Here are the official ground rules for reading Marlowe.
1) As a reader of Faustus, remember to engage in hilarious banter-battles with your peers over how much better Marlowe is than Shakespeare, and how you were a fan of Marlowe before everyone else was a fan of Marlowe, and how other people HATE him compared to how much you like him.
2) Definitely print out a picture of Marlowe and place it next to a picture of Shakespeare and try and decide which one was probably better looking at the time. I may or may not have done that. (I did, I did do that.)
3) Draw offensive pictures in your text book and label them as your friends! Everyone will go mad for it.
3) Call him Kit, not Christopher. He’d like that.
4) Do not watch the film Anonymous if you want to understand the politics of contemporary play-writing. Marlowe is the son of a middle-class tradesman, just like Shakespeare. You didn’t have to be a member of the aristocracy to be able to pen erudite and subversive plays.
The hardest thing for us to understand today is that so much of Faustus would have been EXPLOSIVE at the time. It would have thrilled and appalled with its irreverent rewriting of Christian themes. Maybe a bit like when Jerry Springer the Opera got broadcast on BBC Two.
Now that we no longer get set on fire if we don’t believe in God, it can be hard to truly appreciate the play’s controversy.
The play was hugely successful, balancing its role as a mouthpiece for people’s doubts about certain tenets of Christianity – a sometimes dangerous, and provocative role – with its role as simply another adaptation of the Faust story, a well-known moral tale that ultimately instructs you to be a good Christian, and not to meddle in all them confusing God things you’re too stupid to understand.
There’s a word with some kind of religious connotation in almost every line. It might be used in an expected context, flagging up a double meaning, or used ironically, often to imply that there’s some measure of hypocrisy in Catholic teaching.
Marlowe’s contemporaries were confused about what exactly he was trying to do in the play. Some saw it as jubilantly pro-Catholic, some saw it as anti-Catholic propaganda, and some said it was an example of his atheism. He’d got in trouble for that before. They weren’t sure sure, scholars still aren’t sure. And if they aren’t, you definitely don’t have to be.
The thing you’re looking for when analysing the play is BLASPHEMY – when someone (usually Faustus, or the devils) says something impious about God, or something that directly contradicts accepted Christian teaching. You won’t be short of examples for this. Faustus, obsessed with a sense of his own preeminence, constantly elevates himself to the level of demi-god, questioning and rejecting God’s divine authority. Look for easy points in Act 1 scene 1, with phrases like “A sound magician is a demi-God” and “All things that move between the quiet poles / Shall be at my command”. Even when he says “damned” is bad. That wasn’t polite.
Here are some of the things that would have been most subversive for Marlowe’s audience. Or so I am told by real scholars.
1) “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.”
This is Faustus, ranting his way into nihilism. Half way through scene one and we’re already questioning the meaning of life. How can goodness exist? How does punishment work? How can we be sinful human beings with no sin? Faustus is not just ditching Christian teaching for the sake of it; he has considered the logic of the lesson and finds that there is none. This was RADICAL.
2) “Consummatum est: this bill is ended, / And Faustus hath bequeath’d his soul to Lucifer.”
This comes as Faustus signs his contract with the devils, pledging his soul to them after 24 years of fun and games. ‘Consummatum est’ means ‘It is finished’. These are Jesus’s last words in the Bible and are therefore in some way sacrosanct. Faustus’s recycling of these words in the context of signing a pact with Lucifer is bluntly blasphemous and irreverent.
3) “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d / In one self place” – “All places shall be hell that is not heaven.”
The sad, cynical Mephostophilis frequently lets slip the ‘reality’ of the afterlife and it’s certainly not what the Good Book told you. ‘Hell’ becomes a state of mind, a psychological prison, rather than a physical pit of fire located underneath the earth. In this sense, it’s perhaps more frightening – inescapable and close, as it leaks out beyond its traditional confines.
4) “Despair doth drive distrust into my thoughts”
‘Despair’ describes the condition of a Christian doubting his faith. The word is used frequently throughout the text in what seem at first to be non-religious contexts. But the word would have had a very specific meaning for Shakespeare’s wholly Christian audience. Despair is more serious than a blasphemous comment; it suggests a more thorough, long-term rejection of God.
Finally, look how Faustus’s language breaks down as his mental state crumbles; as time falls away and the awful reality of his bargain with Satan looms ever closer. It’s his most tragic, and most beautiful, speech. LOVE punctuation (although at the same time be aware that these are most likely to be additions by a modern editor). Nothing says broken up speech like an actual physical break [ – ] on the page. Other linguistic signs of Faustus’s panic include the repetition of ‘Christ’ and the hysterical apostrophising to both Christ and Lucifer as he swings between allegiance to the two. Faustus’s formerly tight, well-structured blank verse unravels into disconnected thoughts and manic cries.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop. Ah, my Christ! –
Rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;
Yet will I call on him. O, spare me, Lucifer! –
Where is it now? ‘Tis gone: and see where God
Stretcheth out his arm and bends his ireful brows.
Exeunt the blogger.