A Problem with Authority: Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare – Josh Mcloughlin

Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder and editor at Sonder.

 

Both William Shakespeare’s The Tempest[1] and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus[2] subvert structures of authority. This essay will argue that Doctor Faustus is a ‘dialectical presentation’ which subverts the authority of Calvinistic predestination by offering no subject position from which the text makes sense –it resists a predetermined reading. Further, this essay will also examine the disturbing effect of Marlowe’s dramatic adaptation on the ‘discursive sequence’ of the Faustus legend itself, arguing that the play avoids a kind of textual predestination.[3] The Tempest can be shown to subvert the authority of politics by using the island as a stage on which the inadequacies of various forms of political organisation and power relations are exposed. Though both subvert structures of authority, Doctor Faustus can be said to subvert religious authority, whereas The Tempest interrogates secular power relations.

The subversion of predestination in Doctor Faustus

John Calvin wrote that ‘salvation is spontaneously offered to some, while others have no access to it […], [God] does not adopt all promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others’.[4]  Proclaiming the inevitable, immutable will of God as the cause of human ascension or damnation, Calvinist predestination ‘dominate[d] late sixteenth-century religious life’.[5]  Doctor Faustus subverts this authority through its ‘dialectical presentation’. Stanley Fish conceives of the dialectical text as ‘disturbing […], it does not preach the truth’. Conversely, the ‘rhetorical [text] […] satisfies […] its readers’.[6] Doctor Faustus can be read as a ‘dialectical text’ which subverts Calvinist predestination through ambiguity which disturbs, rather than ‘preache[s]’, or ‘satisfies’.  The play is not subversive merely because it ‘argues on both sides of the question’, rather the ‘dialectical’ ambiguity of the play’s dramatic language functions to resist a (pre)determined reading or ‘meaning’, by offering no subject position from which the text makes sense. [7] In the prologue, it is announced that Faustus’s ‘waxen wings did mount above his reach’ (21), implying an agency that parallels both the Icarus legend to which it alludes, and also Tamburlaine, ‘another of Marlowe’s titanic over-reachers’, suggesting Faustus is driven by his desire for ‘an earthly crown’.[8] However the next line, ‘melting heaven’s conspired his overthrow’ (22) implicitly suggests that Faustus’s ‘overthrow’ and death is not the result of his earthly agency, but the culmination of a heavenly conspiracy – or Calvinist predestination.  Faustus’s first soliloquy traces his systematic rejection of doctoral disciplines through rational argument, implying that Faustus willingly ‘embraces damnation’, albeit via a ‘fallacious syllogism’.[9] However, Mephastophilis later claims the opposite, proclaiming ‘Twas I […] when thou took’st the book/to view the scriptures, then I turned the leaves/ and led thine eye’ (Scene 13: 93-96).[10] In Scene 13 Faustus proclaims ‘God forbade it […], but Faustus hath done it’ (39), explicitly emphasising Faustus’s responsibility. In Faustus’s final soliloquy, the blame for his predicament is shifted three times in the space of two lines: ‘Curst be the parent that ingendered me:/No Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer’ (107-8). Faustus’s unstable and contradictory articulation mirrors the ambiguity of agency in the play. Doctor Faustus cannot satisfactorily be read as either a narrative of the downfall of a flawed individual, or as the tragic playing out of a predetermined fate. Kritsten Poole writes that ‘the play seems to vacillate between a theology based on free will […] and Calvin’s conception of double predestination’.[11]  Neither the agency of Catholicism, nor the determinism of Calvinism seems the obvious subject position from which to read the play and understand ‘the forme of Faustus’s fortunes’ (1.8).  Catherine Belsey has written that ‘fictional texts [offer] specific subject-positions from which the texts most readily make sense’.[12] This can be aligned with Fish’s idea of a rhetorical text: rhetorical satisfaction lies in the obvious subject position offered by a text which ‘mirror[s] and present[s] for approval the opinions its reader’s already hold’.[13] Given that ‘the theological ideas that […] dominate[d] late sixteenth-century religious life were […] Calvinist’, the dialectical nature of Doctor Faustus – the plurality of subject positions offered which disturb obvious readings – functions as a subversion of the fixed and certain doctrine of predestination.[14]

Thus, religious authority is a target for subversion in Doctor Faustus, and in this The Tempest shares both similarities and differences. As will be discussed later, The Tempest also focuses on the ways in which the actions of individuals or groups are directed, and Shakespeare’s play echoes Marlow in avoiding prescription. However, whereas the authority subverted in Doctor Faustus is religious, The Tempest interrogates secular power relations. Belsey writes that the ‘dialectical’ or disruptive text is one in which the ‘discursive sequence fails to fulfil the expectations it generates’.[15] I offer a modification of this idea in relation Doctor Faustus: the play is dialectical in that it ‘fails to fulfil the expectations’ generated by the Faustus legend itself. As discussed earlier, the play uses ambiguity to resist generating any ‘expectations’ within in the text, but Marlowe’s adaptation runs counter to the ‘discursive sequence’ of the Faustus legend and, in doing so, resists a kind of textual predestination. Though the Faustus legend has a long tradition in Europe, with the story of the blood pact dating back as far as 650AD, ‘Critical consensus accepts [the English Faustbook] […] as the source for Marlowe’s great tragedy’.[16] The titles of both works provide a significant point of discontinuity between the Faustus legend and its dramatic adaptation.  Marlowe’s title: ‘The Tragicall History of D.Faustus’, serves a different function to the full title of his source, ‘The Historie of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor [J]ohn Faustus.[17] The title of Marlowe’s source constitutes a continuation of the ‘discursive sequence’ generated by the long history of the Faustus legend: it functions essentially to reiterate its popularly known plot. This is a form of textual predestination insofar as the title offers a ‘specific subject-[position] from which the text most readily makes sense’: we are encouraged to view Faustus’s life as ‘damnable’ and his death ‘deserved’. [18] Thus, a reading of the play is (pre)determined by the title. Conversely, Marlowe’s full title offers no such subject-position: ‘The Tragicall History of D.Faustus’ makes no judgement on Faustus’s life or death, claims only to chart a ‘Tragicall History’, and thus its function (and the function of the play it announces) is not prescriptive or reiterative, but disruptive and dialectical. Similarly, the title of The Tempest promises disorder, chaos and irresolution. It is the irresolution of political organisation in Shakespeare’s play which will form the next part of this discussion on the subversion of authority.  

 The subversion of politics in The Tempest

Whereas the authority subverted in Doctor Faustus is religious, The Tempest interrogates secular power relations. Dean Ebner has written that  ‘[Shakespeare] undertakes to show by presenting a series of rebellions that evil men, found inevitably in both primitive and civilized societies, effectively  prevent the establishment  of an ideal political state’.[19] Rather than agree with Ebner’s moralistic view that The Tempest prescribes the eradication of ‘evil men’ as necessary to ideal political organisation, or indeed Lawrence Bowling’s hierarchical assertion that The Tempest functions to reassert and prescribe a natural political order in which ‘leadership has again been correctly reassumed and all individuals […] return to their proper places in the universal chain’[20], this discussion will offer an alternative reading of The Tempest as political. Etienne Poulard writes that the setting of the play functions as ‘Shakespeare’s great utopian laboratory, [offering] the perfect setting to experiment with new ways of wielding power.’[21] If the setting of the play is the arena in which different forms of power relations and politics are played out – ‘experiement[ed]’ –  then the degree to which these various ‘ways’ succeed reveals the attitude of the play to these forms of political organisation. The Tempest can be read, not as prescriptive of a certain type or order of politics, but as subverting the authority of political organisation itself, insofar as all attempts at political organisation on the island ultimately fail. Before discussing the forms of political organisation played out on the island, it is worth examining the authority of the political organisation in place before the events of the play begin proper, in Prospero’s former duchy of Naples. Although he presents moralistic account of the play, Ebner’s description of Prospero as a ‘philosopher-king’ is certainly supported by the text:[22] Prospero admits to neglecting ‘worldly ends, all dedicated/To closeness and the bettering of my mind’ (1.2.89-90), and also goes on to say ‘my library/was dukedom large enough’ (1.2.109-110). Prospero’s dukedom of Milan exemplifies a political organisation governed by an absent, intangible ruler devoted to learning, not to ‘worldly ends’. It is implied that Prospero did not rule with active political engagement, and the insinuation is that Prospero was only effectively duke of his own ‘library’. The absence of the ‘philosopher-king’ allowed Antonio to ‘believe/he was indeed the duke’ (1.2.102-3) and the result is a mutinous usurpation in which Prospero is ‘extirpate[d] / […] out of the dukedom’ (1.2.25-6). As Ebner notes, ‘being a philosopher- king is evidently not very practicable in a society in which even a brother can become a traitor overnight to advance his own “worldly ends”’.[23] As we shall see, however, the events anterior to those which take place on the island should be read not as morally prescriptive, but as functioning to foreshadow the inadequacy of ‘the […] ways of wielding power’ demonstrated on the island. [24] Caliban is representative in the play of the failure of a politics based on hereditary rights. Caliban claims ‘this island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,/which thou tak’st from me’ (1.2.334-5) and bemoans that he was his ‘own king’ before Prospero arrived (1.2.343). Caliban accuses Prospero of usurping his ‘right’, proclaiming ‘you do keep from me/the rest o’th’ island’ (1.2.345-6). The play suggests that political organisation based on heredity is vulnerable to easy dissolution through superior power.  If the island is a ‘great utopian laboratory’ then Gonzalo is its visionary.[25] In his ideal political organisation, there would be ‘no kind of traffic/[…] no name of magistrate’(2.1153-5). Gonzalo represents the idea of a politics not of ‘riches [and] poverty’ (2.1.156), but a system of power relations in which ‘all things on common nature should produce/without sweat or endeavour’ (2.1.165-6). This vision is sarcastically cut down by Sebastian’s retort ‘save his majesty!’ (2.1.173). Gonzalo’s is a vision of ‘No sovereignty’ (2.1.162), but as Sebastian and Antonio rightly point out, Gonzalo ‘would be king on’t’, and so ‘the latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning’ (2.1162-4). The play suggests that a utopian vision of political organisation exists only as a dream, and Gonzalo’s speech is roundly dismissed, ‘laughed at’ and never heard again (2.1.181). If Gonzalo prescribes a political organisation free from ‘sword, pike, knife’ (2.1.167), then Antonio and Sebastian offer an alternative in the form of violent power politics. They plot a mutinous insurrection reminiscent of the events in Naples before the play, as Sebastian claims ‘as though got’st Milan,/I’ll come by Naples’(2.1.296-7). However, this plan is thwarted and the two are forced to give ridiculous reasons for their being ‘drawn’ (2.1.312): ‘bulls’ is given first, but this quickly becomes ‘or rather lions’ (2.1.313). Comedy is used to deflate the ambition of the political organisation of both Antonio and Sebastian and Gonzalo. Using these examples, The Tempest can be shown to subvert the authority of politics by using the island as a stage on which the inadequacies of various forms political organisation and power relations are revealed. A possible objection may be offered, the answer to which will form a conclusion on the subversion of politics in The Tempest. It may be argued that Prospero employs a politics of authoritarian rule and strategic marriage policy to regain his former political position. However, Prospero’s success in regaining his dukedom should be read not as the product of a conceived political system, but rather as a resolution possible only through the ‘potent art’ (5.1.50) of magic. Therefore Prospero’s (and the play’s) resolution functions as a counterpoint to the inefficacy of different forms of real political organisation in the play. Resolving the play through magic not only accentuates the failure of those various forms of politics, but characterises an effective and functional politics as a dream, as magic, and therefore unattainable. Though both Doctor Faustus and The Tempest subvert different forms of authority, one religious, the other secular, there are striking similarities between the two. In the same way that the dialectical nature of Doctor Faustus subverts predestination by offering no obvious reading of the text and disturbing the established tradition of the Faustus legend, Shakespeare’s play also refuses to prescribe any one political system as ideal. The Tempest dismisses such a vision as immaterial – as magic – and as a result the authority and efficacy of political organisation is subverted.

Bibliography

Belsey, Catherine, Critical Practice, (London: Meuthen, 1980)

Belsey, Catherine, The Subject of Tragedy, (London: Meuthen, 1993)

Bowling, Lawrence E., ‘The Theme of the Natural Order in ‘The Tempest’’, College English, 12, (1951) pp.203-209

Calvin, John, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994)

Deets, Sara Munson (eds.) Doctor Faustus: A Critical Guide (London: Continuum, 2010)

Ebner, Dean, ‘The Tempest: Rebellion and the Ideal State’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 16 (1965), pp.161-173

Fish, Stanley, Self-Consuming Artifacts (London: UCLA Press, 1972)

Marlow, Christopher, Doctor Faustus in, Roma Gill (ed.), The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, Vol.2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Poole, Kristen, ‘Doctor Faustus and Reformation Theology’, in A. Garret et al (eds.), Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) pp.96-18

Poulard, Etienne, ‘The Politics of Shakespeare’s Invisibility: Power and Ideology in The Tempest’, International Journal of Zizek Studies, 4 (2006), pp.1-18

Shakespeare, William, The Tempest in John Jowett et al (eds.), The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 2nd ed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

[1] William Shakespeare, The Tempest in John Jowett et al (eds.), The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 2nd ed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) [All line references are to this edition].

[2] Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, in Roma Gill (ed.), The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, Vol.2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) [All line references are to this edition. Original spellings have been preserved. All references are to the A-text unless specified].

[3] Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, (London: Meuthen, 1980) p.32.

[4] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994) p.203-204.

[5] Kristen Poole, ‘Doctor Faustus and Reformation Theology’, in A. Garret et al (eds.), Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) pp.96-18, p.100.

[6] Stanley Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts (London: UCLA Press, 1972), pp. 1-2.

[7] Sara Munson Deets (ed.), Doctor Faustus: A Critical Guide (London: Continuum, 2010),  p.9.

[8] Deats, Doctor Faustus: A Critical Guide, p.9.

[9] Deats, Doctor Faustus: A Critical Guide, p.11.

[10] Roma Gill (eds.), ‘Adicyones in the B Text’ in, The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, Vol.2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) p.136.

[11] Kristen Poole, ‘Doctor Faustus and Reformation Theology’, p.102.

[12] Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy, (London: Meuthen, 1993) p.x.

[13] Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts, p.1.

[14] Poole, ‘Doctor Faustus and Reformation Theology’, p.100.

[15] Belsey, Critical Practice, p.32.

[16] Deats, Doctor Faustus: A Critical Guide, p.7-8.

[17] ‘The Historie of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor [J]ohn Faustus’ (trans.) P.F Gent in Roma Gill (ed.), The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, Vol.2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)  pp.89-105.

[18] Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy, p.x.

[19] Dean Ebner, ‘The Tempest: Rebellion and the Ideal State’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 16 (1965), pp.161-173 p.161.

[20] Lawrence E. Bowling, ‘The Theme of the Natural Order in ‘The Tempest’’, College English, 12, (1951) pp.203-209 p.204.

[21] Etienne Poulard, ‘The Politics of Shakespeare’s Invisibility: Power and Ideology in The Tempest’, International Journal of Zizek Studies, 4 (2006), pp.1-18 p.2.

[22] Ebner, ‘The Tempest: Rebellion and the Ideal State’, p162.

[23] Ebner, ‘The Tempest: Rebellion and the Ideal State’, p162.

[24] Poulard, ‘The Politics of Shakespeare’s Invisibility’, p.2.

[25] Poulard, ‘The Politics of Shakespeare’s Invisibility’, p.2.

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