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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.2 (2001) 257-275

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Casting Doubt in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

William M. Hamlin

He that casts all doubts shall never be resolved.

--English Renaissance proverb

It will come as news to no one that Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus can be and has been deemed a skeptical play. 1 More than a century ago, the Victorian scholar J. R. Green characterized Marlowe's outlook as a "daring scepticism" and claimed that Faustus was "the first dramatic attempt to touch the great problem of the relations of man to the unseen world, to paint the power of doubt in a temper leavened with superstition." 2 Fifty years later, Una Ellis-Fermor called Doctor Faustus "perhaps the most notable Satanic play in literature." 3 And the varied testimony of Marlowe's contemporaries--Robert Greene, Richard Baines, Thomas Kyd, and Richard Cholmeley among them--strongly suggests that both the man and his writings could be considered iconoclastic and profoundly irreverent: both susceptible to charges of "monstruous opinions," "vile hereticall conceipts," even "diabolical atheism." 4 True, the circumstances in which these allegations were sometimes made force us to question their accuracy; yet, there still exists an extraordinary congruence of contemporary attitude about Marlowe--about what we might call his skepticism. But what in fact are we saying when we say an early modern writer is skeptical? In what senses does this word carry meaning with respect to the dramatic compositions of [End Page 257] Marlowe or his contemporaries? How can we allege, without being utterly vapid, that Doctor Faustus exhibits a pervasive skepticism? How, if at all, may we infer skeptical tenets from dramatic texts? What, if any, are the skeptical paradigms inherent in Marlowe's great tragedy?

These are the questions I wish to consider. And, as a means of approaching them, I would like first of all briefly to examine the enabling premises and methodological strategies of the best-known current commentator on skepticism and English Renaissance tragedy: Stanley Cavell. Cavell has not written on Marlowe--indeed his dramatic criticism has focused almost exclusively on Shakespeare--but it is nonetheless worth our while to attend to his programmatic statements regarding what he calls the "skeptical problematic." 5 He claims, for instance, that Shakespeare "engage[s] the depth of the philosophical preoccupations of his culture," and he adds that his guiding "intuition" about Shakespeare is that "the advent of skepticism as manifested in [René] Descartes's Meditations is already in full existence" in "the great tragedies" of the early seventeenth century. 6 But these two statements would appear to be incompatible, for while it may be true that Shakespeare anticipates the hyperbolic doubt of Descartes, it is clearly anachronistic to characterize that doubt as a "philosophical preoccupation" of the first decade of Britain's seventeenth century. Not that doubt did not exist, or that epistemological questions were not asked--far from it. But the forms of philosophical skepticism to which Shakespeare and Marlowe could have been exposed were principally those derived from the Pyrrhonian and Academic paradigms of antiquity. 7 Indeed, Marlowe quotes, in the 1604 quarto of Doctor Faustus, a phrase lifted directly from Sextus Empiricus's Adversus Mathematicos (Against the Mathematicians), a work readily available at Cambridge during Marlowe's student days, and undoubtedly also circulating in London at that time. 8 And Sextus's principal champion in the late sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne, was indisputably read by Shakespeare. 9 Hence Cavell's implicit diminution of the influence of Montaigne--not to mention his complete neglect of many other contemporary writers through whose works classical skepticism was channeled into early modern intellectual life--is fundamentally ahistorical. 10

Cavell writes that "the skeptical problematic I have in mind is given its philosophical refinement in Descartes's way of raising the questions of God's existence and of the immortality of the soul," and he goes on to assert that the "issue" posed in [End Page 258] Shakespeare's tragedies is not, "as with earlier skepticism, how to conduct oneself...


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