The Irony of Identity: Self and Imagination in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe

By Ian McAdam | Go to book overview
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4
Doctor Faustus: The Exorcism of God

IF TAMBURLAINE IS A NOTORIOUSLY PLURAL TEXT, THEN THE MUCH shorter Doctor Faustus is even more remarkable for density and complexity of meaning, and has been equally controversial. Considering its obvious concern with magic, it might be expected that Doctor Faustus even more than Tamburlaine would involve Marlowe’s engagement with Hermetic thought. However, as James Robinson Howe briefly points out, Faustus’s magic is black, not Hermetic natural magic.1 The significance of this distinction is more fully explored by William Blackburn in his informative essay “‘Heavenly Words’: Marlowe’s Faustus as a Renaissance Magician.” Blackburn, examining the Oration on the Dignity of Man, points out that while Pico believed that man could be maker and molder of himself partly through magic, he warned that there are two kinds: goetia (witchcraft) and magia: The former, [Pico] says, ‘depends entirely on the work and authority of demons, a thing to be abhorred and a monstrous thing. The other, when it is rightly pursued, is nothing else than the utter perfection of natural philosophy.’”2 But while “Pico’s magia sounds innocuous enough it involves far more than a knowledge of the astrological or ‘occult’ properties of plants and stones. Pico argues that, while goetia makes man the bound slave of wicked powers,’ magia can ‘make him their ruler and their lord.’”3 According to Blackburn, Faustus “utterly and abysmally confuse[s] the two traditions of magic which Pico so carefully distinguishes.”4 Blackburn examines Faustus’s incantation and finds it “utter nonsense": “In it Faustus calls upon both the Trinity and the gods of Acheron; in it the name of Jehovah is both abjured and invoked as a source of power. Faustus, while presuming to command the fallen angels has also ‘prayed and sacrificed to them’ as a witch or sorcerer would do.”5 Faustus’s mistake, in strictly Hermetic terms, is not that he deals with spirits or devils but that he foolishly subordinates himself to them.

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