Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus provides lessons for COVID19 compensation

Christopher Marlowe was just 29 when he died in 1593 but his most famous play, The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus, made its debut in the early 1600’s. Born in the same year as Shakespeare, the final version of Dr. Faustus was published in the year of Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

The plague that hit two centuries earlier had permeated the imagination of 16th century Britain especially as this was an age that had little idea of what a vaccine might be or how one would work.

“Are not thy bills hung up as monuments, Whereby whole cities have escap’d the plague, And thousand desperate maladies been cur’d?”[1]

Indeed, both Marlowe and Shakespeare were fortunate to have lived a long generation before the resurgence of the plague in London in the 1660’s when one quarter of London’s population perished.

COVID19 has many similarities to the plague and the literary imagination of our age is beginning to rediscover Faustian dilemmas, their similarities and important differences.

Unexpectedly, the Canadian federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has fomented the spectre of a Faustian Bargain for social assistance recipients. As Margaret Atwood simply describes it in her magnificent essays collectively called Payback:

“A Faustian bargain is one in which you exchange your soul or something equally vital for a lot of glitzy but ultimately worthless short-term junk.”[2]

The three aspects of the bargain are:

  1. The terms of the bargain itself (a deal with the devil);
  2. The fact that a day of reckoning is coming (when the clock strikes midnight); and
  3. How the deal will be recorded in ‘the books’ (what sort of payback be required?).

For Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, he traded his eternal soul for a wanton and luxurious life and the devil is waiting to recoup his soul at a designated midnight when the books will be settled.

For social assistance recipients in modern day Canada, recipients are extremely anxious about collecting the CERB as they worry about loss of benefits, loss of status, stigma, overpayments and clawbacks.

The online chats that I have been reading between social assistance recipients reveal a level of leeriness that has surprised me. Is the CERB the same in their minds as a Faustian deal with the devil?

Here are some examples:

“All social programs will be cut and no one will be spared from that regardless how well they are connected or how well they lobby. The only thing that will matter in the end after all this is debt reduction. …the system knows just who got CERB cash and who should not have applied by checking bank accounts.”

– Scott Seiler, advocate and former ODSP recipient

 “I did not apply for the emergency benefit, as I received CERB.  I have to work it through the worker because my income is calculated on an annual basis, instead of month to month.  A lot of self-employed people do it that way.  But because of existing clawbacks, this is why this brings my income down below what I am used to when I work, even with the partial CERB.” 

 – Angela Browne, working spouse of an ODSP recipient

 “As I said, since I anticipate having to repay CRA, it’s not really income it’s just a loan! And under the new guidelines full time students like me are not subject to clawback but I saw them screw up my son’s income too often to trust them to get that right! For example even after he told them his seasonal job over one Christmas had finished, they cut him off for not filing an income report! 

– D. S., Ontario ODSP recipient

I received my CERB payments after the ODSP April “cutoff date” April 20th and 28th, so my worker couldn’t adjust my April 30th pay and I received full benefits today. That means I’ll have an overpayment due which I assume is paid off monthly. My question is “Will the two CERB payments I received in April ($4K) count as one amount for April, or will some also be deducted in May? In other words, will 2 CERBS only affect one month of ODSP benefits, or two?

– N. D., Ontario ODSP recipient

Is the clock striking 12 as it did for Faust? Will it be payback time? And will some of the poorest people in Canada have traded their hard won status as recipients of a program that guarantees them a threadbare living for a momentary bauble that may result in real losses in its aftermath?

Just as in Dr. Faustus’ situation, we are left in suspense until the end and that suspense manifests itself in two important ways:

The first is how the gift of the CERB may morph into something else that is better while the second is how the CERB may become a curse, a stigma and a pox upon all those who accept it. To complicate things, some provinces have also chosen to claw back the CERB while others have exempted it. Others have gone part way while still others have changed their minds.

But let’s start with the CERB that may be a messenger for something better according to Prime Minister Trudeau’s Minister of Middle Class Prosperity: Mona Fortier. She notes that things could get better or worse – not unlike Dr. Faustus’ musings:

“As we come out of this crisis, I believe we will need to lay the foundation for well-being and prosperity for all Canadians, in an inclusive, sustainable, and resilient way,” Fortier said.

A day earlier, Fortier poured cold water on a push by anti-poverty advocates for the government to introduce and implement a crisis universal basic income

“We are listening,” Fortier said in French during an in-person sitting of the House of Commons Friday. “These questions deserve to be properly considered and debated in due course, but now is not the time.”

Now is not the time?

Still, the Faustian bargain as conceived by Marlowe is not the bargain of today. Faust had free will to decide whether he might improve his material lot in life.  Not so for today’s recipients of benefits. They are requested if not forced to apply for the CERB unlike Faust who was free to ruminate on the pros and cons of his eventual deal with Mephistopheles (the devil).

But just as we are thinking about the bargain in monetary terms – looking at the books – we are reminded that this is not just about the books but also about how the CERB is viewed by its detractors.

The acceptance of CERB for some is, at bottom, about stigma and suddenly the deal with the devil is about how you may be viewed as a recipient: possibly a lazy ‘e-beggar’ as the National Post exposes in a headline for a column:

“John Ivison: Trudeau’s lavish handouts risk turning workers into welfare slackers.”

Ivison makes his position clear:

“There is a worry that some workers might prefer to sit on their duffs for the next three months, pocketing $2,000 a month, rather than going back to work when called by their employers”

 “Even if it’s not yet clear to the prime minister, pressures are growing on the Liberal government to take action to ensure its generous safety net for workers does not become a summer hammock.”

As the clock ticks towards midnight for anyone who has pocketed the CERB, the character of the bargain changes just as it did for Marlowe’s Faustus. It is the benefit that might stay the same, might change or become a dreaded curse. The books might be settled or perhaps not. Payback may come in the morning.

“The news reports said to send the money back and if people do not, there will be very harsh consequences and I took that as fraud charges. I bet the fraud investigators will be very busy.”

Scott Seiler

And so we return to a government which has now become very concerned about ‘payback’, the return of any benefit improperly secured. As Margaret Atwood warns:  

“In Heaven, there are no debts—all have been paid, one way or another—but in Hell there’s nothing but debts, and a great deal of payment is exacted, though you can’t ever get all paid up. You have to pay, and pay, and keep on paying. So Hell is like an infernal maxed-out credit card that multiplies the charges endlessly.”[3]

Now the Canada Revenue Agency website makes it very easy to avoid Hell by repaying the CERB: [4]

“You may need to return or repay the CERB if you:

  • return to work earlier than expected, including being paid retroactively
  • applied for CERB but later realize you are not eligible
  • applied and received the CERB from CRA and Service Canada for the same eligibility period

You can return or repay the CERB to the CRA regardless of whether you received the payment from the CRA or Service Canada.

…the CRA will reverse the transaction if you repay the CERB for whatever reason, and you will not receive a T4 slip for that payment.

Beginning May 11, the CRA will offer a convenient way to repay the CERB with a few simple clicks using My Account.”

And there you have the second and final major difference between Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and the drama of the CERB: you can repay the CERB. One level of government asks you whether you are eligible for it and forces you to apply for it but another allows you to repay it, no questions asked. Is this a forced Faustian bargain or a real tangible payday?

In some ways, modern day social assistance recipients have a tougher lot than celebrated characters of mediaeval legends, Faustian Bargains notwithstanding.

And even now, we still do not know how the drama will end.  


[1] Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, p.4

[2] Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, p.164

[3] ibid, p. 168

[4] This information appeared on the following page on the date this article was published: