Study Guide

Doctor Faustus Cunning and Cleverness

By Christopher Marlowe

Cunning and Cleverness


So much he profits in divinity
That shortly he was graced with doctor's name,
Excelling all, and sweetly can dispute
In th'heavenly matters of theology;
Till swoll'n with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow. (Prologue.15-20)

Ever heard of Icarus? He's the figure from Greek mythology who tried to fly too close to the sun and fell to Earth and died when its rays melted the wax holding his hand-crafted wings together (to make a long story short). The implication is that the gods are jealous when Icarus (and Faustus) tries to do things beyond the normal abilities of humankind. And, boy, do they get punished for it.

Act 1, Scene 1

The end of physic is our body's health.
Why, Faustus, hast thou not attained that end?
Are not thy bills hung up as monuments,
Whereby whole cities have escaped the plague
And thousand desperate maladies been cured? (1.1.16-20)

Here Faustus is talking about public health measures against the plague that he has apparently put into place. These are probably recommendations like isolating the sick and poisoning the rodent population. By referring to such recommendations as "monuments," Faustus emphasizes their public nature and his view of himself as an important public figure, whose wits have an impact.

Then, gentle friends, aid me in this attempt,
And I, that have with subtle syllogisms
Gravelled the pastors of the German Church
And made the flowering pride of Wittenberg
Swarm to my problems, as th'infernal spirits
On sweet Musaeus when he came to hell,
Will be as cunning as Agrippa was
Whose shadow made all Europe honor him. (1.1.104-111)

It's not enough for Faustus that he's known as a great scholar and has a swarm of pupils in Wittenberg all clamoring to learn from him. He wants more. As his allusion to Agrippa, a famous magician, makes clear, he wants to be famous far and wide—not just at home. Agrippa famously summoned a spirit on his deathbed, so Faustus is saying not only that he wants to be famous, but also that he wants to be famous for deeds beyond the realm of mere mortals like us.

Is to dispute well logic's chiefest end?
Affords this art no greater miracle?
Then read no more; thou hast attained that end. (1.1.7-10)

Well we already know that Faustus can dispute well; the Chorus told us he's an awesome debater (Chorus.17). All the same, Faustus could be making a mistake by assuming that the study of logic is only useful for learning how to win debates. Isn't knowledge for its own sake a worthwhile goal? We'd say so.

Valdes, first let him know the words of art,
And then, all other ceremonies learned,
Faustus may try his cunning by himself. (1.1.151-153)

Valdes and Cornelius make doing magic sound so simple, like it's just a matter of saying the right words and making the right gestures. Of course, as Faustus is about to learn, it's a lot more complicated than a little hocus pocus. There's some serious brainpower involved.

Then doubt not, Faustus, but to be renowned
And more frequented for this mystery
Than heretofore the Delphian oracle. (1.1.134-136)

Faustus's friend Cornelius says that he will be famous for "this mystery." The Delphian oracle was a Greek speaker of prophecies and riddles, and Cornelius's reference to him implies that people will come to Faustus to learn about secrets and mysteries. That's some serious power.

Act 1, Scene 2

You are deceived, for I will tell you; yet, if you were not dunces, you would never ask me such a question. For is he not corpus naturale? And is that not mobile? Then wherefore should you ask me such a question? But that I am by nature phlegmatic, slow to wrath, and prone to lechery (to love, I would say), it were not for you to come within forty foot of the place of execution, although I do not doubt but to see you both hanged at the next sessions. Thus having triumphed over you, I will set my countenance like a precisian and begin to speak thus. (1.2.15-24)

When Faustus's scholar friends ask his servant, Wagner, where he is, Wagner replies with this mishmash of nonsense. Of course it's not nonsense at all. In fact, Wagner is mocking the fussy language of university scholars. He references the physical sciences with his discussion of corpus naturale (natural bodies) and mobile (able to move, to say that Faustus is a "moveable body"). Then he references medicine and its belief in the "humors" and "natural" dispositions, or personalities, one of which is the phlegmatic. Then he claims victory, as if this whole time he had been engaging in scholarly debate with Dr. F's fellow smart guys. With all this, he displays his cleverness, his ability to beat the scholars at their own game. Bet they didn't see that coming.

Act 2, Scene 2
Dick and Robin

I walk the horses? I scorn't, faith. I have other matters in hand. Let the horses walk themselves an they will. [Reads.] "A" per se "a"; "t," "h," "e" – "the"; "o" per se "o"; "Deny orgon gorgon." Keep further from me, O thou illiterate and unlearned ostler!
Snails, what hast thou got there? A book? Why, thou canst not tell ne'er a word on't.
That thou shalt see presently. [Draws a circle.] Keep out of the circle, I say, lest I send you into the hostry with a vengeance. (2.2.5-14)

Robin displays a surprising amount of literacy for a stable boy. Despite Dick's claim that Robin can't read, he manages to puzzle out the word "the" and, with "deny orgon gorgon," a version of the word "demogorgon" (no, we hadn't heard of that word before either). Robin's attempts to practice magic are humorous, parodying Faustus's more serious attempts. But their funniness also reminds us that maybe Faustus isn't as special as he thinks, and we'll see that later when Robin successfully calls Mephistopheles.

Act 3, Scene 1

Then in this show let me an actor be,
That this proud Pope may Faustus' cunning see. (3.1.75-76)

Faustus claims to want to hang around the Pope's chambers so that he can make a show of his cunning. Yet, when he actually interacts with the Pope, he's either in disguise or completely invisible. Faustus seems to want to play tricks here more than he really desires to be renowned for cunning. Why the change of heart?

Act 4, Scene 1

Wonder of men, renowned magician,
Thrice-learned Faustus, welcome to our court.
This deed of thine, in setting Bruno free
From his and our professed enemy
Shall add more excellence unto thine art
Than if by powerful necromantic spells
Thou couldst command the world's obedience. (4.1.47-53)

The praise the emperor heaps upon Faustus here is exactly what Faustus wished for in Act 1, Scene 1. Flattery will get you everywhere with this guy. But there's just one problem with that flattery. The emperor makes the point that the good, useful deed Faustus has done in setting Bruno free is much more important than the magic itself. Of course this important lesson falls on deaf ears. No one ever said Faustus was a good listener.

Act 4, Scene 2

O, say not so, sir. The doctor has no skill,
No art, no cunning to present these lords
Or bring before this royal Emperor
The mighty monarch, warlike Alexander.
If Faustus do it, you are straight resolved
In bold Actaeon's shape to turn a stag. (4.2.136-141)

Faustus is angry with Benvolio for mocking him by doubting his magical mojo. For this reason, he puts horns on the guy's head. The fact that Faustus is unable to let Benvolio's teasing roll off his back shows just how important his abilities are to him. He can't stand to let someone even imply that he doesn't have the skills.

Act 5, Scene 3

Well, gentlemen, though Faustus' end be such
As every Christian heart laments to think on,
Yet, for he was a scholar once admired
For wondrous knowledge in our German schools,
We'll give his mangled limbs due burial,
And all the students, clothed in mourning black,
Shall wait upon his heavy funeral. (5.3.13-19)

It's ironic that the scholarly learnedness Faustus scorned in the beginning of the play is the very ability for which he is now remembered after his death, and the one that will bring "all the students" to his funeral. This passage suggests that Faustus had the wrong priorities all along. He had a pretty sweet deal at the beginning!