“Manipulator: The Role of Language in Doctor Faustus and The Alchemist” — ENG 511 Final Paper

This is the final of a series of three posts where I upload my essays from the last semester for y’all to read and comment on, if you want. Find the other posts here and here.

This is the paper I struggled with the most after that awful Ulysses paper. I feel like I wrote myself into a corner, and when I went to visit my professor to ask her opinion on things, all she would say is, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” (I had conferences with all three of my professors and she was the only one who wouldn’t try and help me talk things out. She’s a great and wonderful person and I love her, but I needed help!)

With this paper, as a graduate student, I also had to incorporate another contemporary source. I ended up comparing The Alchemist to Doctor Faustus in my essay, and using Thomas Aquinas’s sermons to justify why conjuring was/wasn’t a sin. It was incredibly difficult, even more so because I had to get 15+ pages out of this (and I only ended up getting 13.5, but I got an A on the paper so that’s all that matters!).

Hit the jump and let me know what you think. Best of luck!

Dr. Atwood

26 April 2017

Manipulator: The Role of Language in Doctor Faustus and The Alchemist

Poor Doctor Faustus. The titular star of his own play, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, he has everything go wrong for him when he trades his soul to the devil for 24 years of non-stop fun. After conjuring demons and using his personal demon, Mephistopheles, to the greatest extent he can, he is carted away by a group of devils at the end of the play. Unlike in Faustus, however, the conjuring in The Alchemist is only an illusion. The characters in The Alchemist simply play with the idea of conjuring, using cheap tricks and smoke and mirrors to convince their marks they can control the elements and the denizens of the faery realm. There are no demons conjured here, though Subtle manages to conjure up different “versions,” so to speak, of his followers, Doll and Face. Throughout both Faustus and The Alchemist, the main characters encounter manipulative language — either they are the ones manipulating the language (in the case of Subtle), or they are the ones being manipulated by the language (in the case of Faustus). The mastery of language Subtle holds in The Alchemist allows Jonson’s play to satirize the beleaguered Faustus, spoofing the tragedy through comedy by showing how the conjuring tricks are easily copied and mocked, and yet nothing happens.

Before getting into the subject of the plays, it is important to know where the world stood on the subject of demons and conjuring during the English Renaissance period, particularly the period pertaining to these two plays (the 1580s through the 1610s). Thomas Aquinas, author of Summa Theologiae, has plenty to say on this subject. For instance, Faustus spends his time conjuring because he is in the process of divination — which is defined as “The seeking after knowledge of future or hidden things by inadequate means. The means being inadequate they must, therefore, the supplemented by some power which is represented all through history as coming from gods or evil spirits” — so Faustus cannot gain the knowledge that he seeks without the help of Mephistopheles (Graham). It is important to note that divination was not considered a sin by Aquinas. He writes in Question 95 that divination is not a sin because the word “divination” is in fact derived from the word “divine,” and anything considered “divine” is holy and therefore cannot be considered a sin (Aquinas).  It is very interesting to know, then, that Faustus did not lose his soul because he committed the sin of divining or conjuring; rather, we can presume that from the way he blasphemed God and went against the Lord, that is what cost him his soul. On the other hand, Subtle from The Alchemist never attempted to gain knowledge past his own understanding — rather, he attempted to swindle others by using his knowledge of them against them — so he has not committed a sin, either.

The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, written in 1588 by Christopher Marlowe, begins with Faustus puttering around his study and muttering about his books. He does not conjure anything in this opening scene — the true conjuring does not even begin until Scene 1.3. Instead, he consults all of his books and wonders about the contents contained within them. He goes through these books — texts on Aristotle, medicines, Roman rule books, the Bible, and books of magic — and talks to each one of them in turn. This is an important scene, because this features Faustus scoffing at what was considered the most up-to-date scientific knowledge of the time. He is rejecting this knowledge of the world and is more interested in discovering other knowledge for himself. Most interestingly, the reader gets a preview of Faustus’s conjuring skills in this first scene, when he “conjures” one of his servants, Wagner, calling him by name and telling him, “Commend me to my dearest friends,/The German Valdes and Cornelius./Request them earnestly to visit me” (Marlowe 1.1.65-67). Wagner’s response is simply, “I will, sir,” which echoes the act of conjuring something, demanding a task of it, and that “something” making it happen (Marlowe 1.1.69).

When Faustus does eventually conjure in 1.3, he calls for Mephistopheles to appear. It is unclear where Mephistopheles came from, but it clear that he is not the Devil (as the devil appears in the final scene alongside Mephistopheles to take Faustus’s soul), and he is not one of the Biblical demons. In fact, he is never mentioned out side of the Faust legend, which means he “belongs essentially to literature” (“Mephistopheles”). With Mephistopheles belonging solely in the invented realm of literature, this means Jonson can have the demon do whatever he wants. He is literally a creation born of language.

Scene 1.3 begins with a set of very simple stage directions: Enter Faustus to conjure (Marlowe 1.3.1 sd). Since the actual conjuring takes place during spoken lines, the minimal stage directions allow for any set up the director pleases. Faustus himself sets the scene for the audience in the first few lines: “Now that the gloomy shadow of the earth,/Longing to view Orion’s drizzling look,/Leaps from th’Antartic world unto the sky/And dims the welkin with her pitchy breath,/Faustus, begin thine incantations” (Marlowe 1.3.1-5). The phrases that Faustus uses are deliberate, telling the audience rather than showing them what he is doing. Of course, anybody will be able to see what he is doing on the stage, particularly if they are sitting in the upper balcony seats, but for those on the floor it may not be quite as clear. The vagueness of this stage direction also allows for a nearly infinite number of interpretations in future performances. As Faustus continues to conjure, he describes all of the fancy things he has used in order to bring the demons to him:

“Within this circle is Jehovah’s name,/Forward and backward anagrammatized,/The breviated names of holy saints,/Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,/And characters of signs and erring stars/By which the spirits are enforced to rise./Then fear not, Faustus, but be resolute,/And try the uttermost magic can perform” (Marlowe 1.3.8-15).

Everything Faustus is doing here is simply to psych himself up and to paint a more vivid picture for the audience. The audience can see him and knows what he is doing, but they may be unsure as to what the symbols on the ground mean. Faustus then launches into a long Latin tirade, ending with him sprinkling holy water on the ground and crossing himself. The Latin is meant to show that not just anybody can conjure a demon: one must be well-versed in the classics in order to make the demons appear. After all, “Another salient characteristic of magical utterances was that they were formulaic” (Sofer). Latin was the language of the scholars, so naturally it was also the language of the demons. This is the language manipulating Faustus into believing something. He does not need to know all of these things. Just looking at what Faustus has had to do to make his conjuring work can make one dizzy. After Mephistopheles appears, the demon takes the greatest pleasure in letting Faustus know Faustus’s careful preparations were all for naught. Mephistopheles was not conjured but instead chose to appear:

“No, I came now hither of mine own accord. []/That was the cause, but yet per accidens./For when we hear one rack the name of God,/Abjure the Scriptures and his Savior Christ,/We fly in hope to get his glorious soul,/Nor will we come unless he use such means/Whereby he is in danger to be damned./Therefore, the shortest cut for conjuring/Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity/And pray devoutly to the prince of hell” (Marlow 1.3.45, 47-55).

In this part of the scene, Mephistopheles lets Faustus know that, even though Faustus did all of the fancy “conjuring” with the magic circle and Jehovah’s name, Mephistopheles only appeared because he chose to do so. This shows that while Faustus believed it was his conjuring that raised a demon, in reality, the demon coincidentally decided to appear only because Faustus “rack[ed] the name of God” (Marlowe 1.3.48). The phrase that triggered Mephistopheles is undoubtedly “Per Jehovam, Gehennam, et con-/secratam aqua quad nun spargo, signumque cruces quod/nunc face, et per vote nostra, ipse nuns surge knobs dicatus/Mephistopheles!” (Marlow 1.3.20-23).  According to the translation at the bottom of the page, this does not necessarily take God’s name in vain. Instead, it is calling on God (Jehovam, the Latin word for Jehovah) to help involve Mephistopheles. This brings up Andrew Sofer’s article, “How to Do Things With Demons: Conjuring Performatives in Doctor Faustus,” which states, “Any utterance that conjured a demon into the corporeal presence of the utterer and, thereafter, forced the demon to obey the conjuror’s instructions obviously counted as magical. These utterances were imperatives—a demon could not refuse the injunction to appear” (Sofer). 

In direct contradiction to this, though, Sofer also claims, “No conjurer could bring a demon running through improvisation—magic did not work that way. In order to be efficacious, then, a spell had to be citational.” However, this is exactly what happens in Scene 3.2 when Robin and Rafe get their hands on one of Faustus’ conjuring books: spontaneous conjuration. Robin speaks some gibberish in an attempt to sound like he is conjuring something: “‘Sanctobulroum/Periphrasticon!’ —Nay, I’ll tickle you, Vinter. [Aside to/Rafe] Look to the goblet, Rafe.‘Polypragmos Belseborams/framanto pacostiphos tots Mephistopheles!’ etc.” (Marlowe 3.2.25-28). Robin’s nonsensical Latin somehow causes Mephistopheles to appear, despite the fact that this contradicts Mephistopheles’s own “requirements” for summoning a demon in Scene 1.3: that someone must “rack the name of God” in order for a demon to hear and rush towards them (Marlowe 1.3.48). If one is able to summon a demon without even trying, then what is the point in having citational spells and a strict order on how to do things? Again, this is the language manipulating the user into believing they are doing something, when in actuality it is the words they are using — not the intent behind them — that is conjuring demons.

Sofer comments on this with, “in plays such as Doctor Faustus, conjuring models a performative speech act that threatens to blur the distinction between theatre and magic” (Sofer). Why, then, would people chose to attend a play in which a real, live demon could possibly appear onstage during the performance? The answer lies in knowing how interested Marlowe’s audience was on the subject of demons. The prose version of Faust was already popular, and this was a “new” science — Queen Elizabeth had her own court astronomer, after all, John Dee (Forshaw 402). This was the beginning of some disgruntled feelings with Catholicism by the people — remember, Henry VIII had split with the Roman Catholic Church to create his own Anglican Church in the 1500s. Lutherism was on the rise in Germany, and Anglicans and Calvinists were showing up in England. David Bevington, general editor of English Renaissance Drama, claims that it is precisely this Calvinist theology that prevents Faustus from being saved in the end: he has not been chosen by God, and therefore he was beyond all hope even before he first summoned Mephistopheles (Bevington 249). However, even with this, “debates on the precise moment when Faustus irrevocably damns himself show no symptom of fatigue” (Chakravorty 41). There are many times he could have damned himself, from blaspheming God to consorting with the Devil to messing with the Pope.

The final scene in Faustus is not a conjuring scene, yet it still features Lucifer and his demons. Faustus spends his final hour on earth alone, pleading with God for mercy: “Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make/Perpetual day; or let this hour be but/A year, a month, a week, a natural day,/That Faustus may repent and save his soul!” (Marlowe 5.2.68-70). The word may is used here, which is very interesting because “may” only expresses possibility. It is possible that Faustus is going to repent, but more likely he is going to continue doing what he has been doing for the past 24 years: engaging in debauchery of all kinds. Faustus has had 24 years to backtrack and repent, and while he has entertained the idea several times, he has never made good on his promise. Two Angels are battling for his soul’s redemption throughout the play, the aptly-named “Evil Angel” and “Good Angel.” The Good Angel repeatedly tells Faustus that it is never too late for him to repent and thus be saved, while the Evil Angel is constantly telling Faustus the opposite (Marlowe 2.3.75-81). Faustus’s final plea as the devils drag him away at the end of the play is “Ugly hell, gape not. Come not, Lucifer!/I’ll burn my books. Ah, Mephistopheles!” (5.2.119-120). Faustus’s bargain that he will burn in books in exchange for God to save his soul is particularly unsettling, as in the opening act of the play, Faustus was casting aside all of his books of knowledge. He is now offering these same books up for a chance at redemption after previously discarding them for not telling him what he wanted to know. He is attempting to manipulate the language and the knowledge contained therein to save his skin. It does not work, and he is bundled away.

Conjuring in Faustus works through the use of language, while the fake conjuring in The Alchemist works through the manipulation of those around you through language. These may sound similar, but they are in fact two different beasts entirely. The Alchemist was written several years after The Tragic History of Dr. Faustus began its rounds in the theatre, meaning its author Ben Jonson had plenty of time to conjure up a few tricks of his own. The first known performance of the play was in 1610. The plot deals with the characters of Subtle, Face, and Doll pulling cons on unsuspecting townspeople while their master is away. The main different between The Alchemist and Faustus is that The Alchemist is a comedy, while Faustus is a tragedy. Faustus’s opening scene has already been discussed above, as it sets the tone for the rest of the play with its serious nod towards Faustus’s search for knowledge. The Alchemist contains nothing so heady or thought-provoking. This is the play that has the phrase “I fart at thee!” in the very first line (Jonson 1.1.1). The rest of the first scene is spent in a quarrel between Face and Subtle, with each of them declaring progressively louder threats at the other until Doll finally gets them to settle down. This is only a taste of the insanity that is to follow.

Throughout the play, Subtle is constantly “conjuring,” but his conjures are all smoke and mirrors. It could be argued that the first conjure Subtle does is the transformation of the household butler Jeremy into the obedient alchemical servant Face. Subtle reminds Face of how far he (Subtle) has brought him (Face) since their first meeting during the argument in the opening scene: “Thou vermin, have I taken thee out of dung,/So poor, so wretched, when no living thing/Would keep thee company but a spider or worse?” (Jonson 1.1.54-66). It is very clear, however, that Face, formerly known as Jeremy, is not as wretched as Subtle claims him to be. After all, the true owner of the house, Master Lovewit, left Jeremy in charge during the plague threat to London, meaning that Lovewit trusts Jeremy to protect his estate while the master is away. While it is true that Lovewit could have left Jeremy in charge solely because he was expendable, the opening of the play itself proves this is not the case. “The Argument” states, “a master quit for fear/His house in town, and left one servant there./Ease him corrupted, and gave means to know/A cheater” (Marlowe “Argument” 1-4). Jeremy did not become Face until he was corrupted by Subtle, as the neighbors at the end of the play remark: “Jeremy/is a very honest fellow” (Marlowe 5.2.37-38). Lovewit’s absence is also directly to blame for Jeremy’s transformation into Face: had Lovewit not left, Jeremy would not have had the opportunity to slack off in his duties, and were Jeremy not slacking off, he would never have met Subtle. In fact, Face is the one who transformed Subtle — Face reminds Subtle of where Subtle was when Face first met him: “at Pie Corner/Taking your meal of steam in from cooks’ stalls” and how Face rescued him: “I ga’ you count’nance, credit for your coals,/Your stills, your glasses, your materials,/Built you a furnace, drew you customers,/Advanced all your black arts; lent you, beside,/A house to practice in—” (Jonson 1.1.25-26; 43-47). Face is the one who is responsible for all of Subtle’s success, but Subtle still uses Face as a pawn in his schemes.

Subtle may be a fake conjurer, but he a real con artist. (He simply needed a little help from his buddy Face.) Subtle’s talent at “conjuring” actually lies in his ability to manipulate language in order to manipulate those around him. Netscher states, “Subtle fosters their trust to allow each patient to grow, as well as to discover how each is vulnerable. But, whereas licensed psychotherapists are bound by a code of ethics that requires that the therapist undertake to value the well-being of the patient beyond that of the therapist, Subtle’s initial goal is personal profit” (177-178). He knows what everyone wants, and he knows how to get it for them — for a price. In terms of Dapper, for instance, that means locking the man in the toilet in order for him to “fumigate” enough to meet the Faery Queen (Marlowe 3.5.81). This is different from Faustus, who uses his talents — also known as his demon-servant Mephistopheles — to see the world and mess with the Pope. There is very little monetary gain noted in Faustus. Like Faustus, however, Subtle loses everything at the end of the play, with all of the spoils the con artists achieved during their short-lived reign returning to Master Lovewit. Subtle does make a promise to Face before exiting the play, however: “Rogue, I’ll hang myself,/That I may walk a greater devil than thou/And haunt the i’the flock-bed and the buttery” (Marlowe 5.4.146-148). Subtle promises to haunt Face wherever he goes for the rest of his life, because Jeremy double-crossed everyone and ended up on Master Lovewit’s good side, allowing him to stay in his position. As for the people Subtle “helped,” “No patient gains what he sets out to, but some benefit from treatment in ways that satisfy the patient’s real needs rather than his illusory desires” (Netscher 181). While some could argue that Dapper giving away all of his worldly possessions in pursuit of a make-believe aunt has very few, if any, benefits, at least Dame Pliant turned out okay, right?

The most important tool in a con artist’s arsenal is language. There is plenty of language in The Alchemist, and most of it is jargon, whether it be alchemical jargon or Protestant jargon or something further. These jargon terms allow the user to be in control of the conversation, for if your mark has no idea what you are saying, there is no way they can get suspicious. Subtle, and by extension Face, are “acutely aware of how jargon, and the secret knowledge that seems to stand behind it, can become an important weapon in status competition” (Bevington 864). Subtle exercises his knowledge of alchemical terms to the extreme in order to confuse Mammon, and later on he uses jargon in the form of the elvish/faery language to convince Dapper that there are elves present. Subtle makes sure that every time he opens his mouth, what comes out is going to turn the tide in his favor. This jargon has a different result with Mammon, who knows plenty about alchemy, so he can shoot the jargon right back to Subtle and Face. Although Netsche describes “Subtle’s patients [as] not [being] simply gullible or greedy; each also seeks to find a better life for himself in a world where the lack of greatness, dignity, compassion, or order has led to a potential for meanness and ugliness,” Mammon is certainly greedy (Netsche 181). He not only wants gold, but he also wants the philosopher’s stone that makes the gold (Jonson 2.1.46-75). Only Surly, Mammon’s unbelieving friend, finds the jargon odd: “What a brave language here is! Next to canting” (Jonson 2.3.42). He is the only one who appears to understand that Subtle and Face are just using big terms in their talks with each other in order to confuse those who come in seeking help. This allows Surly to catch Subtle in the act in the end, forcing him to flee from Lovewit’s house before all of his schemes are uncovered. The greedy Mammon loses everything not once but twice, once when Subtle takes all of his metal goods with the promise that they will be turned to gold, and once in the end when Lovewit tells him he will have to go to court and expose himself to get his items back (Jonson 2.3.115-118; 5.5.60-75). Mammon chooses to do nothing of the sort, and instead decides to spend his time preaching the end of the world from a turnip-cart (Jonson 5.5.81-82).

Dorothy “Doll” Common is, as her name suggests, a common whore or prostitute. She spends her time being subservient to Face and Subtle, and presumably ends up leaving with Subtle at the end of the play, despite Face’s generous offer to set her up with a brothel-keeper (Jonson 5.4.141-142). However, Doll plays several important parts over the course of the play: for the most part, she is the voice of reason. She spends the entirety of the first scene attempting to calm Face and Subtle down and get them to work together. She also takes part in the cons, where she plays a Faery Queen for Dapper and a mad theologian for Mammon; and she wins the trust of the widow Dame Pliant in order for Subtle to get the widow’s money. She is “conjured” to appear in only one of these settings: as the Faery Queen. The Faery Queen appearance actually happens after the con is discovered: Master Lovewit has already broken into the house and Face has had to put on the guise of Jeremy the law-abiding butler again. Even though Subtle is being shut down, he still has enough manipulation in him to complete his scam on Dapper. Doll enters the room “like the Queen of Faery,” leading Subtle to tell Dapper, “Here she is come. Down o’your knees and wriggle!” (Jonson 5.4.22 sd). All of the “conjuring” that led to the Faery Queen’s appearance actually happened several scenes ago, in 3.5. In order to conjure the his aunt the Faery Queen, Dapper must first consent to be blindfolded, then he must throw away all of his valuables, and then he is bound to a chair and gagged with a piece of gingerbread (Marlow 3.5). Dapper does all of this without complaining, because he is so desperate for someone to tell him he is special. Subtle does not have to work very hard at all to convince Dapper that he is the long-lost nephew of the Faery Queen. Subtle even has “elves” enter to pinch Dapper, and although the pinching is done by Face, Subtle, and Doll, this is based on instances of medieval “magic” where the magicians, “By manipulating collective social fantasies, […] unleashed demons that were perhaps hallucinatory but nonetheless disruptive” (Adams, Olsen, & Smith).

Doll has a further use, though, when confronting Mammon. While she does not use conjuring, she finally gets in on the use of jargon. In Scene 4.5, we come across Doll “in her fit of talking,” as she is supposed to be a madwoman (Jonson 4.5.1 sd). She is reciting garbled bits of nonsense that would sound exactly like nonsense to anyone who was unfamiliar with her source material. While it may not technically be jargon (although one definition of “jargon” defines it as “confused unintelligible language”), it certainly is a form of language and she is using it to manipulate Mammon to where Subtle wants him to be (Merriam-Webster).

The characters in The Alchemist use language to manipulate people, while in Doctor Faustus, it is the main character who is being manipulated by the language he believes in. The Alchemist also takes a ride on Faustus’s coattails, playing off Faustus’s popularity with the people. Previously, it was thought that if you said the right words in the right order, the devil would show up. If people were afraid that doing Faustus too well would actually lead to summoning a demon, then Faustus is a commentary on that belief, because it says that they come to you on their own volition and that conjuring (as Faustus believes it happens) does not actually happen However, that does happen in Faustus: when Robin and Rafe accidentally summon Mephistopheles, the demon himself contradicts his own summon by saying he can only be summoned if a person blasphemes the name of God. The Alchemist goes on to satirize Faustus in many ways, one of these being having Doll show up dressed as the Faery Queen after being summoned, much like Mephistopheles shows up after being summoned by Faustus. Both magician and alchemist get their due in the end, with Faustus being dragged off to Hell and Subtle promising to return from Hell to give Face his comeuppance. In Faustus, conjuring is taken very seriously, while in The Alchemist it is treated like a joke. Treating something as seriously as conjuring a demon as a joke would be a big deal to the audiences. Language is something that needs to be treated with respect, lest an extra demon join you on the stage.

Works Cited

Adams, Tracy, Kerryn Olsen, and Michelle A. Smith. “Thinking About Magic in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.Parergon 30.2 (2013): 1-10. 2013. Web. 27 April 2017.

Aquinas, Thomas. “Question 95. Superstition in Divinations.SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: Superstition in Divinations (Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 95). Ed. Kevin Knight. New Advent, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

Chakravorty, Swapan. “Being Staged: Unconcealment through Reading and Performance in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Bharataâs Nātyaśāstra.Philosophy East and West 66.1 (2016): 40-59. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

Forshaw, Peter. “Two Occult Philosophers in the Elizabethan Age.History Workshop Journal 64.1 (2007): 401-10. Web. 29 Apr. 2017.

Graham, Edward. “Divination.Catholic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kevin Knight. New Advent, 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

“Jargon.Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Inc., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.

Keefer, Michael. “History and the Canon: The Case Of Doctor Faustus.University of Toronto Quarterly 56.4 (1987): 498-522. Web. 29 Apr. 2017.

“Mephistopheles. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 Apr. 2015. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

Netscher, Ruth Evans. “The Moral Vision of The Alchemist: Tricks, Psychotherapy, and Personality Traits.Literature and Medicine 7.1 (1988): 177-94. Web. 29 Apr. 2017.

Sofer, Andrew. “How to Do Things with Demons: Conjuring Performatives in Doctor Faustus.Theatre Journal 61.1 (2009): 1-21. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

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