The Romantics and Doctor Faustus

Two hundred years of neglect

On the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, theatres were closed and remained shut until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. In 1662, the English diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was disappointed by a poor performance of the play in a slightly revised version published in 1663. This same version was played before the royal court in September 1675 and then there are no further recorded performances for more than two hundred years.

Faust in the popular imagination

In the intervening years, however, the Faust story remained popular, in the form of pantomimes, puppet-plays and farces, which were presented all over Europe by travelling performers. The serious aspects of the story were usually stripped away in these popular versions, which were regarded as of little interest by literary intellectuals, especially in the refined and rational 18th century. Indeed, the tale was seen as a crude survival from a more superstitious and credulous period of history. Nonetheless, the narrative retained a strong hold on the popular imagination.

Romantic rehabilitation

Walter ScottIt was with the Romantic writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that there began the rehabilitation both of Faustus as a representative figure and of Marlowe's original play.

  1. Walter Scott (1771-1832), the celebrated poet and novelist, records one of the earliest reactions to the play in a notebook entry of 1797. He must have read an early edition of the play and remarks in a notebook entry that it is, ‘a very remarkable thing. Grand subject – end grand'.

  2. The text was republished in 1814 for the first time since 1633, enabling readers to study the play in some depth, and it was in a review of this edition that Henry Maitland gave an indication of the way in which writers and readers of the time idealised Faustus and saw him as a hero:
    A deep knowledge of human nature

    Marlow has shown great skill, and a deep knowledge of human nature, in not drawing Faustus as a monster of guilt and iniquity, so as to destroy all sympathy with his sufferings and fate. Though sold to Hell, he seeks rather his own enjoyment and pleasure than the misery of others, nor does he even seek them at the expense of his fellow creatures.

    Henry Maitland, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1817

  3. A less favourable view of Faustus came from Francis Jeffrey (1771-1850), writing in the more conservative Edinburgh Review:
    A vulgar sorcerer

    Faustus is a vulgar sorcerer, tempted to sell his soul to the Devil for the ordinary price of sensual pleasure, and earthly power and glory – and who shrinks and shudders in agony when the forfeit comes to be exacted.

    Francis Jeffrey, Edinburgh Review, 1817

  4. William Hazlitt (1778-1830), the great radical critic and essayist, offered a more subtle and enthusiastic reading of Doctor Faustus and of Marlowe's work in general:
    A glow of the imagination … a rude and gigantic sketch

    There is a lust of power in his writings, a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness, a glow of the imagination, unhallowed by anything but its own energies. His thoughts burn within him like a furnace, with bickering flames; or throwing out black smoke and mists, that hide the dawn of genius, or like a poisonous mineral, corrode the heart. His Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, though an imperfect and unequal performance, is his greatest work. Faustus himself is a rude sketch, but it is a gigantic one. This character may be considered as a personification of the pride of will and eagerness of curiosity, sublimed beyond even the reach of fear and remorse. He is … devoured by a tormenting desire to enlarge his knowledge to the utmost bounds of nature and art, and to extend his power with his knowledge … The idea of witchcraft and necromancy, once the dread of the vulgar and the darling of the visionary recluse, seems to have had its origin in the restless tendency of the human mind to conceive of and to aspire to more than it can achieve by natural means …

    William Hazlitt, Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth, 1820

    A number of important points arise from the passage:

    • Hazlitt attempts to describe the nature of Marlowe's imagination: imagination was an important faculty for the Romantics
    • He uses a number of potentially negative expressions to describe the operation of Marlowe's imagination – ‘lust', ‘unrighteousness', ‘unhallowed', ‘bickering', ‘black smoke', ‘poisonous' and ‘corrode'
    • However, the overall effect of these sentences is not negative. Hazlitt's intention is to represent the creative power of imagination, from which works of art are produced only with great intensity and effort – hence his imagery of the forge: he seems unconcerned by the demonic associations of the words he has used
    • He acknowledges the imperfections of Marlowe's play
    • He tries to understand the origin of Faustus' actions – his proud wilfulness, insatiable curiosity and willingness to pursue knowledge whatever the cost
    • This too is characteristic of Romantic thought, which often venerated individuals who defied authority, power and established beliefs in order to increase humanity's knowledge and capacity. For example, Romantic writers were fascinated by the myth of Prometheus, the mortal who stole fire from the gods
    • Faustus is, therefore, seen as a representative or symbolic figure as well as an individual struggling with his own destiny, while his dabbling in forbidden arts is seen as a consequence of human aspiration.

  5. Johann von Goethe (1749-1832), the great German poet, published the first part of his long drama, Faust, in 1808. It diverges from Marlowe's story in a number of respects, especially in Faust's seduction and desertion of an innocent peasant girl, Gretchen, who dies after Faust abandons her. It is this part of the play that the essayist Charles Lamb (1775-1834) comments on in the following extract, comparing it unfavourably with Marlowe's version of the story:
    The spirit of Faustus – Curiosity

    I thoroughly agree with you as to the German Faust, as far as I can do justice to it from an English translation. 'Tis a disagreeable canting tale of Seduction, which has nothing to do with the Spirit of Faustus – Curiosity. Was the dark secret to be explored to end in the seducing of a weak girl, which might have been accomplished by earthly agency?

    Charles Lamb, letter, December 1823
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