Oh dear, I’ve been very slack with regard to writing this blog lately. I’ve been beavering away trying to prepare for my final year at uni, and have not managed my time properly – this does not bode well for the mania of finals. Anyway, my pending exam failures aside, I was wracking my brains trying to think of a theme for this post, when all I’ve been doing is studying. Very dull, and does not make for lots of choices for a theme that relates to my life in any way. But then I thought of something that happened recently and I want you stick with me when I tell you the theme of this post: its Renaissance theatre. Wait! For those of you groaning and having flashbacks to sweating over Shakespeare at school, let me say this: you were taught badly. Renaissance drama can be the best drama there is, from a golden age of theatre when some of the greatest minds were so engaged with the art form they produced lively, innovative, downright entertaining plays. Then generations of schoolchildren were tortured into trying to unpick it all bit by bit, whilst being told it was good for them. I hope if that was your experience you’ll finish reading this post, and let me try and persuade you back into the theatre, because I love it. The reason I’ve made it the theme of this post is because I went and saw Edward II at the National, and it was fantastic. For those of you with ease of access to the South Bank, I highly recommend you try and catch it. The production was so innovative and fresh (actors in the audience, multimedia approach, ad-libbing) but it still didn’t lose sight of Marlowe’s brilliant language. Its iconoclastic approach may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it was one of the best adaptations I’ve seen.
So I thought I’d look at two more Renaissance plays, neither by Shakespeare, because there’s an abundance of stuff on him, no? (This doesn’t mean I won’t opt to write a post on him at another time, he was a genius after all). Firstly, Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. I last saw this performed in 2011 at The Globe, and it was a great production. I’m not always so keen on The Globe’s approach to things, but this worked well, and Arthur Darvill (Rory in Dr Who according to the excited audience members that surrounded me) was a perfect Mephistopheles. Here’s the final scene from that production (filmed theatre is always a bit odd I think, and often does the production no justice, but hey ho):
Dr Faustus is about an academic who sells his soul to the devil, asking him to “Resolve me of all ambiguities”. Ultimately however, Faustus does not use his devilish power to find the answers to anything, but instead uses his time to enjoy prestige and wealth. This is the first time he and Mephistopheles (Lucifer’s servant) speak:
MEPH. Now, Faustus, what wouldst thou have me do?
FAUSTUS. I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live,
To do whatever Faustus shall command,
Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere,
Or the ocean to overwhelm the world.
MEPH. I am a servant to great Lucifer,
And may not follow thee without his leave:
No more than he commands must we perform.
FAUSTUS. Did not he charge thee to appear to me?
MEPH. No, I came hither of mine own accord.
FAUSTUS. Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee? speak.
MEPH. That was the cause, but yet per accidens;
For, when we hear one rack the name of God,
Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,
We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul…
This first conversation shows so much about the rest of the play. Firstly, Faustus is a pompous idiot. He’s just muttered all these complex Latinate incantations, entirely unnecessarily. When Mephistopheles arrives it’s because he was hanging around, and dropped in “of his own accord”. Faustus has not conjured Lucifer, who would not concern himself with such a weasel. Faustus asks for silly things, the moon to drop, a servant to obey his commands. Secondly, he has no real understanding of what he’s done, it is Mephistopheles who knows the true price paid with his “glorious soul”. This devil explains:
MEPH. Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,
Conspir’d against our God with Lucifer,
And are for ever damn’d with Lucifer.
FAUSTUS. Where are you damn’d?
MEPH. In hell.
FAUSTUS. How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?
MEPH. Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?
O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!
That line: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it, to me is the killer line of the whole play. It shows just how little Faustus understands of what he has forfeited, and makes Mephistopheles the most complex character in the play. He is both malevolent, and deeply, tragically sad, a fallen angel. It shows how the person you are enables the power you have, to create a heaven or hell of your own making. Marlowe was a controversial figure in his time; a government informer claimed the playwright was an atheist, an extreme and dangerous view to hold in the late sixteenth century. (The informer also claimed Marlowe said “All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools”, a slightly less contentious view at the time). Atheism was equated with immorality at the time, but I would argue Dr Faustus is a highly moral play whether or not you believe in God. It asks the questions: what do you worship? and what price are you paying for that worship? In this way, I would argue it still has plenty to say today, whether you are religious or not. And if that all sounds a bit heavy, well, the full title is The Tragical History of Dr Faustus, but there are plenty of comic scenes and the play is so artfully written that you never feel like you’re being preached at.
Secondly, a comedy after all that tragedy, by Shakespeare’s frenemy, Ben Jonson: The Alchemist. Jonson is rarely performed compared to his peers, and I think that’s a real shame. This play is fast, frenetic, has plenty of physical and verbal comedy and is hugely entertaining. It’s set in London during the plague, when all those who can afford it have fled to the country. A servant, Face, takes advantage of his master’s absence to team up with an alchemist, Subtle, and a prostitute, Doll Common, to con people out of their money. Cue lots of scenes with the three in various disguises, spinning ridiculous stories and scenarios to a succession of gullible idiots. One of the most colourful of these is Sir Epicure Mammon, who desires the Philosopher’s Stone, for the following dubious reasons:
MAM. For I do mean
To have a list of wives and concubines,
Equal with Solomon, who had the stone
Alike with me; and I will make me a back
With the elixir, that shall be as tough
As Hercules, to encounter fifty a night.—
Thou’rt sure thou saw’st it blood?
FACE. Both blood and spirit, sir.
MAM. I will have all my beds blown up, not stuft;
Down is too hard: and then, mine oval room
Fill’d with such pictures as Tiberius took
From Elephantis, and dull Aretine
But coldly imitated. Then, my glasses
Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse
And multiply the figures, as I walk
Naked between my succubae. My mists
I’ll have of perfume, vapour’d ’bout the room,
To lose ourselves in; and my baths, like pits
To fall into; from whence we will come forth,
And roll us dry in gossamer and roses.—
Is it arrived at ruby?—Where I spy
A wealthy citizen, or [a] rich lawyer,
Have a sublimed pure wife, unto that fellow
I’ll send a thousand pound to be my cuckold.
Jonson was scathing of those who practiced alchemy (attempting to turn base material into gold) and the greed of both the tricksters and their tricks is scathingly skewered. However, it is a comedy, and (SPOILER) no-one is severely punished. Of course, nowadays we’re far too savvy to believe in such things as alchemy – now, where did I put that lottery ticket…..?
Here’s an example of sixteenth-century alchemical experiments in action: