A major theme found in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is the critique of the Roman Catholic church, exemplified in this satirical scene which makes a mockery of the pope and his clergy through clever humor. The scene begins in Act III, Scene 1, (version) when Faustus and Mephistophilis have shape-shifted into the cardinals who are meeting the pope to cast their judgment on Bruno the offender. My focus is on the humor of the passage, which provides comic relief in an otherwise eerie tale.
The comments Faustus and Mephistophilis make prove humorous in the face of a power-hungrypope. Despite being the “Most sacred patron of the church of Rome,” (3.1.173), the pope is vengeful and petty when it comes to shutting out his enemies and dissenters.
Mephistopheles makes the most humorous observations: upon entering in the shape of the cardinals, Mephistophilis says, “Now tell me, Faustus, are we not fitted well?” (3.1.162). The pope blesses them ritualistically to bid them goodbye, and Mephistopheles comments, “So so, was never devil blessed before.
After the real cardinals come in, they claim that they knew not of any judgments (made by the dressed-up Faustus and Mephistophilis) on Bruno’s case, and say “By holy Paul, we saw them not” (3.2.49) to which the pope responded “By Peter, you shall die.” (3.2.50). And after the cardinals are taken away following the pope’s threats of being shackled and tortured, Faustus comments sardonically, “So they are safe.” (3.2.55) This was also the pope’s quickness to turn on his subordinates when they are not by him.
The two troublemakers head to the celebratory feast with Faustus turned invisible to print Faustus steals the pope’s food and drinks with humorous comments, like when he says when taking the wine, “Ay, pray do, for Faustus is a-dry”. (3.2.73). The pope’s clergy claim that it must be some soul from purgatory looking for a pardon, to which the pope reacts with a call for a ritual to do away with the spirit. It ends absurdly as they cast lines of prayer while Faustus and Mephistopheles beat them and fling fireworks, making their ritual look silly and thus undermining the institution of the Catholic church.
I notice too that they use the phrase “fall to” often, and the Oxford English Dictionary said a figurative meaning meant to “descent from the high estate,rom moral elevation.” This made me think of the pope’s angry attitude, always seeking to assert dominance and inflict pain on those who disagree with him. Even the friars who are with him when an invisible Faustus snatches his things, he says, “Find the man that doth this villainy/Or by our sanctitude, you all shall die” (3.2.78). The pope’s unreasonable anger is in itself humorous because it makes a caricature of a supposedly anointed being, representative of the Holy institution of God.