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In the latter part of the century, the word that Germany expressed in England was mystery; partly because it was so little known, partly because it had produced famous physicians who had already become legendary figures - Paracelsus, Faust, and others. To the Elizabethan dramatists Germany came to be necessarily associated with magic. For news of alchemy, astrology, sorcery, and all specimens of the black art, Englishmen naturally looked toward Germany. A twilight air of mystery enveloped the region of the Rhine.
Meanwhile England in a certain degree lost the respect she had entertained for German Protestantism, for England was now the great champion of the Reform; and in civilization, colonial reach, political, naval, and military power England felt herself to be superior to her Teutonic neighbour. Travellers, statesmen, and serious students rather neglected Germany, and devoted themselves to France and Italy, where they thought to learn something. Thus actual political events in Germany do not appear in the Elizabethan drama with anything like the frequency of French.
The literary interest taken in Germany was of a different order, and proved to be fruitful. Strange and startling tales came over the North Sea. These were often made into "news-sheets" by enterprising journalists, and in this fashion hawked about the streets of London. Fantastic enough some of these sounded. Mr. Herford gives a number of illustrations:
A Bloody Tragedy Acted by Five Jesuits on Sixteen Young German Frows.
Account of Executions of Two Hundred and Fifty Witches.
Strange Sight of the Sun and the Elements at Basel. History of a Fasting Girl.
True Discourse of One Stubbe Peter, a Most Wicked Sorcerer, who in Likeness of a Wolf Committed Many Murders.
These are fair examples, and we see that they are somewhat similar to the subjects exploited in the yellow journalism of the twentieth century.
But the single greatest contribution that Germany made to literary England at this time how great no one then dreamed was the legend of Faust. Dr. John Faust was a real person, who flourished in the same century as Marlowe. He was a rather cheap medical quack, who lived about 1530.1 Strange stories grew about him, and after his death they rolled along with the cumulative power of a snow-ball.
The relation between Marlowe's play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, and its original source, is full of unsolved and apparently insoluble problems. The drama was not entered on the Stationers' Books till 1601, and the first known edition is dated 1604, with the inscription on the title-page: "Written by Ch. Marl." But this was eleven years after Marlowe's death. Now the story of Faust had not appeared in book form until 1587, when the so-called Faustbuch, which seems to be the source of Marlowe's play, was published in Germany. The first known edition of an English translation is in 1592, although that date on the title-page may mean 1591. It is assumed that Marlowe's play was acted in 1588 or 1589; but, as
1 See A. W. Ward's scholarly and voluminous Introduction to his joint edition of Faustus and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (third edition, 1892). He has, however, silently expurgated the text.
a matter of fact, nobody knows. It is also assumed that Marlowe knew no German, and therefore founded his play on the English translation of the Faustbuch; and in order to account for this, many scholars further assume that there was an earlier edition of the English translation, and that this earlier edition appeared shortly after 1587 and is now lost. If we possessed this unknown book, and possessed also some definite knowledge as to the first performance of the English play, we should be within the limits of knowledge instead of in the fog of conjecture. The "earliest known reference" to the presentation of the play occurs in Henslowe, by which we learn that it was acted September thirtieth, 1594.
But whether the date of the composition of Marlowe's Faustus be 1589 or 1592, he has the credit of having produced the first play in any language on this immortal theme; and the short time (whatever theory we adopt) that intervened between the appearance of the Faustbuch in Germany and the play in England is nothing less than remarkable. Marlowe must have instantly perceived the splendid dramatic possibilities of the story, for he made out of them, notwithstanding all crudities and blemishes, a dramatic masterpiece.
It is not at all fair to Marlowe to compare the imperfect text of his hastily composed Faustus with the Faust of Goethe. The former was written by a young man with scarcely any literary background. Goethe had all the leisure of ease and mature years, with two centuries of culture behind him. After all, Marlowe's character of Faustus is essentially childish; he longs for magic power, like a boy who has read the Arabian Nights. Goethe's hero longs for life, which he has
missed, life with all its variety of experience. And into his mouth Goethe put the thoughts of one of the greatest literary geniuses that the world has seen since the death of Shakespeare. The qualities that win our admiration and respect for Marlowe's drama are the thrilling intensity of the climax, which in other hands might have been absurd, the wonderful height of pure poetry reached in certain passages, and the extraordinary conception of Mephistopheles. As a boy in Canterbury, Marlowe had in all probability seen representations of the devil on the local stage, for the mysteries and moralities were not extinct; he was of course familiar with the devil of Puritan imagination, and of the conception of hell as a definite place of fire. But instead of making Mephistopheles a grotesque bugaboo, compounded of mirth and horror, he made him a spirit of sombre melancholy, tortured with the eternal memory of his lost estate. And the geography of hell shows that Marlowe was in advance of his time.
"Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
That the miracles of one age are the commonplaces of another is curiously shown in this drama. The Duchess, on being requested to demand an illustration of the supernatural power of Faustus, asks what to Elizabethan minds was an impossible thing-grapes in January. Mephistopheles is gone only for a moment, and returns with the desired fruit; and in reply to the Duke's amazed inquiry, Faustus explains that although it is winter here it is summer in certain
parts of the world, and "by means of a swift spirit" the grapes are brought.
The final awful soliloquy of Faustus and the terrific climax of the play raise a rather interesting question in art. Marlowe's reputation in his own time was that of an atheist, and it is probable that he was a defiant unbeliever. But no Puritan sermon could have exceeded in religious force and effect the depiction of Faustus's fearful struggles with conscience, and the unspeakable horror of his departure. Now, either Marlowe, like Greene, felt occasional pangs of remorse (of which, however, there is no other evidence than this play) and the last soliloquy came from his own terror-stricken heart, or his artistic temperament was so completely ascendant that he was able to treat this sinner's dissolution with precisely the same artistic aloofness with which we should describe the sufferings of Prometheus. Such an attitude toward the Christian religion at that time is, to say the least, unusual; and it would require two things, the most absolute and assured unbelief, and an extraordinary power of artistic ventriloquism.
The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta was licensed for the press on May seventeenth, 1594, but the earliest known edition is a quarto of 1633, forty years after Marlowe's death. On the title-page appears Written by Christopher Marlo." In spite of many hypotheses and conjectures, no one knows when it was written nor when it was first acted. We know that Alleyn added greatly to his renown by his wonderful portrayal of Barabas; on the stage this Jew was largely a comic character, and wore a huge false nose. The source of the drama is unknown; there