Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mephistopheles and the Dress Code of Doctor Faustus

I'm back to Christopher Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus" today. I've put a sort of link list of what I've written so far near the end of this post.1

Before getting back to that rousing play about a brilliant scholar, his helpful assistant, and regrettable contract:

16th Century England isn't 21st Century America - Quite

I'll be getting to Faustus, Mephistopheles, and why you should think before signing a contract in a bit. I think the story may make more sense, if I go into a (brief, for me) review of what 16th century England was like.

Anybody who's seen a Shakespeare play done in Elizabethan costumes knows that folks dressed funny then.2 Which is probably what folks will think of business suits in the 25th century. Which is another topic.

Folks who wore those weird fashions, and those who couldn't afford to keep up with haute couture, had more on their minds than clothing. Or should have, if they were paying attention.

Elizabethan England, along with the rest of Western civilization, was changing. Fast. New ideas were upsetting quite a number of intellectual apple carts. Sort of like America, for at least the last half-century.

Henry VIII, Copernicus, and Change

For example: Copernicus, who wasn't at all British,3 had been saying some dastardly things about how the universe works. The bounder!

Or, the scientist. But never mind that for now.

England was at or near the cutting edge of progressive thinking by the time Marlowe was a Queen's Scholar. It wasn't called "progressive thinking" at the time, which is yet another topic.

Henry VIII had made himself a sort of mini-pope, looted Catholic institutions in England, set up a nifty new church of his own, and turned a tidy profit in the process. 'It's good to be king,' at least while it lasts.4

After Henry VIII went through the last of his wives and died, there was a spot of unpleasantness - and then Elizabeth I became queen. Make that Queen. She continued Henry's tradition of reforming Christian ideas to something more suited to contemporary life - or back to basics - or something like that.

Anyway, by the time Marlowe dropped into England's school system, King's School in Canterbury wasn't quite the same as when the Catholic Church had been in charge.5

Marlowe's "...Faustus" - the Story So Far

Before getting to Mephistopheles' dramatic entrance, here's what leads up to that scene:
  • Doctor Faustus
    • Is brilliant
    • Has mastered all the traditional authoritative texts,
      which in Marlowe's day were
      • Jerome's (Catholic) Bible
      • The works of
        • Aristotle
        • Galen
        • Justinian
    • Wants to know more
      • So far, I don't see a problem
    • And wants more power
      • This could be a problem
Remember, this was about four centuries back. The Renaissance was in progress. England's Elizabeth I was trying to finish the job Henry VIII started.

Enter Mephistopheles: or is that Mephistophilis?

I'm a recovering English teacher, so please bear with me. The research assistant in Marlowe's play is Mephistopheles. That's the 'right' way to spell it, according to Princeton's WordNet. Marlowe thinks it's spelled Mephistophilis: and I've run into other variations on the name.

Since I'm an American, living about four centuries after Marlowe, and on the other side of the Atlantic, I'll keep using the 'Mephistopheles' spelling. When quoting Marlowe, I'll use his Elizabethan-era 'Mephistophilis' spelling. Sure, I could settle on one or the other, but this might help with the posts' search engine rankings: and that's yet again another topic.

Latin Sounds Cool

Here's part of the scene where Faustus hires a research assistant, so to speak:
"...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:52

"per Jehovam, Gehennam, et consecratam aquam quam nunc spargo,
signumque crucis quod nunc facio, et per vota nostra, ipse nunc
surgat nobis dicatus53 Mephistophilis!


"I charge thee to return, and change thy shape;
Thou art too ugly to attend on me:
Go, and return an old Franciscan friar;
That holy shape becomes a devil best.
("The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus"6)
I'm guessing that in Marlowe's day, a fair percentage of the audience knew enough Latin to make out what Faustus said.7 This wasn't all that long after Henry VIII decided to set up his own church, and he seems to have been more interested in 'improving' rules about marriage, than fiddling with outward appearances.

I'm not sure why Marlowe had Faustus use Latin to conjure up Mephistopheles.

Maybe it's just for dramatic effect. Latin sounds cool, these days: and you'll still hear it in some movies, when a spell is 'being cast.'

Or maybe Marlowe has a message: The Catholic Church's official language is Latin, which proves that Catholicism is a Satanic cult?

Maybe not.

The Dress Code of Doctor Faustus

Most job sites have a dress code. Sometimes it's for safety (hard hats); or for company image ('no torn clothing' for sales clerks). Sometimes it feels like the purpose is - weirdly delusional:
(from, December 20, 2000, used w/o permission)

These days, employers have an interesting mix of cultural and legal concerns when it comes to what they can tell their employes to wear.8

Elizabethan England had it's own set of rules and perceptions. Christopher Marlowe did, anyway. My guess is that he was tapping into how his fellow-Englishmen reacted to a particular sort of uniform: how he wanted them to react, anyway.

Picking up the action after Faustus called Infernal Job Service, we learn that the learned doctor doesn't like the way Mephistopheles looks. Here's the dress code of Doctor Faustus, and the why it's important. According to Marlowe's Faustus.
"...Go, and return an old Franciscan friar;
That holy shape becomes a devil best....
("The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus")
Mephistopheles obliges, comes back dressed as Franciscan friar, and explains the terms of his service to Doctor Faustus.

Why a Franciscan Friar?

What's with the Franciscan friar costume? I've read 2 Corinthians 11:14-15, and presumably so had Marlowe. Maybe this was Faustus showing off his Bible knowledge. Or maybe there's something else going on.

Mephistopheles, Hell, and Big Plans

Marlowe's Mephistopheles has some good lines, including this response to Faust's questions about his current residence:
"...Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:57
Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv'd of everlasting bliss?
O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!...
("The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus"6)
That's pretty close to what the Church teaches about the nature of Hell:
"The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, 'eternal fire.'617 The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1035)
Faustus isn't impressed, and tells Mephistopheles to buck up and keep a stiff upper lip. Not in so many words, but that's the idea.

After Mephistopheles leaves, we get a look at what Doctor Faustus plans to do with Mephistopheles. It's a whole lot more than just academic research:
"...Had I as many souls as there be stars,
I'd give them all for Mephistophilis.
By him I'll be great emperor of the world,...
("The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus"6)
That sort of ambition has 'bad idea' written all over it:
"What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?"
(Mark 8:36)
I'll be following Doctor Faustus' career with considerable interest.

More posts in this series:Other related posts:
  • Faust
  • Marlowe's alma mater
    • "History"
      King's School, Canterbury
  • Maxi skirts, hip huggers, and other weirdness
    • "70s Fashion"
      Classic 70s
      • Yes, women really wore those things
        • Deliberately
    • "A Long, Lean Backlash to the Mini"
      Fashion & Style, The New York Times (May 26, 2010)
      • Did we learn NOTHING from the '60s and'70s?!
    • "Clothing in Elizabethan England"
      From The Elizabethan People by Henry Thew Stephenson: New York, Henry Holt and Company, via
      • A none-too-well-designed website, in my opinion
        • And that's (you guessed it) still another topic
"Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from:

1 I've started a sort of link list of posts and headings, to help me keep track of what I've already said about Marlowe's Faustus, and all that:
2 When Elizabeth I was queen, women wore barrel-size assemblies of whalebone and wire around their waist: and somehow managed to walk. Men wore doublets, an example of what happens when padded shoulders go horribly wrong. A doublet's full-to-overflowing layers of brightly-colored, slashed, and generally excessive, cloth roughly doubled the victim's bulk. After that, the maxiskirt and hip huggers don't sound so bad. Here's more than you probably want to know about what folks wore in days gone by:
  • "Clothing in Elizabethan England"
    From The Elizabethan People by Henry Thew Stephenson: New York, Henry Holt and Company, via
    • A none-too-well-designed website, in m opinion
      • And that's (what else?) another topic
3 Nicolaus Copernicus simply wasn't British. I mean to say, that name! Depending on where you are, he's Nikolaus Kopernikus, Nicolò Copernico, Mikołaj Kopernik, or even, Niclas Koppernigk. And on top of that, he's CATHOLIC! I've gone over science, religion, and getting a grip before. Fairly often. Including:
4 Not to be a wet blanket, but I think it's prudent to make long-range plans. Really long-range plans:5 King's School in Canterbury had a long history before Henry VIII's time. By Marlowe's time, Elizabeth I had seen to it that Henry's nifty new ideas were promoted. Family loyalty, and all that. For a rather dry, but and not entirely complete - but short - background on Christopher Marlowe and King's College, I suggest:6 "Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from:
7 My Latin's rusty, at best, but I think this is a sort-of-adequate translation of Faust's lines:
"...Acheron of God be gracious to me there! Farewell to a threefold divinity Jehovah!
Of fire, air, the spirit of aquatani, greetings! the prince of the East
Belzebub, monarch of burning hell, and Demogorgon, forgiveth
you, and that it might appear Mephistophilis rise, which [something or other]:
by Jehovah, hell, and water than they are now consecrated to scatter,
It is a sign of the cross which now I do, and by our vows, He
tells Mephistophilis to get up!...
(my rude, crude, translation from "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus" - helped considerably by Google's Translate service)
8 This resource for librarians gives a pretty good look at what employers can do, what they can't, and why they have to think before making some draconian rule:
  • "Dealing with dress codes"
    Raymond W. Neal, School of Library and Information Science, University of South Carolina (April 25, 2000)


Brigid said...

Missing a word: "Before getting back that rousing play"

What list? "Before getting back that rousing play"

A footnote that isn't superscripted: "nor am I out of it:57"

Missing a consonant: "Maybe this was Faustus showing of his Bible knowledge."

And there's a footnote with no link (it is superscripted, though): "suffer the punishments of hell, 'eternal fire.'617"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

P.S. "What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" But, for Wales??

Brian Gill said...


Thanks! Those first two items? [sound of a forehead, slapped] That was an editing SNAFU. And fixed/rewritten.

The linkless footnote had no link or target in the original - I've added a link to the USCCB's copy of the Catechism.

The unsuperscripted footnotes are that way in the original - and I kept the original formatting, as I generally do. Thanks for spotting that, though: and the rest!

As for 'the world - Wales' - too true! And I remember that line. ;)

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.