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The Descent of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus Explained

Updated on January 10, 2013

Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (A-Text, First Quarto)is a play about the tragic descent of Dr. Faustus, whose demise is the ultimate result of the depth into which he practices necromancy, by which he sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for twenty-four years of demonic service. It is easy to read Faustus’ ultimate damnation as a warning against the consequences that dealing with the Devil entail, but I assert that the moral focus of the play is not on what Faustus does, but on what he does not do. Dr. Faustus is not a warning against the practice of necromancy as much as it is a commentary on the importance of faith in God and his unlimited capacity to forgive human sin, and how a lack thereof hinders access to divine grace. Through a comprehensive analysis of Faustus’ relationship with Marlowe’s contemporary audience, the failings of Faustus’ character, and the external forces with which he must contend, I intend to explain why Faustus’ fall from grace is more significant for the fact that he despairs of being saved by God, rather than for the fact that he brings it upon himself for dabbling in witchcraft.

Faustus is not a character with whom a contemporary audience was readily able to relate, leading me to doubt that his inclination toward necromancy was to be feared from the general population. Kristen Poole draws attention to the stark contrast between the generalized representation of humanity through the protagonists of medieval drama that were often used to convey moral teachings to an often illiterate audience, and the complex and accomplished individual that Faustus is as an archetypal Renaissance man (102). Poole’s distinction lends to the suggestion that Faustus’ actions were not meant to carry moral weight with a contemporary audience because his disposition did not match that of any given Elizabethan theatregoer. Douglas Cole is a challenge to this position in his assertion that Faustus may not be the “Everyman” of medieval morality plays, but his ambition for omnipotence in knowledge and power is a universal human desire (304-305). However, despite the basic human aspiration that Faustus represents, the general patrons of Elizabethan theatre productions “had neither the intellectual capacity nor the daring to emulate Faustus’ career” (Ornstein 1380). Faustus himself excludes the common person from what he aspires to achieve through necromancy: “O what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence / Is promis’d to the studious artisan” (Marlowe 5). He is suggesting that his status as a “studious artisan” is prerequisite to making quantifiable gains through necromancy. Essentially, people did not need to be warned against conjuring demonic forces and conversing with the devil because, for the most part, they were not equipped for it as Faustus apparently is. In fact, people were already sufficiently afraid of the devil, whom they “widely perceived to be real” (Akstens 188). There is a popular story that a performance of Dr. Faustus was once called off when the cast believed that the actor playing Faustus had actually conjured a devil to the stage, prompting them to run home and pray (Forsyth 64). Similar sentiments survive to the modern day. When Thomas Akstens asked his class “what their reaction would be if [he] were to draw the conjurer’s circle on the floor with the blackboard chalk and recite Faustus’s invocation” (189), they responded with discomfort and some believed that harm could come from it. The conclusion of the class’ following discussion was that about twenty-five percent of them were seriously uneasy when faced with the idea of conjuring the Devil. Akstens follows up this anecdote with passing mention of the widespread spiritual anxiety following the release of The Exorcist in 1973 (189). The fear of Marlowe’s contemporary audience comes into sharper perspective when it is considered in relation to how susceptible modern society still is to fear of the supernatural. The point is that Marlowe’s contemporary audience was by and large already sufficiently afraid of the devil and averse to necromancy, and it is clear through his distinction as a Renaissance Man that Faustus does not represent any given member of the general population, further bringing doubt upon his role as a vehicle for moral teaching.

The way in which Faustus reconciles his situation is also unrealistic behaviour. Marlowe’s contemporary audience was not susceptible to the reasoning behind Faustus’ rejection of Christianity and following attraction to necromancy. In the first scene, Faustus reads from two passages of scripture and comes to the erroneous conclusion from them that humans are hopelessly sinful, and are therefore automatically doomed to die for it (4). Park Honan points out that Faustus makes his conclusion by leaving out the hopeful aspects of both passages, as he demonstrates by quoting from Romans 6: 23, “[f]or the wages of sin is death: but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Honan 204), and from I John I: 8–9, “[i]f we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (204). Faustus’ blatant display of selective reading would not have been lost on Marlowe’s audience: “To a Christian audience in the sixteenth century, a period during which numerous translations of the Bible had appeared, Faustus's distortion should be evident” (Westlund 193-194). There is no need for there to have been any concern that anyone in the audience was in a position to misinterpret scripture to the same degree that Faustus does. Furthermore, despite his interaction with a real devil, Mephistophilis, upon officially signing over his soul to the devil, Faustus comes to another erroneous conclusion, that “hell’s a fable” (22). Faustus’ claim comes with the assumption that “[he] is wrong and the audience knows it” (Falconer 13). Faustus seems to be warping reality in order to cope with the looming consequences of his actions (Golden 204-205). To an audience already familiar with scripture and deeply fearful of the Devil, there is no lesson to be learned from seeing Faustus fall as a result of the false conclusions that he makes.

In order to successfully argue that Faustus represents the importance of faith in God’s all-inclusive grace, it is important to establish why his fall is the result of his own disbelief in God’s capacity for forgiveness, rather than external forces against which he has no control. If Faustus’ damnation were the predestined will of God, then that would be the only message of the play and there would be no specific moral attached to Faustus’ character. However, it is evident on multiple occasions throughout the play that Faustus is the primary agent behind his own fall and that he needs only to call on God to be saved. Poole says that “[t]he play seems to vacillate between a theology based on free will and God’s forgiveness and a theology based on Calvin’s conception of predestination” (102), and claims that the Good Angel and Bad Angel are illustrative of her assertion for their contrasting claims that Faustus can be saved, and can not be saved, respectively. However, I assert that the Good Angel’s attempt to persuade Faustus to embrace God’s grace is sufficient evidence of Faustus’ freedom to choose his fate. Upon the second appearance of the angels, the Good Angel assures Faustus that repentance is his way to heaven (19), and in his third encounter, Faustus agrees with the Good Angel that God will pity him if he does repent, but the Evil Angel states that Faustus will not repent (25). It is most likely that at least the Good Angel was sent by God (rather than appearing as the mere representation of Faustus’ own conscience) in order to persuade him to repent and embrace divine grace:

[A]ngels and devils in Marlowe’s time were not considered abstractions or even metaphors for the operations of the human mind; they were conceived as real spiritual beings created by God and granted certain powers and functions. Among these was to influence by suggestion, though not constrain, the mind of man. (Cole 306).

If the Good Angel is an agent of God sent for the purpose of influencing Faustus to repent, then it is illogical to suggest that the portrayal of God in the play exemplifies Calvinist predestination because otherwise, people would be born believers or disbelievers according to their respective destinies, nullifying the necessity of divine influence in the form of the angels. Therefore, Faustus’ agreement with the Evil Angel that he will not repent is a choice that he does not make in the absence of his alternative option to repent. Furthermore, upon his fourth encounter with the angels, Faustus is moved by the Good Angel to call on the name of Christ (27). The interesting part of this revelation is that he is promptly interrupted by Lucifer, who is accompanied by Belzebub and Mephistophilis:

We come to tell thee thou dost injure us;

Thou talk’st of Christ contrary to thy promise;

Thou should’st not think of God: think of the Devil,

and of his dam, too. (27-28).

If Faustus was already hopelessly damned and no longer eligible for divine redemption, why would the Devil be so obviously threatened by his calling upon Christ as Saviour?

As the end of Faustus’s twenty-four years approaches, a character simply named Old Man appears, playing a role similar to that which the Good Angel did earlier in the play. The Old Man assures Faustus that he can be saved if he recognizes the gravity of his deeds and truly repents:

Break heart, drop blood, and mingle it with tears,

Tears falling from repentant heaviness

Of thy most vile and loathsome filthiness,

The stench whereof corrupts the inward soul

With such flagitious crimes of heinous sins

As no commiseration may expel,

But mercy, Faustus, of thy Saviour sweet,

Whose blood alone must wash away thy guilt. (50).

Joseph Westlund quotes this same passage along with the assertion that the Old Man’s instructions are extremely difficult to follow, suggesting that Faustus would not be able to achieve the proposed end thereof in the time he has left (202). However, there is no particular reason for the Old Man’s instructions to be especially difficult for Faustus, only in the sense that he simply chooses not to repent. Immediately following Faustus’ first encounter with the Old Man, he demonstrates no hesitation in stabbing himself in order to write with his own blood upon Mephistophilis’ instruction (51), so why should it be any more difficult for him to mix his blood with the tears of repentance (should he decide to really repent)? Furthermore, in the last two lines, the Old Man is making reference to the basic Christian notion that Christ’s death serves to cleanse all, who embrace him, of their sins. Essentially, the repentance that the Old Man calls for should be very simple for Faustus, the only obstacle being the despair that prevents the full consummation thereof: “I do repent; and yet I do despair” (51). Friedrich Ohly claims that Faustus could be saved by denouncing his contract with the devil and obeying God, but he is unable to repent for “he is in the power of despair” (110). Faustus’ despair is what everything boils down to; it is the single most pervasive obstacle between him and salvation through repentance.

We are still left with the question of what kind of hold Lucifer has on Faustus throughout the play. The assertion that Faustus is the primary agent of his own damnation is significantly weakened if I were to leave the Devil’s role therein unreconciled. I have already explained how Faustus’ initial reasoning behind rejecting Christianity was the result of his misinterpretation of scripture, but I refer to it again because it is important to remember that he was not initially influenced by demonic forces. When Faustus speaks with Mephistophilis upon conjuring him for the first time, he is surprised to learn that the demon came on his own without charge from Lucifer (12). Mephistophilis explains to Faustus the policy by which demons appear before humans:

[W]hen we hear one rack the name of God,

Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,

We fly in hope to get his glorious soul;

Nor will we come, unless he use such means

Whereby he is in danger to be damn’d. (12).

Devils only come to people when there is reasonable cause to assume that the person in question has already set his or her damnation in motion. Furthermore, Mephistophilis appears before Faustus in his true demonic form, and it is Faustus who insists that he change his appearance:

I charge thee to return and change thy shape;

Thou art too ugly to attend on me.

Go, and return an old Franciscan friar;

That holy shape becomes a devil best. (12).

T. McAlindon discusses the role of Christian mythology’s notion of physical deception in medieval and Renaissance literature and asserts that the sources thereof come from “Satan, ‘the father of lies,’ whose chief mode of deception was to approach men in the reassuring guise of a heavenly spirit” (216). However, in Dr. Faustus, Faustus is presented with a true demonic form, and makes the conscious decision to have that form take on the appearance of a friar. Furthermore, Cole asserts that the Seven Deadly sins are presented to Faustus in their true evil form, rather than disguised as something good, and that he embraces them for the evils that they really are (309). He comes to the conclusion that Faustus “needs no deception to lead him to sin; he is his own worst deceiver, his own worst enemy, his own worst tempter” (Cole 309). Therefore, Faustus’ flirtation with the dark arts is of his own choice rather than the result of satanic deception and manipulation.

Toward the end of the play, it is Faustus’ own disbelief in his eligibility to earn divine redemption through repentance that keeps him from saving himself. Despite the reassurance of the scholars that “God’s mercies are infinite” (53), Faustus feels that he has gone too deep into the dark arts and fears the wrath of God too much to believe in the possibility of forgiveness (53-55). In dramatic terms, I interpret this aspect of Faustus’ character to be the tragic flaw that leads to his ultimate fall for “[he] has the power to determine the course of his life, and his damnation is brought about by his own character and motivation rather than by external causes. Despair and a crushing awareness of sin keep Faustus on his downward path” (Westlund 204). Therefore, the moral weight of the play rests on the fatal flaw of Faustus as the tragic hero of the play.

Dr. Faustus portrays the consequences of signing ones soul to the Devil, and the hunger for knowledge and power that is the result thereof. However, there is no moral weight in this scenario alone. The play, rather, serves as a reminder that no matter what wicked situation you may find yourself in, the only assurance of damnation is yourself God’s unlimited love and salvation, that only comes to those who ask for it.

Works Cited

Akstens, Thomas. “Contextualizing the Demonic: Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus in the Classroom.” Approaches to Teaching English Renaissance Drama. Ed. Karen Bamford and Alexander Leggatt. New York: MLA, 2002. 186-190. Print.

Cole, Douglas. “Dr. Faustus and the Morality Tradition.” Doctor Faustus: A Two-Text Edition (A-Text, 1604; B-Text, 1616), Contents and Sources, Criticism. Ed. David Scott Kastan. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. 304-312. Print.

Falconer, Rachel. Hell in Contemporary Literature: Western Descent Narratives since 1945. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005. Print.

Forsyth, Neil. The Satanic Epic. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

Golden, Kenneth L. “Myth, Psychology, and Marlowe’s ‘Dr. Faustus.’” College Literature 12.3 (1985): 202-210. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

Honan, Park. Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

McAlindon, T. “Classical Mythology and Christian Tradition in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.” PMLA 81.3 (1966): 214-223. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

Marlowe, Christopher. Dr. Faustus. New York: Dover, 1994. Print.

Ohly, Friedrich. The Damned and the Elect: Guilt in Western Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. Print.

Ornstein, Robert. “Marlowe and God: The Tragic Theology of Dr. Faustus.” PMLA 83.5 (1968): 1378-1385. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

Poole, Kristen. “Dr. Faustus and Reformation Theology.” Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion. Ed. Garrett A. Sullivan Jr., Patrick Cheney, and Andrew Hadfield. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. 96-107. Print.

Westlund, Joseph. “The Orthodox Christian Framework of Marlowe’s Faustus.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 3.2 (1963): 191-205. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.


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