doctor faustus

literature meme [2/8 plays]

Doctor Faustus (The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus), Christopher Marlowe

Faustus is a brilliant but embittered scholar who has exhausted the confines of human knowledge. Frustrated with the futility of his academic pursuits he is desperate for a deeper understanding of the universe. Therefore, he conjures the demon Mephistopheles and asks him to strike a deal with the Devil. Faustus gets twenty-four years of infinite knowledge and power in exchange for his soul, which will spend an eternity in hell once his time is up.

Christopher Marlowe (26 February 1564 – 30 May 1593)

English playwright, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. Marlowe was the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day. He greatly influenced William Shakespeare, who was born in the same year as Marlowe and who rose to become the pre-eminent Elizabethan playwright after Marlowe’s mysterious early death. Marlowe’s plays are known for the use of blank verse and their overreaching protagonists.

A warrant was issued for Marlowe’s arrest on 18 May 1593. No reason was given for it, though it was thought to be connected to allegations of blasphemy—a manuscript believed to have been written by Marlowe was said to contain “vile heretical conceipts”. On 20 May, he was brought to the court to attend upon the Privy Council for questioning. There is no record of their having met that day, however, and he was commanded to attend upon them each day thereafter until “licensed to the contrary”. Ten days later, he was stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer. Whether the stabbing was connected to his arrest has never been resolved. (Wikipedia)

From our stacks: Reproduction of title page from The Tragicall History of D. Faustus. Written by Ch. Mar[low] 1604. The Tudor Facsimile Texts. Under the Supervision and Editorship of John S. Farmer. Issued for Subscribers by the Editor of The Tudor Facsimile Texts, 1914.

The argument for a queer reading of Doctor Faustus is shaky, but there are still elements in the play that can be read through a queer lens, especially in light of the fact that evidence exists to suggest Marlowe himself had homosexual leanings. “Sodomy was linked in the popular imagination of the Renaissance with sorcery and heresy”, and indeed, Faustus is immediately entranced by Mephistopheles when he first conjures the demon. It is, in face, the promise Mephistophele’s servitude that helps to cement Faust’s decision to sell his soul, and he even goes so far as to say “had I as many souls as there by stars, I’d give them all for Mephistopheles”.

The two only grow more inseparable in the next scene, in which Faust passionately swears his allegiance to Lucifer by drawing up a contract in blood and saying that it is done out of his love for Mephistopheles. The demon responds with a strangely devoted aside to the audience: “O what will not I do to obtain his soul!” and the two dissolve into a hellish camaraderie of professions of devotion peppered by endearments such as “my Faustus” and “sweet Mephistopheles”. When Mephistopheles grows tired of Faustus’s obsession with the nature of heaven, he claims that the firmament is “not half so fair as thee or any man that breathes on Earth”, then quickly rationalizes this affectionate statement by posturing that heaven was made for men, therefore men must be superior.

One of the most compelling exchanges between devil and man happens when Faustus, newly sworn into Lucifer’s allegiance, demands that Mephistopheles produce him a wife, for he is “wanton and lascivious”. Mephistopheles scoffs at this request but brings him a wife all the same, a devil dressed as a woman. There’s something to be said for this trussing up of carnal desire in the gruesome, fulfilling garments of femininity, this broad gesture towards the closeted nature of sexual expression in the Jacobean period. When Faustus takes offence at the joke, Mephistopheles leads him away from the sacrament of marriage with a seductive “if thou lovest me, think no more of it” and promises that he will provide Faustus with a myriad of lovers “beautiful as was bright Lucifer before his fall”. With the human feminine out of the picture, Mephistopheles provides Faust with a lover in the conjured form of Helen of Troy, who is in all probability a devil in disguise herself since Faustus states later that it isn’t within the abilities of Hell to resurrect bodies of the dead or command their true spirits. In the end it is demons Faust is taking to bed night after night, demons whose gender is either presented as masculine or meaningless, and a demon who commands the heart of our tormented protagonist.

—  That One Time I Banged Out a Queer Reading of Doctor Faustus in Two Nights and Got a B on the Paper, by S.T.Gibson