Wagner, Servant of Faustus: What’s He Doing in the Play?

John Norden's map of London, from 'Speculum Britanniae. The first parte. An historicall and chronographicall description of Middlesex.' (1593) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.

I’d like to say that my ‘Marlowe’s Faustus’ series follows some grand scheme, marching down a well-organized path toward a profound conclusion. But it doesn’t, so I won’t.

I started re-reading Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus,” a little bit at a time, a year and a half ago. My idea was to polish and re-post a “Faustus” series I’d done back in 2012.

George Vertue's Procession portrait of Elizabeth I of England with the Knights of the Garter. (ca. 1601) from Sotheby's, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.That’s not what happened.

Instead, I’ve been talking about Elizabethan politics and demons, folklore and myth. And, briefly, both Renaissance magic and Renaissance science.

Renaissance science and magic were a tad jumbled, at least from a 21st-century viewpoint. And that’s another topic.1

This week, I’ll glance at the role Wagner, Doctor Faustus’ servant, fills in Marlowe’s play.

After putting Marlowe’s England and Germany’s ‘Faust’ folklore in perspective.

Bankside: Elizabethan Era Entertainment District

John Norden's map of London, from 'Speculum Britanniae....' Detail, Bankside. (1593) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.

The Rose Theater in Bankside is famous for being at first in at least two categories.

It apparently was the first purpose-built theater featuring one of Shakespeare’s plays. And the first playhouse (“The play howse” on that 1593 map) in Bankside.

Bankside’s name goes back to 1554, when “the Banke syde” meant “street along the bank.” Which makes sense, since it’s a divot of land on the Thames near Southwark Bridge.

The Rose was on the northwest corner of Southwark Bridge Road and Park Streets. That’s what they’re called these days, at any rate. Southwark Bridge wouldn’t be built until 1819.

The Rose theater opened for business in 1587. Maybe Marlowe’s “Faustus” was staged there the same year, or maybe not.

In May of 1591, some of Richard Burbage’s acting company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, formed another company, The Lord Admiral’s Men. Why, I don’t know. The earliest documented run of “Faustus” — probably at the Rose — started on September 30, 1594.

Then, in 1599, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men built the Globe theater on the southeast corner of today’s Southwark Bridge Road and Park Streets.

A few years passed. Economic pressure, politics, Puritans and England’s Privy Council put the Rose out of business; sometime around 1600.

The Globe burned in 1613, was rebuilt in 1614 and finally closed by the Long Parliament in 1642. Because stage plays were immoral.

According to the Long Parliament.2

The Bear Howse, Casinos and the “Immorality of English Stage”

Jeremy Collier's 'Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage' antitheatrical pamphlet. (1698)In 1698, five and a half decades after the Long Parliament’s 1642 London theatre closure, theater critic, non-juror bishop and theologian Jeremy Collier was trying to save England from Shakespeare’s Ophelia.

He almost had a point.

Back in the 1580s and ’90s, Bankside was what we’d call an entertainment district.

A venue called “The Bear Howse” on that 1593 map was near The Rose, and a building on the Rose property may have been sublet as a brothel. If so, it wasn’t the only one in the neighborhood.

“The Bear howse” was a place for bear-baiting. It was both legal and popular back then.3

So were “gaming dens:” We call them casinos these days. I’m not sure what the Elizabethan term was.

But were “the Bear howse,” casinos, brothels, and theaters really dens of iniquity?

I don’t know where prostitution fits on today’s propriety spectrum.

Old-Fashioned Values

Carl Hassmann's 'The Almightier' illustration for Puck. (May 15, 1907)Back in my day, serious folks insisted that prostitution should be legal: because it’s a good way for women to make money.

I know, but that was a popular argument in some circles. Decades back now.

My oldest daughter says she still runs into the ‘but it makes money’ argument.

So it looks like American opinion is still split on whether human or dollar values matter more.

“…Creature comfort goals,
they only numb my soul
And make it hard for me to see…”
(“Pleasant Valley Sunday” The Monkees (1967))

“I’ll lie, cheat, steal for this company … but I will not give up my integrity.
I feel that a man is of value to the organization as long as he….”
Brigadoon” (1954) (via springfieldspringfield.co.uk))

I realize that money matters. Particularly when I’m running short.

But when I was young, I didn’t see a point in buying stuff I don’t need with money I don’t have to impress folks I don’t like. I still don’t. And that’s yet another topic.

Animals, Gambling and Human Dignity

William Hogarth's 'The Second Stage of Cruelty, detail. (1751)My view of bear-baiting and all that?

I’m a Catholic. I figure that cruelty to animals, bear-baiting included, is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2415-2418)

Gambling isn’t a problem. As long as it’s not a problem. What’s called gambling addiction? That’s a problem. (Catechism, 2413)

Prostitution, along with pornography, is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. Human beings are people, even when we’re treated as if we were objects. And treating a person as if he or she is an object is an offense against human dignity. (Catechism, 2354-2355)

Stage plays? Yeah. I’ll grant that some stage plays, and movies, don’t show respect for human dignity.

But I’ve yet to find either on an official Catholic ‘don’t do this’ list. Individual Catholics can be as crackers as anyone else, and that’s yet again another topic.

Faust! Featured in Folklore, Film and Video Games!

Theatrical poster for a performance of Goethe's play: 'Lewis Morrison as 'Mephistopheles' in Faust! (1887)
(Mephistopheles conjuring spooks in Goethe’s “Faust.” (1887))

Germany’s ‘Faust’ folklore and legend, based loosely on Johann Georg Faust’s posthumous reputation, got traction with chapbooks in the 1580s.

Frontispiece of 'Historia von D. Johan Fausten,' published by Johann Spies. (1587)Since then, it’s inspired Wagner’s “Faust Overture” and four films that I’ve found, probably more.

It’s been the libretto for at least three operas, and the plot for plays by Marlowe and Goethe.

I’ve read that Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” mirrors “mainstream Christianity,” which might explain the English-speaking world’s fascination with Faust.

“Dr. Faustus: Movement into the Renaissance”
Harlie; First-Year Preceptorial — Forbidden Knowledge; Union College, Professor Watkins (October 15, 2013)
“Dr. Faustus was written in the Renaissance and therefore represents how to be a good Christian. As a character, Dr. Faustus is not a good Christian. But he teaches readers of the time what they shouldn’t do. Faustus is showing the way not to die; if you live life as a good Christian and avoid the devil and temptation then you will go to heaven….”

“Teaching Doctor Faustus Through the Ars Moriendi Tradition”
Matthew Fike, The CEA Forum (Winter/Spring 2008)
“The rough edges in Christopher Marlowe’s intellectual life serve as a foil to the mainstream Christianity in Doctor Faustus: the playwright had a reputation for atheism or at least for unorthodox opinions; papers allegedly found in a writing room that he shared with Thomas Kyd….”

But that may not explain multiple Fausts popping up in anime, video games and comics.4

My guess is that the Faust legend has been so lastingly popular because it’s a rousing tale, one which lets actors and authors chew the scenery without seeming overeager.

As for the Marlowe “Faustus” presenting mainstream Christianity — I’d say that depends on which mainstream is in play, and that’s still another topic.

Wagner, Scholars, and a Stock Character

John Tenniel's 'Whenever the horse stopped (which it did very often), he fell off in front...' illstration for 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' (1871) via Wikisource and Wikimedia commons, used w/o permission.I’ve gathered that literary critics have occasionally deplored comedy relief in serious thespian productions.

Part of the problem, I suspect, was that the groundlings enjoyed a break from grimly philosophical ruminations.

I see the critics’ point, particularly if they think of themselves as scholars.

Take this bit from Marlowe’s “Faustus,” for example. It’s Wagner’s second appearance, and the first time he gets more than a few lines.

“…SECOND SCHOLAR. That shall we presently know; here comes his boy.


FIRST SCHOLAR. How now, sirrah! where’s thy master?

WAGNER. God in heaven knows.

SECOND SCHOLAR. Why, dost not thou know, then?

WAGNER. Yes, I know; but that follows not.

FIRST SCHOLAR. Go to, sirrah! leave your jesting, and tell us where he is.

WAGNER. That follows not by force of argument, which you, being licentiates, should stand upon: therefore acknowledge your error, and be attentive.

SECOND SCHOLAR. Then you will not tell us?

WAGNER. You are deceived, for I will tell you: yet, if you were not dunces, you would never ask me such a question….”
(“…Faustus…,” Marlowe (1604, From The Quarto Of 1616) Edited by The Rev. Alexander Dyce (1870))

I’ve seen this dialog called “Wagner’s mock disputation with the scholars….”

Mock it may have been, but I think Wagner made a valid point.

Either or both scholars should have noticed that Wagner’s “God in heaven knows” — although often taken to mean ‘I do not know’ — does not say, when the words are taken in their non-colloquial sense, whether or not the speaker knows whatever is being asked.

But they didn’t, and I am not going to fall down a rabbit hole of logic and semantics, metalanguage, the White Knight and Alice.5 Not today, at any rate.

Instead, I’ll glance at Wagner’s role in Marlowe’s play.

Labeling Wagner

A. Wallis Mills' illustration for 'Jeeves in the Springtime,' P. G. Wodehouse, in The Strand magazine. (1921) from Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Depending on which student guide you’re reading, Wagner is “the inferior student of the masterful doctor,” someone who “banters foolishly with the Scholars about philosophy” or is “wily, cunning, and more than a little devious.”

All of which are arguably accurate, particularly if one of them is your professor’s pet idea.

But I suspect that Wagner — along with Palaestrio in “Miles Gloriosus,” Jeeves and Haroud Hazi Bin of the Disney Aladdin series — is another version of Roman theater’s servus callidus: the clever/tricky slave.

The servus callidus, who’s sometimes a dolosus servus (deceitful servant), has been used by writers from Plautus to Wodehouse: and Plautus had been using the ancient Greek theater’s playbook.

Slavery, by the way, is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. The problem, again, is personal dignity. (Catechism, 2414)

So I’ll say “clever servant,” not servus callidus.

The clever servant’s socioeconomic position is below that of his or her master/boss, but the boss — consciously or not — depends on the servant’s brains. Or gets manipulated by the anything-but-inferior underling.6

After reading that “if you were not dunces” dialog, or should it be trialog? Never mind, and moving along.

Anyway, after reading that bit, I think Wagner might be a cunning servant in Marlowe’s “Faustus.” But I’m not sure.

I haven’t read through the play for years, and don’t remember Wagner’s subplot. So I’ll have to keep an eye on Wagner to see just how smart he is. And whether or not his actions support my notion that he’s the play’s clever servant.

Then there’s the question of how wise either Wagner or Faustus are. I’d say ‘not very,’ but that’s — you guessed it — another topic for another time.

More, and maybe less, related posts:

Footnotes, of course. HR here

1 Natural philosophy, before it was science:

2 Renaissance, mostly:

3 Tudor England and troubled times:

4 Faust: chapbooks, plays, films and more:

John Tenniel's illustration, frontispiece for Lewis Carroll's 'Through the Looking Glass:' White Knight and Alice. (1871)5 Down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass; and a little serious scholarship:

6 A stock character with deep roots:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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