Comic characters: Robin, Rafe and Vintner

Stock characters and the Elizabethan theatre

The largely comic figures in the play are further examples of how certain characters cannot really be discussed in terms of personality, development or their consistent contribution to the action or thematic material. Most of the minor characters appear only in one or two scenes and, once they have fulfilled their function, they are dismissed from the play.

In theatrical productions, both in the sixteenth century and the present day, actors would ‘double' these parts, reappearing as different characters throughout the play. Certain actors in the Elizabethan theatre would have been celebrated for their comic abilities and it was often the case that playwrights would create parts with particular actors in mind, seeking to exploit their verbal and/or physical skills. Acrobatic actors would be especially useful in the farcical scenes, while quick and witty speakers would shine in the verbal exchanges. The fact that the play includes a part called ‘Clown' (see Characterisation > Wagner) may tell us something about the kind of parts the actor usually played in the company's productions.

Robin and Rafe

The dangers of magic

As in Scene 4 (the encounter between Wagner and the Clown), the comic scenes usually parallel and parody the more serious parts of the play. Robin and Rafe, who appear in Scenes 6 and 9, demonstrate what happens when magic texts fall into the hands of those who cannot fully understand what they are meddling with. Robin's ambitions for practising magic are fairly straightforward:

‘now will I make all the maidens in our parish dance at my pleasure stark naked before me' (Scene 6, 3-4).

He tempts Rafe in a similar manner:

‘if thou hast any mind to Nan Spit, our kitchen-maid, then turn her and wind her to thy own use, as often as thou wilt, and at midnight' (Scene 6, 24-26).

In one sense, these desires are limited in their scope by the boundaries of the world that Rafe and Robin inhabit. Thus, they serve as a contrast to the much wider aspirations initially entertained by Faustus. Yet they are in essence the same as Faustus' desire for a sexual relationship with Helen of Troy, even if their sexual fantasies extend no further than the fanciable young women in their village.

Clowning and satire

Their second scene together, in which they are joined by the Vintner (inn-keeper), contains some elaborate comic business with a goblet or drinking-cup. The trick of two people passing an object to one another while the third tries to catch one of them in possession of it is very familiar and is still used by comedians and clowns on stage, television and in circuses. Here, the goblet has added religious significance, since it was associated with the chalice used in the Catholic Mass, during which the wine was believed to turn into the blood of Christ (transubstantiation). The scene thus becomes another of the ways in which the play satirises the Catholic Church.

Comedy juxtaposed with tragedy

A final aspect of Scene 9 is the appearance of Mephastophilis himself – the only time he is seen in the play without Faustus. Robin's conjuring has been powerful enough to summon him. However, Mephastophilis is angry at being called by such unworthy creatures. He refers to them as ‘villains' (scene 9, 37) and ‘damned slaves' (39) and accuses them of presumption. As well as frightening them with fireworks, he turns them into animals as a punishment. Once again, an essentially comic scene serves a serious purpose, since these punishments anticipate what Faustus will suffer when the devils come to claim his soul.

All the comic characters, however brief their appearances in the play, make some contributions towards its serious overall intentions. This use of comic situations and sub-plots that echo or intensify the central action came naturally to Elizabethan dramatists – Shakespeare was particularly inventive in this respect. Even the darkest tragedies contain some comic elements and Elizabethan audiences expected and appreciated these contrasts of tone.

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