At one point in Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, the title character asks a demon for books about planets and plant-life:
Faustus Now would I have a book where I might see all characters and planets of the heavens, that I might know their motions and dispositions.
Mephastophilis Here, they are too.
Faustus Nay, let me have one book more, and then I have done, wherein I might see all plants, herbs and trees that grow upon the earth.
This bit of dialogue is significant for a number of reasons, including the following:
- From the very beginning of the play, Faustus has exhibited a restless mind. He cannot settle on one subject of study. This personality trait might be commendable if he were truly curious and full of wonder. Instead, though, he seems flighty and unstable.
- Faustus’s interest in the heavens seems ironic, since he shows little real interest in the only heaven that ultimately mattered to Renaissance Christians: heaven as the home of God and all those souls eternally saved by him.
- Instead of being interested in the heaven just mentioned, Faustus is interested in the mere physical heavens. As usual, his interests are mainly materialistic rather than spiritual.
- Faustus is interested in the “motions” of the planets, perhaps in part because he is himself so changeable and unstable. Ironically, the motions of the planets are completely regular and predictable. They were established by God and are part of God’s divine plan. Faustus, however, by consorting with a demon and by selling his soul to Satan, has betrayed God and put himself in opposition to God’s plan. He is no longer part of the divinely harmonious order established by God and symbolized by the planets.
- Instead of focusing his attention (erratic though it is) on planets and plant-life, Faustus at the moment needs to be focusing his thoughts on saving his eternal soul. It is typical of Faustus to become distracted by topics that are much less important than his eternal salvation.
- The planets, plants, and creation in general were thought, in the Renaissance, to reflect the traits of the Creator who had made them. Christians had two “books” by which they could know God: the Bible, and the “Book of Nature.” Faustus ignores the Bible, and he is therefore unlikely to “read” or “interpret” the Book of Nature properly, or even books about nature. Instead of reading books about astronomy or horticulture, Faustus would be well advised (at least from a Renaissance Christian point of view) to re-read scripture.
- Ironically, Faustus’s request for a book about plant-life is reminiscent, in its phrasing, of the opening portion of the book of Genesis, from the Bible.
- The fact that Mephastophilis is so willing to supply Faustus with the books he requests indicates the change in function that Mephastophilis has undergone. When he first appeared, he almost tried to warn Faustus away from hell. However, once Faustus rejected Mephastophilis’s wise advice, the demon became a conventional tempter, more than willing to help Faustus on his road to spiritual ruin.