The Representation Of The Supernatural In Doctor Faustus And Sir Orfeo

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The influence of supernatural forces was a common theme among works written during the Renaissance and early medieval periods, and was often used to create moral conflict within the characters by introducing them to sin or strife. It was mainly used to support biblical lessons that the writer wished to convey to their audience. Doctor Faustus and Sir Orfeo are both examples of texts that use the supernatural to teach their respective lessons. However, the difference is that Doctor Faustus, written during the Elizabethan era, uses it as an embodiment of pure evil, whereas Sir Orfeo utilises the supernatural as a transformative entity that provides the protagonist with a challenge that he must overcome. These contradictory applications reflect the attitudes towards witchcraft, magic and all things supernatural during the respective times in which they were written. In both texts, these attitudes can be detected in the description of the behaviour of the paranormal beings, and how they drive the plots, as well as in the depictions of their appearances.

In Doctor Faustus, Faustus’ ambition to master the art of magic causes him to promise his soul to Lucifer, which begins to corrupt him to the point where he spends his life playing tricks on people and partaking in blasphemy, a most severe offense at the time. Witches can be defined as those who cause harm by supernatural means, and who make a pact with the devil for their powers.[footnoteRef:1] Applying this definition, one can argue that Faustus himself, was a witch as he exchanges his soul for the use of Mephistopheles’ power. This deduction could contribute to the understanding of the attitudes that the Elizabethan audience would have towards the main character of the play, because witchcraft was seen in an extremely negative light during this period, and this sentiment lasted well into the seventeenth century, during which the height of the witch trials was taking place. In fact, in 1563 about 30 years before Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus, a bill was passed that would legalise the murder of those suspected to be a witch.[footnoteRef:2] It is clear that in the Elizabethan era, witchcraft and the supernatural did not hold favour with the people. [1: Richard A. Horsely, ‘Who Were the Witches? The Social Roles of the Accused in the European Witch Trials’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 9 (1979), 689-715 (p. 690).] [2: UK Parliament, ‘Witchcraft’, Living Heritage, >< [Accessed 9 December 2019] (Paragraph 3).]

And the reader can see this as the text clearly shows its intention to depict the supernatural as evil when revealing the devils for the first time. The physical appearances of the creatures in Doctor Faustus are often described as ‘ugly’ on first encounter. The character Robin even states that the devils have ‘vile long nails’, ‘horns’, ‘clefts’, and ‘cloven feet’.[footnoteRef:3] This monstrous imagery matches the fear of the paranormal that was felt by the people of the renaissance period and reinforces the belief that the seeking out of supernatural power outside what is humanly possible is evil and ungodly. ‘[In the Elizabethan era there] was an almost universal belief in witchcraft. The bitter hatreds and persecutions and cold terror inspired by this belief left its obscene mark upon much of the literature of that age.’[footnoteRef:4] The Elizabethans were fascinated and frightened by the supernatural to a point where they almost came to detest. It is important to note that all the supernatural creatures in this text, except perhaps the Good Angel, are agents of the Christian hell, a place of torture and sin. This highlights a dichotomy between God (good) and Satan (evil) that was created by the outlook of those during the renaissance period. The only good supernatural entity is the godly angel, and everything else is evil; highlighting the enormous pressure and stigma surrounding sin. [3: Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, ed. by David Scott Kastan, 4th Edition (London: W.W Norton & Company, 2005), (p. 19).] [4: Clarence Jaeggli, ‘Witchcraft in the Elizabethan Drama’, (North Texas State College, 1940), (p. 1).]

However, in this play, the supernatural can change their shape into more pleasant figures, as shown by Mephistopheles appearing as a friar when told to by Faustus. To Faustus, his deal with Satan will provide him with all the pleasure he desires in life, but actually only leaves him unsatisfied, torn, and full of regret. The fact that the hideous Mephistopheles disguises himself to please Faustus can be symbolic of the idea that the instant gratification provided by the supernatural only leads to eternal damnation. He is literally a ‘devil in disguise’, appearing to be something pleasant that will provide Faustus with the power to immediately fulfill his desires, but in the long-run destroys Faustus’ chance of eternal bliss. This idea is one commonly reinforced among the biblical lessons portrayed in literature.

The large role that the supernatural plays in the plot also contributes to the representation of it in the text. Even Faustus’ own moral compass takes a supernatural identity in the form of a good angel and an evil angel. Everything Faustus does throughout the play is either influenced by the angels, Mephistopheles, or even Lucifer himself, conveying the common tendency of the time to blame the supernatural for one’s actions. And it was ‘the common belief in the Elizabethan conception that madness is based on the idea of possession by evil spirits’.[footnoteRef:5] This attitude can also be found in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, where the three witches influence and convince Macbeth to commit murder. He is driven mad by the interference of these supernatural beings.[footnoteRef:6] Having the angels as the expression of Faustus’ values also supports the concept that all morality itself comes from the Christian God, and that either he or the corruption of Satan will guide one through life: perhaps acting as a subtle reminder to follow the instructions left in the bible. [5: Rowena Newman Wilks, ‘Madness in the Elizabethan Drama’, (North Texas State College, 1949), (p. 5). ] [6: Shakespeare, William, ed. by Bloom, Harold, Macbeth, (New York: Chelsea House, 2008).]

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The devils are also shown as being brazenly violent, with Mephistopheles once threatening: ‘I’ll in piecemeal tear thy flesh’.[footnoteRef:7] In the B-text of Doctor Faustus, the scholars discuss Faustus’ mangle limbs and how the devils have ‘torn him thus’[footnoteRef:8], which are savage depictions of how violently the devils ended Faustus. Overall, a horrid picture of the supernatural is depicted in Doctor Faustus, both in their violent appearances and violent nature. The demons are meant to strike fear and cause disgust in the eyes of the audience it was intended for because few in England at the time were not partial to the belief in the supernatural and the Christian God. [7: Christopher Marlowe, (p. 48).] [8: Christopher Marlowe, (p. 122).]

This representation is in contrast to the earlier text Sir Orfeo, written in medieval times. Unlike the devils in Doctor Faustus, the faerie world is described in an overwhelmingly positive manner, and once even referred to as a ‘paradis’ that is ‘shrewed me castels and tours/ Rivers, forestes, frith, and flours’.[footnoteRef:9] The descriptions and imagery are very typical of Celtic folk tales, mostly in the fascination in the mystery of nature and the use of Faeries as its supernatural characters. In this tale, the faeries are always in a position of power, yet are seen to be non-violent; such as in the instance when the faerie king is hunting but never actually kills anything. Nor does the faerie king enact any violence upon Sir Orfeo or his armies. [9: ‘Sir Orfeo’, The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. by Anne Laskaya, ed. by Eve Salisbury, (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995). ]

Heurodis also states that the garments of the faeries are “white as milk” and so are their horses. White is commonly associated with purity, cleanliness, and beauty, probably due to the fact that pure white is an absence of colour. It is often noted as ‘unstained’ by any other colour, and no colours can be mixed to achieve pure white. ‘Blue in the medieval codification is the symbol of eternity and chastity, white of purity and innocence.’[footnoteRef:10] This change in description shows the difference in attitudes towards magic in the renaissance period versus a medieval time where Celtic mythology was prominent and magic was not considered to be the work of the devil, but rather an energy from another world of no moral standing; buttressed by the quote: ‘But above all [Celtic stories] show how important the other world of magic and superstition was in the ancient Celtic culture. In that other world, magic can be used for good or evil.’[footnoteRef:11] [10: Françoise Meltzer, ‘Color as Cognition in Symbolist Verse’, Critical Inquiry, 9 (1978), 253-273 (p. 269).] [11: Liam Mac Uistin, Celtic Magic Tales, (Dublin: The O’brien Press Ltd, 2015) (p. 1).]

In this text, the supernatural creatures are not agents of hell, but rather of purgatory instead. The faerie world is parallel to the ordinary, meeting at the spliced tree, where the manmade world interferes with the natural world. This interlinking of the two worlds happens in nature, where Orfeo can sometimes see the faerie king even though he has not yet entered the faerie kingdom. He also does not need to die in order to enter this domain, exhibiting that it is not an afterlife, but rather a state of being between life and death. These are the largest disparities between the representation of the supernatural in Sir Orfeo and Doctor Faustus, the latter in which the supernatural world is hell and the reader is never able to experience it. It is distinctly separate from the ordinary world, with only its entities, such as Mephistopheles, choosing to move between worlds, with the only way for a human to enter being death.

Additionally, the ten years that Orfeo spends in the wilderness acts as a test of his loyalty to his wife. He never leaves and has to fend for himself for a decade, so when he enters the faerie court and manages to receive his wife back, the faerie court becomes a place of redemption where his loyalty is rewarded. Faustus however, is denied the opportunity for redemption because of his relationship with the supernatural. When Faustus considers asking for redemption from God, Mephistopheles and Lucifer threaten him on two separate occasions. This fact acts as a cautionary tale, warning that any relation to evil and Satan could cost one their soul. Again, this reflects a harsh detestation for sin and a very strict social pressure that does not allow one to stray from what was considered a pure life at the time. The play echoes a sense of strict parental forewarning, not leaving much room for personal thought on the matter, but rather trying to show what must never be done, which is in this case, choosing pleasure and power over purity and biblical obedience.

The representation of the supernatural in the two texts seem to be in complete contrast with each other, not only in their appearances and connections with the ordinary world, but particularly in the way in which they drive the plot. The faeries in Sir Orfeo act as a path to redemption for Orfeo. They allow his loyalty to his wife to be tested, as well as the loyalty the steward has to him, and both he and his steward are rewarded in the end. Overall, the experience is transformative for Sir Orfeo. However, in Doctor Faustus, the devils act as agents of damnation, often convincing Faustus not to repent when he is clearly considering doing so. This variation in the physical and behavioral representations of the supernatural in these two texts highlights the public opinions of magic at the times they were written. But, despite the contrast in its representation, both stories are similar in the way that they utilise the supernatural to relay a religious or social message. Doctor Faustus warns against the search for godly powers and instant gratification, and Sir Orfeo celebrates loyalty and reward, perhaps alluding to the concept of the afterlife being a reward for loyalty to God. This concealment of a moral within the representation of the supernatural is a tradition that has lasted for centuries.


  1. Horsely, Richard A., ‘Who Were the Witches? The Social Roles of the Accused in the European Witch Trials’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 9 (1979), 689-715.
  2. Jaeggli, Clarence, ‘Witchcraft in the Elizabethan Drama’, (North Texas State College, 1940).
  3. Liam Mac Uistin, Celtic Magic Tales, Illustrated Edition, (Dublin: The O’brien Press Ltd, 2015)
  4. Marlowe, Christopher, Doctor Faustus, ed. by David Scott Kastan, 4th Edition (London: W.W Norton & Company, 2005).
  5. Meltzer, Françoise, ‘Color as Cognition in Symbolist Verse’, Critical Inquiry, 9 (1978), 253-273.
  6. Newman Wilks, Rowena, ‘Madness in the Elizabethan Drama’, (North Texas State College, 1949).
  7. Shakespeare, William, ed. by Bloofm, Harold, Macbeth, (New York: Chelsea House, 2008)
  8. UK Parliament, ‘Witchcraft’, Living Heritage, > heritage/transformingsociety/private- lives/religion/overview/witchcraft< [Accessed 9 December 2019].
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