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The 'burning chair' in the B-text of Doctor Faustus.

In an article entitled 'Fatal Charades', K. M. Coleman has pointed out how, by macabrely applying the Mikado principle, many Roman executions sought 'to make the punishment fit the crime':

Enshrined in the notion of retribution is the principle of talio, according to which the means of punishment evokes the misdeed, as in the penalty of crematio (vivicomburium) prescribed for people who commit arson in built-up areas. Such appears to have been Galba's intention in amputating the hands of a fraudulent money-changer and nailing them to the table where the crook had conducted his business, although a preventive element is also present here.(1)

The Roman principle of talio also underpinned various 'Christian' executions in the centuries that followed, as, for example, the barbaric execution of Edward II and that of the Hungarian rebel Gyorgy Dozsa, an event horrifying enough to have seized the attention of Oliver Goldsmith - The Traveller, substituting the name of Gyorgy's brother, speaks of 'Luke's iron crown'(2) - and Edwin Morgan. Here is an extract from Morgan's Memories of Earth:

we see the bellows at the huge fire, then tongs drag out a red-hot iron throne, a peasant's forced to sit on it, his head pressed into a red-hot crown, his hand clasped round a red-hot sceptre while the smoke swirls over jeering breath: long live the king' long live King Dozsa! ...(3)

That gives the jist of the execution in 1514, its parodic coronation ritual designed to point the attack on the great chain of being embodied by the peasants' revolt. Given the Elizabethan fascination with this sort of atrocity, it seems likely that Marlowe (or the persons who subsequently elaborated Marlowe's text in 1602) had the death of Dozsa in mind when they created their tableau of hell in the B-Text of Doctor Faustus:

Bad Angel: Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare Into the vast perpetual torture-house. There are the Furies tossing damned souls On burning forks; their bodies broil in lead. There are live quarters broiling on the coals, That ne'er can die. This ever-burning chair Is for o'er-tortur'd souls to rest them in. These that are fed with sops of flaming fire Were gluttons, and loved only delicates, And laughed to see the poor starve at their gates.(4)

The gluttons that flank the burning chair represent a talionic punishment often found in medieval representations of hell, and which, since it has no scriptural basis, probably has its roots in the account (by Dio Cassius) of how Crassus met his end (Plutarch's more sober version has him beheaded): 'And the Parthians, as some say, poured molten gold into his mouth in mockery; for though a man of vast wealth, he had set so great store by money as to pity those who could not support an enrolled legion from their own means, regarding them as poor men.'(5) Equally talionic would be the notion of a burning chair. While it serves to mock the comfort of the 'comfortable words' set out in the Prayer Book ('Come unto me all that travail and are heavy-laden, and I will refresh you'(6)) by offering torture as respite to torture, the author(s) also seem to present it as the antitype to the throne which, a short while before, has been winched down from the ceiling of the aedes:

Hadst thou kept on that way, Faustus, behold In what resplendent glory thou hadst set In yonder throne, like those bright shining saints, And triumphed over hell. That hast thou lost.


This dramatizes the promise of Revelation 3:21 - 'To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne' - a promise which, because it defies any kind of visualization, accounts for the fact that in many traditional projections of heaven (e.g. Those of Roger van der Weyden) a row of thrones flanks that of God, thrones occupied not by all the denizens of paradise, but by a handful of canonized saints. By leaving the throne vacant, the B-Text implies its occupation by the invisible presence of Christ, a presence which, according to Revelation 3:21, would in turn have incorporated the redeemed spirit of Faustus.

However, because Faustus has renounced God, he has duplicated the sin of Satan - non serviam - and so aspired to the wrongful occupation of that throne. This violation of the chain of being would therefore, to someone familiar with the execution of Gyorgy Dozsa, have seemed to 'deserve' a red-hot mockery of regal power - and so the decision to include a burning chair in the tableau of Hades.


1 K. M. Coleman, 'Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments', Journal of Roman Studies, lxxx (1990), 46.

2 The Poems of Gray, Collins and Goldsmith, ed. Roger Lonsdale (London: Longman, 1969), 656.

3 Edwin Morgan, The New Divan (Manchester: Carcanet, 1977), 61.

4 Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine, Parts I and II, Doctor Faustus, A- and B-Texts, the Jew of Malta, Edward II, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 242. All page-number references in the text are to this edition.

5 Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History, trans. Earnest Cary, 9 vols (London: William Heinemann, 1914), III, 447.

6 A Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church together with the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests and Deacons (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), 237.
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Title Annotation:play by dramatist Cristopher Marlowe
Author:Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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