Controversies, #4 (Fall 1999)

"Faustus' Clown and Variant Literary Texts"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #4: Plays are subject to far more stages of composition than most other works of literature since actors and audiences are almost co-authors, helping to reshape the play as it's performed.  This can lead to plays surviving in more than one coherent version, as in Dr. Faustus' A- and B-Texts.  Here, a minor character's sudden appearance and disappearance roused the curiosity of two students about what might have happened to the play.  Particpants: Beth Allee, Heather Baron, and Arnie.

          What role does the clown play in "Dr. Faustus"? He obviously is used for comic relief, but there is no following scene with his presence nor is there even any other mention of him. He does not come into contact with Faustus at all but the scene is played out between he and Wagner. Perhaps it is to show how Faustus influences and corrupts others as well as himself. Wagner, after all, is in very close contact with his teacher. Why, then, is this scene not further reffered to? The clown apparently leaves with Wagner, as stated by the last lines in the scene, but no information is given about where they go or what they do. Beth Allee, 10/8/99

        I'm wondering if it's possible that a scene between Wagner and the Clown was missed when the manuscript went to print. I'm not sure about Marlowe, but I know that with Shakespeare's plays "bad" copies of manuscripts were made into quartos and later corrected. I guess it's a possibility. It is interesting though because characters don't usually disappear like that! Heather Baron, 10/8/99

        Heather's point about the variant versions of the play is a useful caution, but also a testable one. Remember that the play comes to us in an "A" text (earlier, 1590s vintage) and a "B" text (post-Elizabethan, Jacobean vintage). Does the "B" text contain the Wagner-Clown scene? If so, it's possible to argue that it's more likely to be authentic according to one line of reasoning, that is, if the "B"-text printer knew of a more authentic version than the "A" text version he would print it.

        Another reason for omitting further reference to the "Clown" might be that the character is intended as a foil for others in the text, namely Faustus (re: being Mephistopholis' "student") and Wagner, himself (re: being Faustus' student). Dramatic subplots tend to be ignored when they've done their duty by commenting ironically upon the main action. For instance, what more do we hear of Kindred and Cousin after Everyman has discovered the correct pathway to God? They're like animated special effects designed to manipulate our attitude toward the main action.

        Now you also could ask, "well when the heck do the country-bred characters begin to have a voice again as they did in Canterbury Tales?" In the canonical literature of the Norton, it takes a long time. Just as they're less gender-blinded than they used to be, they're also more class-sensitive than in earlier editions, and include more "literature of the people." Admittedly I've not assigned much of it (class traitor!) because I don't find it terribly influential upon later poets. However, I'd be delighted to read more with you. Let me know if you want direction to the parts of the Norton where the proles reside, hoi polloi, that is, or people like us. Arnie, 10/10/99

        In the longer B version of "Dr. Faustus," the clown is identified as Robin in the subtext. This makes more sense since there are also many scenes concerning these and other less prominant characters left out in the version we read in class. Rafe and Robin (the clown) are shown in scenes with the horse-courser, the fake leg is better described, overall, many subtle but important parts were left out. The B script better shows how Dr. Faustus and Wagner manipulate the common class and how they play tricks (with political undertones of course) on the church, gentry, etc. Beth Allee, 10/13/99