How might one explain and analyze the encounter between the good and bad angels in Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The confrontation between the good and bad angels in Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus is typical of this drama in many ways.  Marlowe’s play is very much concerned with the conflict between good and evil and with the contrast between heaven and hell. The encounter between the good and bad angels symbolizes both of these thematic concerns. The angels’ appearance is in the tradition of the so-called “psychomachia,” literally a mental war or war within the mind or soul. The angels symbolize Faustus’s own opposed inner impulses and inner conflicts.

The good angel urges Faustus to put down the book of black magic that he has been consulting.  The angel calls the book “damned,” or evil, but his phrasing should also remind Faustus that if Faustus continues to rely on the book, he himself may be damned eternally to hell. The good angel urges Faustus not to “gaze” on the book. The verb “gaze” implies intense concentration and focus; if the angel had warned Faustus not to “glance” at the book, the effect would have been entirely different. The angel warns that the book may “tempt” Faustus’s soul, but of course Faustus, as a reasonable human being, has the power to resist such temptation and will be responsible if he chooses to allow the book to tempt him. The book itself has no magical powers to make or compel Faustus to pay attention to it. If he chooses to do so, he himself will bear the blame.

The good angel warns that Faustus may suffer God’s “heavy wrath” if he continues to focus on the book of black magic. The adjective “heavy” is especially interesting, since it implies that God’s anger is like an enormous physical weight. If Faustus chooses to condemn himself to hell, he will be weighed down, both figuratively and also literally (in the sense that he will go to hell).  The good angel urges Faustus to read “the Scriptures.” Thus, just as there are good and bad angels in this play, so there are good and bad books. Faustus has the ability to choose between them and has the obligation to choose correctly.

In contrast, the bad angel urges Faustus to “Go forward” in his study of black magic:

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.

The phrasing here is rich in several senses of that word. First, by going “forward” in his magical studies, Faustus actually will only be backsliding, or falling backwards, spiritually. Second, the bad angel obviously knows how to appeal to Faustus’s pride by referring to “that famous art” (emphasis added). Faustus himself wants to be famous, and so the demon appeals to this self-centered aspect of his personality. The reference to “all nature’s treasury” should remind Faustus of the common Christian idea that nature itself is a kind of book reflecting the traits of its author (God). The bad angel then once more plays on Faustus’s pride, urging him to be a kind of rival to God (Jove). Faustus should know, of course, that there is only one true “Lord and commander of these elements,” and that Being is the Christian God. By heeding the temptation of the bad angel, Faustus seeks to supplant the creator of the universe. His pride knows no bounds.