Magic, Mythology and the Supernatural in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something entirely new, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past.” (Marx, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, New York: W. W. Norton, 1972, pg. 437)
In light of Marx’s comments from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte regarding the conjuring of the past within the present in order to facilitate the creation of a ‘new’ future, this essay seeks to examine the ways in which the invocation of the ‘spirits of the past’ and the difficulty of ‘revolutionising’ one’s existence are manifested in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. The components of this investigative course are to be found in the presence of the mythological and the supernatural elements within the play, and the way in which these are facilitated by the employment of magic. If one is to successfully trace the influence, significance, and (crucially) the interaction of magic, mythology and the supernatural within Dr Faustus, one must first endeavour to briefly refine our comprehension of these important aspects of the play as individually functioning concepts. Recalling Marx’s comments on the conjuring of ‘spirits of the past’ allows us to place the role of mythology within the context of the play – that is to say, it is the means by which Faustus seeks to connect with ancient history in order to (in the language of Marx) ‘revolutionise’ himself as an individual. By recalling ancient mythological history and facilitating the physical manifestation of it through magic, Faustus seeks to reconstruct the domain of the old gods around himself, deifying himself as the figure of power in a present that he has manufactured from the past. The tool with which he seeks to achieve this ascendancy is magic, which he recognises as being able to bestow him with seemingly divine powers: “These metaphysics of magicians / And necromantic books are heavenly… Aye, these are those that Faustus most desires” (Marlowe, Doctor Faustus and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008; I.i.49-52). We will later move to expand upon the role and significance of magic within the play, but let this brief initial foray into the definition of the term satisfy our understanding that it is the means by which Faustus deigns to facilitate his own apotheosis and ascent to godhood. It is, crucially, distinct from the term ‘supernatural’, which some may falsely amalgamate into a single term referring to all things which are fantastical and beyond the physical reality of the rational world. For the purposes of our investigation, however, we will separate them thus: if magic is the human employment of arcane forces, then the supernatural is the consequence of those forces. The ‘result’ of this Marlovian magic is the appearance of the supernatural in the form of devils and angels, most notably the former. The presence of the supernatural in Dr Faustus is therefore a means of translating religion into a stage physicality – a manifestation of magic and Faustus’ aspirations of divinity. By introducing the supernatural as an expression of divine and religious presence, Marlowe is free to place Faustus within the boundaries of a world in which the fantastic appears real. The audience is confronted with instances of the invisible becoming visible – a construction of that which might not be real, but which they can see.
This theme of the fantastic becoming physical and visible (both to Faustus and to the audience) is an interesting and deeply important phenomenon, and one which will be investigated at length in due course. Since we are in the process of establishing our understanding of essential terminology, it seems appropriate at this point to consider the term ‘fantasy’. Although the word appears only once in the original play, and does not appear at all in the B Text except when “fantasies” are referred to fleetingly by Mephistopheles (Marlowe, V.ii.14), I deem it to be a significant enough term that it warrants employment as a phrase central to furthering the efficacy of our inquiry, for reasons that will be made clear. The etymology of the modern term is rooted in both Latin and Greek, as the word phantasia. Despite the commonality of the same word in both languages, the duality of meaning is an interesting one. Whereas the Latin notion of phantasia pertains to ‘imagination’, the Greek gives it a subtly different meaning: ‘apparition’, or ‘to make visible’. Although we may not seek to apply this understanding directly to the language within Dr Faustus, it does afford us a crucial element of understanding that is invaluable when considering the role of mythology, magic, and the supernatural within Faustus’ visible construction of that which has stemmed from his imagination. Within this essay, therefore, ‘fantasy’ will refer to the meaning as it is traditionally understood (as something existing within the imagination), and the word ‘phantasia’ will be implemented as a means of appropriately comprehending the actualised physical appearance of that which would otherwise be unseen by both the audience and the character of Faustus. It is also, of course, the ideal word to use in reference to the supernatural apparitions that are present within the play, especially should we desire to place these in contextual relation to those fantasies that are the product of Faustus’ imagination. Now that we are equipped with a basic level of understanding regarding the focal elements of this inquiry, we can seek to employ them in the construction of a working thesis encompassing the roles of each component, before subjecting it to appropriate discussion with the aim of establishing their significance within the play.
It is conceivable for us to liken Marx’s aforementioned assertion regarding the creation of history by conjuring up the ‘sprits of the past’ to the aims of Faustus in Marlowe’s play. This is achievable when we consider the overarching drive behind the actions of Faustus, and the end goal that he seems to be seeking via the culmination of his efforts. We can trace the interaction of the three primary components of his endeavour thus: magic is the human utilisation of arcane and quasi-divine power, by which the interaction with the supernatural is made possible. The facilitation of this interaction enables the wielder of the subsequent supernatural powers to construct for themselves a new form of existence – a revolution of their present state of existence that propels them into a future of their own design. It is within this ‘future’ of his life that Faustus seeks to ascend to the level of godhood – a self-deification made possible by the conjuring of ancient figures buried in a mythological past. Once ‘summoned’ in this way, he is able to express a level of control over the past whilst remaining within his own ‘present’ time. Faustus seems to hope that this expression of control over the constructs of mythology places him in a position where the ‘spirits of the past’ are subject to him as they were to the ancient gods of the relevant history. This affirmation of his ‘godlike’ power would serve as the basis for his belief that he has successfully transcended the mundanity of the human condition, placing himself alongside the legitimately supernatural and divine entities of which he believes himself to be the master. To ascertain whether this is an accurate depiction of the interplay of forces within Dr Faustus, I will now endeavour to further investigate the disparate strands which comprise the bulk of this thesis.
These forks of inquiry together form the complete picture of Faustus’ enterprise, and so will be discussed individually before being combined into a well-rounded conclusive judgement as to the roles played by myth, magic and the supernatural.
Firstly, we must establish what it is that Faustus hopes to achieve through his magical endeavours, for the role and objective success of the employment of the arcane can only be considered once it is evident what the overall goal of the protagonist actually is. Whilst it is apparent that he seeks power in the most general of senses, such a desire seems somewhat crude when placed next to the elaborate and supra-natural methodology by which he intends to obtain it. His intentions seem unclear and somewhat varied, even to the point of contradiction: “O, what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, and omnipotence, / Is promised to the studious artisan!” (Marlowe, I.i.54-56). These are vague parameters of intent indeed. “Profit and delight” suggests a yearning for satisfaction of earthly desires which seems almost immature and compulsive when mentioned alongside the intention to also acquire “power”, “honour” and “omnipotence”. It certainly seems almost as if it is an outburst of sorts, a greed-drenched series of demands which together might serve to fulfil the primary desire of ascendancy beyond the parameters of human existence and into the realms of the divine. ‘Omnipotence’ certainly seems like a desire for godlike status, initially superseded though it may be by his preoccupation with satisfying his appetite for material objects. He expresses his most immediate desires in a veritably childlike outburst of outlandish requests that he seeks to have fulfilled by his control of the supernatural spirits he intends to command: “I'll have them fly to India for gold, / Ransack the ocean for orient pearl, / And search all corners of the new-found world / For pleasant fruits and princely delicates” (Marlowe, I.i.81-84). In his essay Marlowe and Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Greenblatt comments on the seemingly near-impossible task of establishing the precise intentions of Faustus once he levers himself into a position of power through magical means. Greenblatt writes: “Faustus speaks endlessly of his appetite, his desire to be glutted, ravished, consumed, but what is it exactly that he wants?” (Kernan, Alvin B. "Marlowe and Renaissance Self-Fashioning."Two Renaissance Mythmakers: Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1977. Pg.60). This seems to be a fair question to ask of Faustus, since he seems reluctant to explicitly state his intentions behind his undertaking. Greenblatt continues: “By the end of the play it is clear that knowledge, voluptuousness, and power are each mere approximations of the goal for which [Faustus] sells his soul and body; what the goal is remains maddeningly unclear” (Greenblatt, pg. 60). Perhaps this is the point. When confronted with the form of power that is atypical of that usually commanded by a man, Faustus is seemingly unable to satisfactorily articulate his desires in such as way as for one overarching desire to be apparent. However, once we able to view his numerous desires as a whole and appreciate various nuances of his speech, such as that in the first act which is most evident in the A Text (“A sound magician is a mighty God. / Here, Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity” (Marlowe, I.i.60-1)), it becomes increasingly evident that although he does not explicitly say as much, he desires to ascend to a divine level of godhood. The latter line of the aforementioned quote could be read in two ways, either as an expression of intent to ‘gain’ control of a supernatural being in order to acquire power, or in conjunction with the first line as a desire to implement ‘sound’ magical practices so as to obtain a level of deification. We will later examine in greater detail the extent to which this desire is evidenced, as well as the practicalities of actualising them that undertaken by Faustus, but let it suffice for this strand of reasoning that it is clear the protagonist has aspirations of the divine.