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The theatrical device of performing a play within another play has been employed for centuries, most notably in European theatre and literature (Fisher and Greiden xi). The play within a play “describes a strategy for constructing play texts that contain, within the perimeter of their own fictional reality, a second or internal theatrical performance” (Fisher and Greiden xii). Such a play within a play also has a multitude of functions and tasks, which, according to Fisher, can be grouped into four distinct varieties: metatheatrical (self-)reflection, introduction of different perspectives, interaction or exchange in the social and historical fields, and permitting a play to shift from one genre to another (Fisher and Greiden xii), Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, a retelling of the classic German legend Faust, is a fifteenth-century play which employs this technique on several occasions, providing the audience with an extra layer of entertainment, a deeper understanding of the flawed character of Faustus, and a metatheatrical reflection on the play itself.
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was written during the reign of queen Elizabeth. According to Ornstein, a theatre audience during this era expected plays to possess both variety and comedy; in public theatre, popular taste sometimes outweighed critical subtlety (166). The combination of seriousness and buffoonery was not a new development: the miracle plays and morality plays in medieval times had already employed this method of storytelling. In Doctor Faustus as well as in other British Renaissance classics like Romeo and Juliet, so-called clowns are deployed to provide a comedic aspect; these can be literal clowns, as the one in Marlowe’s play, or other characters with clownish functions, like the musicians in Shakespeare’s above-mentioned work or Marlowe’s Rafe and Robin (Ornstein 166). Marlowe’s clowns star in diverting episodes that mimic the plot of Doctor Faustus. In scene six, Rafe and Robin are introduced. The latter has stolen one of Faustus’ conjuring books, his intentions consisting of such things as making “all the maidens . . . dance stark naked before me” (6.3-4), giving his master horns (6.14-15), and getting away with stealing the vintner’s goblet (8.5-6). When trying to succeed in deceiving the vintner, they accidentally summon Mephastophilis, who scares them with firecrackers and turns Rafe and Robin into a dog and an ape, respectively. Scene four features the Clown and Wagner, the latter trying to convince the former to become his servant for seven years. The Clown uses wordplay for comic effect: when Wagner says he will use “beaten silk and stavesacre” (4.16) the Clown replies with “. . . knavesacre? Ay, I thought that was all the land his father left him! . . . I would be sorry to rob you of your living.” (4.17-19). Another entertainment within the play is the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins, a parade Lucifer shows Faustus to entertain him and persuade him to keep from repenting; creating characters that stand in for sin and the Devil is a type of comedy that can be traced back to the Miracles and Moralities (Ornstein 168). This scene contributes to the main plot by preventing Faustus from turning to God for the time being, but both scenes mentioned before add little to nothing to the main plot of the play; they mainly provide some comic relief in between more serious scenes.
This does not mean, however, that these scenes are irrelevant in any way. Apart from providing the audience with comedic entertainment, they have a much deeper function: they provide ironic commentary on Faustus’ flaws and character, and metatheatrical reflections on the play itself. The plot revolves around Faustus selling his soul to the devil to gain wealth, pleasure, powers and knowledge. However, as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that he got less than what he bargained for; he gains some magic skill, such as the ability to become invisible, but Mephastophilis is the one wielding the great powers. Though he does serve Faustus, there are limitations to what he can do, for he is “a servant to great Lucifer” (3.40) and can only perform what the devil himself commands. When Robin shows his friend the conjuring book he has stolen, Rafe replies with “Come, what dost thou with that same book? Thou canst not read!” (6.12-13); a metatheatrical allusion to Faustus’ own magical incapability.
The parade of the sins, a show Faustus enjoys to such an extent that he exclaims “O this feeds my soul!” (5.330), is Satan’s way of “divert[ing] his victim with a picture gallery that suggests Faustus’ own futility” (Ornstein 168). The fate that awaits all who indulge in these sins is the same that awaits Faustus, but he fails to recognize this grim predicament. Another passage that mocks Faustus’s decision to sell his soul is a part of the dialogue between Wagner and the Clown; Wagner exclaims “Alas poor slave . . . The villain is bare, and out of service, and so hungry that I know he would give his soul to the devil for a shoulder of mutton, though it were blood raw.” (4.6-9), to which the Clown replies “How, my soul for a shoulder of mutton though ‘twere blood raw? . . . I had need have it well roasted, and good sauce to it, if I pay so dear.” ( 4.10-13). By diverting from the main plot, all three passages cause a disruption in the experience of the audience; by commenting on Faustus’ previous actions in this way, Marlowe’s characters remind spectators of the fact that they are watching a fictional play, and indirectly encourage them to understand the comedic scenes as moments that call into question the credibility of Faustus’ own claims to power.
There are countless examples of passages in Marlowe’s work that have the same functions and effects, but the three mentioned above are perhaps the most striking examples. All three provide the audience with a deeper understanding of Faustus’ flawed character and with metatheatrical commentary on the play itself, even though they are comedic in nature. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is a prime example of an ironic comedy. Though Marlowe’s exact intentions can only be guessed, Ornstein gives the following suggestion: “The ironic comedy…Its intention, I think, is both didactic and comic. Simultaneously nonsensical and profound, it clarifies our perception of moral values” (167).
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