Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Title: Doctor Faustus

Author: Christopher Marlowe

Paperback: 56 pages

Publisher: Dover Publications, Inc.

Publish Date: 1994

ISBN: 9780486282084

Miscellaneous: Dr. Faustus takes its protagonist from the German Faustbuch (1587), which was based on the life of an actual German astronomer and necromancer named Johann Georg Faustwho died about 1540. Rumored to have exchanged his soul for supernatural powers, he entered German folklore as the consummate naughty trickster, usually indulging in callow mischief. In Marlowe’s play, however he is transformed somewhat, and possesses a certain tragic distinction, though in no way is he exculpated from his crimes. Marlowe is also credited with transforming the English blank verse line, giving it a vigor and range of expression that was to prove a strong influence on his contemporaries, including William Shakespeare.

FAUSTUS:The reward of sin is death?” That’s hard.
Si peccasse negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veritas.
“If we say that we have no sin,
We deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us.”
Why then belike we must sin
And so consequently die.
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this,
Che sera sera,
“What will be shall be?”  Divinity, adieu!
These metaphysics of magicians
And necromantic books are heavenly;
Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters,
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
O what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence
Is promis’d to the studious artisan!

A sound magician is a mighty god…

-Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Scene 1, lines 40-53, 60

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe is an age-old tale about a man who makes a deal with the devil, swapping his soul for knowledge and power. Initially, Faustus imagines all the things he will do with the powers he will be given, reroute the Rhine and maybe even give himself a kingdom for example, but in the end he is little more than a conjurer performing parlor tricks for people’s amusement.

Right from the start of the play we see Faustus, a man of incredible intelligence… too smart for his own good, debating the merits of various disciplines from medicine to philosophy and ultimately divinity. Having received his doctorate in divinity from a world-renown school, Faustus should have a better understanding of God’s mercy and the nature of Grace, but he seems to lack a grasp of the basic elementary concepts of Salvation, Redemption and God’s limitless, unconditional Love. Dr. Faustus’ arrogance and pride in regards to his own geniusness shines through and we get a picture of a man jaded by religion and desiring forbidden knowledge for his own personal gain.

For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?   -Matthew 16:26

For all Faustus’ plans, dreams and schemes of political influence and power, to be “a mighty god,” as the play progresses he becomes baser and more ridiculous until he is on the level of a clown and a jester, performing parlor tricks for the scholars and locals and using his unfathomable powers to play pranks on the unsuspecting.

Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus toward the end of the Renaissance, a period of time that valued the pursuits of knowledge and self over relationship with God, and meant for the play to be both cautionary and commentary. Through Faustus’ questions put to Mephistophilis (his personal assistant from Hell… literally), Marlowe shows that all things have their origins in God. As the kingdom of Hell is set against Heaven, it because an exercise in futility and vanity for Faustus to pursue all the hidden knowledges because he can not follow them to their ultimate ends, God Himself.

Several times in the play (which covers a 24 year period as that is part of Faustus’ contract) Faustus shows signs that repentance is weighing heavy on his heart. Faustus is caught between the Good Angel’s council to repent and that God will forgive him, and the Evil Angel, who first tries to entice Faustus to follow Hell, and ultimately threatens him that if he repents devils will viciously tear him apart. All the way to the last few days, God continues to call to Faustus and tries to turn his heart to repent and return, but Faustus refuses every time. With the final call, Faustus shows how cruel and vulgar he has become by sending devils to torment and kill the old man who had tried to inspire him to turn back.

One of the fascinating things about Doctor Faustus is that it has historical origins. There really was a Dr. Faust who was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil for supernatural knowledge and abilities.

While Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe isn’t one of the best plays of the Elizabethan era, it is intellectually and morally fascinating. It is possible that Marlowe would have become Shakespeare’s equal had he not died at the age of 29. Also, as I read this play it occurred to me why this type of literature can be so difficult for readers. Unlike novels, which include every detail of the story and make it much easier for the reader to be a passenger in its telling, a play requires you to imagine the missing information and to set the timing. Plays are much more interactive than novels. For flexing my brain and using “shoulder angels,” I give Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe 4 out of 5 stars.

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The name of Faustus’ familiar spirit is Mephistophilis, which reminded me of John Lovitz’ SNL performance in the following clip. What is hilariously funny about it is, it’s actually fairly true to the play. Of course, it’s an 18-year-old hair dresser named Vonda Braithwaite instead of Faustus, but for the most part it’s all there. Lol… the ending is different, too, though you have to wonder would Mephistophilis have stood a chance had the doctor taken his case to Judge Wapner?

 
I love the line “Now you listen to me. I’m Mephistopheles, Prince of Darkness. When I start harassing you, YOU’LL KNOW IT!”

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

Title: When We Were Romans
Author: Matthew Kneale
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Double Day
Publish Date: July 22, 2008
ISBN: 9780385526258

I had seen mum when she got worreid but I never saw her like this, this was worse. I said “mum, its time to get up, don’t you want your breakfast” but she just talked really quietly so I could hardly hear, it was like she was yawning, she said “I think I’ll just stay here, Lawrence, I’m a bit tired.” I said “but you can’t mum, we’ve got to go to Rome, remember” but she didn’t say anything, she just lay in her bed looking up at the cieling with her eyes. I could feel my breathing going fast and Jemimas lips were going all wobbly like she would cry, she said “whats gone wrong with mummy” and I didn’t know what to do, I thought “what about our breakfast?” I thought “I don’t know where we get it, we can’t go without mum” and suddenly I wanted to cry too. But then I thought of something, it was like I just notised it, I thought “I cant get upset too actually or there will be nobody left.”

When We Were Romans is a story of a family in crisis, fleeing from their home to escape the children’s stalking father as told by nine-year-old Lawrence. Through Lawrence’s eyes we witness and feel the life of a child who has no choice or control in his life and must go with and take care of his mentally ill mother. In this, Lawrence is both a helpless child desperate for his mother’s affection and care giver who must watch her carefully, always ready to do or say whatever he must to keep her from slipping into a deep depressive state.  (I kept wondering if she was a bipolar, borderline personality, or had paranoid schitzophrenia.)

It is heartbreaking to watch Lawrence struggle with being a typical older sibling who feels his baby sister is favored (and sometimes he’s right, as Jemima screams and bites until their mother gives in), and with being the man of the family, responsible for Jemima’s care and his mother’s safety. Several times his mother loses herself and Lawrence feels panicked about what he could do as a child.

As the book progresses, Hannah (mum) descends deeper into her delusions. When her friends disagree with her and try to get her to see that what she says is not possible, she tells Lawrence their father has turned them against her. She finally comes unhinged as she is certain their father has taken up residence in the building next door, sneaks in their house and poisons the food, and at one point she tells Lawrence he’s poisoned their tap, too. When Lawrence expresses his doubts about what his mother says, Hannah withholds love and affection until he finally gives in and agrees to everything she tells him.

A bit later the door opened and mum looked in, she was still cross, I could see it. She said “hurry up Lawrence, we’re going out to get some breakfast at a cafe.” I thought “that’s strange, why does she want to go outside to a cafe when shes worried dads out there?” But then when I got up I saw there were two garbage bags by the door and I understood, I thought “oh yes of course, mum has thrown away all our food in case its poissoned, so we have to go out.” I thought “I hope it really is poissoned or thats a big waste of food”

For me, this was a hard read. Not in the sense of densness or poor writing, Kneale is an amazing writer, never jumping out of Lawrence’s voice, and the language was so simple, just like a nine-year-old would write. What made it hard was that I’ve had a past where I was a mom and struggled with mental illness at the same time. It’s amazing how much children see and understand that, years later, I’m still shocked and embarrassed by the things they remember. To understand what young Lawrence is feeling, both dependant and caretaker, always tiptoeing around to see how mum’s feeling at this minute, which could turn 180 degrees the next. To hear his frustration, hurt, anger, and devotion breaks my heart for him… and for my kids, as well.

Also sprinkled throughout the book are scientific stories about space, Emperors and Popes. These are different tidbits from the books Lawrence was reading and at first seemed non-sequiter, but as I began to try to figure out how they fit within the text (I was certain an author of Kneale’s talent would just throw them in for filler) I began to see how they reflected what was going on for Lawrence. As he talks of “The Great Attractor” and the sun expanding out and burning up the earth before imploding on itself, I can see this references the pull his mother had on him. The stories of Popes and Emperors displayed madness and murder at it’s nth degree. The story of Nero trying to kill his mother Agrippina is was particularly interesting as I couldn’t help but wonder if this was Lawrence’s subconscious wish.

Amazingly simplistic and deeply intuitive, When We Were Romans is a prize worthy work. However, if you are put off by spelling and grammatical errors, I do not recommend it. As I said, it is written from Lawrence’s point of view and is full of the type of mispelling and grammar trouble typical of a child. But if you are able to look past that and enjoy books of family drama and suspense, then I definitely suggest adding When We Were Romansto your own Mt. TBR.   4.5 stars out of 5   This story will be with me for a while.

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