Comic scenes/elements in Doctor Faustus
Some sort of comic relaxation provided after a succession of tense scenes in a play is known as comic relief. Aristotle and his followers insisted upon the unity of tone and impression and were strongly opposed to the admixture of the comic element in a tragedy. Sidney in his Apology for Poetry also criticized the practice as “matching horn-pipes and funerals”. However, the Elizabethan dramatists did not conform to the classical ideal. They freely and literally introduced the comic elements in their tragedies. And Marlowe, a typical product of the Elizabethan Renaissance, was no exception, though some critics are of the opinion that in Dr. Faustus, the comic scenes are not by Marlowe. They were later interpolations.
However, there are at least two comic scenes, which are integral parts of Dr. Faustus. In the first comic scene, Marlowe makes fun of the Medieval scholastic learning which Faustus has just renounced through Wagner’s dealings with the two scholars. When the scholars asked a simple question Wagner tries to puzzle them by his answers. It is quite entertaining to hear him refer to his masters being “Corpus naturale”, and the possibility of his having moved away from the place where he was a little while ago. Then he informs the scholars that his master is at dinner with Valdes and Cornelius.
In the next comic scene in Act I, Scene IV, there is a burlesque upon the main episode, i.e., Faustus’s contract with Lucifer. Here Wagner wishes to engage the clown as his servant and referring to the poverty and need of the clown, says that the clown is so hungry that “he would give his soul to the devil for a shoulder of mutton, though it were blood-raw”.
The clown is not utterly stupid and so he refuses to accept such a proposition. If he has to give his soul to the devil for the sake of good, he will insist on the mutton being “well-roasted” and being served “with good sauce”. Likewise, he refuses to become Wagner’s slave for a few coins. Then Wagner summons two devils and frightens the clown. As a result, the clown at once surrenders himself to Wagner, though only a moment ago the clown was boastfully threatening to kill one of the devils in order to make a reputation as a “kill-devil”. It is amusing to witness the clown’s fear at the appearance of the two devils and his uttering a curse on them after they are gone.
But most of the comic scenes are isolated episodes and are not artistically interwoven with the tragedy. However, the comic scenes involving Faustus help to his constant present state of merriment with the tragedy that befalls him after twenty-four years of desired life. One such scene occurs in Act II, Sc II, where Faustus interrogates the Seven Deadly Sins & Pride, Covetousness, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth and Lechery. The various Sins certainly do amuse us by the manner in which they describe their respective characteristics. The parade of the Seven Deadly Sins feeds Faustus’ soul and certainly evokes laughter from the audience.
Faustus also appears in certain scenes and contributes to the comic effect. He encounters the Pope and repeatedly snatches away his food and drink. He eventually hits the Pope on the ear and the audience laughs at the discomfiture of Pope. The discomfiture of the Knight at the Emperor’s court is thoroughly enjoyable. In Act IV, Sc III, Faustus plants a pair of horns on the head of a Knight who has been insolent towards him. Faustus removes the horns only at the request of the Emperor but warns the Knight to be more respectful to scholars in the future. Lastly, Faustus’s dealings with a Horse-courser give us delight. The manner in which a horse is sold to the Horse – Courser for forty dollars, the Horse-Courser’s account of his plight and the Horse Courser’s pulling off Faustus’s leg provoke laughter. But as Boas says “the vulgar conjuring tricks which of Faustus performs at the courts of the Pope, the German Emperor, and the Duke of Vanholt, are utterly out keeping with the dignity of the true theme of the play”.
But, it may be pointed out that such comic scenes were very popular with the Elizabethan audience and were part of the regular stock-in-trade of the theatrical companies. Even Shakespeare introduced some comic elements into his tragic plays. The reason for his doing so was not only to please the audience of the time but also to relieve the tension built up by the tragic scenes. The tension in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is built up by the mental conflict that the hero undergoes. To relieve that tension, the comic scenes may be permissible from the psychological point of view. But in Dr. Faustus, we have many comic scenes which not only relieve dramatic tension but are also accused of considerably diminishing and diluting the tragic effect.