Comic Scenes in Doctor Faustus
A distinctive feature in Marlovian tragedies is their continuous solemnity and gravity. In fact, Marlowe is found to differ from Shakespeare in one vital aspect. There is no light or comic scene, as the porter in Macbeth, the Grave-diggers in Hamlet, or the clown in Othello in Marlowe’s great tragedies. He displays a definite dislike to clownage or buffoonery in tragic plays and even there is his contemptuous reference to the same in the Prologue to Tamburlaine.
But Doctor Faustus is a strange exception in this respect, as it contains a good deal of clownage or buffoonery. The scenes with Wagner and of the meeting of Wagner and the clown introduce some elements of burlesque in the otherwise serious tragedy of Doctor Faustus. These scenes appear merely foolery, as Marlowe lacks the Shakespearean sense of the comic and his humour is never of a high order. Such scenes are rightly deemed as the unfortunate blemishes in one of the greatest plays of the Elizabethan age.
Indeed, the clownage and comic scenes in Doctor Faustus serve no effective purpose and stand merely to provide some joke for the vulgar audience. It is really quite baffling to understand how a serious and talented dramatist like Marlowe could introduce such low and silly scenes in his high tragedy. As stated already, there are comic elements in Shakespeare’s plays. This is, however, done not merely for appeasing the vulgar taste of a section of the Elizabethan audience, but for effecting the relief from the tension, built up by the tragic scenes. In other words, even from the dramatic point of view, the comic element serves a useful psychological purpose in a tragic play.
In Doctor Faustus, the tension is quite acute and the hero is found subjected to an agonizing mental conflict. To relieve that tension, some comic scenes, here and there, could, from the psychological point of view of the audience, be permissible. But comic scenes are too many in Doctor Faustus and they hardly appear to relieve the dramatic tension. In other words, the abundance of low comic scenes have actually weakened the dramatic quality of Marlowe’s tragedy.
Apart from this, the comic scenes in Doctor Faustus, as already implied, are not of a good standard. There may be some good joke, as for instance, when Wagner tries to embarrass the scholar or Mephistopheles is offered six pence as a compensation for the long journey that he has undertaken to come in response to the summons of Robin and Ralph. The parade of seven deadly sins may also be justified as a surviving feature of a morality play. But the rest of the fun, such as the harassment of Pope, the jokes played on the horse-courser and the knight is sheer clownage and definitely unworthy of a somber and grave tragedy like Doctor Faustus.
It is possible that the comic scenes, in which Doctor Faustus himself features — his tricks on the Pope and the knight and the Horse course – were contrived by the dramatist to show the deterioration in the hero’s character. Thus Faustus, indulging in cheap tricks, is definitely different from Faustus of the earlier scenes. When Faustus was yet new with his power of magic, he dwelt on some grand schemes, such as to wall all Germany with brass. But, after getting his mastery over the black art, he revels in such childish pranks, such as, snatching away the dish from Pope’s hands and cheating a horse-dealer.
Judged from all these angles, these comic scenes may be taken as providing an insight into Dr. Faustus’s intellectual decline. There is the feeling that, under the effect of unholy practices, even a heroic personality tends to lose his dignity, and seeks pleasure in the crude and vulgar exercises of trickery and farce.
Of course, from the structural standpoint, these comic scenes seem to have some special effect or utility. They serve somehow to fill in the interval between Faustus’s attainment of power and his craving for and apprenticeship in evil knowledge.