Comic Scenes in Doctor Faustus

In tragedies, the playwright tries to give relief to tension in the mind of the audience by introducing comic scenes or episodes. The audience of the Elizabethan period pressed for such comic interludes. The producers also demanded them for success of the play. The comic interlude may have an appropriate emotional connection in the development of the tragic play; but it is also admitted that in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, this tragic relief mostly seems to be somewhat crude.

Faustus boasts of his intellectual supremacy in the opening scene. In the second, his servant Wagner imitates his display of learning by chopping logic with the two Scholars. We notice a tone of resemblance, as their vain pride yields nothing at the end. Theatrically, this scene fills in the logical time gap between Faustus departing earlier with a determination to conjure and returning at night to do so. Also, we are reminded of Faustus' fame as a professor of logic by the First Scholar. In the next scene, Wagner thinks that Robin the Clown is poor enough to sell his soul for a raw piece of mutton. Immediately it reminds of the deed Faustus has just signed. Robin, however, is not going to sell his soul so cheap. If he has to sell his soul to the devil for food, he would like to have his stuff roasted and sauced. This ironically suggests the cheapness of Faustus' bargain. Wagner now seeks to summon two devils, but the Clown hardly takes it seriously and talks of belching Belcher. Shortly when the devils appear, he runs up and down. Does it not remind of Faustus once again, trying to boss over the phantoms and ultimately serving them? Wagner's desire to make Robin his errand boy also satirizes Faustus' efforts to enslave Mephistophilis.

In the last scene of Act II, Robin tries to spell his magic before Dick with a book he has stolen from Faustus. Apart from the low humour and the parody underneath, there is hardly any theatrical necessity. Act III also concludes in comedy. Robin and Dick try to conjure once again, this time stealing a wine cup from an innkeeper. However, this ironically resembles Faustus going crazy in the papal banquet and snatching away foods and drinks.

The five scenes that constitute Act IV are not much relevant to the main theme. They simply narrate silly exhibitions of Faustus' sorcery. He relives Alexander and Darius in the King Carolus' court, and makes the knights miserable with their horns. A Renaissance scholar, lowborn yet at the zenith of power, Faustus thus revenges the nobility on the behalf of the intellectuals in general. "And hereafter, sir," he warns Benvolio, "look you speak well of scholars." Next he sells a mysterious horse to a Horse-courser which must not be ridden in waters. The buyer does so out of curiosity, only to find his horse dissolving away. Returning to complain, he eventually pulls off Faustus' leg. Regarding this as sufficient revenge, he goes away. "Faustus hath his leg again" shortly by magic, yet this scene ironically foreshadows Faustus' final dismemberment. In the last scene, the Horse-courser finds that many of his friends like the Carter have somehow been tricked by the "cozening doctor".

A number of critics consider the humour in Act IV too base for Marlowe and suggestive of later interpolations. Nevertheless, rest of the critics detect a purpose. However crude those scenes apparently seem, they demonstrate a steady decline in Faustus' character. Before acquiring his magical powers, Faustus aspired of achieving greatest deeds. However, before the audience he does nothing better than buffoonery. His senses have been blunted over time, and he looks for pleasure in the basest comedies. The satirical similarity between him and the so-called clownish characters further enhances the irony.

Faustus thus parodies his own soaring ambitions just as Wagner and Robin had done earlier. The contrasting tragic and comic elements now coalesce in harmony, as beneath the exalted rebel we perceive the fool. Faustus aspired for eternal knowledge and power to parallel with God. At the end he becomes worse than man. Spending his years in feasting and lechery, Faustus exploits his bargain no better than Robin who could sell his soul for roasted mutton. The presentation of the scenes concerned is thus certainly comic. Underneath, they help realise Faustus' irrevocably tragic deterioration.

Last modified: Friday, 21 July 2017, 12:47 PM