Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

The Modernisation of the Medieval Staging of Soul in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

The Modernisation of the Medieval Staging of Soul in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

Article excerpt

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Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (c. 1588-89) marks a divergence from the medieval dramatic tradition that sought to reify the soul, the focal point of the early drama's narrative of spiritual progress. Marlowe's play provides ample spectacle, but its circumspection in producing soul is similar to that of Mephistopheles in providing Faustus with a precise location for hell. Faustus feels the proffer of his soul ought to buy him knowledge of hell's objective, geographical placement, so that he can substitute truth for the indeterminacy of language. Because of its relation to the human signifier, 'the place that men call hell' has not earned his full credence. Mephistopheles answers, 'Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed / In one self place, for where we are is hell, / And where hell is, must we ever be' (2.1.120-126).1 The same can be said of the soul in Marlowe's play, for it torments the protagonist with an ever-present sense of a boundless sublimity that attaches to and depends upon him as a wilful individual, while remaining incapable of appearing, except ideationally. Unlike the medieval moralities that preceded it, which used a combination of linguistic, bodily and material devices to emblematise soul, Doctor Faustus presumes the mission of those didactic works has been accomplished, and the instauration of the Christian ideology of soul is not the ultimate solution, but a problem that precedes the first appearance of the actor who 'must perform / The form of Faustus' fortunes' (1.1.7-8). In Marlowe's time, there was no way to speak of identity without recourse to the figure of the soul, a rhetorical sign of a belief that soul was the ground for mind, will and consciousness. And there was no way for an individual to deploy the figure of soul without feeling an overwhelming sense of obligation to God, and the surrounding human-made structures of meaning, ethics, rewards and punishments that upheld it. Soul, celebrated by centuries of religious drama as the defining feature of humanity, to the point that no one in the play need ask, 'what is the thing men call soul?', is now used by Marlowe as the signature figure of poetical discourse on the psychic consequences of believing in the immutability of personal identity in the age of reformed theology.

It may be that 'there is no more obvious Christian document in all Elizabethan drama than Marlowe's Doctor Faustus',2 but its soul is not, as it was in the medieval drama, staged as a demonstrable object made evident by the play's apparatus of signification. It has become a set of conflicts raised by the mimetic representation of a soul-in-process (instead of progress), a character who uses language to point towards the mutation-perhaps even the complete dissolution-of individual personal identity, contrary to the reigning systems of reward and punishment that require it to maintain coherence as an object knowable by itself and by God.

Catherine Belsey argues that the Renaissance stage 'brought into conjunction and indeed into collision' an emblematic mode that 'makes meaning visible', and an illusionist mode that 'replicates what is already visible, already known.'3 On a stage more concerned with creating the illusion of a presently unfolding, mundane reality, soul became particularly problematic to represent, because, as stated earlier, it was already known, but never 'already visible' in the day-to-day world the stage sought to evoke. The result in Faustus is a dichotomy between the use of the linguistically performative device of poetic imagery to create the illusion of soul, and the emblematic, if 'threadbare devices' for showing devils and stunts, which 'intensified the emotional impact of Marlowe's text even as they undermined its content'.4 There are powerful scenes in Doctor Faustus where soul is ritualistically outlined by props, effects and bodies: the congealing blood on Faustus's arm as he attempts to write the 'deed of gift' of his soul, the kiss of Helen as 'Her lips suck forth my soul. …

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