|Faust by Rembrandt, c. 1652.|
The fruitful plot of scholarism grac'd,That shortly he was grac'd with doctor's name,Excelling all whose sweet delight disputesIn heavenly matters of theology;Till swoln with cunning, of a self-conceit,His waxen wings did mount above his reach,And, melting, heavens conspir'd his overthrow;For, falling to a devilish exercise,And glutted now with learning's golden gifts,He surfeits upon cursed necromancy;Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:And this the man that in his study sits.
THE TRAGICAL HISTORY OF DOCTOR FAUSTUS
BY CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE
FROM THE QUARTO OF 1604.
What are we to make of Christopher Marlowe's Tragic History of Dr Faust?
Was Faust Marlowe's attempt to clear his name of any association with the occult, or did it do the opposite and get him arrested on charges of heresy?
Witch hunts have long been associated with authoritarian regimes spinning lies to justify the annihilation of 'enemies of the state'. Even in Marlowe's time few were so credulous as to truly believe in Satan as a personal foe; the real evil occurred in the accusation of heresy or witchcraft- being charged with associating with the devil could mean the destruction of ones reputation and livelihood and eventually torture and execution.
Aldous Huxley wrote The Devils of Loudun in 1952 a historical narrative of supposed demonic possession, religious fanaticism, sexual repression, and mass hysteria which occurred in 17th century France. In it the mechanism of 'Satanic trials' is made clear. Unfortunately the very clarity of Huxley's account can get in the way of seeing how social paranoia arises and how it plays out within our own culture.
Faust's crime was knowledge, he only wanted to know. Of course when he was offered limitless possibilities he did not ask for knowledge, he wanted Helen of Troy. Given limitless possibility one would expect a man desirous of knowledge to chose to speak to some great figure of the past such as Euclid, or to visit the hanging gardens, or see the pyramids built. Marlowe shows Faust as too ordinary for extraordinary knowledge, knowledge that belonged to god alone.
Faust is a warning and Faust is supposed to be all of us.
The 1620's cover to the play shows a bearded man standing inside a circle of symbols representing the twelve constellations of the zodiac; he holds a book (The Justinian bible) in his left hand, and a stick (for drawing the signs?) in his right..
Outside of the circle and a part of the furniture there is a cross, some kind of circular device with a central cross, something like a small suitcase and a ball hanging from the ceiling.
Marlowe's Faust is clearly a man who has gone too far. A 'man glutted with learning's golden gifts, he surfeits upon cursed necromancy...'. A man not dissimilar in the popular imagination to John Dee.
And Christopher Marlowe- atheist and Rosicrucian- was a man writing a play reinforcing the moral panic of his time.
But why and how does the fictional Faust summon Mephistophales?
Faustus, begin thine incantations,
And try if devils will obey thy hest,
Seeing thou hast pray'd and sacrific'd to them.
Within this circle is Jehovah's name,
Forward and backward anagrammatiz'd,
Th' abbreviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs and erring stars,
By which the spirits are enforc'd to rise:
Then fear not, Faustus, but be resolute,
And try the uttermost magic can perform.
The Sigillum Dei Aemeth, as used by Dr John Dee looks just the thing Doctor Faust would use.
Next an incantation:
Sint mihi dei Acherontis propitii! Valeat numen triplex Jehovoe!
Ignei, aerii, aquatani spiritus, salvete! Orientis princeps
Belzebub, inferni ardentis monarcha, et Demogorgon, propitiamus
vos, ut appareat et surgat Mephistophilis, quod tumeraris:
per Jehovam, Gehennam, et consecratam aquam quam nunc spargo,
signumque crucis quod nunc facio, et per vota nostra, ipse nunc
surgat nobis dicatus Mephistophilis!
'good bye to god in three, Jehovah.
Fire, air, spirit of water greetings!
The prince of the East Belzebub, monarch of burning hell, and Demogorgon, let Mephistophilis rise. Why do you delay! By, Jehovah and hell, I scatter consecrated water and by the sign of the cross and by my vows,
rise Mephistophilis' !
Marlowe was using his imagination and referring to images and ideas his audience would understand and believe to be real enough. The consecrated water and the sign of the cross provide reassurance to the audience that god still has dominion over the infernal beings.
Why does Faust sign the pact with the devil?
Like Marlowe himself and most of us I guess, we think we can get out of it- what ever it is -if it gets too bad.
The pact is a trick, but Faust is confident of his abilities.
Hubris...this is a tragedy after all.
Neither Faust or Dee praised the devil, or asked for his blessing.
Faust/Dee sought knowledge but it was that desire for knowledge which led Faust into the devil's power, echoing the biblical story of Eve eating from the tree of knowledge.
Seeking 'god-like' knowledge and earthly power is the same (Marlowe's play seems to be saying) as praising the devil....
It is very tempting to believe that Faust was Marlowe's attempt to distance himself from anything at all that could get him into prison, nevertheless:
A warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest on 18 May 1593. No reason for it was given, 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.
Witchcraft continued to be prosecuted, as a crime against the state...