion, indeed, Ficino seems deliberately to be obscuring any distinction between the two forms of god-making—as when, in a commentary on the pseudo-Dionysius’s account of the ascent to God, he describes the divine image in man as a statua Dei.21 Another Italian writer, Ludovico Lazzarelli, was more explicit still in conflating Neoplatonic and Hermetic doctrines of deification with the daemonic statues of Hermes.22

That Marlowe’s representation of Tamburlaine as a daemonic force draws upon notions such as these may be suggested by the remarks of Tamburlaine’s enemies. Meander believes that "Some powers divine, or els infernall, mixt / Their angry seeds at his conception: / For he was never sprong of humaine race" (II. vi, 820-22), and Ortygius is unsure whether he is a "God or Feend, or spirit of the earth, / Or monster turned to a manly shape, / Or of what mould or mettel he be made..." (826-28). 

But Tamburlaine’s trajectory is also determined by his elemental composition. In contrast to Cosroe and his companions, all of whom “have suckt one wholsome aire / And with the same proportion of Elements, / Resolve...” (II. vi, 836-38), Tamburlaine explains himself in terms of elemental strife:

Nature that fram'd us of foure Elements,
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspyring minds....

He is, as Cosroe says, a “fiery thirster after Soveraingtie” (842). Theridamas, drawing upon the same elemental analogy, declares any man “That mooves not upwards, nor by princely deeds / Doth meane to soare above the highest sort” to be "grosse and like the massie earth” (883-84, 882).

The predominance in Tamburlaine of the element of fire accounts both for the “terrour” of “his threatning lookes” (2 Tamb. V. i, 4135), and for his uninterrupted victories and violent tyranny. He himself describes his vermillion siege tents as threatening

              ... more than if the region
Next underneath the Element of fire,
Were full of Commets and of blazing stars,
Whose flaming traines should reach down to the earth.... 

His fiery nature, however, is also the principal cause of his death. Sixteen lines after the end of the speech in which, ordering his men to burn “the Turkish Alcaron, / And all the heapes of supersticious bookes, / Found in the Temples of that Mahomet, / Whom I have thought a God” (4284-87), Tamburlaine challenges Mahomet to take vengeance on him, and tells his soldiers to “Seeke out another Godhead to adore, / The God that sits in heaven, if any God” (4311-12), the Scourge of God feels himself “distempered sudainly” (4329).

Marlowe, the one-time theological student, has prepared the moment carefully. Those in the audience who wish to see blasphemy receive its due punishment are rewarded—if, that is, they are willing to accord divine status to the Prophet of Islam. But this notion of retributive justice is promptly challenged by the purely naturalistic explanation superimposed upon it by Tamburlaine’s doctor:

Your vaines are full of accidentall heat,
Whereby the moisture of your blood is dried,
The Humidum and Calor, which some holde
Is not a parcell of the Elements,
But of a substance more divine and pure,
Is almost cleane extinguished and spent.... 
(2 Tamb. V. ii, 4476-80).

The import of this medical jargon seems clear enough. Amyras laments that heaven has consumed its “choisest living fire” (4644). But the fiery Tamburlaine is, rather, a self-consuming artifact: the immediate cause of his death is the inopportune arrival of Callapine with yet another army, in the specular dispersal of which Tamburlaine exhausts his “martial strength” (4512). Having established himself as a reified subject in large part through his habit of third-person self-reference (“... sooner shall the Sun fall from his Spheare, / Than Tamburlaine be slaine or overcome” [1 Tamb. I. ii, 371-72]), the Scythian objectifies himself again in confessing his own mortality: “... this subject not of force enough, / To hold the fiery spirit it containes, / Must part...” (2 Tamb. V. ii, 4561-62).



One way of explaining the insistent blasphemies of 2 Tamburlaine in particular might be to suggest that Marlowe was deploying a mystification of political tyranny in a kind of displaced subversion of the increasingly evident religious tyranny of the Anglican church.23 But the inexorable rise of the daemonic, elemental protagonist of these plays, culminating in his equally inevitable death, is paralleled by the organization of actual and virtual spectacle in these plays in a manner which may point to a less positive conclusion.

Acts Four and Five of 1 Tamburlaine are largely concerned with the siege of Damascus—and with the representation of a crescendo of degradation and violence. This is organized in terms of the colours white, red, and black—which signify that while on the first day of a siege Tamburlaine will accept a peaceful submission, on the second day surrender will be followed by the slaughter of “any that can manage arms” (IV. i, 1429), and after that by the massacre of the whole population. On the first day (so the messenger says), Tamburlaine wears “on his silver crest / A snowy Feather spangled white ... / To signify the mildnesse of his minde” (1422-24). In this mood, with a speech that moves from hubris to bloody-mindedness (“Now cleare the triple region of the aire, / And let the majestie of heaven beholde / Their Scourge and Terrour treade on Emperours. / .... / Then when the Sky shal waxe as red as blood, / It shall be said, I made it red my selfe” [IV. ii, 1474-76, 1497-98]), Tamburlaine steps over Bajazeth, his footstool, onto his throne.

He appears next, dressed “al in scarlet” (IV. iv, s. d.), in a banquet scene which begins with bloody threats against the defenders of Damascus and devolves into an exchange of cannibalistic taunts and furious counter-curses with the caged and starving Bajazeth and Zabina. Bajazeth tells Tamburlaine he “could willingly feed upon thy blood-raw hart” (IV. iv, 1649-50); he is invited to pluck out his own (“twill serve thee and thy wife” [1652]), to eat scraps from Tamburlaine’s sword point, and to carve up his wife before she falls “into a consumption with freatting, and then she will not bee woorth the eating” (1688-90). “How now Zenocrate,” Tamburlaine asks his own consort, “dooth not the Turke and his wife make a goodly showe at a banquet?” (1696-97). Observing her response to be less than animated, he offers music to cheer her up—“If thou wilt have a song, the Turke shall straine his voice” (1702-03)—but promptly dismisses her request that he show mercy to her native land and to her father’s city.

This sequence comes to a climax in a scene which begins with another refusal of mercy. Tamburlaine, now “all in blacke, and very melancholy” (V. ii, s. d.), responds to the belated but very eloquent pleadings of the first of the virgins of Damascus with a sadistic lesson in the workings of virtual spectacle:

Tam. Behold my sword, what see you at the point? 
Virg. Nothing but feare and fatall steele my Lord. 
Tam. Your fearfull minds are thicke and mistie then,
For there sits Death, there sits imperious Death,
Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge.
(V. ii, 1889-93)

Virtual spectacle, however, is as subject to the rhetorician’s whim as defenceless women are to the mass-murderer’s. Having commanded the virgins to visualize “imperious Death” seated on his sword-tip, Tamburlaine at once declares that

... I am pleasde you shall not see him there,
He now is seated on my horsemens speares:
And on their points his fleshlesse bodie feedes.

As his monstrous play with words makes clear, the fleshless body of this virtual image is about to substantiate itself in a phallic violation of the virgins’ flesh:

Techelles, straight goe charge a few of them
To chardge these Dames, and shew my servant death,
Sitting in scarlet on their armed speares.

They will ‘see’ Death feeding on the blazon of their own blood.

With Zenocrate’s semblables reduced to “slaughtered carcases” (1912) and hoisted up onto the city walls, their murderer launches into an impassioned apostrophe—inspired by the dishevelled beauty of his beloved herself, who “like to Flora in her mornings pride, / Shaking her silver treshes in the aire, / Rain’st on the earth resolved pearle in showers” (1921-23). He declares that Zenocrate’s sorrows, though caused of course by his own refusal to call off the assault, “lay more siege unto my soule, / Than all my Army to Damascus walles” (1936-37). A dehumanizing aestheticism permits the roles of victor and victim to be reversed: “What is beauty saith my sufferings then?” (1941; emphasis added). “Ask the ‘slaughtered carcases’ of Damascus,” would be one possible reply.

It could be said with some confidence that most contemporary spectators and readers of the play would react in a similar manner to the violent excesses of this sequence. But the rhetorical function of Tamburlaine’s soliloquy appears to be to complicate, if not altogether to block, such a response. “If all the pens that ever poets held, / Had fed the feeling of their maisters thoughts, / And every sweetnes that inspir’d their harts...” (1942-44): Tamburlaine is in full flight. Are we likely to perceive this second use of a metaphor of feeding as tainted by the first (which precedes it by less than fifty lines), or by the Scythian’s cannibalistic taunts at his banquet? And if our answer to this or similar questions about the inversions worked by the aestheticism of Tamburlaine’s long soliloquy is an affirmative one, is that because the play-text offers us a position from which to resist the daemonic violence of his specular and spoken rhetoric, or is it rather because we feel sufficiently alienated from this play to want to read it against the grain? In the latter case, is that alienation an effect of the text, or an effect rather of our historical distance from it?

I suspect that such matters as these are not capable of being securely resolved. And yet the play-text may contain a clue as to the anticipated response. The nearest approach to a critical perspective upon Tamburlaine’s doings in this scene is provided by Zenocrate. But although she reacts with horror to the accumulation of “bloody spectacle[s]” (2121), she is also drawn into complicity with the man who is responsible for them. Tamburlaine’s “sights of power,” the corpses of his victims, “grace [his] victory” (2256); so also, in a different manner, does Zenocrate, who “consent[s] to satisfy” (2281) his wishes, and is crowned by him at the end of the scene. It is arguable that this sequence (like the similarly constructed sequence of the siege of Babylon and the conqueror’s fatal illness in 2 Tamburlaine) is designed to draw the audience into a similar attitude of complicity. Is Marlowe then exposing barbarism or participating in it? The lapidary ironies of Hero and Leander reveal him as the most exaggeratedly civilized of the Elizabethan poets; does the aestheticized savagery of the Tamburlaine plays make him also the most grotesquely sadistic writer of his age?



Doctor Faustus offers, in certain respects, a reversal of these patterns. This play is masochistic rather than sadistic; its protagonist a victim rather than a tyrant. Tamburlaine, I have argued, constructs himself through an interplay of actual and virtual spectacle in which he is made to appear, both by self-referential language and by quasi-choric commentary, as an irresistible force, at once elemental and daemonic. Faustus, in contrast, speaks not so much of himself as to himself, and the actual and emblematic spectacle in Doctor Faustus creates a recurrent impression of passivity, of a subject enclosed and penetrated by the discourse of the Other. Faustus is a passive spectator of the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins and of the other daemonic images, Alexander the Great and Helen of Troy, summoned up by Mephostophilis. He is, moreover, visually framed by the Good and Evil Angels, whose words come to him as though from within. In the first scene of the play, the persuasions of the Evil Angel—“Go forward Faustus in that famous art, / Wherein all natures treasury is containd: / Be thou on earth as Jove is in the skie” (A: 106-08)—are of the same order as those which Faustus has already directed at himself, and the same might be said of the Good Angel’s exhortations five scenes later.

On the level of virtual spectacle, similar effects are evident, for unlike the linear and projective imagery of the Tamburlaine plays, that of Doctor Faustus is insistently reflexive and circular. As Mephostophilis reminds his questioner, “this centricke earth” (B: 606) is enclosed by larger structures:

As are the elements, such are the heavens,
Even from the Moone unto the Emp[y]riall Orbe,
Mutually folded in each others Spheares,
And jo[i]ntly move upon one Axle-tree....
(B: 607-10)

Faustus’s visits to the papal and imperial courts are preceded by an ascent into this structure:

From the bright circle of the horned Moone,
Even to the height of Primum Mobile:
And whirling round with this circumference,
Within the concave compasse of the Pole,
From East to West his Dragons swiftly glide....
(B: 785-89)

Another kind of circularity subsequently becomes apparent: Faustus feels a need to return to his own starting-point, for

the restlesse course that time
doth runne with calme and silent foote,
Shortning my dayes and thread of vitall life,
Calls for the payment of my latest yeares,
Therefore sweet Mephastophilis, let us make haste to Wertenberge.
(A: 1134-39)

Having completed the circuit of his travels, and that of his twenty-four years, Faustus strives in his last hour to arrest the “ever mooving spheres of heaven” (A: 1453). But he is compelled to admit that “The starres moove stil, time runs, the clocke wil strike, / The divel wil come, and Faustus must be damnd” (A: 1460-61).

It is, however, most distinctly through his habit of self-address that Faustus creates an image of himself as a doomed man. Like Tamburlaine, he regularly has his own name on his tongue. But the Tamburlainean third person, by which the Scythian hero reifies himself as an invincible talismanic object, is alien to Faustus. His initial efforts in this mode may indeed seem promising (although one notices that he works himself up to the third person through a preliminary self-address):

Is to dispute well Logickes chiefest end?
Affoords this Art no greater miracle?
Then read no more, thou hast attain'd that end;
A greater subject fitteth Faustus wit.
(B: 37-40)

But when the proud display of his declaration to Mephostophilis—“Learne thou of Faustus manly fortitude, / And scorne those joyes thou never shalt possesse” (A: 330-31)—is promptly followed by an offer to surrender his soul to Lucifer, the absurdity of this stance becomes evident. A Tamburlainean rhetoric is clearly incompatible with the predicament of one of whom we were told, before ever clapping eyes on him, that “His waxen wings did mount above his reach, / And melting heavens conspirde his overthrow” (A: 22-23).

Indeed, in contrast to Tamburlaine’s self-assurance, which is solidly connected to the elemental constitution that makes his vaunts substantial, Faustus’s first soliloquy exposes a subtle division between the speaking voice and the mute self which it so confidently addresses: this rhetoric conveys the compound image of a man who is at once the active, wilful subject addressing himself with such energy, and the passive subject who in some manner stands in need of these brash persuasions. As I have argued elsewhere, this first scene, in which Faustus fulfils the intention announced in his opening lines, of “level[ling] at the end of every Art” (A: 34), also manages to suggest that he is simultaneously moving towards another externally determined end—that of the Calvinist reprobate.24 The language with which he tempts himself is also, it would appear, the language of a daemonic Other.

Faustus’s habitual, his characteristic mode of speech is apostrophic self-address: “Settle thy studies Faustus...” (A: 31); “Now Faustus must thou needes be damnd...” (A: 438); “what art thou Faustus but a man condemnd to die?” (A: 1169); “Accursed Faustus, where is mercie now?” (A: 1329); “Ah Faustus, / Now hast thou but one bare hower to live, / And then thou must be damnd perpetually...” (A: 1450-52). This mode of self-address is, very largely, what constitutes his dramatic identity—and it does so in terms of an introjection of eschatological awareness, an increasingly powerful recognition of what is in store for him. At the same time as they enact a split between a perverse wilfulness and a strangely passive selfhood, his self-reflections also construct a trap of self-authenticating predication. The despairing self-definitions of Faustus would cease to be true if he could only cease from making them; but conversely, he could only cease from making them if they were not true—or rather, if he were not constituted as a subject by this very pattern of apostrophic self-address.

This rhetorical pattern is the precise equivalent of Greville’s “fatal mirror of transgression”: the tormented daemonic self-image which this internal mirror offers “bears the faithless down to desperation.”25 Faustus’s rhetoric, moreover, produces a kind of vertigo: he is pulled towards eternal torment by terror and disgust, as well as by delight—by the seven deadly sins, as well as by Helen of Troy. An eschatological awareness burns up through even his most fevered attempt at forgetfulness: Helen’s “sweet imbracings” are to “extinguish cleane” (A: 1352) the motions of penitence and despair that have wracked him, but the very language of the escapist fantasy which he constructs around her expresses through its inversion of gender and of subjection his actual relation to this spirit: “Brighter art thou then flaming Jupiter, / when he appeard to haplesse Semele...” (A: 1372-73).

Another more powerful inversion may suggest that the subject constructed in the first part of the play is, in its last scene, being taken apart before our eyes. Faustus in his first soliloquy aspired to beget in himself the powers of a god: “A sound Magician is a mighty god: / Here tire my braines to get a Deity” (A: 92, B: 89). He is alluding to that deification or rebirth which so interested Renaissance magi like Ficino, Pico, and Agrippa.26 But in his last speech, in what sounds like a kind of prayer, he cries:

You starres that raignd at my nativitie,
whose influence hath alotted death and hel,
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist,
Into the intrailes of yon labring cloude,
That when you vomit foorth into the ayre,
My limbes may issue from your smoaky mouthes,
So that my soule may but ascend to heaven....
(A: 1474-79)

He is reduced to an abject attempt to surrender his bodily integrity in a disgusting reversal of birth; having once aspired to “rend the cloudes” (A: 89), he now begs for physical dissolution in their entrails.



I have suggested that Marlowe’s 1 and 2 Tamburlaine leave contemporary audiences and readers no secure way of determining whether our recoil from the protagonist is a response intended by the dramatist or merely an effect of our historical distance from him. Doctor Faustus presents an analogous problem: is this play, as Leo Kirschbaum insisted, “wholly conventional in its Christian values and ... in no sense iconoclastic,” or is it rather, as Jonathan Dollimore argues, subversive and radically interrogative?27

It would be most interesting to know, in the case of Tamburlaine, what exactly were those “fond and frivolous Jestures, digressing (and in my poore opinion) far unmeet for the matter,” which the publisher Richard Jones excised from the text, lest they “proove a great disgrace to so honorable & stately a historie....” One might surmise that, like the Calyphas episode in 2 Tamburlaine IV. i, these passages would have undermined the totalitarian fantasy which the ‘honourable and stately’ text we possess seems, for the most part, to legitimize. (There may, that is to say, be a connection between Jones’s apparent approval of “the Scythian Shepheard ... that became so great a Conqueror, and so mightie a Monarque,” and his distinction between the “matter of worth” which contributed to this image of Tamburlaine and the “graced deformities” which—at the very least—must have deflected the audience’s attention in other directions.)28

In the case of Doctor Faustus, however, such speculations are unnecessary: an analysis of its textual history makes it possible to understand both this play’s subversive qualities and the manner in which these were suppressed by early seventeenth-century revisers and by mid-twentieth-century textual critics. To state the matter as briefly as possible: Marlowe’s play reverses the crushingly homiletic orientation of its principal source, The Historie of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus (c. 1592)—not indeed by glorifying Faustus, whose pretensions are undermined through a sequence of mordant ironies, but rather by insistently implying that his wilfulness has itself been willed by higher powers.29 The intimate manner in which the protagonist’s damnation is unfolded makes a detached judgment of him difficult, and the absence of that moralistic authorial condemnation which in the prose Historie and its German original had masked the issue of predestination puts into question the nature of the divine power whose interventions shape the action.30 This play proved disturbing: the revision to which the text was subjected in 1602 turned it back, with a massive injection of grotesqueries and of moralistic commentary, towards the homiletic shape of the Faustbooks; and either at that point or in 1606, after the Act of Abuses outlawed blasphemy on stage, the theological harshness of the play was blunted by further revisions.31 Mid-twentieth-century textual critics, however, led by Leo Kirschbaum and Sir Walter Greg, and motivated more by their commitment to a distinctly twentieth-century liberal Christianity than by the textual evidence, argued that the resulting form of the play was very close to the Marlovian original—which was thus not so much a tragedy as an orthodox morality play, a Renaissance Everyman.32

A properly contextualized reconstruction of the textual history of Doctor Faustus can help to restore a sense of the continuities which exist—alongside all the differences—between this play and 1 and 2 Tamburlaine. The most basic of these resides in the playwright’s apparent determination to controvert, to subvert, or at the very least to expose the tyrannical workings of that divine sovereignty which was so central a feature of the Calvinist orthodoxy of Elizabethan England. Whatever we make of their political orientation, it is clear that 1 and 2 Tamburlaine put into circulation a radically anti-theistic discourse:

Come let us march against the powers of heaven,
And set black streamers in the firmament,
To signifie the slaughter of the Gods.
(2 Tamb. V. iii, 4440-42)

T. S. Eliot described the remodelling of this virtual image in Faustus’s last soliloquy as a “triumphant success”33:

O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me downe?
See see where Christs blood streames in the firmament,
One drop would save my soule, halfe a drop, ah my Christ,
Ah rend not my heart for naming of my Christ,
Yet wil I call on him, oh spare me Lucifer!
Where is it now? tis gone....
(A: 1462-67)

One wonders whether Eliot appreciated the extent to which this agonized vision, and Doctor Faustus as a whole, challenges the kind of religious orthodoxy for which he himself became a spokesman.

Another kind of continuity resides in the manner in which, in Doctor Faustus as in Tamburlaine, Marlowe manipulates the reponses of his audience. I take just one example: the concluding chorus, which most critics have understood as imposing an orthodox closure upon the play. But listen to these lines:

Cut is the branch that might have growne ful straight,
And burned is Apolloes Laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learned man:
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: 1510-17)

The last four lines consist of two syntactically parallel clauses. What is there here to prevent a first-time listener from attaching the second of these clauses to the same grammatical subject as the first (to Faustus, that is, rather than to “things”)? The result would be a momentary misconstrual of the retrospectively available sense of this passage which may seem scarcely possible to anyone who already knows the text. But a listener who, on first acquaintance with this forked path, takes the wrong choice in construing it and finds herself in a cul-de-sac, can only correct her error by recognizing that “such forward wits” are not to be identified with “the wise.” To conflate the two, even momentarily, is to find oneself stumbling between the two stances which these lines emphatically separate—between a dangerous empathy, scarcely avoidable after Faustus’s last speech, with one forward wit, and the negation of that empathy in a complacent self-identification as one of the wise. But the contagious possibility of such a conflation is built into the syntax of these closing lines. As a deliberate trap, one wonders, or an accident of syntax?

To conclude my own text, I repeat Faustus’s question: “What meanes this shew”? It means, mon semblable, hypocrite auditeur, that we are being manipulated by a master of dramatic spectacle and poetic imagery. But to what extent we are being invited to challenge a theological and political totalitarianism, and to what extent we are being manoeuvred into complicity with it, Marlowe leaves for us to decide.




1  Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Exeter: Rebel Press, 1987), section 24.

2  My quotations from Doctor Faustus are from Marlowe's “Doctor Faustus” 1604-1616: Parallel Texts, ed. W. W. Greg (1950; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968). They are identified by the text from which they are drawn (A refers to the edition of 1604 and its reprints in 1609 and 1611, B to the substantially revised edition of 1616), and by their line numbers in Greg's parallel-text edition. For a statement of the principles governing my use of the A and B texts, and for analyses of the relative authenticity of the two versions of the play, see my articles “Verbal Magic and the Problem of the A and B Texts of Doctor Faustus,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 82 (1983): 324-46, and “History and the Canon: The Case of Doctor Faustus,” University of Toronto Quarterly 56.4 (1987): 498-522, esp. 505-15, and my edition of the play: Christopher Marlowe's “Doctor Faustus”: A 1604-version edition (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1991), xi-xxii, lv-lxix. In all of my quotations from Renaissance texts, u/v and i/j have been silently altered to conform with modern usage.

3  Louis Adrian Montrose remarks that “Popular and liturgical ceremonial forms were appropriated by the secular authorities; they were transformed into exclusive celebrations of the monarchy or the urban elite. Such ceremonies of power and authority are epitomized by the Queen's occasional summer progresses outside the capital and her annual Accession Day fêtes at Westminster; and by the annual procession and pageant for the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London” (“The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology,” Helios 5.7 [1980]: 59).

4  See Peter Stallybrass, “'Wee feaste in our Defense:' Patrician Carnival in Early Modern England and Robert Herrick's 'Hesperides',” English Literary Renaissance 16.1 (Winter 1986): 234-52.

5  J. W. Lever, The Tragedy of State: A Study of Jacobean Drama, intro. by Jonathan Dollimore (2nd ed.; London and New York: Methuen, 1987), p. xix.

6  See Franco Moretti, “The Great Eclipse: Tragic Form as the Deconsecration of Sovereignty,” in his Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms, trans. Susan Fischer, David Forgacs and David Miller (Revised ed.; London and New York: Verso, 1988), pp. 42-82.

7  Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Brighton and Chicago: Harvester and Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 4.

8  My quotations from Marlowe's plays, with the exception of Doctor Faustus, are taken from The Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke (1910; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), and are identified by act, scene, and line numbers. (Tucker Brooke's lineation is continuous throughout 1 and 2 Tamburlaine, and elsewhere throughout each play.)

9  The words are Ben Jonson's, from his Discoveries : see Discoveries (1641), Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (1619), ed. G. B. Harrison (London: Bodley Head, 1923), p. 33.

10  Orthodoxy has its revenges: Marlowe himself appeared as an exhibit in Beard's The Theatre of Gods Judgements (1597). After recounting Marlowe's death in an attempt “to stab one whome hee ought a grudge unto,” Beard adds: “The manner of his death being so terrible (for hee even cursed and blasphemed to his last gaspe, and togither with his breath an oath flew out of his mouth) that it was not only a manifest signe of Gods judgement, but also an horrible and fearefull terrour to all that beheld him” (qtd. from Marlowe: The Critical Heritage 1588-1896, ed. Millar Maclure [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979], p. 42).

11  Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. George Watson (1956; rpt. London: Dent, 1971), ch. xii, p. 152; Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 5.

12  Constance Brown Kuriyama, Hammer or Anvil: Psychological Patterns in Christopher Marlowe's Plays (New Bunswick, N. J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 95, 110.

13  Wilbur Sanders, in The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), criticized Marlowe for lacking “a firmly-grounded centre of consciousness from which to conduct his exploration of human life” (pp. 139-40)—a remark which ignores the possibility that Marlowe's writings may have been deliberately anti-foundationalist and de-centred. The study which most adequately explores this possibility is Simon Shepherd's Marlowe and the Politics of Elizabethan Theatre (Brighton: Harvester, 1986).

14  Clifford Leech, Christopher Marlowe: Poet for the Stage, ed. Anne Lancashire (New York: AMS Press, 1986), p. 214.

15  See Caelica, XCIX, in Selected Writings of Fulke Greville, ed. Joan Rees (London: Athlone Press, 1973), p. 44.

16  Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Heptaplus, in Cesare Vasoli, ed., Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Gian Francesco Pico, Opera omnia (2 vols.; 1557-1573; facsimile rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1969), vol. 1, sig. A4v: “Est autem praeter tres quos narravimus quartus alius mundus in quo & ea omnia inveniantur quae sunt in reliquis, hic ipse est homo....” I have studied certain implications of this notion of man as an inverse metonymy of the universe in “The World Turned Inside Out: Revolutions of the Infinite Sphere from Hermes to Pascal,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 21 (1988): 303-13.

17  The importance of Pico's debt to this text can be quickly demonstrated. At the outset of his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, he proclaims the marvellous nature of mankind, and quotes from Asclepius 6. (See Pico, De hominis dignitate, Heptaplus, De ente et uno, ed. Eugenio Garin [Florence: Vallecchi, 1942], p. 102; and Corpus Hermeticum, ed. A. D. Nock, trans. A. J. Festugière [4 vols.; 2nd ed.; Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1960], pp. 301-02.) But Pico then asks why we should not admire the angels and the blessed choirs of heaven more than man. He answers this question with his famous re-telling of the story of the creation, in which he identifies man's divinely-accorded indeterminacy, his capacity for self-fashioning and deification, as the basis of his dignity. But this is little more than an expansion of the well-known passage (Asclepius 5-6) from which he had quoted at the outset. Pico's handling of the matter is thus duplicitous: he undoubtedly knew that the answer to the problem posed for him by Hermes's celebration of human dignity is provided by Hermes himself. But the manoeuvre allows him to put Hermes's words (or something very like them) into the mouth of God himself.

18  Asclepius 23-24; Corpus Hermeticum vol. 2, pp. 325-26: “Species vero deorum, quas conformat humanitas, ex utraque natura conformatae sunt; ex divina, quae est purior multoque divinior, et ex ea, quae intra homines est, id est ex materia, qua fuerint fabricatae.... —Statuas dicis, o Trismegiste? —Statuas, o Asclepi. Videsne, quatenus tu ipse diffidas? statuas animatas sensu et spiritu plenas tantaque facientes et talia, statuas futurorum praescias eaque sorte, vate, somniis multisque aliis rebus praedicentes, inbecillitates hominibus facientes easque curantes, tristitiam laetitiamque pro meritis.”

19  Asclepius 37, Corpus Hermeticum vol. 2, p. 347: “... proavi nostri ... invenerunt artem qua efficerent deos. Cui inventae adiunxerunt virtutem de mundi natura convenientem eamque miscentes, quoniam animas facere non poterant, evocantes animas daemonum vel angelorum eas indiderunt imaginibus sanctis divinisque mysteriis, per quas idola et bene faciendi et male vires habere potuissent.”

20  Ficino derived authority from this statue-magic for the idea that, just as aerial demons can be attracted into statues, so also stellar influences and spirits can be drawn into material forms (see Ficino, De triplici vita [In agro Caregio, 1489], sig. h7v, r1r-v). Brian Copenhaver remarks that he allowed the Asclepian statue-magic to colour his interpretation of Plotinus's metaphysics (see Copenhaver, “Astrology and Magic,” in The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, ed. Charles B. Schmitt, Quentin Skinner et al. [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988], pp. 275-79).

21  Ficino, Opera omnia (2 vols.; Paris, 1641), Comm. in orationem Dionysii de Trinitate, vol. 2, p. 7: “Si fecit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam, certe est in homine statua Dei, quamvis aditamentis abscondita.”

22  A conflation of this kind is evident in Ludovico Lazzarelli’s Calix Christi et Crater Hermetis, which was printed by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples in his edition of the Hermetic Pimander and Asclepius (Paris, 1505). For an account of Lazzarelli’s conflation of these two forms of god-making into a Hermetic-Christian mystery of spiritual rebirth, see D. P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella (1958; rpt. Notre Dame: Notre Dame Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 67-71.

23  Archbishop Whitgift had since 1583 been enforcing uniformity within the Anglican church. John Penry, brought before the Court of High Commission as a dissenter in 1588, was, he wrote in his Appellation (1589), “threatned very bloodily” and told by Whitgift that “ere you depart the court we will finde sufficient matter to emprison you, and if you refuse the oath, to prison you shall goe” (Albert Peel, ed., The Notebook of John Penry 1593 [London: Royal Historical Society, 1944], “Introduction,” p. xiii). Rearrested in March, 1593, Penry was hanged on May 29. (It may be no more than coincidence that Christopher Marlowe appeared before the Privy Council on May 20, four days before Penry's condemnation, and that he was killed on May 30.)

24  See my article “Misreading Faustus Misreading: The Question of Context,” The Dalhousie Review 65.4 (Winter 1985-86), 511-33. In the following three paragraphs I am combining material first sketched out in this article (p. 515), in “History and the Canon,” 513-14, and in “Right Eye and Left Heel: Ideological Origins of the Legend of Faustus,” Mosaic 22.2 (Spring 1989), 82.

25  I am quoting from the first ten lines of Caelica XCIX, in Greville, pp. 43-44:

Down in the depth of mine iniquity,
That ugly centre of infernal spirits
Where each sin feels her own deformity
In these peculiar torments she inherits,
Deprived of human graces and divine,
Even there appears this saving God of mine.

And in this fatal mirror of transgression
Shows man, as fruit of his degeneration,
The error's ugly infinite impression,
Which bears the faithless down to desperation....

26  On this subject, see my article “Agrippa’s Dilemma: Hermetic ‘Rebirth’ and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia,” Renaissance Quarterly 41 (1988), 614-53.

27  Leo Kirschbaum, ed., The Plays of Christopher Marlowe (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1962), “Introduction,” p. 102; Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, pp. 109-19.

28  Works, ed. Tucker Brooke, p. 7. It is of course possible that the material Jones cut was not part of what Marlowe wrote, but rather gags interpolated by the actors. But even if this were so, it would remain the case that the plays which London audiences knew in the late 1580s contained a comic counterweight to tyranny that is lacking in the published text. Which, in this instance, would be the ‘original’ text: the one which audiences had seen acted, or the one ‘restored’ by Richard Jones’s editorial attentions? The arguments of Jerome McGann in A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), ch. 3, are relevant here.

29  See Paul R. Sellin, “The Hidden God: Reformation Awe in Renaissance English Literature,” in Robert S. Kinsman, ed., The Darker Vision of the Renaissance (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1974), pp. 147-96, esp. 177-86; Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgements (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976), pp. 39-66; Martha Tuck Rozett, The Doctrine of Election and the Emergence of Elizabethan Tragedy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 209-46.

30  See my analysis of the Good Angel’s lines in “Misreading,” 520-21.

31  This narrative is based upon the following considerations. We possess two distinct substantive texts of the play, first printed in 1604 and 1616 respectively. The 1616 text incorporates the revisions for which the theatrical entrepreneur Henslowe paid in 1602; see Fredson Bowers, “Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: The 1602 Additions,” Studies in Bibliography 26 (1973), 1-18; Constance Brown Kuriyama, “Dr. Greg and Doctor Faustus : The Supposed Originality of the 1616 Text,” English Literary Renaissance 5 (1975), 171-97; and my article “Verbal Magic.” When the revised text became available, the actors presumably discarded the text they had previously been using, which would thus have become available for printing: this would explain the entry in the Stationers’ Register in 1602, and the edition of 1604. (Only a single copy of this edition survives; there may have been an earlier edition of the same text in 1602 or 1603.) The evidence for the ideological orientation of what are probably further (post-1606) revisions is discussed in my edition of Doctor Faustus, pp. xlv-lxix.

32  The work of Greg, in particular, is analyzed in the articles cited in note 31; see also Michael J. Warren, “Doctor Faustus: The Old Man and the Text,” English Literary Renaissance 11 (1981), 111-47.

33  T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (3rd ed., 1951; rpt. London: Faber and Faber, 1976), p. 122.    

Right Eye and Left Heel: Ideological Origins of the Legend of Faustus

[This essay was first presented at the conference on CONTEXTS: The Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, University of Manitoba (13-16 May 1987); a revised version was read the Renaissance Seminar, University of Sussex, 25 October 1988. It was first published in Mosaic 22.2 (Spring 1989): 79-94.]


The old is dying, and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.

(Antonio Gramsci, qtd. in Marzani 296)


My subject is the sixteenth-century legend of Doctor Faustus, the protagonist of which is a university scholar in full rebellion against the received system of knowledge. I shall argue that the early forms of this legend both participate in and record the orthodox suppression of an actual challenge to this system; the legend may therefore speak to us with renewed relevance at a time when the current organization of the field of textual studies is again being challenged, in the name this time of “comparatist” or “interdisciplinary” modes of analysis.

The words of Gramsci which I used as an epigraph might with equal validity be applied to both situations. The very familiarity of this dictum, however, permits the reader all too easily to forget its figurative nature. Consider then, a more recent development of the same allegory, drawn from a well-known essay by Jacques Derrida:

Here there is a kind of question, let us still call it historical, whose conception, formation, gestation, and labor we are only catching a glimpse of today. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the operations of childbearing—but also with a glance toward those who, in a society from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnamable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity. (293)

Ripped untimely from their contexts and superimposed in this manner, as variations on a theme, the words of Gramsci and Derrida seems to coalesce into a single grotesque image—grotesque, in the first instance, because Gramsci's words evoke, though without laughter, that bizarre image of the senile hag in childbirth which Mikhail Bakhtin identifies as a recurrent, perhaps an organizing feature of the Renaissance counterworld of carnival; and in the second grotesque, not just because what is at issue is emphatically paradoxical, but also because of the way in which the reader's glance is made to flicker between the unnameable birth in progress and the unnamed ones whose averted eyes certify it as monstrous. Yet while the superimposed layers of this image may appear to coalesce, there remains an obvious and powerful tension between them. The monstrosity that is no more than implicit in Gramsci's words becomes inescapable in Derrida's—which, if their perhaps disingenuous ambivalence be counted as morbid, may themselves be taken to exemplify at least one of the symptoms alluded to by Gramsci.

One subsidiary function of this essay will be to pose the question of whether, or to what degree, this conflated image of a laboring expectancy, of a monstrous birth in the offing, of the old struggling to deliver or miscarry the new, can convey what is at stake in the turn to an interdisciplinary mode in literary studies. This interdisciplinary turn might by the cynical be seen as an attempt to generate new and productive forms of intellectual practice out of the interstices between disciplines, some of which have themselves been described by their more searching practitioners as played-out and sterile. (One thinks, for example, of Richard Rorty's remarks to the effect that “that literary genre we call 'philosophy'” has “outlived its usefulness” [xiv], or of Terry Eagleton's recent study of literary theory, which begins by recognizing literature as an illusion and ends by identifying literary theory as another one and proposing that the best possible thing for it to do would be to argue itself out of existence [204].) Indeed, an ambivalence comparable to that of this grotesque compound image appears to traverse the very notion of an interdisciplinary approach to literature—for to speak in such terms is at one and the same time to transgress disciplinary boundaries and to re-assert them as defining the limits to that which is being approached, and consequently its nature as an object of study.

Thus, if certain forms of ideological closure are implicit in the division of textual studies into disciplines, it is arguable that interdisciplinary studies may serve as much to perpetuate as to subvert these forms of closure. A discipline in the human sciences—to hazard a partial definition—might be termed an apparently self-authenticating, self-perpetuating social narrative which recounts a variously defined “us” to ourselves, in the process “disconcealing,” structuring and objectifying this collective identity (Lyotard 18 ff.; Gadamer 103). The material substratum of this meta-narrative is in every case a sequence of relationships, of authority and of submission, between doctor and discipulus—a banal fact which may, however, suggest a similarly close relationship between the derivative terms “doctrine” and “discipline.” Such a relationship is more clearly perceptible in the manner in which the subject-matter of the methodologies that apparently shape the meta-narrative of the discipline are themselves delimited by certain broad doctrinal or ideological commitments which the discipline in turn legitimizes.

English studies, for example, in their New Critical phase commonly took as axiomatic the autonomy and “organic unity” of the text, consequently imposing a severely reductive meaning upon the idea of “context,” which came to denote an inert background from which the individual canonized text had decisively separated itself, rather than something inextricably interwoven (contextus) with all texts as a condition of their textuality. At the same time, not surprisingly, New Critics tended to attribute an analogous autonomy both to the act of writing and to characters in the texts that they explored. The discipline thus both echoed and legitimized an ideology of individualism which, in attenuated form, is still routinely an object of devotion for liberal (and illiberal) political orators. After a period of conceptual “disorder” in which traditionalists have regularly lamented a lack of system and coherence (see for example Cain 93), a similar cycle of legitimation may now be developing in the “new new criticism”—which perhaps seeks less to complete the overthrow of its once-hegemonic namesake that (in a familiar deconstructive doublet) to supplant and supplement, replicating its ideological functions in a mood of ironic dispersal rather than of unification.

My primary concern in this essay, however, is to propose an ideologically-based analysis of the origins of the legend of Faustus—a legend in which, as every reader of Marlowe or Goethe knows, the inadequacy of the traditional academic disciplines is proclaimed at the outset. In mastering philosophy, medicine, law and theology, Goethe's Faust has learned only “dass wir nichts wissen können” (line 363). His gestures of dismissal echo those of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, who in summarizing his rejection of the principal academic disciplines of his day declares that “Philosophy is odious and obscure, / Both Law and Phisicke are for pettie wits”—and “Divinitie,” traditionally the queen of the sciences and the ideological matrix in which the others subsist, is “basest” of them all, “Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vilde...” (A: 139-42).1 Marlowe's Faustus has at this point already turned to the “Metaphysickes of Magicians” (A: 79), which hold out to him, not the dialectical skills of which he already boasts, nor the medical powers which, having mastered, he could respect only if they enabled him to raise the dead and to be more than human, nor the despicable trivialities of the law nor, finally, that promise of “everlasting death” (A: 76) which is all he can find in the New Testament—but rather a dominion that “Stretcheth as farre as doth the minde of man” (A: 91).

Yet in this play, as in other Renaissance versions of the story, the attempt to substitute for the orthodox disciplines a form of power/knowledge which would be immediately transitive in its effects both upon the knower and upon the world that it subjects to him, thus dislocating and transcending the hegemonic system of discourses, is wholly abortive. It is noteworthy that the play contains a powerful analogue to that grotesque compound image of a monstrous birth, or non-birth, with which I began. In the first scene Faustus sums up his desires in two resonant lines: “A sound Magician is a mighty god: / Here tire, my braines, to get a Deity” (A: 92, B: 89).2 He thus announces a project of a self-begotten rebirth into divine form which would deliver him into “a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,” at the same time giving him sway over the world itself: “All things that moove betweene the quiet poles / Shalbe at my commaund...” (A: 83-84, 86-87). This initial aspiration is inverted in Faustus's last soliloquy, where he wishes futilely that he might evade eternal punishment by being “changde /Unto some brutish beast” (A: 1490-91). Moreover, in what sounds perversely like a kind of prayer, he cries:

You starres that raignd at my nativitie,  
whose influence hath alotted death and hel, 
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist, 
Into the intrailes of yon laboring cloude, 
That when you vomite foorth into the ayre, 
My limbes may issue from your smoaky mouthes, 
So that my soule may but ascend to heaven.... (A: 1474-80)

Faustus is reduced to an abject attempt to surrender his bodily integrity in a disgusting reversal of birth; having aspired to “rend the cloudes” (A: 89), he now begs for physical dissolution in their entrails. The bargain proposed—of resorption into a dismembering womb, and of regurgitation and dispersal, in exchange for the salvation of his soul—is the most violent expression of despair in the play.

It is one of the many ironies of this play that Faustus's counter-disciplinary, undisciplined, demonic way to a species of power/knowledge itself quickly assumes the features of a parody discipline: what Faustus achieves with his sophistical critique of the ends and limits of the academic disciplines is, in Constance Brown Kuriyama's helpful portmanteau coinage, “omnimpotence” (95). Overtones of a conventional doctor-discipulus relationship are implicit in Faustus's desire to accelerate his study of magic through the “sage conference” of Valdes and Cornelius (A: 131). (Perhaps because this demonic counter-discipline is parasitic upon the forms of knowledge which he already possesses, the arrogant novice has little to learn: Valdes tells him, “First Ile instruct thee in the rudiments, / And then wilt thou be perfecter than I” [A: 194-95].) In the comic scene which immediately follows Faustus's conjuration of Mephostophilis, however, a doctor-discipulus, master-servant sequence becomes explicit.

Here Wagner, who is Faustus's servant, engages the beggarly clown as his own servant with the promise to “make [him] go like Qui mihi discipulus” (A: 375), with the inducement that (as he says) “I will teach thee to turne thyself ... to a dogge, or a catte, or a mouse, or a ratte, or anything” (A: 421-22), and also with the coercive assistance of two devils whose capacity to terrify the clown awakens the latter's interest in what he calls, in the 1616 quarto, “this conjuring Occupation” (B: 379). Shortly thereafter, Faustus is himself subjected to a similar coercion, and bullied by Lucifer, Belzebub and Mephostophilis into accepting constraints upon his very thoughts: “Thou art damn'd, think thou of hell” (B: 642); “Thou shouldst not thinke on God. Thinke on the devill” (B: 662-63). His surrender, with a vow “never to looke to heaven,” elicits from Lucifer the suave reply: “So shalt thou show thy selfe an obedient servant...” (B: 666-67). However, the reader or playgoer has already been made aware, in a lighter way, that this occupation or discipline involves strict constraints. Wagner, in his sternest manner, says to the clown: “Villaine, call me Master Wagner, and see that you walke attentively, and let your right eye be alwaies Diametrally fixt upon my left heele, that thou maist, Quasi vestigiis nostris insistere” (B: 384-87). “God forgive me,” says the clown, “he speaks Dutch fustian: well, Ile folow him, Ile serve him, thats flat” (A: 435-36).

Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said of the scholars who have studied the early forms of the legend of Faustus is that they would appear, with some notable exceptions, to have followed Wagner's instructions to the letter. Goethe specialists concerned to trace his footprints among a mass of source materials, or Marlovians getting up the obligatory background; folklorists working to identify sources and analogues to the motifs absorbed into the legend; practitioners of a sometimes more or less inert form of literary historiography; students of Renaissance occultism or, more rarely, of humanistic and Reformation controversies—they have for the most part adhered to the paths prescribed by their respective disciplines. It would be churlish to deny that these scholars have provided a basis for the understanding of something more than the disparate parts made visible by their studies. Yet, as may be suggested by the critical perspective upon disciplinary constraints which is built into the legend, at least in its Marlovian and Goethean forms, the origins and early development of the Faustus story cannot be adequately comprehended within the bounds of any single discipline. Although the legend is by common consent of major importance in that cultural manifold which is their shared, or rather partitioned, object of study, from the point of view of each separate discipline its early forms appear somehow peripheral. The reason for this, I would argue, is that the intelligibility of these early forms of the legend is inseparable from their ideological functions as polemical narrative—and it is these functions which the division of textual studies into disciplines serves to suppress and to make invisible.

“Polemical narrative,” I have said: let us be more precise. Whatever may be said about the motifs drawn into it from, for example, the patristic legend of Simon Magus and the medieval legends of Cyprian, Virgilius or Theophilus (see Butler 73ff.), the legend of Faustus arose in the early decades of the sixteenth century as a form of ideological assassination, as an abusive attack upon representatives of a current of thought which proposed to deconstruct and to transcend the orthodox categories of knowledge, which appropriated Christian doctrine in the service of a kind of gnosis, a radically heterodox power/knowledge, and in which, finally, the metaphor of rebirth that is parodied and inverted in Marlowe's play occupied a central place.

There is not space here to do more than name a few of the prominent early exponents of this Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition—Marsilio Ficino, philosopher and translator of Hermetic, Platonic and Neoplatonic texts; Giovanni Pico, polymath, philosopher, and Cabalist; Joannes Reuchlin, embattled Hebrew scholar and Cabalist; Joannes Trithemius, abbot, annalist and magician; Ludovico Lazzarelli, humanist poet and Hermetic enthusiast, Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, an evangelical humanist, the prime reinterpreter of Aristotle for his generation; Cornelius Agrippa, encyclopedic occultist and skeptic.

Similarly, at this time one can only gesture at some of the works of modern scholarship which have restored this invasive tradition to view: the essays of Garin, Kristeller, Secret, and Walker; iconological studies by Wind and by Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl; explorations by Zambelli, Zika, and Grafton of orthodox reactions to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus and to such Hermetists and Cabalists as Agrippa and Reuchlin; and Frances Yates's speculative historical reconstructions—which have themselves provided the occasion for cross-disciplinary warfare between intellectual historians and historians of science.3

The connections between this current of thought and the Faustus legend may intially seem far from obvious. In the first complete version of the legend to be printed, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten published by Spiess in 1587, there remain only traces of what I would call the originary polemic against the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition, while a broad current of anti-Catholic polemic is in evidence throughout the text. If the narrative exfoliation of the legend resulted in an occultation of the ideological polarity from which it sprang, however, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus might be said to constitute a return of the repressed. As I have argued in another essay (“Misreading”), the more authentic 1604 version of this play embodies an unbalanced dialectic between a Reformed theological orthodoxy which it simultaneously affirms as inescapable and exposes as intolerable, and that other ideology which is the basis of Faustus's unstable ambitions, and to the nature of which he offers an important clue when he aspires to be “as cunning as Agrippa was, / Whose shadowes made all Europe honor him” (A: 150-51).

The German humanist and magician Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535)—whose “shadowes” were the theatrical displays of necromancy with which this “abundant scholar” was popularly thought to have astonished his contemporaries, among them Erasmus, More, Luther's protector the Elector of Saxony, and the Emperor Charles V (Nashe 297-99)—can provide a focus for our inquiries. Of Agrippa's many books the best known was De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium atque excellentia verbi Dei declamatio, which anticipates Marlowe's Faustus in its rhetorical demolition of all orthodox forms of knowledge, from logic to courtly place-seeking, and from whore-mongering to scholastic theology. Despite the evangelical posture which gives shape to its satire, this book was suspected (by, for example, Thevet vol. 2, 544r-v) of being a kind of ground-clearing operation for the magical doctrines espoused in Agrippa's other major work, his De occulta philosophia, an encyclopedia of occultism in which appear rhapsodic flights (such as the “Epistola nuncupatoria” to Book III, and also that would seem to underlie Faustus's praise of magic. The relationship seen by some sixteenth-century readers between these books is thus parodied by the pattern of Faustus's first soliloquy. Moreover, a Hermetic doctrine of spiritual rebirth which entails the acquisition of divine powers is the basis both of Christian faith as Agrippa understands it in De vanitate and of the highest forms of magic described in Book III of De occulta philosophia (see Keefer, “Dilemma”).

There are strong reasons for locating the historical Doctor Faustus on the radical fringe of that Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition of which Agrippa was one of the most notorious exponents.4 Georg of Helmstadt, or Georgius Sabellicus Faustus (as he came to call himself), first comes to light as a magician in a letter written in 1507 by Joannes Trithemius (to whom Agrippa three years later dedicated the first manuscript version of De occulta philosophia). From this letter is appears that Faustus claimed astonishing magical powers, boasting, for example, that if all the works of Plato and Aristotle were lost he could restore them—as Ezra did the writings of Moses—with increased beauty, and bragging in addition “that the miracles of Christ the Saviour were not so wonderful, that he himself could do all the things that Christ had done, as often and whenever he wishes.” Faustus's transgressions were not merely verbal for, according to Trithemius, he also disgraced himself as a sodomite (Palmer and More 83-86). Frank Baron's analysis of this letter has shown both that Faustus, drawing with wild eclecticism upon a variety of magical traditions, associated himself with Zoroaster and Numa Pompilius, among others; and also that Trithemius, himself struggling against accusations of black magic, took the occasion to denounce him as a means of displaying his own orthodoxy (23-29).

Nowhere, of course, does Trithemius associate Faustus with the Hermetic-Cabaistic tradition to which he himself adhered. One may suspect, however, that he knew more about Faustus than his letter reveals. In 1506, and again at greater length in 1514, Trithemius described a visit to the court of Louis XII of France made in 1501 by a similarly boastful magician, one Joannes Mercurius de Corigio (see Garin, Testi 45-46). Here again there are no direct indications of Hermetic or Cabalistic affiliations; but in this case, unlike that of Faustus, the man left writings which have survived, as have those of his disciple, the humanist Ludovico Lazzarelli (see McDaniel; Kristeller, “Lazzarelli”; Ruderman). From these it is clear that Joannes Mercurius was more than just a bizarre magician and prophet: he claimed, with something like the eclecticism of Faustus, to be at once Hermes, Enoch, Apollonius of Tyana, and Christ; and Lazzarelli's writings about him reveal a knowledge of the Cabala. Moreover, the wording of Trithemius's text lets slip the fact that he was aware of the man's true oddity: he writes that Joannes Mercurius scorned “almost all the ancients together, the philosophers as much as the theologians, since he might declare all of them, excepting only himself, to have been unlearned.”5 If we knew nothing else about this bizarre figure, the words “excepting only himself” would seem merely a clumsy turn of phrase. But as Trithemius undoubtedly realized, the man literally believed himself to be one of “the ancients”—or rather, several of them combined. There are then grounds for believing that in the case of Faustus, Trithemius also knew more than he was willing to commit to paper.

A further sampling of this learned abbot's correspondence reveals a fact that is of equal interest. Like Mercurius's disciple Lazzarelli, who seems, shortly before 1494, to have initiated the elderly King Ferdinand of Aragon into the mystery of Hermetic rebirth into divine form (D.P. Walker, Spiritual 64-72), and like Mercurius himself, who would appear to have had similar designs upon Louis XII of France in 1501, Trithemius attempted to disseminate magical beliefs and practices through the conversion of powerful princes. In 1503 he wrote to the Margrave of Brandenburg in the hope of enrolling him as a student of natural magic, of establishing for him a program of studies in this art, and (it would seem) of subsequently persuading other rulers to follow his example (Trithemius sig. G3-Hv). Trithemius's persuasions, which emphasize the political as well as spiritual advantages to be gained from a knowledge of magic, may seem staid in comparison with those of Mercurius, who made wild promises of good fortune and longevity to the King of France, or of Lazzarelli, whose conversion of Ferdinand involved a strongly heterodox appropriation of Christian doctrine. While Trithemius was playing the same game, however, it was obviously not in his interest to reveal how much his own magical doctrines were derived from the same sources as those of such embarrassingly indiscreet practitioners as Lazzarelli and Mercurius—or Georgius Faustus.

The association of the historical Faustus with the radical wing of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition is reinforced by a letter of the humanist Mutianus Rufus, who encountered him in 1513, and scornfully proposed that the Dominican theologians who were trying to destroy “the philosopher Reuchlin” should take aim at this man instead (Palmer and More 87-88). Here again one may see an attempt to deflect hostile attention from a mainstream exponent of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition to a figure on its radical periphery. Besides being a noted Hebrew scholar, Reuchlin was the author of De verbo mirifico (1494), a Cabalist exposition of the magical powers inherent in the name of Jesus. Agrippa borrowed heavily from this work in De occulta philosophia (see Zika, “De verbo” 138, “Reuchlin” 242-43), and also lectured on Reuchlin's book at the University of Dôle in 1509. (For this act he was denounced before the court of Margaret of Austria as a judaizing heretic, and lost his position at the university [Nauert 25-28]—another instance of orthodox reaction to this current of thought.)

The Reuchlin connection can take us farther still. In 1515 and 1517 Reuchlin's defenders struck out at the theologians with the famous Letters of Obscure Men. A riposte published by Ortwin Gratius in 1518, the Lamentationes obscurorum virorum, contains an intriguing exchange of letters about sinister demonic practices between “Agrippa Stygianus” and one “Georgius Subbunculator” (Zambelli, “Agrippa von Nettesheim,” 280, “Magic”). The latter name, if indeed it is a derisive modification of “Georgius Sabellicus,” is a telling one—for Faustus in his eclectic heterodoxy was in effect a subbunculator, a “botcher-up of old clothes.”

The names of Agrippa and Faustus (who died in 1535 and c. 1537 respectively) were subsequently paired with increasing frequency. Agrippa's brief service in the court of Charles V was absorbed, within several decades, into the legend of Faustus: both magicians were rumoured to have won victories for the emperor by magic (Palmer and More 103; Thevet, vol. 2, fol. 542v-543). In addition, the libel, first printed in 1546, that Agrippa's black dog was a devil, was echoed two years later by the claim that Faustus's dog, and his horse as well, were devils (Nauert 327; Palmer and More 98). It seems to have become almost a convention to associate Faustus, as Melanchthon did, with “iste nebulo qui scripsit De vanitate artium” (Palmer and More 102), with that “scoundrel” Agrippa.

Faustus, however, proved to be a more appropriate focus than Agrippa for the development of hostile legends. This “great sodomite and necromancer,” as the city records of Nuremberg called him in 1532 (Palmer and More 90), was a far more extreme transgressor of social and ideological codes; he also conveniently left no writings behind him. Agrippa, in contrast, was a famous (and in some circles well-respected) man of letters. His pupil Johannes Wier came to his defense in his widely-read De praestigiis daemonum (1563), a book which also attempts to redirect the attention of persecutors from the innocent women whom they were torturing as witches to the activities of learned magicians (Wier fol. 67-77, 206v-207, 368; cf. Baxter 57-62), and the fourth edition of which, printed in 1568, contains several anecdotes about the misdeeds and violent death of Faustus (Palmer and More 105-07).

The development of the central core of the Faustus legend (to which popular tales about, for example, Faustus devouring a load of hay could subsequently be added at will) thus forms part of the history of orthodox responses to heterodoxies associated with magical practices. Norman Cohn has argued persuasively that orthodox reactions to the medieval tradition of ceremonial magic during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries laid the foundation for the stereotype of the witch, which was fully elaborated only in the early fifteenth century (164-205). After the 1470s, however, the church found itself facing a new form of Hermetic and later also Cabalistic magic which claimed to be based upon the purest and most ancient religious traditions and to be in conformity with the true uncorrupted teachings of Christ. Medieval grimoires and pseudo-Solomonic texts could be easily enough condemned as sorcery and witchcraft—but what was one to say of the pious Hermes Trismegistus and the holy Cabalists? Were their modern interpreters—respected scholars and philosophers like Ficino, Pico, Trithemius and Reuchlin—also witches and sorcerers? The question did not initially take that form. Giovanni Pico was condemned in 1487 on theological rather than on demonological grounds—and then absolved in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI in terms that gave support to his theological claims for magic and cabala (Yates 113-14).

As social, political and ideological tensions increased in the early sixteenth century, however, the tone of the debate began to change. Shortly after the turn of the century Charles de Bouelles, who had visited Trithemius at his monastery of Spanheim and made use of his famous library, denounced him as having a pact with the devil (Wier fol. 75v). At about the same time, Gianfrancesco Pico, a nephew of the more famous Giovanni who shared neither his uncle's philosophical opinions nor his enthusiasm for magic, attacked in his De rerum praenotione (1506-07) any conflation of Christian and pagan traditions, denouncing Orpheus and Apollonius of Tyana as demonic magicians—and letting off Ficino, whose talismanic magic he linked with that of Apollonius, only because of his submissive attitude to the church (Walker, Spiritual 146-49). In this text the younger Pico also told stories, among them one about a magician who had promised to a curious and unwise prince “that he would present to him the siege of Troy as on a stage or in a theater, and would show him Achilles and Hector as they were when they fought.” This magician's pretended knowledge of future events let him down, however: he was promptly carried off by a devil (qtd. in Wier fol. 71r-v). A decade later, in 1515, Jerome Benivieni had to defend the reputations of Ficino and Giovanni Pico against the accusations of a preaching friar that they had attempted to unite their souls with God, perform miracles and prophesy by means of magical and cabalistic rites (Secret 77-78). The philosophers, it would seem, were being assimilated by the orthodox to the pattern of extreme Hermetists like Mercurius or Faustus, who actually claimed to be capable of such things.

Why, however, did the Faustus legend develop in Lutheran, rather than in Catholic or Calvinist circles? A tentative answer to this question may be sought in several facts. First, the Catholic church was less automatically predisposed than were the Reformers to identify any mention of magic as demonic sorcery (Thomas 27-89). Next, the reforming impulses of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition, its claim to restore the pristine verities of the Christian religion, and its doctrines of illumination and rebirth all outflanked the teachings of the neo-Augustinian Reformers.6 No less significantly, certain late-patristic texts which Calvin rejected as “putrid fables” (vol. 48, viii) were used and transmitted at the University of Wittenberg under Luther and Melanchthon.

I refer in particular to the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, and to the apocryphal Acts of the apostles Peter and Paul.7 These texts record a series of debates and magical contests between St. Peter and Simon Magus, the Gnostic heresiarch and magician whose teachings had been refuted by such orthodox polemicists as Irenaeus and Hippolytus in the second and third centuries A.D. (The name Faustus, it may be added, appears in association with Simon in the pseudo-Clementine texts; and heresies similar to those of Simon recur in the late fourth century in the mouth of Faustus the Manichee, who was refuted by St. Augustine [see Wentersdorf 215-19].) The heresies of Simonian Gnosticism, as presented in the Recognitions, resemble those of the major “gnosticizing” Hermetic texts, which date from the same period and which later formed the core of the Renaissance tradition espoused by Reuchlin, Trithemius, and Agrippa.8 The legend of Simon Magus, moreover, shows the same pattern of development—from doctrinal and demonological polemic to a narrative exfoliation resulting in the occultation of the Gnostic ideology—that I have shown to be traceable in the Faustus legend. Furthermore, in several important respects—the emphasis upon demonic flight, the episode of Helen of Troy, and the magician's irretrievable damnation—the later legend borrows from the earlier one. The Simon Magus legend is thus not merely the earliest of a large number of textual sources of the Faustus legend; it is also in a full sense its prototype and parallel.

To these ideological, etiological and structural parallels can be added a further, functional one. Melanchthon, whose statements about Faustus imply that he had encountered him, both in Wittenberg and perhaps also previously (Palmer and More 101-02)—although what he says about the man's Christian name and birthplace is contradicted by earlier sources (Baron 11-16)—repeatedly compares the sorcerer to Simon Magus. One may suspect that a kind of ratio is being constructed. The antichrist Simon Magus opposed, and yet by his very presence also testified to, the apostolic mission of St. Peter and St. Paul; Melanchthon's stories about Faustus imply a similar guarantee through demonic opposition of his own and Luther's quasi-apostolic role. A suspicion that such a ratio may underlie the Lutheran legend is strengthened by the curious response of one Augustine Lercheimer, a graduate of Wittenberg in the 1540s, to the publication of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten in 1587. Denouncing it angrily as “trivial, false, and nasty,” as a libel both upon the university with which it associates Faustus and also upon “Luther, Melanchthon, and others of sainted memory,” Lercheimer then proceeds, very oddly, to tell a story which links Faustus more intimately to the Lutheran leadership than does anything in the Faustbuch. It would appear that when Faustus was in Wittenberg, “he came at times to the house of Melanchthon,” of all people, where he received both hospitality and admonitions. Resenting the latter, he told his host one day as they descended to dinner that he would make all the pots in his kitchen fly up through the chimney. To which Melanchthon replied, with less than his usual eloquence, “Dass soltu wol lassen, ich schiesse dir in deine kunst”—and the magician, of course, was powerless to harm “the saintly man” (Palmer and More 121-22). This Kitchen Debate reproduces in miniature the rhetorical and magical contests between St. Peter and Simon Magus. The fact that Lercheimer evidently felt it to reflect credit upon his teacher speaks volumes.

* * * * 

The Faustus legend of the sixteenth century thus preserves, for those whose disciplinary commitments do not blind them to the evidence, traces of a vicious ideological struggle—one in which, to oversimplify matters somewhat, a radically relativistic current of thought which challenged religious and academic orthodoxies succumbed to the onslaught of an authoritarian, exclusivist biblical fundamentalism that had made its own compromises with the structures of political power. Such defeats are seldom absolute: thus, in 1619, the young René Descartes's dreams of a mathesis universalis and of a single method of inquiry which would reunify the scattered sciences were stimulated by his reading of Agrippa and of the Hermetic fantasies of the Rosicrucian manifestos (Descartes, vol. 10, 165, 167-68, 193-200, 214). Yet it was a defeat. However misleadingly, Joannes Reuchlin has most often been remembered by historians as the occasion of a violent ideological struggle between “humanists” and “scholastics” (the real issues, as Zika [“Reuchlin and Erasmus”] and Overfield have argued, were Reuchlin's courageous opposition to orthodox anti-semitism, in particular that of the Dominican order, and his propagation of Cabalistic magic). Cornelius Agrippa has survived, more dubiously, in the rhymes of the English translation of Struwwelpeter as “tall Agrippa,” who dips young racists into his enormous inkwell, from which they emerge as black as the child whom they have been tormenting. Despite their reputations as scholars, however, the comparatist, counter-disciplinary turn which Reuchlin and Agrippa represented had little if any impact upon university curricula in their century.

This fact may seem hard to regret, if one pauses to reflect upon the more wildly irrational elements in their writings, and upon their systematic failure to distinguish between the natural order and the order of words. However, something more fundamental was also at stake—quite literally so—in the ideological struggles whose traces I have been investigating.

One can scarcely speak of the legend of Faustus without remembering the central function in most of its versions of “das Ewigweibliche.” The “eternal feminine,” or the “eternal in woman”—whether figured by Goethe as “Una poenitentium ... sonst Gretchen genannt,” or by Marlowe as that glamourously demonic Helen whose lips suck forth Faustus's soul—draws the protagonist in the direction in which he was already going. It cannot have escaped attention that the central metaphor of this essay is derived from a different male image of the “eternal feminine,” one which registers quite precisely a male fear of the female body, and which uses it to symbolize the “monstrous” processes which escape masculine control. 

It may therefore be relevant to observe, in concluding, that one of Cornelius Agrippa's earliest writings was entitled De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (1509). In this text he argues (I quote from the translation of 1542) that “betwene man and woman by substance of the soule, one hath no higher pre-emynence of nobylytye above the other, but both of them naturally have equall libertie of dignitie and worthynesse. But all other thynges, the which be in man, besydes the dyvyne substance of the soule, in those thynges the excellente and noble womanheed in a manner infynytely dothe excell the rude grosse kynd [i.e. nature] of men...” (sig. Aiiv-Aiii). In this text Agrippa subverts a long-established misogynist tradition with its own weapons of philological argument and the citation of scriptural and patristic authorities. The work is exuberantly playful, but that predominantly male scholarly tradition which has interpreted it as no more than an exercise in paradox is perhaps mistaken. For while Agrippa's arguments are in places deliberately frivolous, they also insistently call into question the established order both of gender relations and of ecclesiastical power (Wirth 609-13). In other writings Agrippa took a vigorous stand against the demonization of the feminine and of the female body which was under way in his lifetime. He mocked the theological faculty of the University of Cologne for having given its approval to that brutally misogynist text, the Malleus maleficarum (Opera, vol. 2, 1043; see Lea, vol. 2, 337-43). Moreover, in 1518 in Metz he put his career and his life on the line in his successful defense of a woman who had been accused of witchcraft and tortured by the local inquisitor (Nauert 59-61).

I conclude, then, with a question. Is it merely a coincidence that the period between 1560 and the late 1580s, during which the Faustus legend received its full narrative elaboration, also saw the first major outbreak of witch-hunts in Western Europe (Monter 35; Midelfort 32, 86-89; Macfarlane 26-27)—an outbreak in which, with the vehement approval of orthodox intellectuals, thousands of people, most of them women, were imprisoned, tortured and judicially murdered? One may be reminded of the image of Gretchen, the desired and the betrayed, which appeared to Goethe's Faust on Walpurgis Night, and of Faust's response to this apparition:

Welch eine Wonne! Welch ein Leiden! 
Ich kann von diesem Blick nicht scheiden. 
Wie sonderbar muss diesen schönen Hals
Ein einzig-rotes Schnürchen schmücken, 
Nicht breiter als ein Messerücken! (4201-05)

Or, in Barker Fairley's translation: “What joy, what suffering. I can't take my eyes off her. Strange how the red line round her lovely neck suits her. Not wider than the back of a knife” (73).




1  My quotations from the Greg edition are identified by line numbers and by text (A refers to the edition of 1604 and its reprints of 1609 and 1611, B to the substantially revised and bowdlerized edition of 1616). U/v and i/j have been silently altered to conform with modern practice, and errors in Latin phrases are silently corrected. For the principles governing my use of the A and B texts, see Keefer, “Verbal Magic” and “History.”

2  These lines offer an interesting textual crux: the B-version of A: 92 contains what seems to be an ideologically-motivated softening of the meaning (“Demi-god” for “mighty god”), but the following line in A shows signs of memorial corruption (hypermetrical self-address, internal rhyme, suppression of the metaphor of begetting). I have given to B: 89 the punctuation of Jump's Revels Plays edition.

3  Yates's exaggerated claims about the formative role of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition in the development of scientific mentalities have been challenged by Westman, by Vickers, and by Schmitt, who is criticizing Yates went so far as to propose that “Hermeticism never becomes a real driving force of any significant cultural movement during the Renaissance” (207)—a remark which may suggest that he, as much as Yates, would have done well to attend to Garin's warning against “troppo facili sintesi” (“Divagazioni” 466).

4  Baron's attempt to do so on the basis of Faustus's possible associations at Heidelberg University in the 1480s (20-22) is purely conjectural—although his discovery that Faustus studied there is of major importance. I have tried to show here that there are solid textual grounds for linking Faustus with the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition.

5  My translation. Trithemius wrote: “contemnens veteres pene cunctos, tam Philosophos, quam Theologos, cum prater se unum omnes diceret fuisse indoctos...” (Garin, Testi 46).

6  An early instance of the unstable relationship between the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition and its near-opposite, predestinarian theology, is studied by D.P. Walker (Theology 42-62). In some cases the reforming impulses of this tradition were absorbed into orthodox evangelical movements (see for example Rice 19-29; Copenhaver 189-211). The concluding chapters of Agrippa's De vanitate, in which a quasi-Lutheran vocabulary is used to convey a thoroughly instrumental, Hermetic view of illumination and rebirth, exemplify an inverse process.

7  The Recognitions, first printed in 1504 by Lefèvre d'Étaples, is one of two surviving fourth-century recensions of a lost third-century work, itself a compilation of earlier Christian and Gnostic texts (Cullmann 63-131; Hennecke-Schneemelcher, vol. 2, 542-45). The Acts of Peter and Paul, which dates from the sixth or seventh century but incorporates parts of the second-century Acts of Peter (Hennecke-Schneemelcher, vol. 2, 575) was current in the Renaissance in a Latin translation dating from 1490 (A. Walker xiv).

8  These are the first, fourth, seventh and thirteenth tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum. For indications of their significance as a group, see Festugière 11; Nock, Corpus, vol. 1, 16, 61, 128n); Nock, Essays, vol. 1, 85. There are English translations of these texts in Grant (Anthology 211-33); the term “gnosticizing” is applied to them by Grant (Gnosticism 148).    





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----. Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences. Trans. James Sanford. Ed. Catherine M. Dunn. Northridge: California State University Press, 1974.

Augustine, Aurelius. Writings in Connection with the Manichaean Heresy. Trans. Richard Stothert. The Works of Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Vol. 5. Edinburgh: Clark, 1872.

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The World Turned Inside Out: Revolutions of the Infinite Sphere from Hermes to Pascal

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In a strange figure of chiasmus, the centre becomes a metonymy for the circumference, and the circumference a metonymy for its own centre: the corporeal sphere is turned inside out. [....] The paradox, understood as a topological inversion that makes every possible centre into an unlocatable circumference as well, applies both to nature as a whole and to everything within it, including the reader. 

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Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia

Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia

When in 1625 Gabriel Naudé wished to clear the name of Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) from the pious slanders of the demonologists of the intervening century, he argued that this learned man, “a new Trismegistus in the three higher faculties of Theology, Law, and Medicine, [...] who [...] exercise[d] his mind on all sciences and disciplines,” deserved better than to be abused with stories “which would be much more appropriate in the magical tales of Merlin, Maugis, and of Doctor Faust....”

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