ABSTRACT

Doctor Faustus, most concentrated of Elizabethan tragedies before Macbeth, also ranges widely and is composed from the union of several older traditions. Hardin Craig has called it a perfectly generalized morality (English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages, 1955, p. 386). The bond by which Faustus gives himself to Lucifer is valid because it is made in the presence and against the miraculous intervention of God, the Judge in whose court the agreement is registered. Doctor Faustus is a tragedy of responsibility and choice, though not till the final scene does the full realization of his action come to the doomed magician when, like Everyman, but with such a different anticipation, he is called to his reckoning. Set against these tragic issues, much of the conjuring which fills the middle of the play may seem now irrelevant and tasteless. Perhaps it would become more explicable, if not more acceptable, were it seen as a development of what I shall call the eldritch tradition. Eldritch diabolism, while both comic and horrific, is amoral and does not involve personal choice or the notion of personal responsibility. The cackle of ghoulish laughter is essential to winter's tales of sprites and goblins, phantoms and illusions. Country mumming was and still is designed in the comic-horrific mood, whether this is displayed in the blackened faces of Plough Monday men, or the huge wicker monster of the Padstow Hobby; but in the early sixteenth century William Dunbar, a court poet, could exploit the same area of feeling. Of Dunbar, C. S. Lewis has written:

84In him more than in any other, the comic overlaps with the demoniac and the terrifying. He also is of the 'eldritch' school; the wild whoop of his noisiest laughter has, and is meant to have, something sinister in it. . . . in "The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins" . . . these "sweir bumbard belly huddrouns" and these highlanders whose clatter deaves the devil himself are intended to make us laugh. But notice, on the other hand, that we are laughing at torture. The grotesque figures skip through fire, jag each other with knives, and are constantly spewing out molten gold with which they are constantly refilled "up to the thrott." (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 1954, pp. 94-5)

Compared with an earlier grave treatment of the Seven Deadly Sins, such as that in "A Disputation between a Good Man and the Devil" (Minor Poems of the Vernon MS, EETS, 1892, pp. 329-54), the eldritch quality which Dunbar shares with Doctor Faustus involves the reader or spectator much more intimately, and is therefore by nature more dramatic in its appeal.