7 - Reacting to Marlowe  pp. 127-149

Reacting to Marlowe

By John D. Cox

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Dr. Faustus had both an immediate and lasting impact on the London commercial theatre. The lasting impact was general and diffuse, involving the advent of modern tragedy, the portrayal of a despairing protagonist, the atmospheric sense of an irredeemably evil world, the compelling exploration of interiority. The immediate impact can be described in terms of a handful of plays that responded to Marlowe's play over the dozen years after its first appearance in the way they staged devils. For Marlowe's play is, so to speak, the conduit through which this stage device made its way from religious drama to the commercial stage. From the building of the Theatre in 1576 to the advent of Dr. Faustus some twelve years later, no extant commercial play stages devils, yet several plays in the late 1580s and throughout the 1590s include devils, and all of them react to Marlowe in one way or another.

Imitation involves interpretation, as Peter Berek has argued in the case of Tamburlaine, and the first imitators of Dr. Faustus tell us a good deal about how they understood it, and incidentally how they understood stage devils. That understanding, as we shall see, is remarkably traditional, often deliberately recalling pre-Reformation assumptions in sympathetic ways, as if to exorcise or at least diminish the potent threat of Marlowe's ambiguous fiends.