This essay examines how the loss of auricular confession in sixteenth-century England registers on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus--probably the most influential representative of a dramatic genre that, in its medieval form, had relied on the sacrament of penance as its sine qua non. When confession lost its sacramental status (and when the moralities that celebrated its virtues fell into decline), a lacuna appeared in English culture that Marlowe’s theater tried to restore: mainly by aiming to recover every inch of fetishistic hedonism that Protestants imagined, somewhat wishfully, the Catholic sacraments had once afforded: worship of money, sensuous stimulation from images, the magical transport beyond moral limitation through the mere power of words. In my argument, Faustus underscores how closely theater and the confessional had always been allied insofar as each provided a sanctuary for the discursive representation of radically deviant behavior. The play mourns the absence of--and celebrates its continued allegiance to--an ancient rite in which people had formerly enjoyed (according to Calvin) “exchanging narratives of their crimes as if they were merry tales.”


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pp. 29-59
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