Monday, October 24, 2011

Mephistopheles and an - Ersatz Hot Babe?!

New post about Marlowe's
"The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" each Monday

Okay: Doctor Faustus has signed away his soul. Then he explained, to Mephistopheles, that the contract is null and void because Hell doesn't really exist. You can't argue with logic like that.

Now I come to part of Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus" where we see that Faustus hasn't completely lost touch with reality.

Faustus, Mephistopheles, and Big Plans

Earlier in the play, Faustus seemed to have big plans for using Mephistopheles' abilities. Here's the sort of orders he told Mephistopheles to expect:
"...To do whatever Faustus shall command,
Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere,
Or the ocean to overwhelm the world....

"...join the hills that bind the Afric shore,
And make that country63 continent to Spain,
And both contributory to my crown:
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Now, with all the power of Hell at his command, Doctor Faustus gives Mephistopheles his first task. John Faustus wants - to get married?!
"...FAUSTUS.... But, leaving off this, let me have a wife,95
The fairest maid in Germany;
For I am wanton and lascivious,
And cannot live without a wife....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Some of what Faustus says makes sense: "fairest maid;" feeling "wanton and lascivious." I can see how someone in Faustus' position, feeling like "casual and unrestrained ... sexual behavior" and "driven by lust."1

Not a 'Girlfriend,' Concubine, or Hot Date: Faustus Wants a Wife?!

Setting ethics aside for the moment, I can see why Faustus might want what we euphemistically call a girlfriend.

But a wife?!

Particularly from a Catholic perspective, that doesn't make sense. Not in this context. Marriage is one of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church.2 Definitely not the sort of thing I'd expect someone to go to Hell for. Or, rather, to secure the services of a demon from Hell in order to acquire.

Good grief, neither of those sentences sound right.

I'll get back to marriage, after slogging through more of Marlowe's play:

Mephistopheles' First Task - or - Good Help is So Hard to Find

Looks like Mephistopheles doesn't think much of the doctor's order, either. But a contract's a contract: so the devil produces a really hot wife for Faustus:
"...MEPHIST. How! a wife!
I prithee, Faustus, talk not of a wife.

"FAUSTUS. Nay, sweet Mephistophilis, fetch me one, for
I will have one.

"MEPHIST. Well, thou wilt have one? Sit there till I come: I'll
fetch thee a wife in the devil's name.

"Re-enter MEPHISTOPHILIS with a DEVIL drest like a WOMAN,
with fire-works.

"MEPHIST. Tell me,96 Faustus, how dost thou like thy wife?..."
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Maybe this "DEVIL drest like a WOMAN, with fire-works" was comic relief. Also a redolent visual pun. And a fire hazard, in those mostly-wooden Elizabethan theaters. Which is another topic.

Marlowe's Faustus may have just finished explaining to a demon that Hell doesn't exist: but the doctor isn't completely delusional. At least, that's what I think is behind his reaction to this hot "wife" that Mephistopheles dredged up:
"...FAUSTUS. A plague on her for a hot whore!"

"MEPHIST. Tut, Faustus,
Marriage is but a ceremonial toy....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Mephistopheles asks Faustus, rather politely, to stop asking for a wife. Instead, he assures his employer, "I'll cull thee out the fairest courtezans..."

Faustus: Everything He Wanted, and Less

After a bit of flowery language about the courtesans, Mephistopheles distracts Faustus with a book. Several, actually:
"...Hold, take this book, peruse it thoroughly:
[Gives book.]

"The iterating99 of these lines brings gold;
The framing of this circle on the ground
Brings whirlwinds, tempests, thunder, and lightning;
Pronounce this thrice devoutly to thyself,
And men in armour shall appear to thee,
Ready to execute what thou desir'st.

"FAUSTUS. Thanks, Mephistophilis: yet fain would I have a book wherein I might behold all spells and incantations, that I might raise up spirits when I please.

"MEPHIST. Here they are in this book.
[Turns to them.]

"FAUSTUS. Now would I have a book where I might see all characters and planets of the heavens, that I might know their motions and dispositions.

"MEPHIST. Here they are too.
[Turns to them.]

("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
At least Faustus seems to be back on track with the big plans he had when he started out. Not that world conquest is a good idea.

Now that he's got what he thought he wanted, though, Faustus seems to be dissatisfied:
"FAUSTUS. Nay, let me have one book more,—and then I have done, - wherein I might see all plants, herbs, and trees, that grow upon the earth.

"MEPHIST. Here they be.

"FAUSTUS. O, thou art deceived.

"MEPHIST. Tut, I warrant thee.
[Turns to them.]...

Faustus and Repentance

I suppose Faustus could be criticized at this point for being indecisive.

He'd gone to all that trouble:
  • Bargained away his soul
  • Drawn up that contract
  • At least sketched out what he planned to do after he had Africa and Spain "both contributory to my crown"
    • Presumably
Now it looks like Faustus may be having second thoughts. That's the sort of wishy-washy behavior that drives parents batty, when their kids won't finish projects they start.

In this case, however, I think Faustus might be excused for lack of follow-through. Let's see what happens:
"...FAUSTUS. When I behold the heavens, then I repent,
And curse thee, wicked Mephistophilis,
Because thou hast depriv'd me of those joys.

"MEPHIST. Why, Faustus,
Thinkest thou heaven is such a glorious thing?
I tell thee, 'tis not half so fair as thou,
Or any man that breathes on earth.

"FAUSTUS. How prov'st thou that?

"MEPHIST. 'Twas made for man, therefore is man more excellent.

"FAUSTUS. If it were made for man, 'twas made for me:
I will renounce this magic and repent....

("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Right on cue, here comes that bipolar duo, GOOD ANGEL and EVIL ANGEL:

"GOOD ANGEL. Faustus, repent; yet God will pity thee.

"EVIL ANGEL. Thou art a spirit; God cannot pity thee.

"FAUSTUS. Who buzzeth in mine ears I am a spirit?
Be I a devil, yet God may pity me;
Ay, God will pity me, if I repent.

"EVIL ANGEL. Ay, but Faustus never shall repent.
[Exeunt ANGELS.]...
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
"[Exeunt ANGELS.]?!" That's IT?!! No effort to either push Faustus over the edge, or try to pull him back?

On the other hand, GOOD ANGEL had sensible advice, and EVIL ANGEL fed Faustus the sort of theological hooey that seems to resonate in that learned head. More about that, next week.

Marriage is a Big Deal, Mephistopheles Notwithstanding

I've gotten the impression that America's 'serious thinkers' have turned the volume down a bit on the 'marriage is legalized rape' line. For the last four decades or so, though, the establishment3 has seen marriage as:
  • Oppression of women
    • By a society that's
      • Male-dominated
      • Authoritarian
      • Pretty much icky
  • An outmoded custom that
    • Oppresses women
    • Stifles self-expression
      • Only having sex with one's spouse?
  • A strictly secular custom
    • That should be 'improved'
I also remember the 'good old days,' when a remarkable number of folks really believed that
  • Young women should be 'nice'
  • Young men would sow wild oats
    • 'Boys will be boys'
      • And all that
If that doesn't seem to make sense: I agree. I also don't think that lowering expectations for everybody was a sensible solution.

Then there are the men who read Ephesians 5:22, and are convinced that God gives them the right to order their wives around. Incredibly, some women see it the same way.

Never mind what Ephesians 5:21-30 says. Particularly Ephesians 5:25 and following.

There's a pretty good summary of what the Catholic Church says about marriage in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1659-1666.

Back to Marlowe's Faustus

I'm not sure why Marlowe's Faustus wanted a wife, instead of a more casual domestic arrangement. Maybe that'll come out, later in the play.

Or maybe Faustus is a whole lot more 'conventional' than he seems. Or unimaginative.

More posts in this series:Vaguely-related posts:
"...Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from:

1 Definitions:
  • Lascivious (adjective)
    • Driven by lust; preoccupied with or exhibiting lustful desires) "libidinous orgies"
    (Princeton's WordNet)
  • Wanton
    • (Noun)
      • Lewd or lascivious woman
    • (Verb)
      • Waste time; spend one's time idly or inefficiently
      • Indulge in a carefree or voluptuous way of life
      • Spend wastefully
      • Become extravagant; indulge (oneself) luxuriously
      • Engage in amorous play
      • Behave extremely cruelly and brutally
    • (adjective)
      • Occurring without motivation or provocation
      • Casual and unrestrained in sexual behavior
    (Princeton's WordNet)
2 About marriage, Catholic style, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
  • The sacrament of marriage
    • Summarized
    • Marriage in God's Plan
      • Marriage in the order of creation
      • Marriage under the regime of sin
      • Marriage under the pedagogy of the law
      • Marriage in the Lord
      • Virginity for the sake of the Kingdom
    • The Celebration of Marriage
    • Matrimonial Consent
      • Mixed marriages and disparity of cult
        • This has nothing to do with ethnicity
        • In this context, a
          • Mixed marriage is a "marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic" (1633)
          • Marriage with disparity of cult is "between a Catholic and a non-baptized person" (1633)
          • I was a baptized Christian, but not a Catholic, when my wife and I married, so ours was a mixed marriage
    • The Effects of the Sacrament of Matrimony
    • The Goods and Requirements of Conjugal Love
      • The unity and indissolubility of marriage
      • The fidelity of conjugal love
      • The openness to fertility
      • The Domestic Church
    • The Domestic Church
3 Back when 'down with the establishment' was a popular catchphrase, 'the establishment' in America was mostly white, almost all male, and seriously in need of attitude adjustments. Those were the 'good old days' when "she's as smart as a man" was supposed to be a compliment: and I don't ever want to go back.

That was then. This is now. 'The establishment' is somewhat less-obviously a WASP nest, but some of the 'good old-fashioned values' show considerable durability. More:


Brigid said...

Missing a period: "like "casual and unrestrained ... sexual behavior" and "driven by lust"1"

Usually one word: "euphemistically call a girl friend."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

P.S. "Thanks, Mephistophilis" Wow. I didn't know they said 'thanks' back then. It sounds so strange reading that amongst all the flowery language.

And I vote for Faustus being unimaginative.

Brian Gill said...


Fixed, and thanks!

And, yeah: Elizabethan language isn't really all that different from contemporary English: even the 'flowery' style. It helps, I think, hearing someone *say* it with a conversational rhythm and tone.

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