In Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe supplies a nearly diagrammatic study of damnation—of the decline and fall of a human soul—growing out of excessive pride and overreaching ambition. The well-schooled Faustus, with his unbridled curiosity, skepticism, and knowledge, stands as the epitome of the Renaissance “new man.” On his graduation from the German university at Wittenberg, Faustus casts about for a suitable profession. He rejects, in turn, philosophy, medicine, law, and theology, finding that all these fields fall short of what amounts to his supra-human desires. For example, medicine (“physic”) promises the possibility of temporary healing but not of bestowing everlasting life or of raising the dead. Accordingly, Faustus at last lights upon necromancy—magic and the black arts—as providing the sole means whereby he can achieve “omnipotence” and become a “mighty god.”
In the company of his like-minded friends Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus summons up the demon Mephistophilis and informs him that, in exchange for twenty-four years of earthly pleasure, wealth, and honor, he is ready to abandon his soul to Lucifer, the evil one himself. Immediately, Good Angel and Bad Angel appear to Faustus, the former urgently pleading for the scholar’s repentance, and the latter airily dismissing the efficacy of prayer. Willfully determined, Faustus stabs his arm and writes out his agreement with the devil in his own resisting blood.
Almost immediately, however, it becomes clear that there are limits to demonic power: For example, Faustus asks for a wife only to...
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