Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

“Still to be plagued in hell”

Christopher Ricks and William Empson on Doctor Faustus

I’ve been writing a series of essays for my email newsletter under the general heading “Empson’s insightful errors”. The idea is that, towards the end of his life, the brilliant literary critic William Empson put forward a number of theories and hypotheses which, though not in themselves persuasive or well founded, nevertheless point the way towards useful new insights, readings or evaluations of the authors or works in question.

The third and probably last in the series, which went out a few days ago, concerns Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus. Empson believed that the play had been gutted by the Elizabethan censor, who had removed anything explaining what Faustus was up to. According to Empson, Faustus must have had a plan to escape hell. What could Faustus possibly gain from his bargain that could begin to compensate for the certainty of neverending torture, an agony that could neither be endured nor brought to an end?

Or, as another brilliant critic put it:

Empson, asking himself how it could be that an unstupid Faustus could have made so stupid a bargain, set his own labouring brain to beget a world of not-idle fantasies as to how and why Faustus might ever have supposed that he could overreach the devil. Christopher Ricks, “Doctor Faustus and Hell on Earth”, Essays in Criticism 35 (1985); 101–20, 102)

Empson devised an impressive and ingenious scheme which I’ve looked at in detail in the newsletter. But his question as to what Faustus thought he was doing also stimulated the brain of Christopher Ricks, causing him to come up with a rather different answer. As Ricks’s lecture is a particularly good example of (what I’d argue is) an Empsonian “error” lighting the path towards a new way of looking at things, I had intended to include a few paragraphs on Ricks in the newsletter, but I ran out of space, so I’m writing about his argument here instead.

Ricks’s question is not so much “how did Faustus think he could overreach the devil?” as “what could make such an obviously stupid deal seem like it might not be a bad idea?” To answer this question, Ricks takes an approach derived from Empson himself, who had argued that the slave trade “impinges upon” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Ancient Mariner”:

What great guilt so preoccupied Coleridge during those years? … The best poem that deals with the slave-trade (perhaps the only good poem?) would then not be about it; rather the slave-trade would be about the poem. For Empson would not have wished to speak of the slave-trade as the subject of The Ancient Mariner, but nor would he have wished to square it as a mere frame. It is rather one of the poem’s elements. It is in the air.
What was in the air for the early audiences of Doctor Faustus was the plague. (p. 103)

Bubonic plague is thought to have killed about 15,000 Londoners in 1593 (p. 104), a year during which Doctor Faustus was being performed in the city. The plague cannot have been far from the minds of the play’s audience.

Noting that there has been “a long tradition” among critics of disparaging Faustus’s bargain, essentially accusing the character of preferring “instant gratification” to the salvation of his soul, Ricks argues that:

to say only this is to ignore the greatest and most fundamental thing which Faustus buys with his soul, so great and fundamental as to go unnoticed if we are not careful: the guarantee that he will live for another twenty-four years. Such a guarantee would never be nugatory (and critics are oddly blithe who write as if it would be) but it must come with particular force in times of, say, war and — even more — in time of plague. In the midst of life we are in death: this was monstrously manifest in a society haunted by plague. (p. 108)

Ricks accepts that Faustus is condemned. (I think I do too, though as I noted in the newsletter, the ending of the A-text is ambiguous.) However, he argues that a contemporary audience, their own lives in ever-present danger of sudden curtailment, must have been tempted not merely to sympathize with Faustus, but to “condone” (p. 108) his sinful actions.

Ricks’s brilliant lecture elucidates Marlowe’s play and has changed forever the way we (certainly the way I) think about it. As Ricks presents it, it seems to have its origin in Empson’s highly idiosyncratic, eccentric, fanciful and unsupported attempt to “save” Faustus — and Marlowe. That’s the kind of connection that can make “insightful errors” so useful.