Magical Journeys in Sixteenth-Century Prose Fiction

Ulysses and the Sirens, by Herbert James Draper (1909)

Journeys in the sixteenth century were woven around with magic. Classical precedent meant that any educated sailor could expect to meet a bewildering variety of supernatural obstacles on a sea voyage, from Sirens, sea monsters and Cyclopes to the enchantresses Circe, Calypso and Medea. Even writers who thought these phenomena fantastical invoked them as potent metaphors for the genuine perils of early modern travel. Circe in particular stood for temptations of the flesh and spirit that threatened to turn travellers aside from their educational, religious or political objectives. And for the celebrated teacher Roger Ascham, the highest concentration of such temptations was to be found in Catholic Italy, whose people and customs were capable of transforming English tourists into beasts or demons, with disastrous effects on the island nation that produced them.[1]

Even Italians, Ascham claims, fear an Englishman infected with the virus of Italianism. ‘Englese Italianato, e un diabolo incarnato’, he cites them as saying in his influential tract The Schoolmaster (1570), and he goes on to list the specific forms of devilry carried home to England by youths returning from Rome:

for Religion, Papistrie or worse: for learning, lesse commonly then they caried out with them: for pollicie, a factious hart, a discoursing head, a mynde to medle in all mens matters: for experience, plenty of new mischieves never knowne in England before: for maners, varietie of vanities, and chaunge of filthy lyving. These be the inchantementes of Circes, brought out of Italie, to marre mens maners in England.[2]

Catholicism, ignorance, treason, clever talk, an interfering nature, voracious lechery – such are the toxic side effects of spells cast on the unwary English student who strays too close to Venice or the Vatican, refashioning him into an ungainly monster with ‘the belie of a Swyne, the head of an Asse, the brayne of a Foxe, the wombe of a wolfe’ (p. 228) whose sole purpose is to spread the twin diseases of false religion and sexual promiscuity throughout his native country. And travel, Ascham adds, need not be physical to work its deadly mutations. Italian soil can be imported to England in the form of books, and Italian books translated into English can do twenty times more damage than any trip to Naples. Travel weaves its deadly enchantments in the head, which is why the young traveller, whether in foreign books or foreign countries, needs to cultivate the godliness and ingenuity of the greatest of travellers, Ulysses, if he is to keep a fragile hold on his identity during his wanderings.

John William Waterhouse, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891)

At the same time, the seductiveness of travel is taken as read by the moralists who rail against it. Circe, the Sirens, Calypso, Medea – all are deeply alluring to the vagabonds who cross their path. And the notion of travel itself, with its dissolution of boundaries and obligations, its pleasures erotically tangled up with its perils, its encounters with wonderful novelties and antiquities of art and nature – there is a magic to it which, as Ascham acknowledges, incites young Englishmen to ‘go, and ryde, and flie’ after ‘the Siren songes of Italie’ (pp. 228, 226). What more natural for aspiring authors, then, than to harness this metaphorical magic in their own books by sending their protagonists on a literally magical journey? A voyage by a fiery chariot, perhaps, cutting the tedium of a long-haul sea voyage to a few short hours of flight; or an excursion to somewhere no one else has ever visited, like the moon, the stars, the underworld; or a succession of close encounters with figures from myth or history or legend. To narrate such a journey is to set your mind at liberty for a while and question everything your teachers told you about right and wrong, truth and falsehood, the orthodox and the heretical. It is to discover that thought is free (as Stephano and Trinculo did with Caliban’s help), and that mobility can make your actions as unencumbered as your thought is.[3] And if anybody challenges you about the ideological implications of your fantastic journey – well, you can always say with Lucian that you never claimed to be giving an account of anything real, just indulging in a little jeu d’esprit to relax the exhausted minds of busy readers.[4]

Besides the chivalric romance, two major traditions of prose fiction sought to exploit the imaginative possibilities of the magical journey in the Tudor period. The better known of these is the magical jest-book, most successfully represented by the Europe-wide bestseller Virgilius – first translated into English, and printed by Jan van Doesborch, in about 1518 – whose protagonist embarks on a career of conjuring, sexual adventure, and flamboyant trickery, which provided a template for the legends of Dr Faustus.[5] The other tradition was that of Lucianic satire: a witty, highly inventive literary exercise derived from the work of the Syrian satirist Lucian. The translation of some of Lucian’s dialogues by the celebrated humanists Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More set him for a while at the heart of the English school curriculum; he was used to teach both Greek and Latin, despite his reputation for irreverence and even blasphemy;[6] and his status in Protestant countries was enhanced by the fact that two of his works were placed on the papal Index of forbidden books in 1559, followed by the rest in 1590.[7] From a twenty-first century perspective, these two traditions – the magical jest-book and the Lucianic satire – look as though they might have been aimed at two different classes of reader. The barely educated man or woman has seemed to many critics to be the obvious target audience for the exploits of a trickster magician; and the scholar has seemed the obvious recipient of Lucian’s dialogues, with their high density of literary allusions and their risqué, sophisticated subject matter. I’d like to suggest, though, that the two traditions were more closely linked than we tend to think. Thanks to Faustus, the magical jest-book became as closely associated with the Protestant Reformation as the works of Lucian, and as engaged with the serio-comic scrutiny of the triumphs and disasters of contemporary scholarship. The magical jest-book found its way into Tudor imitations of Lucian in the guise of ‘merry tales’, those pithy celebrations of spontaneous wit, scatological pranks, and inventive adultery. And both traditions fused in explosive fashion in the 1580s and early 1590s as components of the great burst of creativity that gave rise to Marlowe’s theatrical masterpiece Doctor Faustus, along with some equally energetic works of experimental prose fiction.

Mephistopheles, played by Arthur Darvil, in the Globe’s first production of Dr. Faustus (2012)

This essay about magical journeys, in fact, traces a journey that participates in the transformative magic of the narratives it discusses. Supernatural travel begins in the early years of the sixteenth century as a pleasure trip, spiced up by the presence of devils and the somewhat blasphemous resemblance between its protagonist’s peregrinations and those of a wonder-working saint, a second Saint Brendan. It becomes a tool of Protestant propaganda in the middle years of the century, tracking down the illegitimate activities of Catholics in England and beyond with the persistence of a good-humoured spymaster. And in the 1580s and 90s it undergoes another metamorphosis, mocking the religious inflexibility of Protestant moralists as cheerfully as it continues to deride the adherents of other religions. From one point of view, this is a voyage from exuberance to wittily articulated paranoia and back again to exuberance; and it provides a fascinating miniature model of the trajectory of English literature as a whole in the course of the Tudor period. But throughout the period there is a moral ambiguity about the magical journey that protects even its most propagandistic manifestations from charges of crudeness or simplicity. Authors who flirt with magic are playing with fire, and such perilous playfulness has little to do with preaching.

To begin with a magical jest-book, then: the most influential work of this kind before the Faustbuch – Virgilius – is a wish fulfilment fantasy that invites its readers to throw themselves headlong into the heady joys of imaginative travel. Virgilius himself is a strange alternative version of Virgil the poet, possessing at once the phenomenal powers ascribed by some to Virgil’s Aeneid (which could predict the future by way of a ritual called the Sortes Virgilianae, whereby readers chose a passage of the poem at random and then applied it to the circumstances of their own lives) and the dubious moral status of Aeneas himself, betrayer of his hometown Troy and his lover Dido.[8] The son of a Roman knight, Virgilius begins life as an ordinary schoolboy in Spain before stealing some necromantic books from a devil and reinventing himself as a teacher of thaumaturgy renowned across Europe for his learning and good looks. When his mother falls ill he does to her in Rome, where he quickly rises to become chief counsellor to the Emperor himself. His geographical mobility is as remarkable as the speed of his social rise. He goes to school in Tolleten – presumably Toledo, famous for sorcery – then moves to Rome and builds the city of Naples with his necromantic arts. In between, he indulges in a spot of sexual tourism. Finding himself unhappily married, he constructs a bridge of air and visits a soldan’s daughter on the other side of the Mediterranean. On being caught together by her father the couple flees across the airy viaduct, and it is for the princess that he builds his Neapolitan city by the sea. Power, sex and unlimited travel, then, derive in this book from books of magic – the volumes Virgilius purloins from the fiend. So too does danger, as the poet-magician’s exploits anticipate all Ascham’s anxieties about the deleterious effects of travel and Italian culture half a century before the publication of The Schoolmaster. And this combined promise of power and danger lends the book itself – the fiction purveyed by the anonymous author to his readers – a curiously amoral atmosphere, which may help to explain its Europe-wide success.

Virgilius the Sorcerer, by Aubrey Beardsley

The most fascinating thing about Virgilius is his unstable position as protagonist, which his freewheeling lifestyle serves to emphasize. What are we to think of him? We are never allowed a settled view of this magician as a jest-book hero. An immigrant in Rome, Virgilius begins by showing solidarity with the Roman poor, rewarding them for looking after his mother and providing them with free public services such as an efficient lighting system for the city. Later he becomes the patron of scholars, who are the most favoured citizens in the city he founds by magic, Naples. He is a successful lover, bowling over his eastern princess at first sight, and the world’s most powerful magician, twice defeating the Roman army. At the same time, all his encounters with women apart from the Soldan’s daughter prove unsatisfactory. A woman he fancies arranges to hoist him up to her bedroom window, only to leave him dangling in a basket for the world to laugh at; his wife destroys the magic image he made that robbed women of the desire to ‘do bodely lust’;[9] and an unfaithful wife gets the better of his patent lie detector, made in the shape of a metal serpent, with a simple but cunning ruse. As these incidents suggest, there are times when Virgilius has no sympathy at all with underdogs, male or female. He dedicates much of his time and energy to installing security systems to protect the Emperor’s interests: a palace designed to let him eavesdrop on the private conversations of his subjects; a brass horseman who enforces a curfew by slaughtering anyone who emerges from their houses after nightfall; a device for keeping tabs on the Roman dominions, installed in statues mounted on the Capitol. Such devices indicate the traveller-magician’s willingness to insinuate himself where he is not wanted, to pry into the minds and bedrooms of men and women, violating other people’s private space in a more insidious manner than any nosy tourist or itinerant scholar. And his undermining of his own heroic status is compounded by the manner of his death.

In the last chapter of the book Virgilius attempts to rejuvenate himself, using the tried and trusted method by which the enchantress Medea promised to rejuvenate King Pelias. The magician instructs his servant to chop him to bits and stow them in a barrel, then carefully tend a lamp hanging over the barrel for nine full days, after which the dismembered mage will be reborn as a beardless youth. Unfortunately, the Roman Emperor suspects the servant of having murdered his master and executes him before the nine days are over, after which a miracle does indeed occur – but not the one Virgilius intended:

Than sawe the Emperoure and all his folke a naked chylde .iii. tymes rennynge a boute the barell saynge the words. Cursed be the tyme that ye cam ever here / and with those words vanysshed the chylde a waye and was never sene a geyne and thus abyd Virgilius in the barell deed [i.e. dead]. (sig. F3r)

Ironically, given his status as the Emperor’s surveillance expert, Virgilius dies as a result of the Emperor’s eagerness to keep him under surveillance, which leads the dictator to break into his castle and stab his research assistant. Virgilius the spy is killed by an aggressive act of espionage; and his lifelong struggle to get the better of the supreme imperial authority – which began with a campaign to get back his father’s lands in Rome, and later saw Virgilius challenge the Emperor’s supremacy by setting up a rival metropolis – ends with power being restored to the Emperor again, albeit with the minor compensation that the latter never gets hold of the magician’s fabulous wealth, which remains secreted in an undiscovered cellar.

Virgilius the Sorcerer carries away the Princess of Babylon, by Henry Justice Ford (1906)

This scholar’s fantasy ends, then, by reinstating the political status quo, thus setting a precedent for the ultimate submission of magicians to their political masters, and the eventual entrapment of itinerant sorcerers, which is a regular feature of magical jest-books from the Faustbuch to Fortunatus. The return of the status quo is reinforced by the effacement of the wonders created with the help of the black arts. A traveller-magician builds many monuments but leaves few behind. The palace Virgilius built for the Emperor exists no longer. Neither do the surveillance statues he set up on the Capitol, or the lighting system he devised for Rome, or the airy bridge with which he abducted the soldan’s daughter, or his lie-detecting serpent. At each stage of the narrative the reader is invited to gawp like a tourist at Virgilius’s achievements in Rome and Naples; but should we wish to retrace his footsteps like a secular pilgrim, we shall be disappointed. All that remains of the magic that founded Naples is an egg suspended in a steeple (actually the Castel dell’Ovo on the island of Megaride), and the myth that the city will fall if the egg should break. The black arts of Virgilius have proved as short-lived as the man himself, ensuring that any traveller who seeks material traces of his passage can only bear witness to the rapid dissolution of his achievements in necromancy, despite his reputation as ‘the conyngest that ever was a fore or after in that scyence’ (sig. E3r).

Virgilius takes place in a pre-Christian society, and this along with its meticulous erasure of its protagonist and all his works helped it avoid religious censure. The sorcerer-poet’s errant behaviour poses no threat to the early modern authorities by virtue of its antiquity and the obliteration of its traces. But with the advent of the Reformation, the suspect qualities of the traveller (magical or otherwise) were multiplied a thousandfold by the pressures of religious conflict. In mid-Tudor England the uncertain credentials of every vagrant (where does he come from, who is his master, what is his agenda?) easily identified travellers with Catholic missionaries who sought to reclaim England for the Church; and the wonders they spoke of could easily be equated with the miracles and transubstantiations legitimized by Rome. During this period it was the satirist Lucian, with his reputation as the scourge of religious hypocrisy, whose accounts of fantastic voyages made him a favourite with English Protestants. William Baldwin’s brilliant anti-Catholic satire Beware the Cat (c. 1553), which is full of lying Catholic travellers, witches and magicians as well as the devious feline informers of the title, bears a close resemblance to Lucian’s Philopseudes (‘The Doubter’), translated by Thomas More in the first decade of the century.[10] And in 1564 the physician William Bullein introduced a still closer imitation of Lucian into this celebrated Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence (1564), in the form of the magical journey of a traveller called Mendax [i.e. liar, perhaps with a pun on mendicant or beggar], modelled as much on the sublime nonsense of Lucian’s True History as on the travels of Sir John Mandeville.[11]

William Bullein, from his Bulwarke of Defence against all Sicknesse, Soarenesse, and Woundes (1562)

In exchange for food, Bullein’s Catholic wanderer mesmerizes a London citizen with his strange accounts of the dragons, unicorns, giants, chess-playing parrots, tennis-playing apes and tree-climbing mermaids he has encountered on his worldwide peregrinations. His narrative is filled with hints at the abundant riches he has gained and lost, and with promises of future riches to be obtained by seizing certain ‘little fleting [i.e. floating] Islandes’ full of ‘Suger, Spice, Silke, Linnen, &c., readie made, and that will make readie money, and money maketh a man’ (p. 102). The islands are clearly ships to be snapped up in acts of piracy, and the whole narrative reeks of the greed for gold that fuelled the first great wave of Tudor exploration. The fact that buccaneering is advocated here by a Catholic makes it seem a Catholic vice rather than an English one – ironically enough, given the Dialogue’s publication in the lifetime of the English buccaneers and slave traders John Hawkins and Francis Drake.

But the satire of Bullein’s Dialogue is not exclusively directed at Catholics. Mendax’s story also satirizes the credulity of those Protestants who fall so easily for the tall stories told by beggarly ex-mariners and vagrant con artists. As proof of his veracity, Mendax offers his listeners his own dog, who is in fact (he claims) the victim of a spell like the one used by Circe to turn Ulysses’ companions into pigs. This dog, he insists, was once a boy who had the bad luck to be changed into a dog in the magical land of Ethiopia. In that country children grow on trees, which encourages cannibalism – a human being or an apple for breakfast, it makes no difference to an Ethiopian enchanter. Unfortunately, a recent team of Catholic missionaries did not know about this taste for human flesh, and got themselves consumed by hostile locals who disliked the new brand of magic the missionaries brought with them. Mendax and his boy were saved from consumption by their canine transformation at the hands of a friendly local; and the boy remains trapped in the form of a domestic pet. ‘This same is he,’ the traveller asserts:

he was a gentleman of a good house; he understandeth us well, and sometime was a proper man, and shoulde have maried with one in London called Jone Trim: whiche nowe are, God wot, of sondrie kyndes, but differ not in conditions, chast, religious, and kind harted. (p. 104)

Here the Circean metamorphosis performs a quite different function from the one it would have in Ascham’s treatise The Schoolmaster. The cannibalistic magicians of a distant land use it to protect themselves from the rapacious acquisitiveness of English visitors as well as from the agents of the Inquisition. In fact, foreignness has become naturalised in England as a result of religious division. The Englishman is as much a menace to his own countrymen as to the Africans whose goods and persons he covets, and young people of the island kingdom find themselves estranged from one another – rendered ‘of sondrye kyndes’ – by the bad religious company they find at home (where presumably the boy signed up for his ill-fated voyage to Africa). That the boy’s metamorphosis – indeed, the boy himself – is clearly a fiction invented by Mendax merely reinforces the point: it is Mendax, not the Ethiopians, who is the deadly enchanter of Bullein’s tale, seeking to take advantage of a naïve Londoner by charming him with seductive falsehoods and using Othello-esque tales to spirit away his gold. The Siren songs of Italy have already come home to roost on English soil.

Thomas More’s Island of Utopia (1518)

In fact Mendax goes on to suggest that the Western Archipelago itself is somehow ‘foreign’ to the idea of what it should be. He describes his visit to an antipodean Great Britain, whose Swiftian name (Taerg Natrib) implies that it is the inverted mirror image of his homeland. The capital city Nodnol is the ‘best reformed Citie of this woorlde’ (p. 105); there is ‘not one Papiste in all that lande […] no, nor one wicked liver’ (p. 106); churches are well attended, and ‘[t]here is not one Usurer: not one’ (p. 107). Disturbingly, Mendax’s lying account of his adventures ends with the biggest lie of all: that a version of Great Britain exists that is the ideal Protestant nation. Bullein here pulls off a conjuring trick worthy of the greatest Lucianist of all, the Catholic apologist Thomas More, by having a speaker of nonsense – a second Hythloday (whose name means ‘speaker of nonsense’ and who tells the story of More’s Utopia) – suddenly confront his readers with their own reversed reflection, to their intense discomfort. Protestant readers who have so far revelled in the satirist’s attack on papistry suddenly find themselves the butt of his excoriating pen, forced to acknowledge that they are as diseased as the hostile religionists they despise. Bullein’s Dialogue concerns the plague, and its point is that no one in England can escape either the punishment of that infection or responsibility for the sins that caused it.

We have now encountered both the magical jest-book and the Lucianic satire in English, although one should add that both Baldwin and Bullein incorporate plenty of jest-book material or ‘merry tales’ into their masterpieces. But in the decade after Bullein wrote hs Dialogue, we suddenly get evidence that two learned Englishmen, at least, recognised a generic kinship between the jest-book and the works of Lucian. On 20 December 1578 Edmund Spenser gave his friend the academic Gabriel Harvey a German jest-book called Till Eulenspiegel, translated as A Merry Jest of a Man Called Howleglas, together with two English jest-books and the Spanish picaresque ‘novel’ Lazarillo de Tormes, on condition that he read them all by New Year’s Day; ‘otherwise to forfeit unto him my Lucian in fower volumes’, as Harvey explains in his copy of Howleglas.[12] Clearly, itinerant trickster-heroes like the English jester-poet Henry or John Scoggin and the poet-priest John Skelton, whose jest-books Spenser gave to Harvey along with Howleglas, were seen as inhabiting the same comic universe as Lucian’s philosopher-slave Menippus – the man on whom Lucian modelled himself as a poet and a social commentator. All these texts, it would appear, made suitable Christmas reading, at least from Spenser’s point of view. The link between them was perhaps strengthened by the fact that Scoggin and Skelton were scholars, like Menippus, as would be the heroes of the two most famous magical jest-books of the following decade. Scoggin and Skelton were not magicians, but there is a necromantic aspect to some of their escapades that suggest they would have felt quite at home in the company of Virgilius or Fortunatus.

Gabriel Harvey, c. 1590

In 1578 Gabriel Harvey was a lecturer at Cambridge; Spenser may have been one of his students. Over the next few years his job could have put him in touch with several equally gifted young Cambridge students: Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, the experimental poet Abraham Fraunce, the teacher of French John Eliot.[13] One thing that links all these men is an interest in Lucianic magical journeys, which Harvey may have helped to stimulate with his ‘Lucian in fower volumes’. Fraunce published an amusing pastiche of Lucian’s True History in 1592, in which a trio of Cambridge scholars travels to heaven to consult with the pagan gods on a problem of astronomy.[14] Eliot printed a series of amusing passages on travel in his French and English textbook Ortho-epia Gallica (1593), taking much of his material from Rabelais and acknowledging Lucian’s influence (STC 7574, sig. B1v). Marlowe worked with Nashe on a Lucianic play about the seductive charms of the traveller Aeneas, Dido Queen of Carthage (c. 1593);[15] while Nashe’s Pierce Penniless (1592) owes much to Lucian’s Menippus and his journeys to the underworld. One gets the sense that the loosely-knit group of playwrights, poets and pamphleteers working in the 1580s and early 1590s known as the ‘University Wits’ felt an affinity with the learned Syrian satirist, especially the Cambridge contingent of that fellowship; and that they shared his delight in drawing on magic and the supernatural as instruments of satire.

But some of these Cambridge men were also interested in magical jest-books. Marlowe used the English translation of the German Faustbuch, The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr John Faustus (c. 1588), as the source for his greatest play; and Greene drew on an English jest-book, The Famous History of Friar Bacon (c. 1590), when he penned his own Faustian tragicomedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590).[16] Evidently, one of the features of the Faustbuch that most appealed to its English translator P.F. – and which gets picked up in Marlowe’s play – was the vivid account it gave of Faustus’s travels. Not content with rendering the Doctor’s journeys as they are given in the original, P.F. adds many new details about, among other things, the city of Kraków and the tomb of Virgilius near Naples. Details like these make the central section of his translation read like a supernatural Baedeker or Rough Guide – making it ‘perhaps the most lively brief travelogue of the sixteenth century’[17] – and it is in these central sections that the master magician is permitted most unequivocally to assume the status of a jest-book hero, punching the Pope and stealing his food without a peep of authorial indignation. When Faustus acts out the naughtiest dreams of good German or English Protestants he can be permitted to play his pranks unimpeded, although his famous deal with the devil – to say nothing of the portentous title page – makes it inevitable that his story will end in disaster.

Roger Bacon, from Symbola Aureae by Michael Maier (1617)

Friar Bacon, on the other hand, engineers a cheerful ending for his story, burning his books, renouncing his craft, and saving his soul on the brink of damnation. To justify this redemption, the anonymous author has him devote his entire career to the service of the English monarch; and his geographical stability as a resident of England helps to confirm the relative moral stability of his character, as compared with those shifty wanderers Virgilius and Faustus. Instead of travelling himself, Bacon makes other people travel to him. He conjures Russians, Poles, Indians and Armenians to meet the English king in Oxford, bearing ‘sundry kinds of furres’ as if in celebration of the productive sort of travel indulged in by the English Muscovy Company.[18] He sends his German rival Vandermast flying home through the air to his wife after beating him in a conjuring contest. And he seeks to procure England’s safety by all means necessary. The Friar constructs his famous brazen head not for personal gain but to protect his country from its enemies by surrounding it with a giant wall of brass. Had he succeeded, he would also have cut the English off from the possibility of foreign travel, penning up the Englishman’s identity once and for all by barring him from shopping for outlandish continental fashions. He fails to build the wall, of course; but Bacon’s failures serve not as judgments on his character but to affirm for him the weaknesses of necromancy when set against the will of God – a lesson which like any good proto-Protestant he proves ready and willing to learn.

Like Virgilius, Bacon is an expert in the art of surveillance; but unlike his Roman predecessor his surveillance devices end up by making him see how closely he himself is watched by the divinity. At one point he constructs a mirror capable of showing what is going on at a distance – thus once again obviating the need for travel. But a pair of young men use the mirror to watch their fathers kill each other, and they avenge these deaths by fighting each other to the death in imitation of their parents. This incident is what makes Bacon renounce magic, burn his books, and become a ‘true penitent Sinner, and an Anchorite’ or hermit.[19] So the English book, like Virgilius, ends in a decisive act of self-censorship, symbolically stamping out the trade in inflammatory texts that caused such anxiety to Roger Ascham, and committing its protagonist to solitude, bookishness, and meditative silence.

Robert Greene in his grave clothes, from John Dickenson’s Greene in Conceit (1598)

It is well known that Marlowe and Greene wrote plays based on these two magical jest-books. What is less well known, perhaps, is the extent to which they themselves became the topic of magical jest-books after their deaths.[20] Greene in particular had a hugely active afterlife following his death in September 1592. He and the comic actor or clown Dick Tarleton (who died in 1588) embarked on a series of Lucianic journeys through Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in a number of ebullient pamphlets, from the anonymous Tarleton’s News Out of Purgatory (1590) to Greene’s News Out of Heaven and Hell (1593) by Barnaby Rich. Indeed, so many of these posthumous pamphlets were published that the cover illustration for John Dickenson’s Greene in Conceit (1598) shows Greene scribbling away in his grave-clothes, as far from decay six years after his death as he had been six years before it. As they wander through the afterlife, Greene and Tarleton make a mockery of the religious wars of the Reformation by co-opting both the fictional region of Purgatory (speaking from a Protestant perspective) and the very real realm of Hell as a source of gossip and merry tales. And in Henry Chettle’s Kind-Heart’s Dream (1593) their ghosts take up verbal arms to defend the theatre, which had been graphically linked to Hell by the anti-theatrical lobbyist William Rankins in 1587.[21] It is Tarleton who makes the best case in this text for tolerating drama, insisting that:

Mirth in seasonable time taken is not forbidden by the austerest sapients [i.e. wise people]. But indeed there is a time of mirth, and a time of mourning. Which time having been by Magistrates wisely observed, as well for the suppressing of Playes, as other pleasures: so likewise a time may come, when honest recreation shall have his former libertie. (STC 5123, sig. C4r).

The magical journeys in these posthumous pamphlets not only purge their dead theatrical protagonists of their sins, but constitute a serial celebration of imaginative freedom. Clearly, the literary scene had changed quite drastically since the aggressive anti-Catholic satires of Baldwin and Bullein in the 1550s and 60s.

Greene’s ghostly travels had a happy ending: he finished as an inhabitant of a Lucianic underworld at the beginning of Dickenson’s Greene in Conceit, listening appreciatively as the Cynic philosophers Menippus and Diogenes torment the spirits of the rich for their desperate desire to get back to their self-indulgent lifestyles. Greene evidently feels at home with these classical satirists who earned a reputation, like himself, for excoriating secret vices. And Marlowe too, I would suggest, ended by being redeemed in a work of supernatural fiction: an extraordinary magical jest-book called The Second Report of Doctor John Faustus.

A seventeenth-century engraving of Doctor Faustus and a friend

Entered in the Stationer’s Register in November 1593 and published in 1594, the anonymous Second Report begins by demonstrating its intention to continue in the role played by the first English Faust book, the Damnable Life, as a Rough Guide to supernatural Europe. It opens with a detailed account of all the tourist sights associated with Faustus in Wittenberg, most of which had been visited by the traveller Fynes Morrison in 1590.[22] Even more than Virgilius, the Second Report encourages the sort of magic-themed tourism that Morrison indulged in; it also includes an elaborate description of Vienna, the backdrop for the spectacular thaumaturgic events of the book’s second half. But there is a big difference in tone between the Second Report’s willingness to indulge the reader’s curiosity as to the material evidence of Faustus’s adventures and the Damnable Life’s insistence on its own moral function as a deterrent to curiosity. And this genial indulgence of the reader’s taste for the supernatural extends to its indulgence of Faustus himself, who reappears in the Second Report as a devilish trickster, as well as to Fuastus’s young servant Wagner, who acquires the forename Kit as if to align him with the controversial playwright who was stabbed to death six months before the Second Report was registered.

In fact allusions to Marlowe are stamped all over this jest-book like the fingerprints of a ghost. The first half is a Faustian tract, narrating the adventures of Kit Wagner as he takes up the black arts his master practised. The second half is set in Vienna, which is under siege by the Turks and is clearly, among other things, a pastiche of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Both halves are packed with references to the theatre. Wagner first meets the ghost of Faustus in ‘the same Hall wherein his Maisters latest Tragedy was perfourmed’;[23] and when he later decides to summon Faustus formally, with a spell, the ghost arrives in a pageant like the masque of the Seven Daedly Sins in Doctor Faustus, preceded by a miniature devil ‘as it were the Prologue of a Comedy’ (sig. B2v), and culminating in the dead doctor’s coronation. Later still, when a messenger from the Duke of Austria seeks a demonstration of Wagner’s necromantic skills, the young man mounts a performance of Doctor Faustus with a cast of devils in the sky above Wittenberg. Wagner’s activities as a young theatrical impresario align him with Kit Marlowe as strongly as does his nickname; and they also gradually transform the jest-book into a cheeky defence of the stage – or rather of the imagination, whether in the theatre or in print – even livelier and more impertinent than the one mounted by Tarleton in Kind-Heart’s Dream.

Design by Orson Welles for the costume of Wagner (1937)

A gradual change of tone takes place between the first half and the second half of the Second Report. The first frequently pays lip-service to the moral severity of the Damnable Life; Wagner is racked with remorse of conscience as he drifts into necromancy, and the dire consequences of such magical dabblings are mentioned often. When Faustus is crowned by devils, for instance, the author warns: ‘his wretchednes made [him] a king, and his new-found king-ship nothing’ (sig. B3r); and such interjections invest the first few chapters with some of the menacing atmosphere of the Damnable Life. But as the book goes on, the moral interventions decline in number, to be replaced by an implied imaginative complicity with the events that are being narrated. When Mephistopheles notices that Wagner has got a little depressed by his account of the psychological effects of Hell, he offers him a young woman to restore his spirits, who is described in lascivious details from head to foot – although the author insists the description is ‘farre more copious’ in the non-existent German original (sig. D4v). at the end of the chapter Wagner goes to bed with her, passing the night ‘in such pleasure as I could find in my heart to enjoy or any man (unlesse an Euenuch beside)’ (sig. E1r). The author and the male reader are suddenly in bed with Wagner, both imaginatively and morally speaking, and the theological connotations of the scene are all but forgotten.

The reason for this transformation, it seems to me, lies in the ludic attitude to fiction that gradually comes to dominate the text. It is an attitude much like Lucian’s in his True History, which begins by insisting on its own fictional status and mocking those accounts of impossible journeys that masquerade as reportage. ‘Let this voluntary confession forestall any future criticism’, Lucian declares. ‘I am writing about things entirely outside my own experience or anyone else’s, things that have no reality whatever and never could have’. As we have seen, the True History was in vogue in the early 1590s, when Abraham Fraunce published an imitation of it less than a year before the Second Report was entered in the Stationer’s Register. And the jest-book tales a similar delight on toying with ideas of truth and falsehood.

The house in Wittenberg where Faustus was dismembered

The description of Faustian tourist sites in Wittenberg, for instance, seems designed to contrast the accuracy of the Second Report with the ‘many things in the first book’ that are ‘meere lies’ (sig. A4r) – for instance, its claim to be a translation, when in fact it expands considerably on the original, especially in the section where Faustus discusses philosophy with Mephistopheles. ‘Let a man mark [these discussions] duely,’ the narrator goes on, ‘they shall finde them I will not saie childish, but certainly superficiall, not like the talk of Divels, where with foldings of words they doe use to dilate at large, and more subtell by farre’ (sig. A4r). The implication is that the Second Report will be a more accurate as well as a more naturalistic narrative, and that the material remains of Faustus (the ruins of his house, a hollow tree where he taught magic to his scholars, the stone he engraved with his own epitaph) may be taken as proof of its authenticity. But the Second Report is even less of a translation than the first, although a German Wagner book did in fact exist by the time of its composition. The text has nothing to do with any German original. And when a philosophical discussion takes place between Wagner and Faustus’s ghost, it lays no stronger claim to authenticity than the Faustus-Mephistopheles dialogue in the Damnable Life. The only proof that this discussion took place are the bruises Wagner shows to his friends afterwards, which he claims to have received when Faustus battered him for doubting he could come back from the dead. ‘As for the disuptations betwixte those two in this place,’ the narrator goes on, ‘consider from whose braines they proceede, for you must give the Germane leave to shew his Art, for witte for the most part they have very little, but that which they toile for like Cart horses’ (sig. C3v). The narrator, in other words, insists that his supernatural dialogue is as crudely conceived as the dialogue he criticized in the first Faust book. Both books betray their fictionality by their style; and this should alert even the most timid of readers to the fact that they are not dabbling in forbidden knowledge when they turn their pages.

All the early episodes are framed by mildly anti-German quips like this one, suggesting that the legend of Faustus is ‘whetted over with the dropping of the Tappe exceedingly’ (sig. C3v) – that is, soaked in beer, which had been identified by the Tudor travel-writer and jest-book author Andrew Borde as a weakness of the Dutch and Germans. Chapter 2 is a case in point, with its title (‘How certaine drunken Dutchmen [i.e. Germans] were abused by theyr owne conceite and selfe imagination, of seing […] Doctor Faustus’, sig. B4v) being reinforced by the chapter’s final sentence: ‘Many odde pranks Faustus is made the father of, which are […] so merely smelling of the Caske, that a man may easily know the childe by the father’ (sig. B4v). This is not just random xenophobia. The effect of the thick, beery vapours that envelop these early episodes is to disarm them by rendering them wholly imaginative – the products not of Satanic influence but of excessive drinking. Thus gradually the moral implications of Wagner’s transactions with damnable spirits get dissipated by the author’s repeated assertions – disguised as reassurances of his text’s veracity – that what he is telling is no more than a silly fiction. Few Elizabethan writers more cleverly illustrate Sidney’s statement in the Apology for Poetry that the poet ‘nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth’ – that he is, in fact, not dangerous.[24] It is even tempting to believe that the writer could have had access to Sidney’s Apology, despite the fact that it only saw print two years after the Second Report went to press.

The journey on which the reader is taken in this text is, in fact, a trip from realism to mock-romance, from fictional biography to Rabelaisian nonsense. One step of the process is marked by the moment when the reader is invited to become complicit with Wagner’s liaison with the young woman. The episode drifts into the realm of romance when Mephistopheles disguises Wagner as the girl’s husband:

O wonder, his habite was changed with his thought, and he was no longer Wagner but Armisuerio the Ladies Lorde. And to be short this new Armisuerio and old Wagner mette with the Lady, and saluting her in the best kind of Bon noche, used her as he would doe his Lady, and shee him as her Lord. (sig. D4v)

The register of the narrative here shifts from the half-sombre tone it has had till now to the cheeky register of Ariosto. An Italian name introduces the lascivious Italianate encounter, and the name Armisuerio, with its gesture towards the terms for ‘true’ and ‘weapons’ (vero, armi), transports readers to the fabulous world of Charlemagne, as mapped out by Sir John Harington in his recent translation of Orlando Furioso (1591). Later the author confirms this link with Orlando by translating a poem in ‘Aristos vaine’ (sig. F2r). And once the scene has shifted again to Vienna, the narrative opens out into a fully-fledged pastiche of a romantic epic.

Gustave Doré, scene from Orlando Furioso

The siege of Vienna is dominated by a whacky Rabelaisian duel between the Holy Roman Emperor – Charlemagne’s descendant – and the Great Turk, a combat as ornately chivalric as it is ridiculous. The duel is complicated by the fact that the Christian combatant is mounted on a giant horse – big enough to be ‘the son of Gargantuas’ (sig. H2v) – and the Turk on a monstrous elephant. There is a great deal of ineffectual slashing and stabbing with weapons that are much too short, together with improbably agile side-stepping of potentially lethal blows. By this stage the text has stopped insisting on its fictive nature, and relaxed instead into a narrative so flamboyant that it could never be mistaken for realism. By this stage, too, the cold didacticism of the first half has completely vanished. Like the English conjurer Friar Bacon before them, Wagner, Faustus and their devilish companions devote their skills to the defence of Christian territory against foreign invasion, and as a result the author’s disapproval of the black arts is cast aside – just as in the text the religious differences between Christians are temporarily set aside for the fight against the Turk, with Catholics and Protestants joining together to defend the elements of faith they hold in common.

Even the Turks are not presented here as out-and-out villains. The Great Turk accepts the Holy Roman Emperor’s challenge to single combat with all the aplomb of a Carolingean paladin. In the final battle he meets his end like a hero, ‘fighting manfully on his Elephant’ (sig. K2r). Meanwhile his nemesis Kit Wagner, unlike the Wagner of the German Wagner book, avoids death altogether; we never learn what happens to him after the central role he played in the Turk’s defeat. Friar Bacon retired to the life of a hermit; but the Second Report ends with very un-eremitic celebrations, as the Christian princes ‘caused generall feasts and triumphs to be performed in all theyr kingdoms, provinces, and territories whatsoever’ (sig. K2r). For all we know, Wagner took part in the German leg of these celebrations; and we never see him suffer for the infernal pact that put him at the centre of them.

Gustave Doré, scene from Orlando Furioso

The journey of the Second Report – from England, where the author originated, to a beer-befuddled Germany, to Vienna, to the land of romance – can be read, I think, as a voyage of liberation; a pilgrimage towards the moment predicted in Kind-Heart’s Dream ‘when honest recreation shall have his former libertie’. The book’s breaching of geographical boundaries corresponds to its breaching of moral conventions, a repudiation of the defensive religiosity that put literature in fetters during the early phases of the Reformation.[25] The point of this narrative’s exuberant trajectory may well be that the most flamboyant fictions of page and stage are not finally damnable but inspiring – like the works of the satirist Lucian, or his successors Rabelais and Ariosto, or the outrageous experimental theatre of Kit Marlowe. It is a celebration of the imagination and its ability to cross gulfs, to bring people together, to delight and terrify, to make people believe that unreal things are real, to elevate the poor (as Faustus and Wagner are elevated), to reconcile enemies, and to win heroic victories, where life itself produces only massacres or uneasy compromises. The freedom it invokes may be achievable only through the magic journey of a fictional narrative. But the capacity of that journey to dismantle national, religious and social barriers, using only the bloodless weapon of impish laughter, rendered it as valuable to early modern readers as any more elevated art form.

Kit Marlowe (possibly)


This essay was first printed in the Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 41, no. 1 (2011), 35-50. My thanks to Nandini Das for inviting me to write it.

[1] For a fuller account of Ascham’s attitude to Italianate Englishmen see R. W. Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Narratives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 41-51.

[2] Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster, in The English Works of Roger Ascham, ed. William Aldis Wright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1904), pp. 171-302 (p. 229). Subsequent page references will be given in the body of the text.

[3] The Tempest, III. 2. 119.

[4] See Lucian, Preface to The True History, in Satirical Sketches, trans. Paul Turner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), pp. 249-50.

[5] The two editions of this translation are STC 24828 (c. 1518) and 24829 (c. 1562). All references are to the former.

[6] More’s translations of Lucian are given in The Complete Works of Thomas More, III, Part I, ed. Craig R. Thompson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974). For the impact of Erasmus’s and More’s Lucian translations see Thompson’s introduction.

[7] See Brenda H. Hosington, ‘Translations of Lucian in Renaissance England’, Syntagmatia: Essays on Neo-Latin Literature in Honour of Monique Mund-Dopchie and Gilbert Tournoy, ed. Dirk Sacré and Jan Papy (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009), pp. 187-205 (p. 188). Thanks to Stuart Gillespie for this reference.

[8] The dubiousness of Aeneas stems from his depiction as a traitor in the works of Dares Phrygius and Dictis Cretensis. For the vatic powers of the Aeneid see the entry on Virgil in The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, ed. Paul Harvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

[9] Virgilius, STC 24828 (c. 1518), sig. D2v. Further references will be given in the text.

[10] For a detailed discussion of Beware the Cat see R. W. Maslen, ‘William Baldwin and the Tudor Imagination’, in The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature, 1485-1603, ed. Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 291-306. Baldwin’s debt to Lucian needs further investigation.

[11] For a detailed account of Bullein’s Dialogue see R. W. Maslen, ‘The Healing Dialogues of Doctor Bullein’, Yearbook of English Studies, 38.1-2 (2008), 119-135. All references are to William Bullein, Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence, ed. Mark W. Bullen and A. H. Bullen (London: N. Trübner, 1888), and will be given in the text.

[12] Virginia F. Stern, Gabriel Harvey: A Study of his Life, Marginalia, and Library (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).

[13] For the notion that some of these writers may have formed a kind of literary fellowship see Stephen W. May, ‘Marlowe, Spenser, Sidney and – Abraham Fraunce?’, RES Advance Access (published 11 February 2010),

[14] Abraham Fraunce, The Third Part of the Countess of Pembroke’s Ivychurch (London, 1592), fols. 55r – 59r.

[15] For the Lucianic tone of Dido Queen of Carthage see Roma Gill, ‘Marlowe’s Virgil: Dido Queen of Carthage’, RES, n.s., 28.110 (1977), 141-155.

[16] For the date of the Damnable Life see R. J. Fehrenbach, ‘A Pre-1592 English Faust Book and the Date of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus’, The Library, 2 (2001), pp. 327-335. For the date of the Famous History see The English Faust Book: A Critical Edition Based on the Text of 1592, ed. John Henry Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 54-72. All references to the Damnable Life are taken from Jones’s edition.

[17] The English Faust Book, ed. Jones, p. 25.

[18] 1629 edition, STC 1184, sig. B1r.

[19] 1629 edition, STC 1184, sig. G3v.

[20] For further discussion of the texts that follow, with the exception of the Second Report, see R. W. Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, 1.1 (2009), pp. 129-44.

[21] For William Rankins see R. W. Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy (London: Thomson Learning, 2006), p. 13.

[22] See John A. Walz, ‘An English Faustsplitter’, Modern Language Notes, 42.6 (1927), pp. 325-365.

[23] The Second Report of Doctor John Faustus, sig. B2v. All references are taken from the first edition (1594), STC 10715, and will henceforth be given in the text.

[24] ‘The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes’; that is, the poet never works magic to enchant your reason into credulity. Philip Sidney, Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd, revised R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 103. Sir John Harington says something similar in the preface to his translation of Orlando Furioso, but does not invoke conjuring; see Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, trans. Harington, ed. Robert McNulty (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 5, l. 3.

[25] For this notion of writing in imaginative fetters in the Reformation see James Simpson, The Oxford English Literary History, II. 1350-1547: Reform and Cultural Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), Introduction and Chapter 1.