Christopher Marlowe fascinates as one of history's larger-than-life figures. His rumbustious behavior, and his freedom of action, thought and speech in an Elizabethan Age that demanded, and usually got, conformity, make him stand out; and, of course, he was also the genius who established the Faust legend as one of the major myths of modern times, reinvigorated notably by Goethe and more recently by Thomas Mann. Marlowe drew material for his play from the English Faust-book "The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus," freely translated from the German sources and embellished by one P. F. in 1592 (or earlier). In fact, this prose narrative is less devoted to what Marlowe made so memorable--Faustus' selling of his soul to Lucifer and his death--than to a series of adventures, travels and practical jokes celebrating the wonders performed by our hero. Marlowe's emphases in his play, "Doctor Faustus," are his own, so far as we can tell from the imperfect texts that survive. There are two versions, an earlier one (1604) that is short and corrupted, but perhaps closer to Marlowe's original than the later one (1616), which has extensive additions, probably made after Marlowe's death in 1593.
William Empson is not the first to regard the text as we have it as a "ruin" and to set about reconstructing it, or at least explaining its deficiencies. But he brings a swashbuckling manner and a Marlovian freedom of thought and speech to the task, so that his book is refreshingly different from the usual earnest scholarship on the subject. In his view, the play is not a tragedy corrupted by comic intrusions; rather Marlowe aimed to present Faustus as a great entertainer in a drama that "does all it can to make Faust popular with the audience, so that they want him to be let off at the end." Empson imagines the English Faust-book and Marlowe's play as subjected to the close scrutiny of the Archbishop of Canterbury or his agents, and supposes a "self-sacrificing curate" sitting in disguise through a performance to report on heresy and obscenity. The censor insisted on cuts being made, notably a missing Chorus before Act 2, axed "because it told the secret: that Faust does not believe Mephistopheles to be a devil at all, only a Middle Spirit telling lies as usual."
Here then is Empson's new key to the play: The text as we have it was cut drastically to provide an orthodox ending and reshape the play so as to send Faustus to hell; but really, Marlowe conceived his hero as a "middle spirit" or fairy, who was not excluded from eternal bliss. Faustus was meant to die in the arms of his friend and co-fairy Mephistopheles "with immense relief, also gratitude, surprise, love, forgiveness and exhaustion. It is the happiest death in all drama." This interpretation will come as a shock to those accustomed to think of Faustus as a tragic figure, damned by his own fatal errors and sins, and it requires some agility on Empson's part to get round various thorny questions. For instance, one of the most memorable scenes in the play is that in which Faustus conjures up the shade of Helen of Troy and kisses her, an act that has often been interpreted as a final outrage, intercourse with a devil, an unforgivable sin; but Empson dismisses this as a "silly superstition," only heard of in Marlowe's time as part of a campaign against witches.
It is all heady stuff, if occasionally it gets bogged down in theological niceties. Empson is not afraid to dismiss as poppycock the theories of the learned commentators who have pored over the play, and he doesn't allow objections to his assumptions to bother him. It would spoil the fun of his arguments if he did, and perhaps he is right after all in blaming the censor for the corrupt state of the text. We need iconoclasts like Empson to challenge accepted views, and it is sad to have to record that this is his last, posthumous, volume. He retained his vigorous, searching mind to the end, and aficionados of his pungent style will not be disappointed.