I’ve just been moving some of our many books around, to make way for the installation of a new fireplace and fire. A few were left in the living room, though. Among them, I found: Nicholas Boyle, Goethe, The Poet and the Age, Volume I, The Poetry of Desire (1749-1750), published by Oxford University Press in 1991. 800 pages! I browsed through the pages and looked in particular at the comments on the protracted history of Goethe’s Faust, which Goethe worked on repeatedly throughout his long life (he died in 1832). The useful evaluation of the “Urfaust” (the first draft, circa 1774) is to be found on pages 218-229.
I have copies in German of the Urfaust and of the final Parts I and II of the completed work. (Goethe calls it a “tragedy” – but is it really?)
I wish to re-read Goethe. But first I have looked at again at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (circa 1589-92) – not only in its own right but also to compare it with Goethe’s Faust (and to write up my findings, in due course).
A few plays by the contemporaries of William Shakespeare’s stand out: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is one of them. It appears to me that it is not a play that Shakespeare himself could have written. Aspects of the protagonist could be said to be distributed among various Shakespearean characters – the ambitious Macbeth (aided and abetted by his wife), the uxorious Antony (who submits to Cleopatra), the arrogant Coriolanus, and the sage Prospero, who abjures his magical powers in the end.
I find that I have four copies of Faustus. From my mother I have inherited a straightforward reproduction of the 1604 “A” text, in the 1909 Everyman edition of The Plays of Christopher Marlowe, with an introduction by Edward Thomas (poet). Secondly, I have a copy of Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays, edited by J B Steane, published by Penguin in 1969. The text of Faustus is an unfortunate mixture of the 1604 “A” and 1606 “B” texts; and the criteria for the selections are not clear. Then follow two very scholarly editions. My third is: Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’, a 1604-version edition, edited by Michael Keefer, and published by Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario, in 1991. The fourth is: Christopher Marlowe, ‘Doctor Faustus’, A- and B-texts (1604, 1616), edited by David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, and published in the Revels Plays series by Manchester University Press, in 1993.
Ah! The two versions of Faustus, which have caused the much pouring of scholarly ink. Which one is the closer to Marlowe’s original intent? Let’s cut a long story short. The main scenes of the “A” version look to be “Marlovian” by virtue of wording and style, but the comic scenes may be by a collaborator. The “B” version contains additions by other writers and is much longer. J B Steane makes a pithy comment on the differences, as follows (pages 261-2):
[This] editor’s personal opinion is that the play is artistically stronger in its shorter form. The A text (1604) has everything essential to the presentation of the ‘tragical history’; the B text (1616) adds, for the most part, light, simple-minded comedy….There is quite enough knockabout and emptiness in the middle section of [the A text]. But at least the balance there is more favourable to the essential, the tragic and the poetic: in the B text we are much nearer to the ‘set of farces’ which we gather Doctor Faustus had become in [Alexander] Pope’s time.
The A version is indeed coherent and impressive – and actable.
Many plays have twists and turns in the plot and take the audience by surprise. This is not exactly the case with Marlowe’s Faustus. The pleasures of the play are derived from the majestic blank verse of the main scenes, from the comic scenes (which provide “comic relief”), and from the spectacle of the Seven Deadly Sins.
As for the fate of the protagonist, he slides inexorably down the slippery slope towards his damnation and confinement in Hell. Occasionally he hesitates and reviews his situations but he persists in his course. It is fair to say that he receives advice (conflicting!), but he has to take responsibility for his decisions. (Don’t blame Mephistopheles!)
In his day, Marlowe was regarded as something of an anti-authority rebel, especially in theological terms. However, on the face of it, Faustus reflects traditional Christian theology: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Now, the prescribed remedy for sin is repentance. In the A version, Faustus is told by the Good Angel that he can still be saved, if he can repent [Revels A II.iii.79] ; but it appears that he cannot, as his heart is already hardened. This accords with Calvinist doctrine, prevalent in the Church of England in Marlowe’s time. (Here is raised too the old philosophical question as to the relative strengths of free will and predestination.) In the B version, the matter of repentance is diluted: Faustus is told that he can be saved, if he will repent [Revels B II.iii.80]. (See Keefer, Introduction, pages lxv-lxvi, and Bevington & Rasmussen, Introduction, page 29, for discussion of this distinction.)
Any indications that God’s arbitrary power and Christian doctrine are to be deemed intolerable have to be detected between the lines of the play.
I see Faustus’s fault largely in a sort of intellectual laziness. He sees magic as a quick way to power and to sexual love. He has no patience for the slow ways to knowledge – proof in argument, logic, medicine, law or divinity.
Anyway, to back up my point, I shall call upon the only passage I am taking the liberty of quoting from this marvellous work:
These metaphysics of magicians
And necromantic books are heavenly….
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command. Emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.
A sound magician is a mighty god.
[Revels A I.i.51-2, 54-64]
My next task is to examine Goethe’s Faust, and to contrast and compare it with Marlowe’s Faustus.