Participant and commentator

Wagner is described in the list of characters as both Faustus' servant and a student, so he is presumably some kind of apprentice to Faustus. His role in the play is partly serious and partly more light-hearted. He participates in some comic scenes, whilst also making relevant and poignant comments on his master's situation. He only partly understands what is happening to Faustus, so when he acts as a kind of chorus (see Structure > The role of the chorus), he could be seen as a representative of the audience. He is an ordinary person witnessing extraordinary events.

A satiric and serious figure

Wagner's first substantial appearance, in Scene 2, emphasises the comic aspect of his student status. He tries to impress and confuse two of the Scholars by using the complex language and mode of argument that he has learned, in reply to their simple question as to Faustus' whereabouts. This culminates in the speech beginning, ‘Yes sir, I will tell you' (scene 2, 177ff). Yet even this speech, which is largely comic, delivers the news that Faustus is dining with Valdes and Cornelius, which arouses the Scholars' fears that he is tempted to experiment with magic.

Elizabethan clown dancing a jigWagner's encounter with the Clown (Scene 4) sees him out-talking and insulting a lesser opponent – a clown could, in the sixteenth century, refer to someone slightly simple. The scene is full of word-play: puns, jokes and the comic misuse of words due to mishearing, a common device in the Elizabethan theatre. The serious side of the scene is that Wagner actually manages to make a pair of devils appear and frighten the Clown. This echoes the preceding Scene 3, where Faustus summons Mephastophilis for the first time, and anticipates Scene 5, in which a number of devils appear. It also suggests the dangers of magical knowledge falling into the wrong hands.

Wagner as Chorus

After the comic elements of Scenes 2 and 4, Wagner's next appearance, delivering the second Chorus speech, is somewhat unexpected. Hitherto, as was often the case with comic or lower-class characters in Elizabethan plays, Wagner has spoken only prose. Here, he speaks in the blank verse used for all the other Chorus speeches. The speech makes no mention of his role as Faustus' servant and his is the same omniscient voice used in the other Chorus speeches. It could be that the speech is attributed to Wagner because, in early productions, both parts were played by the same actor.

For his final appearance, Wagner again delivers a chorus-like speech at the opening of Scene 12. At a dramatic point late in the play this offers the outsider's, semi-comprehending view of Faustus as his end approaches. Wagner's failure to understand Faustus' behaviour in the face of death conveys something about the state of mind in which Faustus will seek refuge from his inevitable fate by summoning Helen of Troy.

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