Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 14; 27 May 2021

“To overreach the devil”: William Empson partly rewrites Marlowe’s Faustus

Empson’s insightful errors, no. 3

Something of central importance is missing from Christopher Marlowe’s late-sixteenth-century play, Doctor Faustus. The play exists in two versions, known as the A-text and the B-text. The A-text is clearly incomplete, consisting of “about 1,500 lines” (William Empson, Faustus and the Censor, Blackwell, 1987, p. 40). The B-text is some 600 lines longer, long enough for a theatrical performance, but it contains a substantial amount of material that is widely agreed not to be Marlowe’s. The current critical consensus seems to be that each version includes inauthentic material as well genuine Marlovian writing that is not to be found in the other. Empson took the view, as did Roma Gill, the editor of the New Mermaids edition, as well as a number of other scholars (p. 207), that the A-text (though possibly the result of “memorial reconstruction”) was closer to Marlowe’s, and that the B-text was a later assemblage intended for performance.

Severe cuts had evidently been made to the A-text, and Empson’s argument is that these must have been made on the instructions of the Elizabethan censor. Whatever the censor demanded to have removed from the play must have been heretical, inflammatory, politically embarrassing or offensive to those in power. Empson thought that what had been removed was the explanation as to how Faustus planned to “overreach” the devil: to use the latter’s power for his enlightenment and gratification, without having to pay the price of eternal damnation as a result: “Faust must have a scheme to escape Hell; this is needed anyhow, if the play is to have its feet on the ground” (p. 121).

If he doesn’t have a plan, Faust is knowingly subjecting himself to an eternity of unceasing torture, in exchange for just 24 years of guaranteed life, some esoteric knowledge, the opportunity to consort with Helen of Troy, and the ability to play tricks on powerful people, such as the Pope. The punishment is so unimaginably terrible that nothing that he could negotiate in exchange could possibly be worth it. Somebody stupid enough to accept that bargain would hardly be worth punishing and would be too ridiculous a figure to be taken seriously as a tragic hero. Empson was surely right to argue that Faustus must have planned an escape route. According to him, the main thing that the censor had removed was the explanation of that plan.

Empson’s account is based on the idea that Mephastophilis (A-text spelling) is not a devil. He is a “middle spirit”, a long-lived but soulless being who had never been to heaven or hell and who usually resided in storm clouds. Middle spirits were supposed to include a wide variety of beings, from fairies and waternymphs to the ancient gods and demigods. Helen of Troy, daughter of the god Jupiter was one, according to Empson:

Helen cannot be simply ordered up … she must be coaxed, whereas the spirits imitating Alexander and his consort could be called up and behaved as slaves. The contrast is made very plain, and yet nobody says [in any of the source material] or in the play, even that Helen is royal, let alone that she was the daughter of Jupiter and had been hatched from an egg, thus proving herself to be a demigodess; though they had all been taught it at school, with whatever degree of disapproval. (pp. 115–16)

For Empson, this was the actual Helen, not a diabolical impersonator. As the long-lived daughter of a god, she was still alive in the sixteenth century.

But the main point about middle spirits is that they don’t have souls. They may live for a very long time (longaevi) but when they die they just cease to exist, with no possibility of going either to heaven or to hell. According to Empson’s theory, in Mephastophilis Faustus has found a middle spirit who longs to be able to go to heaven, while Faustus wants to die “like an animal” at the end of his 24 years, so that there’s nothing left of him to be punished in hell. Each wants what the other has, so they’re ideally placed to make a deal.

Mephastophilis and Faustus don’t discuss their arrangement because the devil would overhear them and they need to be able to fool him. They want him to use his powers on Faustus’s behalf. Mephastophilis will pretend to be acting as agent for the devil and will take an assignment of Faustus’s soul, in exchange for the devil granting Faustus’s demands (including the guaranteed 24 years of life). Mephastophilis has promised the devil that he will deliver the soul to him after Faustus’s death, but he intends instead to keep it for himself and hopes to enter heaven with it. For much of the 24 years, Faustus thinks that Mephastophilis has betrayed him and that he really is eternally damned, but in the play’s final lines he learns that the plan has worked and that he is to escape hell (and existence) after all.

There is more in what remains of the A-text to support Empson’s argument than I had noticed on previous readings. But the theory rests on the assumption that Mephastophilis will somehow be able to make Faustus’s soul his own. How he is to do so remains unexplained. Presumably souls aren’t fungible, with one as good as another to whomever happens to have it about his person, like one of the letters of transit in Casablanca.

Anyway, there’s a much more obvious escape route (potentially) open to Faustus. Curiously, it’s one that Empson refers to several times, though he sees it as an obstacle to Faustus’s success, rather than the potential foundation of it. At several points in the play, Faustus refers to the possibility of repentance:

I will renounce this magic, and repent.

Be I a devil, yet God may pity me,
Ay, God will pity me if I repent.

My heart’s so hardened I cannot repent! (Sc. 5, ll. 187, 191–2, 194)

Mephastophilis and the devils clearly think that Faustus’s repentance, were it to occur, would ruin their plans, so they threaten him with fearsome violence and distract him with “pastime” (Sc. 5, l. 274). Then, in the final act, the Old Man tells him:

I see an angel hovers o’er thy head,
And, with a vial full of precious grace,
Offers to pour the same into thy soul!
Then call for mercy, and avoid despair. (Sc. 12, ll. 44–7)

Faustus asks the Old Man to leave him alone “to ponder on my sins”. Once on his own, Faustus says:

I do repent; and yet I do despair:
Hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast! (Sc. 12, ll. 54–5)

In short, the possibility of Faustus’s repentance is central to the whole story. That must have been his plan from the start. He would do a deal with the devil which would assure him of 24 more years of life, esoteric knowledge and extraordinary “magical” powers. Then, shortly before his 24 years had expired, he would repent, renounce his infernal bargain and beseech heaven for forgiveness. If he miscalculated, it was in underestimating the difficulty of repentance.

While Empson refers to repentance more than once, he doesn’t consider it as a possible path for Faustus to escape hell. Rather, he thinks that if Faustus were to be forgiven and admitted into heaven, that would be catastrophic both for his own scheme and for Mephastophilis’s:

In fact, there is no real distinction between God and the Devil, and a man should try to escape both. (p. 131)

There is “no real distinction” because God will “throw me down to Hell” (l. 519) as quickly as the devil would drag him there. Far better for Faustus, as Empson sees it, to die and cease to exist, like an animal (or middle spirit), than to live repentant and forgiven in heaven where he will still be dependent on God’s good will. Yet the possibility of repentance remains a real one:

Meph has a good reason for trying to frighten Faust into suicide as soon as he threatens to repent; Meph is (in our terms) spending a great deal on his expectations from Faust, and may up to the end be cheated by a sanctimonious and highly applauded Faust who welches on him by repenting. One must avoid making Meph too bad, though of course he is rather bad … Meph initially felt that he was saving Faust from eternal torment, and he may still expect that this would be the inevitable result if Faust repented, as God is so very unreliable, and Faust too. But also he wants to get his money back (if we may use human language). Meph himself is quite pure, and may be sure of immortal bliss if he takes over this contraband soul, even if by rather rough means. (p. 137)

I’ll admit to finding this an attractive idea, though not a persuasive one. Empson was sympathetic to the mortalist heresy (of which Milton was apparently an adherent: p. 106), so it seems a little inconsistent of him to rely on the possibility that a soul may be separable, and capable of having an independent existence (however brief), from its body. I find it hard to accept the idea that Mephastophilis, as a middle spirit, could somehow take possession of Faustus’s soul and make it his own.

If Mephastophilis is actually a devil (as he loudly proclaims in the first act, though of course he might be lying), then the only possible escape route open to Faustus is repentance, unsatisfactory though that might seem to Empson. And surely that must have been Faustus’s fallback position all along.

He started out a sceptic: “Come, I think hell’s a fable” (Sc. 5, l. 127), “trifles and mere old wives’ tales” (Sc. 5, l. 135) and he “confounds hell in Elysium” (Sc. 3, l. 60). If the devil didn’t exist, he couldn’t have any powers, so Faustus risked nothing by attempting to conjure him. If it turned out that the devil really did exist, then Faustus would continue the experiment, attempting to find out as much as he could, testing the limits of what was possible for him, but all the time reserving the option of repentance to get himself out of the clutches of evil. Only, when it came to it, he found that he wasn’t able to repent at will. Contrition is harder than it looks.

Much of the difficulty lies in the fact that the sinner can’t help being aware of his own self-interest. If Faustus can bring himself to repent, he will avert the threat of eternal torment — and this will inevitably be such an enormous factor in his thinking that it must completely overwhelm and outweigh the good and selfless motive for repentance: remorse at the injury he had done to his creator. Also, to repent fully, he would have to regret and repudiate everything he had gained because of his sin, including the 24 years of life. He’d have to wish sincerely that that hadn’t happened.

Calvinists believe that we humans are so depraved that we are not capable of even wishing to be saved, still less of cooperating in our own salvation, without the special assistance of grace which God gives or withholds according to his own mysterious design. If Faustus is to repent, he needs that grace with which “Hell strives … for conquest in my breast”. But Calvinists or not, most Christians believe that repentance is not something that we can simply conjure up of our own volition.

One of the bodies of knowledge that Faustus has studied is law, so he knows (or thinks he knows) that the deed he executes at Mephastophilis’s behest is just a piece of grotesque theatrical show, of no legal force. To sell one’s soul to the devil would be wicked and depraved: no imaginable legal system would treat such a bargain as valid or enforceable. So Faustus never supposes for a moment that his deed, written in his blood, is any obstacle to his eventual salvation. The devils are of the same view: they threaten to tear him to pieces if he thinks about repenting, and Mephastophilis urges him towards suicide (which would, of course, curtail the 24 years) rather than take the risk that he might repent. They’re not relying on their supposed “legal” rights.

The great irony of the play is that the contract, though all the main characters believe it to be worthless play-acting, may well turn out to be effective after all, in that the devil seems, in the end, to get what he bargained for. (The ending of the A-text is ambiguous.)

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote an undergraduate essay in which I argued that the hero of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is adept at negotiating and performing his duties as a member of a hierarchical, feudal and status-conscious society, but has to be taught to respect the obligations that he incurs by his own voluntary agreement. Doctor Faustus is almost two centuries later than Sir Gawain but it seems to me that the anxieties attendant on the transition From status to contract are equally operative in the play as they are in the poem. At some point, I’d like to return to the theme concerning the potentially ruinous risks of assuming contractual obligations in the literature of the early seventeenth century.

I had intended to finish with a brief discussion of how Empson’s reading of Doctor Faustus influenced Christopher Ricks’s remarkable, inspired lecture, “Doctor Faustus and Hell on Earth”, Essays in Criticism 35 (1985), pp. 101–20, but this issue is already substantially longer than usual. So, instead I’ve posted about the Ricks lecture on my blog.

Note: I amended this post on 6 November 2021 to show line numbers from the New Mermaids 2nd edition (1989), edited by Roma Gill, and I’ve changed punctuation, capitalization and a few words to conform to that edition. The original email newsletter showed line numbers where Empson gave them but not otherwise.

Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 27–May-2021.