Dr. Faustus, decidedly a tragic play, contains a number of comic scenes. It is a matter of sheer conjecture whether Marlowe wrote these scenes himself or allowed someone else to write them in deference to the prevailing taste of the times, because, Marlowe in the Prologue to Tambularine had contemptuously discarded buffoonery or clownage as being inappropriate for the dignity of tragic drama.
The comic scenes of Dr. Faustus are significant in many respects. Now we may have a brief examination of the comic scenes.
The first comic scene (Act – I, Scene II) occurs between Wagner, the servant of Dr. Faustus and between two scholars. Wagner here parodies the mediaeval scholastic process of reasoning adopted by scholars whose discussions he has often heard at his master’s residence. The scholars ask him as to the whereabouts of Faustus. Wagner tries first to puzzle them by his answers. Then he says, “God in heaven knows where Faustus is.” Certainly this produces laughter but it also indicates the degeneration of Faustus. Faustus, after turning to necromancy, will certainly degenerate and only God knows where he will go.
Wagner refers to the dining hall as the ‘place of execution’. It is also the place of the moral execution of Faustus.
This scene also indicates the misuse of knowledge. Faustus in the previous scene uses logic to justify reason for turning to necromancy while Wagner is using logic for no other purpose than to puzzle the two scholars.
The next comic scene occurs in Act – I, Scene IV. Wagner and the clown are engaged in this scene. Wagner wishes to engage the clown as his servant, and referring to the poverty of the clown he says that the clown is so hungry that “he would give his soul to the devil for a shoulder of mutton, though it were blood-raw.” But the clown refuses and he says the if he must give his soul for the sake of food, he will insist on the mutton being “well-roasted” and being “good sauce”.
This scene no doubt produces laughter, but it is important also to indicate the degeneration of Faustus. Faustus would sell his soul to Mephistophilis for infinite power while the clown would sell his soul to the devil for good food. Both transactions are ridiculous – the first even more than the second because the first is far less realistic.
The next comic scene is the scene of seven deadly scenes in Act – II, Scene – II. The seven deadly scenes namely Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger and Sloth were very important in mediaeval and later Christian theology. They played an important role in many works of mediaeval and Renaissance literature.
The various sins do certainly amuse us by the manner which they describe their respective characteristics. Pride “disdains” to have any parents; Covetousness would like the house and all the people in it to be turned into gold; Wrath wounds himself with his daggers when there is nobody else to attack; Envy is begotten of a “chimney-sweeper and an oyster-wife”; Gluttony has bacon, beef, claret as his ancestors.
When Faustus says that their parade “feeds” his soul, we can realize that he is going to be damned. Because, these sins are considered to put the soul of anyone manifesting them in peril of perpetual damnation.
This scene is important also for the moral edification of the audience. The audience will be taught to hate these sins.
In Act – III, Scene – I, Faustus harasses the Pope and other priests by remaining invisible. The scene may be considered as ‘subversive criticism’ of religion as it alludes to the spiritual sterility of popes and priests.
The events that occur in Act – IV, Scenes I & II with Ralph, Robin and Mephistophilis are also comical. Robin is preferring magic on the basis of what he has learnt from Faustus’s book. He summons Mephistophilis in order to teach the innkeeper a lesson. But, Mephistophilis, being irritated changes Robin and Ralph into an ape and a dog respectively.
Faustus in Act – IV, Scene – III, makes a pair of horns grow on the head of a knight who has been insolent towards him. It has a touch of comedy but it also indicates that Faustus, who could become “Emperor of Emperors”, has now turned into a mere trickster.
The scene (Act – IV, Scene – IV) of Faustus’s dealing with a horse-courser is the last comical scene. The manner of talking the horse-courser provides laughter. But indicates to the extreme point of the degeneration of Dr. Faustus. The man who can have billions of dollars by his necromantic power now deceives a horse-courser only for forty dollars. A great scholar has turned into a trickster.
The comic scenes, however, indicate some defects in the play. “The abundance”, according to a critic, “of the comic scenes here weakens the dramatic quality”. Many time the comic scenes are not up to the mark. In the harassment of the Pope, comedy degenerates into farce. The practical jokes played on the horse-courser is sheer-clownage and unworthy of a somber and great play such as Doctor Faustus.
Despite all these facts, however, these comic scenes are significant. It may be said that the various comic scenes serve to fill the interval between Faustus’s attainment of magical power and the damnation, which overtakes him after the gap of twenty-four years.