Comic scenes in literature, including plays like Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” serve as moments of humor and light-heartedness amidst the serious and often dramatic narrative. In “Doctor Faustus,” a tragic play that explores themes of ambition, knowledge, and the consequences of making deals with the devil, the inclusion of comic scenes provides relief and contrast to the overall somber tone.
One notable comic scene in “Doctor Faustus” occurs in Act 2, Scene 3, commonly referred to as the “Horse-Courser” episode. In this scene, two horse traders, Robin and Rafe, mistakenly stumble upon one of Faustus’s magical books. Unaware of its significance, they decide to use it to summon Mephistopheles. The ignorance and ineptitude of these characters create a humorous contrast with Faustus’s intellectual pursuits. Robin and Rafe’s attempts to command Mephistopheles result in comical confusion, highlighting the absurdity of mortal men trying to control supernatural forces.
The dialogue in this scene is laced with humor as Robin and Rafe struggle to articulate their desires. For instance, when trying to conjure Mephistopheles, Robin declares,
“I charge thee to return and change thy shape; Thou art too ugly to attend on me” (2.3.10-11).
The juxtaposition of Faustus’s high-minded pursuits with the bumbling antics of these commoners serves to lighten the mood and adds a layer of irony to the play.
Another instance of comic relief in “Doctor Faustus” is found in Act 4, Scene 1, known as the “Pope’s Banquet” scene. In this episode, Faustus plays tricks on the Pope and his followers, using his magical powers to create illusions and mock the Church. The comic elements in this scene arise from Faustus’s irreverent behavior towards the religious authorities, highlighting the character’s defiance and disdain for conventional authority.
During the Pope’s banquet, Faustus summons illusionary dishes, and the Pope and his followers comically attempt to eat them, oblivious to the fact that they are mere illusions. Faustus revels in the deception, mocking the Pope with lines such as
“What, is not all gristle? / Come, I am sure, your grace doth well to fast” (4.1.70-71).
The scene satirizes the corruption within the Church, using humor as a tool to criticize religious hypocrisy.
While these comic scenes provide moments of levity, it’s essential to recognize that “Doctor Faustus” primarily remains a tragic play. The juxtaposition of comedy with the overarching tragedy emphasizes the complexity of human existence and the precarious balance between light and dark forces.
In addition to comic scenes, “Doctor Faustus” is rich in dramatic moments that contribute to the play’s overall tragic atmosphere. One such dramatic scene is Faustus’s final soliloquy in Act 5, Scene 2, where he contemplates the consequences of his choices and faces impending damnation. Faustus expresses remorse and despair as he realizes the gravity of his decision to trade his soul for magical powers:
“See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!” (5.2.60-61).
The dramatic scenes in the play, particularly Faustus’s ultimate fate, evoke a sense of tragedy and moral reflection. While the comic scenes provide moments of light-heartedness, they ultimately serve to accentuate the gravity of Faustus’s choices and the overarching theme of the play.
In conclusion, the inclusion of comic scenes in “Doctor Faustus” serves to provide moments of humor and contrast within the overall tragic narrative. The “Horse-Courser” and “Pope’s Banquet” episodes, with their comedic elements, offer a reprieve from the serious themes of the play, highlighting the folly of mortal aspirations and the consequences of tampering with supernatural forces. However, these moments of levity do not diminish the profound tragedy of Faustus’s story, as the play grapples with the complexities of human ambition, knowledge, and the choices that lead to ultimate damnation.