Faustus as Literary Allusion, and Marlowe’s Impact on Contemporary Art and Literature

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Christopher “Kit” Marlowe makes a brief appearance as a character in the story “Men of Good Fortune” from the comic book series Sandman, this particular story being written by Neil Gaiman (author of the whole series), with pencil art by Michael Zulli, inks by Steve Parkhouse, lettering by Todd Klein, and colors by the coloring company Zylonol. This story alludes to and takes thematic cues from Doctor Faustus, with a few characters making Faustian deals with the central character and even positing its own position on the themes of the play.

Sandman is perhaps one of the most literary and genre-defying comic books in existence, making many allusions not only to classic literature like the works of William Shakespeare and, in this particular story, Christopher Marlowe, but also to legends, myths, fairy tales, fables, and so on. The series overall involves the character of Dream, also known as Morpheus (the same Morpheus in the Greek pantheon), who is in-universe the godlike lord of the dreamworld, to which we all go when we sleep, but metatextually is the personification of the multilayered concept of dreaming and all it entails (including, as is often alluded to in the series, and in this particular story, writing and storytelling). Dream is one of the seven Endless, beings who are specifically described not as gods but something older, who existed at the beginning of time and will be there till the end. The Endless also include Death (who appears in the beginning of this story), Desire, Despair, Destruction, Delirium (nee Delight) and Destiny. All of these personify and encompass many aspects of existence.

“Men of Good Fortune” begins in 1389 England, in a tavern where many English peasants are drinking penny ale and are separately discussing many issues of the day. Dream and his sister Death arrive, for the implied purpose of observing the mortals whose aspects of their lives they govern. A character named Robert “Hob” Gadling is discussing the concept of death, which he says is very prevalent in his life and in the lives of those living in medieval Europe. He makes the claim that “nobody has to die” (page 332 of Absolute Sandman: Volume One) and rejects the idea that he will die just because he thinks he has to. Dream and Death, observing this, exchange looks, and Dream decides to confront Hob on this, making with him a deal that he will meet him in the same tavern in a hundred years, which Hob takes up. The rest of the story shows us these meetings every hundred years, and the central part of the story takes place in 1589, where all its themes are alluded to and brought to a head. It is in this part story that we see one “Kit” and one “Will Shaxberd” having a conversation in the background of the main events. Since it is 1589, it is evident that Shakespeare is only beginning his career while Marlowe is nearing the end of his (as well as his life). The artists depict Marlowe with a broken leg in a splint, supposedly received from one of his adventures, and Gaiman has him saying little other than some allusions to his artistic process. The first dialogue we see in this section of the story is Shakespeare saying, “Well, Kit, your theme as I saw it is this: that for one’s art and for one’s dreams one may consort and bargain with the darkest pow’rs,” to which Marlowe replies “‘Tis so” (339). Later, Shakespeare asks Marlowe if he has read his play (the play he is speaking of is Henry the Sixth Part I). Marlowe says that he has, but is not impressed, reading the lines and saying that while the lines scan well, the verbage is really bad, an opinion that might be shared by Gaiman (341). This causes Shakespeare to loudly exclaim that he wishes he could write as well as Marlowe, and he loudly recites lines from Faustus (from the A-Text, Act II scene 1, lines 10-14): “To God! He loves thee not! The God thou servest is thine own appetite, wherein is fixed the love of Beelzebub. To him I’ll build an altar and a church, and offer lukewarm blood of new-born babes.” This catches the attention of Dream, who confronts Shakespeare about his desire to be a great playwright, and they go off to make a (Faustian) deal.

Besides the appearance of Marlowe, and the quoting of Faustus, the Marlovian allusion that plays out for the rest of the story is illustrated in the exploration of Hobs’ immortality, granted from a deal with supernatural powers. Other characters in the story relate him to the legend of the wandering Jew Ahasuerus, who was cursed with immortality for denying Christ and forced to wander the earth (333, 349). A recurring character in the series, Johanna Constantine, confronts Hob and Dream in the Restoration era, and accuses Dream of being a devil-figure, like perhaps Mephistopholes is (349). But this story also deconstructs Faustus, as Dream, while a supernatural and morally ambiguous character, is no devil (in fact, it turns out he just wants a friend in Hob). And Hob is not condemned (although in the Restoration section of the story he has gotten into the slave-trade, which leaves a scar on his humanity [347]. He later abandons it [353]) for his desire for immortality, he is just made to see the full expanse of human experience, making mistakes and having varying degrees of financial success. At the heart of the story is the theme of the humanity of desire, and that dreams are an indelible part of life that we must negotiate with throughout our lives. That is a theme that can be applied, and is applied by Gaiman, to Doctor Faustus. Gaiman also seems to see the importance of Marlowe in relation to his more famous contemporary, Shakespeare, and the fact that he is included in this story pays tribute to him in a way that is rarely seen in contemporary media.

 

John

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