Monday, December 19, 2011

Christopher Marlowe's "...Doctor Faustus:" Despair, a Dagger, and a Helpful Demon

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

The Soggy Case of the Drenched Horse Dealer

My last two posts about Christopher Marlowe's "...Faustus" followed Doctor John Faustus as he:
  • Pranked the Pope
  • Impressed
    • An Emperor
      • Favorably
    • A knight
      • Unfavorably
All with the help of Mephistopheles.

There's some moralizing that I could do at this point. The would-be world conqueror Faustus we saw earlier in Marlowe's play has been using the diabolical services of Mephistopheles and company - to play practical jokes. And entertain a European ruler. 'How fallen are the mighty,' and all that.

Faustus apparently can't even get a good deal from a horse trader. Or "HORSE-COURSER," as the job title was in Elizabethan England. That's what Marlowe called the fellow, anyway. The horse trader offered Faustus 40 dollars, Faustus made a counter-offer of 50, and that's when Mephistopheles stepped in:
"MEPHIST. I pray you, let him have him: he is an honest fellow,
and he has a great charge, neither wife nor child....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
I didn't know quite what to make of Mephistopheles' request. That line, taken alone, sounds like some of the 20th-century movies featuring Satan as a "gentleman of discernment and understanding." (review by theowinthrop (May 31, 2005) of "Heaven Can Wait" (1943),

Turns out, that's a very special horse. Faustus warns the horse trader not to ride the horse into water, and - unless I'm getting the pronouns mixed up - the horse "has a buttock as slick as an eel."

A few lines later, the horse trader comes back, dripping wet. He figured that Faustus was trying to hide some special quality of the horse from him - and rode the thing into water. Deep water. As he complained to Mephistopheles:
"...I was no sooner in the middle of the pond, but my horse
vanished away, and I sat upon a bottle of hay, never so near
drowning in my life....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
The horse trader wants to get his 40 dollars back from Faustus, Mephistopheles tells him that Faustus is asleep, and quite a few lines later Faustus is back with the aristocracy: a duke and duchess.

Out-of-Season Grapes

Faustus impresses the Duke of Vanholt and the Duchess with out-of-season grapes: and a learned discussion of climate.

A Puzzled Servant

Meanwhile, Wagner, Faustus' servant is puzzled. Faustus has turned all his worldly goods over to Wagner - which the servant takes as an indication that Faustus expects to die soon.

On the other hand, Faustus is carousing with students: which doesn't seem like what a dying man would do. In Wagner's opinion.

That's when Faustus and three scholars come in and discuss which lady from antiquity was the most beautiful. At length. Elizabethan audiences seem to have enjoyed long speeches, and I've been over that before.

"Enter an OLD MAN"

Then, Marlowe's play reads:
"...Enter an OLD MAN...."
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
OLD MAN's lines include phrases like "such flagitious crimes of heinous sin," which seems a trifle over-the-top. But, as I've said before, this play is about four centuries old: and both the language and culture have changed a bit since then.

The gist of what OLD MAN has to say is reasonable enough: that Faustus has done some really bad things, and has a very limited time in which set things right. He also tells Faustus that the sinner's only hope is the:
"...mercy, Faustus, of thy Saviour sweet
Whose blood alone must wash away thy guilt....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")

Histrionics and a Helpful Demon

Histrionics aside, this is consistent with what the Catholic Church teaches. My only hope of salvation comes from the crucifixion of my Lord. (Matthew 27:33-54, Mark 15:33-39, Luke 23:33-47, John 19:17-37, 2 Corinthians 5:15, Hebrews 5:9; and a pretty good summary in the Catechism, 600-617)

So, how does Faustus react to OLD MAN's dire warnings? Not well:
"...FAUSTUS. Where art thou, Faustus? wretch, what hast thou done?
Damn'd art thou, Faustus, damn'd; despair and die!
Hell calls for right, and with a roaring voice
Says, 'Faustus, come; thine hour is almost157 come;'
And Faustus now158 will come to do thee right.
[MEPHISTOPHILIS gives him a dagger.]...
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Helpful fellow, that Mephistopheles: giving a despairing man a lethal weapon.

Despair, Suicide, Hope, and Prayer

Suicide is a really bad idea. It's also a topic that's rather personal with me, and I've posted about that before:
More to the point, the Church has quite a bit to say about despair, hope, and suicide. Including this selection:
"In their religious behavior, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them:
"Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair.333"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 844)

"The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption:

"By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God's goodness, to his justice—for the Lord is faithful to his promises—and to his mercy."
(Catechism, 2091)

"Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of."
(Catechism, 2280)
Bottom line, suicide is a bad idea, and we shouldn't do it. But we also pray for people who have killed themselves:
"We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives."
(Catechism, 2283)
Does that mean that the Church is 'purposefully vague' about suicide, as well as charity? ("Caritas in Veritate, Charity in Truth: 'Purposefully Vague'?" (July 18, 2009))

No. I don't think so. And that's yet another topic.1

Somewhat-related posts:
"...Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from:

1 The Catholic Church doesn't fit neatly into contemporary America's cognitive pigeonholes. I don't see that as a bad thing:

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Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

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