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"Human Limits and Pride in Greene’s 'Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay' and Marlowe’s 'Doctor Faustus' " (Part 3)

Updated on October 24, 2016

Christopher Marlowe

Occultism and Hell

Is practicing occultism an irrevocable ticket to Hell?

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Occultism: Consequences of Failure to Repent

Whereas in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay the words “forbidden knowledge” do not appear, nor anything similar in meaning, the epilogue of Doctor Faustus specifically states that this man was damned because he practiced “unlawful things”:

“Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall, whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise, only to wonder at unlawful things, whose deepness doth entice such forward wits to practice more than heavenly power permits.”

Yet it seems that it was not so much the practice of occult philosophy that sent him to Hell--although this was bad enough to do so-- but his inability (caused by unwillingness) to turn away from it. This section of the essay will delineate the opportunities for repentance (grace) that Faustus received and his failure to take advantage of them, because he desired to hold onto his pride.

Magic: Good, Evil, or It Depends

Is all magic damnable, or only the black variety?

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The Disbelief of Doctor Faustus

Marlowe introduces Faustus, an eminently gifted Renaissance scholar, considering the value of the various disciplines through which he has attained wonderful goals, having learned logic from Aristotle, medicine from Galen, the law from Justinian, and divinity from Jerome’s Bible (I. i. 1-37).

As he ponders this latter sacred tome, Faustus happens across two verses —“The wages of sin is death,” and “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”—that confront him with his need to repent (I. i. 38-49). But Faustus “willfully misinterprets the Scriptures because to read them accurately would lead him to confess his human limitations, and his pride will not permit him to submit to anything outside himself” (Mebane 114). As with Bacon, so Faustus also disregards the Word of God. The attentive observer sees “nature” taking yet another gulp and swallowing more “grace” as it goes.

At the end of his survey the doctor rejects it all; none of his fields of knowledge satisfies him any longer— except magic. When Faustus turns to this art, he finds it to be “out of this world,” and exactly what he is searching for:

“These metaphysics of magicians and necromantic books are heavenly; lines, circles, letters, and characters; ay, these are those that Faustus most desires. Oh, what a world of profit and delight, of power, of honor, and omnipotence is promised to the studious artisan. All things . . . shall be at my command” (I. i. 50-58).10

Magic, and only magic, can supply the power he requires; thinking the books of heavenly origin, he considers them alone worthy of his pursuit, for they appeal to his pride and ambition, which covet Godlikeness.

As Faustus is about to delve into a book of necromancy, the audience witnesses a psychomachia—a war over his soul waged by a good angel and a bad angel (I. i. 71-78). The good angel admonishes the “battleground”:

“O Faustus, lay that damned book aside”; read the Bible instead. (I. i. 71).

Yates believes that he is studying a book of Agrippa (138).11 The magic taught in Agrippa’s “De occulta philosophia” is interpreted . . . as “a summoning of diabolical powers” (137-38).

When his turn comes, the bad angel encourages Faustus, “Go forward in that famous Art, wherein all Nature’s treasury is contained. Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky, Lord and commander of these elements’ (I. i. 75-78).

Again, Faustus decides to pursue the magical Art so that he can control Nature, and even do some good. Weil writes, “For Faustus, ‘deity’ means the ability to ‘make spirits fetch me what I please, resolve me of all ambiguities, perform what desperate enterprise I will’ (I. i. 80-82)” [148]. Because God-status is a near and present delight to his soul, Faustus again refuses the grace offered him.

Later in the first act, after he has received instruction from his mentors Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus conjures Mephistophilis, a servant of Lucifer (I. iv.42).12

Marlowe presents this demon as a pitiable creature who, sounding more human than Faustus, pleads with him to “leave these frivolous demands, which strikes a terror to my fainting soul” (I. i. 83-84). Mephistophilis has seen such pride before, viz., in his master Lucifer, and apparently desires Faustus to stop pursuing this course. Surprised by his companion’s plea, Faustus thinks he needs to embolden him with his own bravado:

“What, is great Mephistophilis so passionate for being deprived of the joys of heaven? Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude, and scorn those joys thou shalt never possess” (I. iv. 85-88).

A man, who knows nothing of the realities of Heaven and Hell and, in fact, denies the existence of the latter, presumes to encourage a demon who claims to be in torment! Such is the pride that seeks only the knowledge and power that Mephistophilis’ presence can afford him.

Shortly into the second act, Faustus signs his soul away to Lucifer with his own blood (II. I. 52-74), but then twice receives a sign of grace, “Homo, fuge!” (II. i. 76-80). Again, the man refuses the opportunity to repent and fly to God, and Mephistophilis quickly intercedes, providing him with entertainment to distract his mind and help confirm his decision.

After Mephistophilis plies him with more deceit about power (II. i. 86), a convinced Faustus delivers to his servant a scroll inscribed with the conditions of his pact with Lucifer (II. i. 88-110). His inquiring mind, eager for answers about life’s mysteries, settles down after this decision, so that he can query Mephistophilis about hell. The demon’s answers, meant to give the doctor a taste of reality, meet with the response: “I think hell’s a fable” (II. i. 126).

Confronted with the “facts,” the doctor scoffs, endeavoring “to reject as superstition all doctrine which threatens to impose limitations on him” (Mebane 114). Mebane points out that “Mephistophilis’ reply, ‘Ay, think so, till experience change thy mind’ (II. i. 127) suggests that Faustus has decided, like an increasing number of sixteenth-century ‘empirics’ to adopt a skeptical attitude toward all assertions which his own experience has not proven true” (114-115). Unbelieving pride continues to stand in Faustus’ way; even hearing the testimony of someone who claims to be in hell fails to convince him that he is heading in the wrong direction.


The Dilemma of Doctor Faustus

Scene two finds Faustus twice wavering in his commitment to Lucifer. A contemplation of heaven, the very throne room of grace, causes him to express his desire to “renounce this magic and repent” (II. ii. 11). Tormented by “psychomachian” conflict, the doctor finally succumbs to the bad angel’s contention, “Ay, but Faustus never shall repent” (II. ii. 17). It appears that he already believes that his previous rejections of grace have hardened his heart to the point of inability.

Faustus’ second period of intense inquiry occurs when, after considering the wonders of the universe, he commands Mephistophilis, “Now tell me who made the world.” The demon adamantly refuses to obey him, however, even after being reminded of the pact (II. ii. 70-81). We find that Faustus is laboring under a false assumption that he cannot repent, that is, if we are to believe the good angel’s plea, “Never too late, if Faustus will repent” (II. ii. 86). This time he fights so strongly against his damnation that a Satanic trinity of sorts appears to remind him forcibly of his obligation to “Think on the devil” (II. ii. 102). Again, Faustus returns to the fold, and vows to be a better servant (ii. ii. 104-108); grace has become a faint whisper in his ear.

Act five highlights the efforts of the “old man” to dissuade Faustus from his doom. His plea reads like a fervent invitation admonishing the doctor to give up the occult, because he may yet be salvageable: “O gentle Faustus, leave this damned art, this magic, . . . , do not persever in it like a devil; yet, yet, thou hast an amiable soul, if sin by custom grow not into nature” (V. i. 39-40, 43-45). After warning him of the pains of hell, the old man rebukes him in love, endeavoring to give Faustus hope that his repentance may grant him mercy through Christ’s atoning blood:

I speak not in wrath, . . . , but in tender love, . . . , and so have hope, that this my kind rebuke, . . . , may amend thy soul. Break heart, drop blood, 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 Savior sweet, whose blood alone must wash away thy guilt (V. i. 51-63).

Even this impassioned speech, full of heavenly grace, fails to reach Faustus’ heart deeply enough to prevent him from despairing. He recognizes that a battle still rages in his soul, and he is at a loss as to how to avoid death: “Hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast; What shall I do to shun the snares of death?” (V. i. 81-82). Sadly, Faustus quickly surrenders to Mephistophilis, who appears on the scene and threatens to shred his flesh unless he revolts from God (V. i. 85-86). The one who sought infinite knowledge and power now stands impotent before his “servant” unable to take advan-tage of the most recent grace made available to him.

Meanwhile the old man, after seeing Faustus kiss “Helen,” pronounces him ac-cursed for excluding “the grace of heaven” from his soul (V. i. 128-129). Unlike Faustus, he depends fully upon God to grant him triumph over hell:

"My faith, vile hell, shall triumph over thee. . . see how the heavens smiles at your repulse, . . . Hence, hell! For hence I fly unto my God” (V. i. 133-136).

Grace received wins salvation for one; grace repulsed by another forfeits it forever.


The Demise of Doctor Faustus

The final appearance of the psychomachia announces the resolution of the conflict. Echoing Mephistophilis’ sneer to the weeping fool— “‘Tis too late, despair, fare-well!” (V. i. 239)— the good angel laments that the time is past for Faustus to repent: “Oh, Faustus, if thou hadst given ear to me, innumerable joys had followed thee. But thou didst love the world” (V. i. 239-242). His love of the world has trumped the mercy of heaven. This angelic word of woe appears to signal the end to Faustus’ opportunities to turn from his path.

Later, he reminds this man in distress that heaven was always at his disposal to defeat hell had he taken advantage of its grace, but that now all is lost: “Oh, thou has lost celestial happiness, . . . , hadst thou affected sweet divinity, hell, or the devil, had had no power on thee” (V. i. 247-250). After the good angel exits for good, his counterpart steps in and shows Faustus the pains—metaphors though they may be-- that he must experience forever (V. i. 256-270). One hour stands before him and the fulfillment of Mephistophilis’ earlier wisdom: his feeling the full fury of hell’s reality (II. i. 127).

Faustus’ final soliloquy is a plea for mercy that includes several requests—“that time may cease, and midnight never come” (V. i. 278), that Christ’s blood might still be available to him (V. i. 286-291), that the stars would protect him (V. i. 298-304), that his sentence might be terminated early, or even that reincarnation might be true (V. i. 309-319)—but it is all to no avail. Interestingly, his last words--“I’ll burn my books!”--promise the destruction of the very objects whose perusal and use led to his own damnation (V. i. 331). His prideful heart, having embraced forbidden knowledge and forsaken repeated offers of grace, enters upon its due judgment, but the books remain unsinged.

Trust in Christ Jesus' Finished Work on the Cross


Carrying on the spirit of the age, clerics endeavored not only to discover in Scripture through Cabala truth that was not literally there, but also to experiment with knowledge forbidden by God, because they coveted greater power. Bacon, the scholar-friar desired not only to garner the professional recognition from Oxford and acquire political favor with Henry, but also to prevail against his God through his “science.” He discovered that seeking temporal honors for his own aggrandizement was vain employment, and attempting to achieve eternal glory by demonic means is likewise fruitless.

By grace the good friar fell back on faithfulness to his understanding of the truth—belief in the cleansing power of Christ’s blood-- as the only way to avoid ultimate judgment. In his repentance he sought a new beginning, desiring to experience the mercy of God which will “wash the wrath of high Jehovah’s ire and make thee as a new-born babe from sin” (xiii. 100-105). Bacon, being humbled, returned to the proper division between grace and nature, putting grace pre-eminent.

On the other hand, Doctor Faustus, perhaps a more gifted man, likewise took the reins of his destiny and endeavored to attain godlikeness through his magical powers. Despite having received repeated offers of grace sent to rescue him from the clutches of Lucifer, the man, full of his father’s pride, rejected every one of them. He, too, attempted to claim the blood of Christ for forgiveness; but at the last, not being able to repent of exalting nature above grace, Faustus lost his soul. He failed to admit that “the human aspiration to attain a god-like status and to exert benevolent control over history is almost invariably corrupted by selfish desires for wealth, sensual indulgence, and political power” (Mebane 135). Such is the lesson we must all learn.


10John S. Mebane, Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare (Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 1989) 123-4. Mebane cites Giordano Bruno, the occult philosopher, who “emphasized the power of the individual to attain a genuinely godlike status by attaining universal knowledge.”

11Yates 5-6. Yates writes: “Henry Cornelius Agrippa was a Renaissance Neo-platonist and a Christian Cabalist deeply interested in religious reform. In the later sixteenth-century reaction against Renaissance occultism and its reforming sympathies, Agrippa was to become the scapegoat of the whole movement, hounded as a black magician.”

12Yates 139. Faustus brings with him a circle inscribed with anagrams. He is doing practical Cabala which has the object of raising Mephisto. Mephistophilis appears as a Franciscan (I. iv. 27-28); Yates wonders if this is not a parody of Francesco Giorgi, the Franciscan friar.

© 2015 glynch1


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    • glynch1 profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

      You are welcome.

    • Rabadi profile image

      2 years ago from New York

      Great read thanks for sharing!


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