Dr Faustus

The Dramatic Centrality of the Pope Scene

One of the disconcerting, and sometimes unsatisfying aspects of Dr Faustus is the uneasy mix of seriousness and comedy. While comedy is often an essential feature within tragedy, as Shakespeare demonstrates, it is the basic quality of much of the comedy in Marlowe’s play which seems inappropriate. However, the scene with the Pope is of a dramatic quality way beyond such scenes as those with the horse-courser. It is a set-piece stage-managed by Mephistophilis, scripted pacily, with physical humour, satire, violence and it even ends with a song.

Food Frolics

While we must accept that Faustus’ use of his dearly bought powers does not match the ambitions which propelled him to achieve them, the scene has the potential for gloriously funny stage action. His behaviour is certainly not that of ‘a demi-god’; he had claimed that his powers would be limited only by the imagination, which ‘stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.’ In this scene, it could be argued, ‘the mind of man’ stretches no further than that of a schoolboy, as Faustus and Mephistophilis indulge in jolly japes at the expense of the Pope and his friars. For the immediate duration of the action of the scene, though, these are not the dominant concerns. Marlowe has created such a contemptible, arrogant Pope that the audience delights in seeing him humiliated and beaten in such a slapstick fashion. Marlowe’s melodramatic handling increases this effect, with the Pope’s outraged cries at the loss of his ‘dainty dish’ and his ludicrous hyperbole ‘O, I am slain!’ when struck by Faustus. The humour is certainly crude, dependent on the audience accepting that Faustus and Mephistophilis are indeed invisible as they make plates and cups fly across the room or disappear. However, it is set up with some skill, developing the feast to bring attention to the savoury dishes before they disappear, bringing a satiric focus on the tradition of the sign of the cross which Faustus repeats as a prelude to his physical assault on the pontiff. His stricken body is carried out in state before the monks end the scene with an amusing pastiche of the dirge, mocked and enlivened by the triviality of the intoned lines: ‘Cursed be he took Friar Sandelo a blow on the pate.’

The Role of Mephistophilis

In creating this scene, Marlowe is at least implicitly acknowledging the comic medieval mystery plays, which have a close kinship with Marlowe’s play, and many of which employ a very similar brand of humour in their staging of sections from the Bible. They saw no inconsistency between popular humour and a religious intention – indeed, as with much of the best use of humour in a serious context, the comedy holds up a distorting mirror to the main issues of the drama. This is very much the case with the Pope’s feast scene in Dr Faustus. The contrast between practical jokes and Faustus’ opening ambitions has already been mentioned, and some of this shift in emphasis is due to Mephistophilis. Faustus has deceived himself in this relationship from the start, believing in his ‘servant’ to ‘command’, but who proves to be a skilful manipulator. There is a strong sense of the two characters’ equality in this scene as they develop the jokes and literally pass the cup, and other objects, between them. They frequently refer to each other by name, Mephistophilis creates the invisibility, instructing Faustus to ‘prepare [himself] for mirth’, and both of them eagerly anticipating the bleeding ‘shaven crowns’ of the friars before they enter. This, however, is a misleading picture. It was Mephistophilis after all who limited Faustus’ ambitions to explore the delights of Rome and restricted him to the one room, in order to entice him to abuse God’s representative on earth. This aspect of the scene could be much more apparent in production, if the audience can discern a less than whole-hearted involvement in the pranks by Mephistophilis, a sense of him acting a role for the benefit of Faustus. It is certainly more difficult to put Mephistophilis the practical joker next to the character who speaks so movingly and passionately about being ‘deprived of everlasting bliss’, the idea of hell being the deprivation of God, than it is to juxtapose Faustus the scholar with Faustus the jester.

The Distorting Mirror of Comedy

The main issue of the play which we see in the play’s distorting mirror, though, is damnation. That is the price of Faustus’ contract, and the play represents his constant oscillation between the acceptance of damnation, with its compensations of limited earthly delight, and ‘all voluptuousness’, and the impulse towards redemption and salvation. This is given clear dramatic form in the debates between Faustus and the Good and Bad Angels (another reminder of the medieval morality tradition) and the entrance of the Old Man in the last stages of the drama. As stated earlier, this issue does not dominate when the audience’s eyes and ears are filled with flying foodstuffs and frightened friars. Damnation is, though, undeniably the essence of the scene. The irony here is that Faustus treats it as a huge joke, never once recognising the truth behind the laughter. He is blinded to a degree, as is the audience, by the ridiculous pomposity of his adversary, who by his actions in this scene is likely to join Faustus in hell anyway. For all his satirised grotesquery, the Pope is remarkably accurate. He recognises that the disturbance in his chambers may be ‘some ghost crept out of purgatory’, and he is not far wrong, although Faustus has certainly not come ‘for his pardon’ as Rheims suggests. But we might miss amongst the laughter the Pope’s last line: ‘Damn’d be this soul for ever…’ There he hits the nub of the play. For all the humour of the pastiche, the verse that repeats in the friars’ dirge is ‘Cursed be he…’

This scene is therefore essential in the dramatic framework of the play. It demonstrates the decline in Faustus’ aspirations, questioning the value of his bargain, and signifies further his blindness to his real relationship with Mephistophilis. It is an example of a number of comic scenes within the play, providing theatrical humour and Elizabethan contemporary popular humour with the satire on the Catholic Church. But its quality lies in its grotesque treatment of the central issues of the play. Again it is in the midst of laughter, on stage and off, but Mephistophilis’ lines ‘Now, Faustus, what will you do now? for I can tell you you’ll be cursed with bell, book and candle’ have real meaning. It is not only the friars who are being mocked.