doctor-faustus-as-a-morality-play-5-638In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot advises that ‘art never improves’ even if the ‘material of art’ is never quite the same. According to Eliot, to be accepted into the coveted literary canon an author treads a fine line between innovation and tradition and hence although we might expect some development over time (refinement and complication) it is likely to more to do with economics than anything else.

Whilst the Renaissance dramatists were probably not worrying about being admitted to any future literary canon, they were interested in having their plays performed. I can imagine that many were also interested, for economic reasons, in having as many plays performed as possible in the shortest period of time. Hence it only makes sense that for economic (and doubtless other reasons), tragedy developed by treading Eliot’s fine line between innovation and tradition – or if you will, current ideas and inherited form.

The form of English tragedy has most certain evolved over time – with Chaucer it was a ‘ditty’ about prosperity ending in wretchedness whist in later periods it had morphed into sad stories about a man’s fall as told by his ghost. By the 15th and early 16th century, we see the so-called ‘everyman (morality) plays’ – whereby on actor represents all of mankind with angels and the like tempting him to do evil with a view to investigating notions of Christian salvation.

At least in part, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1594 or thereabouts) is a throwback to these earlier morality plays. Faustus follows roughly the same form as the earlier plays in the sense of featuring polarised figures of good and evil (in Faustus the Evil and Good angels are constantly quarrelling as to whether Faustus is capable of repenting and in the A text in reality there was little possibility). As were the earlier plays, Faustus is didactic in the sense it aims to teach about what it takes to be a Christian. However unlike with the earlier plays the temptations do not come from outside ( i.e. with players representing specific qualities such Lechery or Sloth). As the opening scene demonstrates, without any outside stimulation Faustus prevaricates on whether he should ‘settle his studies’ and follow the party line by being a physician and making a ‘heap of gold’ or instead to follow his own inclinations and learn about alchemy and sorcery. I suggest this change in focus from outer to inner temptation is in keeping with expanding ideas about the nature of personal freedom (no longer constrained by a limited choice such as amongst the proscribed professions) but now encompassing a full range self-chosen goals from which Faustus makes his choices.

Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1586) signals a revival of the tragedies by the Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca doubtless in part because Seneca had fallen back into favour with the ruling monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The Spanish Tragedy focuses on revenge, a favourite Senecan theme, as the tragic protagonist Hieronimo struggles to obtain justice for the murder of his son, Horatio, and finally is forced to take revenge.

Kyd’s work also adopts Seneca’s five act structure and endorsement of Aristotle’s unities of action (no scene is a digression from contributing directly to the plot – as was the case with Faustus and the subplot with the two clowns, Robin and Rafe). But it fails to adopt unity of time which requires the action of the play to be compressed to usually to no more than a single day. Although there is no specific time period over which the action of The Spanish Tragedy takes place, it must have involved more than 24 hours for Hieronimo to learn the truth and decide on his course of action.

Interestingly The Spanish Tragedy also adopts the typically Stoic (again adopted by Seneca) idea that failure to remain unruffled in the face of difficult emotions such as Hieronimo faced after finding his murdered son (he rants and raves through several soliloquies about the injustice of it all) results in madness. Also of note is the use of Andrea’s ghost to frame the play as the ghost, like in those earlier English tragedies, tells the sad story about Andrea’s demise.

The Spanish Tragedy has been seen as a crude forerunner of Shakespeare’s later more complex and sophisticated tragedy, Hamlet – the two focusing on revenge, ghosts, and madness in fairly much the same ways. Yet although Hamlet may be a more complex character than Hieronomo (Hieronomo rails about the injustice of it all, whilst Hamlet takes this further and questions the very nature of man (‘what piece of work is man!’)), it is quite possible tthat Shakespeare made Hamlet too complex and sophisticated. In his essay entitled Hamlet and His Problems, T.S. Eliot concluded that as a play, Hamlet was an ‘artistic failure’ because Hamlet was so obsessed by emotions that he could not objectify, that there was nothing Shakespeare could do with the plot to express Hamlet who had worked himself to a point of inaction.

In summary, if we are to agree with the argument put forth by T.S. Eliot that art never improves even if the material of art changes, then it only makes sense that each new tragedy is a negotiation of inherited form and current ideas and fashions. This certainly seems to be the case as such famous tragedies such as Faustus, Hamlet, and The Spanish Tragedy – which clearly build not only upon older forms of English tragedy but also on classical forms such as that used by the Roman dramatist and philosopher, Seneca. Not only does the structure of these plays hark back to earlier times but also the tropes (ghosts and madness) and themes (revenge and Christian redemption).

Last evening I was listening to BBC 4’s ‘Moral Maze’.   Inspired by the badminton cheats at London’s Olympic Games, the guest speakers worked their way through the Moral Value of Sport.

A noble cause.

But although they hammered on for 30 minutes (many interesting points were made), no one even bothered to query what was meant by the word ‘moral’.

This is not a problem isolated to the BBC.

With Pluto in Capricorn, it’s little wonder ‘morality’ is on everyone’s lips.   It all sounds rather high and mighty – but in reality it’s all superficial and – let’s be honest – glib.

For although ‘morality’ has meant many things to many people [1]  – the bottom line has always been – ouch – morality = self-interest and how moral is that?

  1. To the ancient Greeks, morality meant ‘fit for purpose’ – a man who performed his socially alloted function was virtuous or moral.  If a man wanted to get on in the world, it was in his self interest to be as moral as possible.
  2. With Christianity, morality meant doing what God said to do.  Clearly it was in one’s self-interest to do this because  Heaven was much preferable to Hell.
  3. By the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), morality meant doing what was best for society.  A man was obliged to do so because of his contractual obligations (either to his government or his fellow men). Given all the bloody revolutions at the time…well, I suppose you get my drift.
  4. With Kierkegaard (early 19th century), morality meant fulfilling your obligations – which meant everything that didn’t make you happy.   Although at first glance, its hard to see how this would be in one’s self-interest – but when you realise (1) that Kierkegaard embraced a radical form of Protestant Christianity (2) and he believed the only alternative was the pursuit of self-satisfaction, then it all makes perfect sense
  5. Nietzsche (late 19th century) believed men now lived in a moral vacumn.   After all, if God were truly dead (and we killed Him), then it only made sense one might as well do as one pleased (he called this the ‘will to power’).
  6. Then come the reformers (early 20th century) – for whom morality meant to do as they said –  after all – God was on their side.
  7. By the late 20th century & early 21st century – in midst of media madness, morality can be summed up as ‘you got to look right to be right’ – ( I believe this is attributable to Strom Thurmond)  – and there’s little doubt it’s in everyone’s self interest to do just that.


[1] See A Short History of Ethics by Alasdair MacIntyre (Routledge Classics, 2002) for an excellent overview.

Treasury Minister David Gauke has just told us that paying tradesmen cash (in order to secure a discount against 20% VAT) is morally wrong.

This should come as no surprise.  It’s long been a popular ploy for leaders to suggest that their mandate is God-given.

In the olden days, this was accomplished through invoking the Divine Right of Kings.  Today, it is accomplished through invoking ‘morality’ – which – at least in Judeo-Christian cultures – comes fully loaded with notions of Divine reward and retribution through heaven and hell.

I suggest that those who so easily invoke ‘morality’ on their side,  have given little serious thought as to what it might mean or perhaps more interesting – from whence the concept might come.

Luckily for us, Nietzsche has done just that.

In his essay Good and Evil, Good and Bad, Nietzsche illustrates two different moral codes, with origins appearing to date back to ancient times.  The first applies to the nobility – or masters – while the second applies to the lower class – or slaves.

Nietzsche suggests that while the upper class moral code was designed to be better than that of the lower class (i.e. to hold superiority over the lower classes by suggesting that being rich is good while being poor is bad), the lower class – through spite and resentment – have created their own moral code which in some respects is ultimately superior.

In the case of Mr Gauke’s ‘cash payments to tradesmen’, it would seem that the lower class ‘slaves’ (i.e. tradesmen and those who employ them) have indeed created their own moral code, which Mr Gauke as coined the hidden economy.   In laymen’s lingo, it’s known as just trying to ‘get on’.

While Mr Gauke may believe his moral code to be superior, Nietzsche would suggest that it is not.

This is because the government’s master morality (however dressed up) defines itself solely by reference to that which furthers the rich and noble.

In other words (unlike slave morality which at least seeks to further the interests of society as a whole), the master morality of Mr Gauke is self serving, self-centred, and self-fullfilling.

Given that we believe ourselves to live in the ‘free world’, is it any wonder that the slaves have rebelled?