chapter  7
26 Pages

· Doctor Faustus: ritual shows

There could not be a greater contrast between the dramaturgy of Edward II and that of Doctor Faustus. In the former play Marlowe eschewed both the devices for dramatic spectacle provided by the popular playhouses and symmetrically shaped scenes of the sort we found in The Spanish Tragedy. In effect, if Edward II is like street theatre Doctor Faustus is like grand opera. In this play instead of documentary we find ritual, a play in which the magical practices are patterned on religious ceremonies, in which the life of the hero is defined not in historical and political terms but as he experiences the rites of passage from one mental state to another. (The play, like The Spanish Tragedy, might be topical, exploiting for the popular theatre the reports of the activities and tribulations of Dee and Kelly, two London magicians of the I580s.) By depicting the practices of ceremonial magicthe magic of witches who employed demonic agents - Marlowe revealed the creative powers of ritual through all the spectacular devices the playhouses had to offer. The play is a great phantasmagoria of scenic properties, ceremonial and emblematic costumes, battle-games between powers of good and evil, action portrayed on the three levels of the stage, dances, music, Latin declamations, mirror scenes in which the portentous actions of the hero are travestied in the cross-talk and knockabout games of the playhouse clowns. The unlocalized and empty stage of the popular playhouses was as suited to the procession of shows as it was to narrative. The play moves from the sardonic to the sublime, taps an important vein of folk culture as well as drawing on the high culture of theology. Faustus is a juggler in its etymological sense of 'joker' (joculator), and as a conjurer of spirits he is like a modern conjurer or trickster. In this respect the play, like The Spanish Tragedy, aims satirical barbs at privilege and authority (especially papal authority). But it is also a tragedy: whereas in Edward II we noted that the play moved away from tragedy towards history as the hero was denied recognition, here the shows staged by and for the devil serve not only to delight the minds of Faustus and the audience but to instil into the hero the most intense kind of experiential knowledge, the kind of tragic recognition Kyd described as 'feeling perception'.