«The central figures of Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s The Tempest bear intriguing similarities. Their use of magic and ...»
Of Drowning Books and Burning Souls:
Magic, Minions, Relationships, and Crisis in The
Tempest and Dr. Faustus
Miranda Jade Friel
Faculty Sponsor: Dr. Emily Leverett
Department of English and Writing
The central figures of Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s
The Tempest bear intriguing similarities. Their use of magic and means of acquiring it,
along with their interactions with their servants, highlight their relationship to reality.
Both men are faced with a similar crisis at the end of their respective play as well. After having magical powers throughout the majority of the story, each man is asked, subtly or directly, to relinquish his hold on the supernatural. Yet, despite having so many characteristics in common, the two plays reach dramatically different conclusions.
While later acknowledging the melancholy nature of returning to life sans powers, Prospero gives up his books and breaks his staff (Shakespeare 5.1.54-57). He also frees Ariel and Caliban, his two companions. Although entreated several times by an Old Man and various angels to repent of his ways, Faustus is dragged to Hell (Marlowe 13.11). An in-depth examination of Prospero’s and Faustus’s powers, the ways they use them, the acquisition of and relationships to their minions, and their ultimate relationships to non-magical reality provides insight into their differing destinies. These aspects of their characters also indicate that viewing Prospero as a good magician and Faustus as a bad one is reductionist, and that such a perspective is not helpful in understanding their fates.
One of the most prominent similarities between Prospero and Faustus is their possession of magical powers. It is possible to conclude upon a simple reading of the texts that the magic they use is, if not exactly the same, then very close in nature. Both have assumed control of servants and perform supernatural feats involving invisibility and deception. Yet one may be hesitant to draw parallels between the two men’s magic because Faustus’s powers are emphatically grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition while the cultural origins of Prospero’s art are nebulous. Despite this difference, the two men have many magical characteristics in common.
While research into Renaissance magic concludes that there were no truly unifying traditions (Henry 7), there are somewhat substantive connections between the Renaissance and the medieval era. Scholars examining Albert Magnus’s medieval work 29 Speculum astronomiae found that magic was roughly divided into two separate categories— Hermetic and Solomonic (Klaasen 168). Hermetic magic was used to focus the powers of celestial bodies at certain times of the year, and often had a ritualistic component involving chanting or animal sacrifice. This type of magic was very concerned with talismans and artifacts. Conversely, Solomonic magic concerned itself with “binding and deploying demons and angels through ritual acts of violence” (Klaasen 173). Klaasen hints that the Solomonic practices present in texts other than Speculum astronomiae did not use ritual violence but liturgical rituals.
Broadly, Faustus’s and Prospero’s magic powers fall into the Solomonic category. Their two uses of magic rely far more on the employment of spirit-based servants than upon rituals; in fact, even when Prospero does perform magical feats, they are based on his desires, are devoid of chanting, and have nothing to do with times of the year, as seen in the storm at the beginning of the play. While Faustus relies on a chant to summon Mephostophilis (Marlowe 3.15–23), his magical feats thereafter rely on the powers of his minion. Similarly, though Miranda suspects that the storm itself is attributed to her father, Prospero uses Ariel to save the people aboard the duke’s ship (Shakespeare 1.2.1–5).
The ways the men acquire their powers are also similar. Both use books and remove themselves, either socially or physically, willingly or not, from the non-magical world. The use of books is unsurprising; another aspect of Renaissance magic is that scholarship and magical abilities were often intertwined. Henry writes, “The truly learned magus was held to be a man with a vast knowledge of ‘how to effect things worthy of the highest admiration….by the mutual application of natural actives and passives’” (8). Therefore, the idea of a sorcerer as a learned man was very prominent in Renaissance literature. Such an overlapping between magic and academia becomes even more understandable when one considers the diaphanous boundary between science and magic prior to the Enlightenment.
Further evidence that the magicians exist in a similar magical framework can be found in the magical deeds present in each play—namely, invisibility. While these deeds are not always performed by the magicians themselves, their similarities reinforce the idea that Prospero and Faustus are comparable magically. The feats’ occurrence in conjunction with their use and goals highlights the magicians’ inner natures.
Invisibility is the first power that demonstrates interaction with the external, non-magical world. The feat also allows one to see how the spirits interact with an unprepared public, strengthening the notion of Faustus’s and Prospero’s otherworldliness. The power of invisibility is interestingly shared between master and servant, and allows for a moment of companionship between the sorcerers and their companions. When both beings are invisible, the gap between magicians and the external world seems widened, particularly because the use of invisibility gives the magicians partial dominion over the people they are interacting with.
Prospero employs invisibility, both his own and Ariel’s, for benign purposes.
Ariel uses this power, along with his musical ability, to lead Ferdinand to Miranda. While distancing Ferdinand from his father worries the father, this temporary discomfort ultimately ends in happiness, as it leads to Ferdinand’s union with Miranda. The air-spirit also uses his power to save Gonzalo from being murdered. When Prospero and Ariel are invisible together later in the play, their intention is to acquire information.
30 Because the invisibility is used to avoid danger as well as foster ultimate goodness, these acts indicate that Prospero uses Ariel responsibly, and generally for nonselfish reasons, even if his actions seem questionable at first. Contrastingly, Faustus and Mephostophilis’s use of invisibility accentuates Faustus’s childish, selfish nature. Despite the demon’s supposed near omnipotence, Faustus’s demands of Mephostophilis rarely transcend the banal and irritating. For instance, Mephostophilis is used to terrorize the pope during a feast. This act accomplishes nothing substantial; its triviality makes Faustus’s decision to barter his soul seem questionable. These actions serve solely as an exercise of power over others. The natural people understandably lack total comprehension of the events, thus causing Faustus to feel wise.
This tendency toward childishness and mild sadism may play a role in Faustus’s ultimate decision. His taste of power and superiority is simply too tantalizing for him to give up. Prospero, however, always remains grounded in the affairs of the non-magical world, perhaps because of his negative experience after descending too deeply into sorcery (Shakespeare 1.2.139–150). His stronger relationship to society makes the reassumption of powerlessness possible.
The character of Faustus approaches that of sorcerer (as understood by playgoers of that era) even before he summons Mephostophilis. The beginning of the play demonstrates how much he understands about the natural world. It is this understanding of the natural world that leads him to become disenchanted with his limited power as a mortal. He says, “Are not [my] bills hung up as monuments, / whereby whole cities have escaped the plague?...Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man” (Marlowe 1.20-24). Faustus’s knowledge has led to fame and repute. Yet, because he cannot raise people from the dead—and thus possesses no dominion over the impossible—Faustus sees no good in his studies. The contrast between having knowledge and having mastery over the natural world creates friction for Faustus, which leads to frustration. It is this frustration that eventually leads him to summon Mephostophilis.
In some ways, Faustus’s descent into the dark arts seems a natural outgrowth of his scholarly pursuits. He says, “Lines, circles, schemes, letters, and characters! / Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires” (Marlowe 1.51–52). Though alluding to the technical illustrations present in books such as Speculum astronomiae, this nearly-mundane description of forbidden knowledge reinforces the idea of magician as scholar. This idea is further underpinned by Faustus’s questioning Mephostophilis about the cosmos (5.210–215). Furthermore, Mephostophilis confers knowledge upon Faustus by giving him three books—one containing “all spells and incantations” (5.164), another relating “all characters and planets of the heavens” (5.169), and a third describing “all plants, herbs, and trees that grow upon the earth” (5.173). It is interesting that Faustus requests this knowledge following the long introductory soliloquy decrying scholarly pursuits as a waste of time; it provides insight into his character, which is riddled with contradictions.
Faustus’s character is already comprised of pride and thirst for knowledge.
Unlike Prospero, Faustus’s references to fame and his own intelligence indicate his selfcenteredness. This quality—hubris—is part of why he rejects the repeated angelic attempts to save him.
The Tempest, unlike Doctor Faustus, begins in medias res. Prospero has already assumed control of Ariel and Caliban at the start of the play. The exercise of his art is at 31 least twelve years old (Shakespeare 1.2.54). He too alludes to books as the source of his arcane knowledge and power, seen in part when Caliban exhorts his companions to destroy Prospero’s books (Shakespeare 3.2.91–92). Prospero also attributes the loss of his kingdom to being too occupied by his studies (Shakespeare 1.2.71–76). Perhaps the less emphasized idea of scholarship can be attributed to the setting of The Tempest, as well as to the nature of Prospero’s underlings. Unlike Faustus’s Mephostophilis, who is born of the wordy Judeo-Christian tradition and commanded by a contract, Ariel and Caliban are bound to Prospero much more informally. The boundaries of Ariel’s agreement are mentioned, but the extent of the pact is never emphasized as much as the contract in Doctor Faustus, where the sorcerer accentuates the importance by writing his consent in blood. In The Tempest’s wild setting, with more nature-based spirits, having such formal scholarship would seem incongruous. Still, Prospero’s books are retained as relics and as symbols of his power.
As is apparent from the preceding paragraphs, the magicians’ minions are of utmost importance to the plays. Upon reflection, the minions can even be used to further understand the character of the magicians themselves. Though Prospero’s and Faustus’s magic powers both fall under the Solomonic category, their acquisition and education of their minions are very different.
Like many other aspects of his magical powers, Prospero’s acquisition of Ariel and Caliban happens prior to the play. While related to his power, the procurement of Prospero’s servants seems equally related to chance—that is, his landing on the island.
Both Ariel and Caliban inhabited the island prior to Prospero’s landing there. Prospero uses his arts to assume control of them. Ariel greets this interference ambivalently; eager to be out of his contract, he occasionally urges Prospero to release him but is never openly hostile. The air-spirit’s approach is drastically divergent from Caliban’s outright
animosity, seen in his cursing and the criticism of Prospero’s rule:
The acquisition of Mephostophilis is much more emphasized in Doctor Faustus.
The long Latin incantation reinforces the sacrilegious nature of Faustus’s spells.
Furthermore, the conjuring allows Faustus a chance to congratulate himself, calling himself a “conjurer laureate” (Marlowe 3.33). Yet, Mephostophilis downplays Faustus’s powers, remarking that the devils appear to anyone who blasphemes (3.47–49). He even denies Faustus the satisfaction of thinking Satan sent Mephostophilis to see him. These facts are contrasted oddly with Faustus’s enormous ego and education. It is evident that asserting his individuality is part of his desire to master the dark arts, but Mephostophilis denies this desire. Perhaps this is why Faustus says, somewhat dramatically, “This word damnation terrifies not [me] / For [I confound] hell in Elysium: / [My] ghost be with the old philosophers” (3.57–59). Having his individuality stolen, he attempts to place himself in a group of the intellectual elite—consolation for not being fully extraordinary.
Though Mephostophilis serves Faustus according to the confines of their contract, Mephostophilis makes it repeatedly clear that he serves Satan ultimately and not Faustus.
32 It is this dedication to a greater master, along with his spiritually powerful nature, that allows Mephostophilis to downplay Faustus’s individuality.
Therefore, Faustus’s and Prospero’s intentions in acquiring their servants are vastly different. Faustus explicitly summons Mephostophilis to provide him with power (Marlowe 3.104). There also seems to be a deep desire to assert his individuality. This desire also leads to his rejection of the salvation repeatedly offered to him. He says repeatedly that he is too far damned to be saved, a proclamation that is untrue based on the comments of the angels. Prospero gains his minions by helping them, though his motive for doing so is unclear. His later relationship to Caliban makes his motives even harder to guess. Ariel and Caliban’s acquisition still seems less selfish compared to Faustus’s acquisition of Mephostophilis, as it is more incidental but cannot necessarily be called benevolent with complete confidence.
Control, like acquisition, is an important component of the relationship between master and servant. In this case, control can be defined as the actions the servants take with respect to their master’s wishes and further explored by examining the means of control.