I remember being vaguely amused by Doctor Faustus when I was in college, but the language was difficult for a 20 year old. Reading about the antics of Faust and Mephistopheles as I plowed through the verbiage was rather like trying earnestly to understand a joke. I worked at understanding it and had it explained to me until I could finally smile weakly and say I got the punch line. But I said that mostly to make it all go away.
This time around, I found the play screamingly funny. Though I am writing about Christopher Marlowe, in my current reading of The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol 1 I am in Paradise Lost, which appeals to me not at all. I don’t have anything (much) against Milton; I wouldn’t have wanted to live with him, or even next door to him. I want to say that I don’t care for his subject matter but Doctor Faustus has the same main dramatis persona. The tone couldn’t be more different.
I was alienated from anything like Milton’s deadly serious treatment of the Life and Times of Satan somewhere around my fifth season in an evangelical, fundamentalist Sunday School. Doctor Faustus would never have flown in the churches of my childhood. Wait, no I take that back. He could have made himself invisible, literally flown in the door and brought some actual life into the place.
Doctor Faustus is a scholar at the great medieval university of Wittenberg. He has exhausted his studies in every field he believes important and is struggling with the reality that everyone sins and then everyone dies. Suddenly Doris Day makes an unexpected appearance and sings “Que Sera, Sera.” You think I’m kidding. Here’s the text:
Aye, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera;
What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu!
Faustus decides to look into black magic. He calls in the magicians and necromancers. He learns enough about the occult to cast a circle and call up the devil. Mephistophilis appears, does a few shape-shifting tricks for Faustus and the two of them converse. Mephistophilis tells Faustus that he conspired against God with Lucifer and now is forever damned with Lucifer, all of which would have been more interesting to me when I was kicking my heels against a chair in Sunday School at age ten, brainwashed into a world where Mary was a better person because she hung on Jesus’ every word than Martha who fixed the damn dinner so everyone could eat.
Faustus: Where are you damned?
Meph: In hell
Faustus: How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?
Meph: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Seventy five years and 664 pages later, in Paradise Lost, Milton writes,
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
Once at the Enumclaw County Fair, I took on the folks in a booth with a sign that read “Find Out if You’re Going to Hell.” An evangelical bunch armed with their little pamphlets and scare tactics were, I think, proud of their provocative sign. I listened to their spiel—briefly—and then told them I had been to hell already and had got out of it in spite of, not because of, Christian doctrine. There wasn’t a counter response on their clipboards so they were forced to listen—briefly—to my spiel about depressions and psycho-analysis.
But I digress.
Faustus makes a pact with Mephistophilis. These are his terms:
1) Faustus may be a spirit in form and substance i.e. shall have the ability to be invisible and/or to shape-shift.
2) Mephistophilis shall be his servant, bring to him and do for him whatever he asks
3) After 24 years of this adventure, Lucifer (Satan) can have Faustus.
The fun and games begin. Faustus and Mephistophilis interfere with the Pope who has just captured a German pretender to the papal throne, one Bruno. Faustus and Mephistophilis put a couple of cardinals to sleep, take on their likenesses, and have a word with the Pope. The upshot is that while the Pope thinks Bruno is being disposed of, in fact he is being spirited away to safety in Germany.
Faustus and Mephistophilis then become invisible so they can observe the results of their mischief at a dinner where the awakened Cardinals and the Pope try to sort out what happened to Bruno. Faustus amuses himself by snatching away the Pope’s dinner and wine glass when he’s talking to the Cardinals.
After 24 fun-filled years, Faustus’ time is finally up. His final request is to have sex with Helen who had:
the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Illium.
Did we all think that was Shakespeare?
As the clock strikes midnight on that final night, and amidst a thunder and lightning storm, the devils enter Faustus’ study and take him away. In the final scene fellow scholars visit Faustus to see how he’s doing after the storm. Shrieks and screams had been heard coming from his house in the night. They find his limbs and mangled body lying about the room. They propose to bury what’s left of the body and to give Faustus a proper funeral. The Chorus steps in with a feeble moral, suggesting it is better to wonder about the occult than to practice it.
I’m almost 60. In twenty four years I suspect I am going to be ready to die anyway. Twenty four years of mischief, especially if it means messing with the Catholic Church, or better yet, with evangelical fundamentalists doesn’t seem like a bad arrangement at all. I don’t believe in hell other than in the mind itself. And I’ve been there already.