During the first performances of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1594), devils appeared onstage. Or so said William Prynne in Histriomastix (1623). Now, many of you might be disinclined to believe this story, since it appears in a Puritan work which set out to “document” the immorality of the theaters. I was skeptical myself, at least until I began teaching the damned thing.

I’m still not convinced that the play is demonic per se, but there’s something strange, eerie, even possibly occult about teaching it. Students who write on Marlowe—and they do, drawn to it irresistibly, semester after semester, no doubt encouraged by my own devilishly hypnotic lectures—are especially vulnerable to its massively possessive qualities. And such is Marlowe’s dark power as a dramatist that he can even summon the shades of Sheridan—yes, mysteriously, even creepily, students who comment on Faustus seem especially prone to being possessed by the spirit of that arch-devil Mrs. Malaprop.

The most disturbing example of the semester—more disturbing even than those poems Donne might have written, had he been less metaphysical, “A Valediction: forbidding Morning” (presumably an Ovidian postponement to prolong sexual congress) or “A Valediction: foreboding Love” (an uncharacteristically straightforward examination of the woe that is in marriage, perhaps?)—was an essay about the most prominent devil in Faustus. You know, Memphistopheles.

As much as the next person, I believe rock and roll is the devil’s music, but c’mon, man—Elvis is the King!

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