Rafe and Robin waltz into Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of D. Faustus in scene four and vanish three scenes later. Although they may appear trivial and even intrusive, Rafe and Robin bring much-needed comic relief to this tragic play. Imitating Doctor Faustus’ actions unwittingly, this pair of ostlers illuminates Faustus’ misuse of power. They also reflect Faustus’ character by acting as his parallel self. Behind their clownish antics, Rafe and Robin highlight Faustus’ downfall and evil’s power through comic relief, parody, and parallel.
According to the Neo-Classical view of tragedies, tragic action is the essence of the play; comic relief is often dismissed as mere filler (Tydeman and Thomas 48). To overturn this view, Rafe and Robin successfully render evil harmless with their lowly jests while Doctor Faustus cannot free himself from evil’s bondage with his great learning. When Mephastophilis transforms the two clowns into an ape and a dog in sc.viii, Robin and Rafe only laugh. This nonchalance dampens the severity of the curses. In sc.iv, when Wagner threatens to turn him into a flea, Robin immediately thinks of a flea’s ability to crawl all over the bodies of women. As Cole remarks, “In the long-range divine scheme of things, evil is essentially both impotent and vulnerable; hence the possibility of looking at it as a laughable degradation”(15). By laughing at evil, Robin and Rafe provide moments of relief in a play overflowing with reminders of damnation. Aside from unpolished laughter, puns also provide comic relief. In sc.iv, when Wagner attempts to enslave Robin, the clown plays on the words “guilders” and “gridirons”; thus, Robin m...
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...en a great thinker such as Faustus is pervious to the lures of evil. By acting as a parallel to Faustus, Rafe and Robin further highlight the tragic downfall of Doctor Faustus. Though their appearances in The Tragical History of D. Faustus are brief and their actions seem to be of no consequence, Rafe and Robin bring both comic relief and serious reflection to this tragic Marlovian play.
Cole, Douglas. Suffering and Evil in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1962.
Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of D. Faustus. In Renaissance Drama: An Anthology of Plays and Entertainments. Edited by A.F. Kinney. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2002.
Tydeman, William, and Vivien Thomas. State of the Art series: Christopher Marlowe - A guide through the critical maze. Bristol: The Bristol Press, 1989.
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