Pope, Emperor, the Duke and Duchess, and their courts

The Pope and his court

Objects of ridicule

Faustus and Mephastophilis arrive in Rome in Scene 8 and the papal court is almost immediately defined by Mephastophilis in negative terms, when he speaks of:

‘a troup of bald-pate friars,
Whose summum bonum is belly-cheer' (Scene 8, 50-51).

This and Faustus' equally anti-clerical reply, expressing his desire:

‘to compass them some sport,
And by their folly make us merriment' (52-53)

would have met with an amused response from the play's first audiences. Since the Reformation, the corruption and worldliness of monks and friars were taken for granted by the mainly Protestant population of England.

Worldly appetites

PopeThe Pope himself, when he appears on stage, is hardly characterised by any special spirituality. His main interest is in introducing to the Cardinal of Lorraine tasty dishes of food sent by the Bishop of Milan and Cardinal of Florence. The implication is quite clear: the senior clergy of the Catholic Church do not exchange theological ideas, but things that please their bodily appetites. Similarly, the invisible Faustus does not attempt to engage the Pope in any debate on religious matters, but uses the occasion to tease him by snatching his food and drink.

Spiritual insensitivity

The Pope takes no action to deal with whatever is tormenting him, which, perhaps – as the Cardinal puts it – may be ‘some ghost newly crept out of purgatory come to beg a pardon of your holiness' (scene 8, 69-70). If the Pope really believes that this is the case, then the solution he proposes – a dirge sung by the friars – is hardly appropriate.

More on Purgatory: Purgatory was a concept developed by the Church during the Middle Ages and was seen as an intermediate state entered after death, where the soul was ‘cleansed' for a set period of time, prior to ascending to Heaven. Prayers and mass, recited by the deceased person's family and friends, could reduce the amount of time the soul spent in Purgatory.

Payment for others to undertake these prayers, together with sale of indulgences, was a prime source of income for unscrupulous clergy and a central target of those seeking to reform the Church in the sixteenth century.

If the Pope is being disturbed by a restless soul, he should be displaying charity and mercy, rather than ordering a dirge to be sung. A dirge is a lament for the dead, part of the Requiem Mass. Furthermore, the friars, presumably attuned to their master's wishes, pronounce a curse.

The coercive power of the Church

During Scene 8, Faustus and Mephastophilis wonder whether they will be cursed with bell, book and candle. This is a reference to the ceremony performed when someone is excommunicated from the Church, usually for some form of religious heresy or disobedience to the Pope's wishes. Faustus and Mephastophilis mock the excommunication ceremony and other Catholic forms of ritual. As Faustus puts it,

‘Anon you shall hear a hog grunt, a calf bleat, and an ass bray,
Because it is St Peter's holy day' (Scene, 80-81).

Pope Peter

Peter is regarded by Catholics as the first head of the Church and is the patron saint of Rome, so the fact that Faustus and Mephastophilis enjoy their mischief-making on this day gives added point to this satirical episode. The threats of both Purgatory and excommunication, as the critics of the Church realised, were used as a means of social as well as religious control.

The Emperor and his court

Anti-European satire

If Scene 8 finds Faustus at the heart of the Church's power, then Scene 9 brings him to the centre of European secular power at the court of Emperor Charles V in Innsbruck. The Emperor no more lives up to the dignity of his status than does the Pope. He is chiefly preoccupied with the glory of his own family, the Hapsburgs. This dynasty exerted an enormous amount of influence in Europe, largely by a complex series of advantageous marriages rather than through military strength or prowess. Without much justification he claims descent from Alexander the Great and the only use to which he wishes to put Faustus' renowned powers is to ask him to produce the spirits of Alexander and his mistress.

NOTE: The A-text of the play does not make it clear to which of Alexander's lovers the Emperor refers. The longer version of this scene in the B-text, however, suggests that it may be Thais, a courtesan who persuaded Alexander to burn the city of Persepolis during his campaign against the Persian king Darius in 331 BCE. This would provide a link with the appearance in Scene 12 of Helen of Troy, for love of whom the city of Troy was destroyed.

Faustus' loss of stature

The other significant figure in Faustus' encounter with the Emperor is the sceptical Knight, who accuses Faustus of being nothing more than a conjuror. Faustus punishes him by asking Mephastophilis to place a cuckold's horns on his head, thus humiliating the Knight in the presence of the Emperor. As with the meeting with the Pope, the scene shows Faustus applying his powers to trivial ends and also demonstrates that neither religious nor secular power is worth much respect.

The mood of triviality and comedy continues into the final section of this scene, which is devoted to the cheating and tormenting of the Horse-Courser (horse-dealer). This simple and gullible character is an easy target for Faustus and Mephastophilis, especially after the scenes at the papal and imperial courts. At the same time, however, the ease with which Faustus exposes and exploits the weaknesses of the Horse-Courser emphasises that he does much the same, with an equal lack of seriousness, for the Pope and Emperor. In some respects, this can be seen as a rather cruel and gratuitous episode, taking advantage of a comparatively harmless and defenceless individual.

Duke and Duchess of Vanholt

Faustus' journey to Vanholt in Germany completes a trio of visits to religious and aristocratic courts at which he shows off his gifts. Once more, he lives up to his reputation as a kind of high-class wandering entertainer at the service of the aristocracy, and what he performs for the Duke and Duchess seems very frivolous. The Duke thanks him for ‘this merriment' (Scene 11, 1), while he indulges the whim of the pregnant Duchess by producing a dish of unseasonable grapes.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.