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Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

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1.3 Reading a Renaissance play

If you have never read a Renaissance play before – and even if you have – you may well find Doctor Faustus a challenging read. This is chiefly because, like the plays of Shakespeare, Doctor Faustus was written during the historical period known as the Renaissance (or the early modern period), when the vocabulary was significantly different from twenty-first-century English. It is also written largely in blank verse, a term that requires a few words of explanation. Look for a moment at the four opening lines of Doctor Faustus:

Not marching now in fields of Trasimene

Where Mars did mate the Carthaginians,

Nor sporting in the dalliance of love

In courts of kings where state is overturned … (Prologue, ll. 1–4)

If you count the syllables in these lines, you will find that each one contains ten syllables. If you read the lines aloud, you will hear that for the most part every other syllable carries a particularly marked accent:

Not march|ing now | in fields | of Tra|simene

Where Mars | did mate | the Car|thagi|nians,

Nor sport|ing in | the dal|liance | of love

In courts| of kings| where state| is o|verturned

The second line doesn't fit all that comfortably into the overall pattern because it feels a bit awkward giving a strong stress to the last syllable of ‘Carthaginians’. But we can still say that, roughly speaking, each line of verse has five stressed and five unstressed syllables, and that these are arranged in a fairly regular pattern of unstressed/stressed. In poetry this pattern, or metre, is called iambic pentameter, which is generally thought to be the poetic metre that most closely reproduces the cadence of English speech. This is also blank verse because, in addition to being written in iambic pentameter, the lines are unrhymed. Marlowe was known and admired by his contemporaries for the skill with which he used blank verse in his plays.

Don't worry if this discussion of metre is new to you: its purpose is just to make you aware that the play's verse has an underlying rhythm. This rhythm is mainly determined by the metre which, as we have just seen, is more regular at some points than others, but it is also affected by punctuation, which can slow the verse down (if there are a lot of stops and pauses) or speed it up (if there are few of these).

Everyone has their own way of reading, but I would suggest, especially if this is your first encounter with Renaissance drama, that when reading the play you focus on the story: try to get the gist of what happens, who the main characters are and what they do. Don't worry if you find this hard going or feel that you do not understand it all. Remember that reading early modern English is challenging, and that in the second part of this course we will be looking more closely at particular parts of the play.

If you have not already done so, please read Doctor Faustus now.

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I would suggest that you leave the Doctor Faustus document open on your desktop to gain the maximum benefit from the discussions that folow.