In the Prologue to Tamburlaine, Marlowe had scornfully discarded buffoonery as spoiling the tragic dignity. Hence we wonder how a serious tragedy like Doctor Faustus contains a number of low comic scenes. Some of them are so repugnant that we doubt if they were actually written by Marlowe or got interpolated afterwards. Indeed, they were meant for the Elizabethan audience and not the modern scholar. Kings and clowns were placed alike in the medieval Miracle and Morality plays. As Elizabethan drama moved towards maturity, this peculiar blend turned into a sophisticated device. For example, the grave-diggers in Hamlet and the drunken porter in Macbeth actually intensify the dramatic irony, however incongruous they apparently are. Surely, one should not expect from Marlowe the Shakespearean talent to enhance the tragedy by farcical scenes. Still, the comedy in Doctor Faustus is not just confined in amusement. They are arranged in a subtle order, add to the irony of the main plot, and serve certain theatrical purposes.
T. S. Eliot's seminal essay of 1919 tells us of Marlow's affinities with 'the old English humour' of the Morality play. Eliot did not apply this insight to Doctor Faustus, neither did anyone else until in 1962 David Bevington related all of Marlowe's major plays to the tradition of homiletic drama preceding them.
Faustus boasts of his intellectual supremacy in the opening scene. In the second, his servant Wagner imitates his display of learning by chopping logic with the two Scholars. We notice a tone of resemblance, as their vain pride yields nothing at the end. Theatrically, this scene fills in the logical time gap between Faustus departing earlier with a determination to conjure and returning at night to do so. Also, we are reminded of Faustus' fame as a professor of logic, as the First Scholar informs us how he would make German universities "ring with sic probo".
In the next scene, Wagner thinks that Robin the Clown is poor enough to sell his soul for a raw piece of mutton. Immediately it reminds of the deed Faustus has just signed. Robin, however, is not going to sell his soul so cheap. If he has to sell his soul to the devil for food, he would like to have his stuff roasted and sauced. This ironically suggests the cheapness of Faustus' bargain. Wagner now seeks to summon two devils, but the Clown hardly takes it seriously and talks of belching Belcher. Shortly when the devils appear, he runs up and down. Does it not remind of Faustus once again, trying to boss over the phantoms and ultimately serving them? Wagner's desire to make Robin his errand boy also satirizes Faustus' efforts to enslave Mephistophilis.
In the last scene of Act II, Robin tries to spell his magic before Dick with a book he has stolen from Faustus. Apart from the low humour and the parody underneath, there is hardly any theatrical necessity. Act III also concludes in comedy. Robin and Dick try to conjure once again, this time stealing a wine cup from an innkeeper. However, this ironically resembles Faustus going crazy in the papal banquet and snatching away foods and drinks.
The five scenes that constitute Act IV are not much relevant to the main theme. They simply narrate silly exhibitions of Faustus' sorcery. He relives Alexander and Darius in the King Carolus' court, and makes the knights miserable with their horns. A Renaissance scholar, lowborn yet at the zenith of power, Faustus thus revenges the nobility on the behalf of the intellectuals in general. "And hereafter, sir," he warns Benvolio, "look you speak well of scholars." Next he sells a mysterious horse to a Horse-courser which must not be ridden in waters. The buyer does so out of curiosity, only to find his horse dissolving away. Returning to complain, he eventually pulls off Faustus' leg. Regarding this as sufficient revenge, he goes away. "Faustus hath his leg again" shortly by magic, yet this scene ironically foreshadows Faustus' final dismemberment. In the last scene, the Horse-courser finds that many of his friends like the Carter have somehow been tricked by the "cozening doctor".
A number of critics consider the humour in Act IV too base for Marlowe and suggestive of later interpolations. In fact, no further proof of Faustus' magical calibre is needed. We have already been told how he flied in the sky on a dragon's back to view the planets and the stars. We ourselves have seen him changing his form into that of a Cardinal, and playing tricks on Pope Adrian. If the Alexandrine episode is just for thrilling the audience, what purpose is served by procuring grapes for the Duchess of Vanholt in the following act? Scholars hardly find any dramatic purpose behind many an incident and character in this play. Were they introduced only to find suitable roles for everyone in the theatre company?
Nevertheless, rest of the critics detect a purpose. However crude those scenes apparently seem, they demonstrate a steady decline in Faustus' character. Before acquiring his magical powers, Faustus aspired of achieving greatest deeds. We do not know if he really exhausted offstage that Byzantine list of desperate enterprises, but before the audience he does nothing better than buffoonery. His senses have been blunted over time, and he looks for pleasure in the basest comedies. The satirical similarity between him and the so-called clownish characters further enhances the irony.
Faustus thus parodies his own soaring ambitions just as Wagner and Robin had done earlier. The contrasting tragic and comic elements now coalesce in harmony, as beneath the exalted rebel we perceive the fool. Faustus aspired for eternal knowledge and power to parallel with God. At the end he becomes worse than man. Spending his years in feasting and lechery, Faustus exploits his bargain no better than Robin who could sell his soul for roasted mutton. The presentation of the scenes concerned is thus certainly comic. Underneath, they help realise Faustus' irrevocably tragic deterioration.