Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe

Second speech of third scene (Act 1 Scene 3):
[Faustus invokes Mephistopheles]
FAUSTUS: Sint mihi Dei Acherontis propitii! Valeat numen triplex Jehovae! Ignei, aerii, aquatani spiritus, salvete! Orientis princeps Belzebub, inferni ardentis monarcha, et Demogorgon, propitiamus vos, ut appareat et surgat Mephistophilis. Quid tu moraris? per Jehovam, Gehennam et consecratum aquam quam nunc spargo, signumque crucis quod nunc facio, et per vota nostra, ipse nunc surgat nobis dicatus Mephistophilis!
[“Be propitious to me, gods of Acheron! May the triple deity of Jehovah prevail! Spirits of fire, air, water, hail! Belzebub, Prince of the East, monarch of burning hell, and Demogorgon, we propitiate ye, that Mephistophilis may appear and rise. Why dost thou delay? By Jehovah, Gehenna, and the holy water which now I sprinkle, and the sign of the cross which now I make, and by our prayer, may Mephistophilis now summoned by us arise!”]
This is a play with a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning and the end are very good as Faustus makes his bargain with the devil and as he faces the inevitable price that he must pay. The middle is much weaker; having been granted immense power, all Faustus wants to do with it is play a series of silly practical jokes. The first of his targets is the Pope, but there doesn't seem to be any further point to Faustus's antics other than temporary humiliation of the powerful.

I guess it's partly an indication of the demands of the stage - "Chris baby, we've got these clowns in the company, you gotta write something for them, the crowd will love it" - but I felt that Goethe found more interesting things for his Faust to do, at least in Part I (Goethe's Part II rather disappears up its own erudition). Marlowe does try to turn this around to make it an Awful Warning about the price of knowledge and diabolical deals, but surely the average audience member will feel that we end up with a character flaw on Faustus's part, in that he doesn't seem to have considered how to use his great powers, rather than a general lesson for all of us.

Still, one can forgive a lot of Acts II, III and IV for the brilliance of Act I and especially Act V. At a rough estimate 95% of the well-known quotes from the entirety of Marlowe's works come from Faustus - including, I was surprised to see, "Che sera sera", but also the better known speeches: Faustus on Helen of Troy:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Mephistopheles, on Hell on Earth:
Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
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 deprived of everlasting bliss?
As a lapsed historian of astronomy, I have to comment on one of the more obscure exchanges between Faustus and Mephistopheles, which I think Wikipedia gets wrong (and therefore others may get it wrong too):
FAUSTUS. How many heavens or spheres are there?
MEPHIST. Nine; the seven planets, the firmament, and the empyreal
FAUSTUS. But is there not coelum igneum et crystallinum?
MEPHIST. No, Faustus, they be but fables.
FAUSTUS. Resolve me, then, in this one question; why are not
conjunctions, oppositions, aspects, eclipses, all at one time,
but in some years we have more, in some less?
MEPHIST. Per inœqualem motum respectu totius.
FAUSTUS. Well, I am answered.
This is the secret of the universe, part of the new knowledge Faustus is getting as part of his deal. The Wikipedia entry suggests that Mephistopheles' answer to the third question ("Per inœqualem motum respectu totius" - "because of the unequal motion with respect to the whole") is evasive and demonstrates that he is fundamentally untrustworthy. I disagree; it is actually Faustus' question that is a really stupid one, and Mephistopheles' answer is pithy and perfectly reasonable and accurate. Perhaps it is from this point that Faustus realises that the secret of the universe is not really as interesting as it is cracked up to be?
Tags: bookblog 2016, writer: christopher marlowe

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