Can you please elaborate on and analyze the theme of religion in Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Discussion of the theme of religion requires a discussion of the entire drama of Doctor Faustus because the premise of Marlowe's play is that an academic rejects all the fields he has studied and turns his attention to mastering black magic. In other words, he turns his back on Christian religious beliefs--beliefs he has not only studied but taught--and embraces the powers of demons for the purpose of gaining world dominion, power over nature and knowledge of the mysteries of God. Religion is integral to all the conflicts these ambitions raise.

While some critics suggest that the themes in Doctor Faustus relate to Faustus's misreading of the Christian Old and New Testaments and to pride that prevents him from seeking forgiveness, this is seen by other critics as an oversimplification of the issues of the drama. In the other view, Faustus rejects religion because it offers irrational explanations of the human condition and because it veils the truths of the corporeal and spiritual universe(s) under veils of ignorance thus limiting human power. In this view, his motivation for not seeking forgiveness is seen as mortal fear. While fear of spiritual torture does not sway Faustus, when facing fear of bodily pain he quails completely:

FAUSTUS. Oft have I thought to have done so; but the devil threatened to tear me in pieces, if I named God, to fetch both body and soul, if I once gave ear to divinity: [...]
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!

There is some debate as to whether Faustus represents Renaissance Man and Individualism or a perverted gross extreme of these concepts. (1) If Faustus represents these concepts, then Marlowe is suggesting that religion should delimit the extent to which humankind reaches. (2) If, on the other hand, Faustus represents a gross extreme of these, then Marlowe is suggesting that all exploration of all knowledge is fair to seek if seeking stops short of embracing evil, after all, Wagner knows magic and the Scholars are interested in it.

Yet neither Wagner nor the Scholars are Renaissance Men, only Faustus is (master of many unrelated fields). Perhaps Marlowe is suggesting that in the hands of inferior individuals, knowledge is impotent but in the hands of a Renaissance Man, who is steeped in Individualism, seeking all knowledge is the same as rejecting God. In this view, Marlowe is warning against these new Renaissance ideas.

Analyzing the text shows that some of these ideas are represented as follows:

  • Rejecting irrational explanations of religion:

FAUSTUS. Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera,
What will be, shall be?  Divinity, adieu!

  • Seeking unlimited knowing and power:

FAUSTUS. O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence, [...]
dominion that exceeds / ... the mind of man; / ... is a mighty god

  • Veiled truths limiting human power:

FAUSTUS. ...  Tell me who made the world?
MEPHIST. I will not. [...]
FAUSTUS. Villain, have I not bound thee to tell me any thing?
MEPHIST. Ay, that [which] is not against our kingdom [of Lucifer]; but this is.

  • Religion delimits the reaches of knowledge:

GOOD ANGEL. O, Faustus, lay that damned book aside,
And gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soul,
And heap God's heavy wrath upon thy head!
Read, read the Scriptures ...

  • Choosing unlimited knowledge equals rejecting God:

LUCIFER. I am Lucifer, ...
FAUSTUS. O, Faustus, they are come to fetch away thy soul!
LUCIFER. We come to tell thee ...
Thou talk'st of Christ, contrary to thy promise ...

Sources:

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