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 learn that holy matrimony, a sacrament of the Church, is not open to him now. In place of a wife, Mephistophilis promises Faustus a succession of prostitutes, an adjustment that the lascivious Faustus finds congenial. The demon then converses with Faustus about astronomy and cosmology. Throughout this long discourse, Faustus is tempted to repent from time to time; but Mephistophilis, Belzebub, and Lucifer are each time able to distract him with entertaining (if insubstantial) “shows”—for example, with a diverting parade of the personified Seven Deadly Sins—so that the enthralled scholar forgets any misgivings and hews to his bargain.
In a subsequent series of relatively brief and decidedly farcical vignettes—first at the Vatican at Rome, then at the imperial German court, and finally in the swindling of a lowly horse seller—Faustus, aided by the devils who accompany him, demonstrates the arguably paltry powers he has attained at the cost of his soul. In Rome, for example, he assumes invisibility in order to strike the pope about the head, set free the pontiff’s enemy Bruno, and befuddle a host of Ecclesiastes. At the royal court, he beguiles Emperor Charles by evoking the forms of such historical figures as Alexander the Great and Darius—all the while reminding the monarch that these apparently tangible manifestations are in fact “but shadows, not substantial.” Finally, he provides out-of-season grapes for the duchess of Inhaled and, in the role of court jester, amuses himself and the ducal assembly by cruelly hoodwinking some rustic yokels.
At last, however, as the end of Faustus’s life draws near, the mood of the play inevitably lurches from the farcical to the terrifying and demonic. Back in the magician’s study, a pious Old Man, representing God’s infinite mercy, warns Faustus of the eternal agonies of hell and entreats him, even at this late hour, to repent. Shaken, Faustus nonetheless gives way to the sin of despair and begs Mephistophilis to summon up the distracting image of Helen of Troy, a mythic figure metaphorically associated with fire—in this case, the fires of hell. Kissing Faustus, her “lips suck forth [his] soul.” By willfully embracing this demonic figure, Faustus permanently seals his fate, and even as he cries out pitifully for more time, the unholy trinity of Lucifer, Belzebub, and Mephistophilis lead the magician offstage to the unending torment that awaits his spirit. Two scholars later discover his earthly body, horribly torn and dismembered.