During Christopher Marlowe’s time and for centuries before then,“wrath,” or anger, was considered one of the “seven deadly sins.” In fact, Wrath appears as a character in Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus in precisely that capacity. Wrath was traditionally associated with uncontrolled rage or fury, especially anger rooted in selfishness rather than motivated by righteousness.
Faustus’s own wrath is especially apparent in his treatment of the Old Man who, near the end of the play, tries to dissuade Faustus from continuing in his sin. Although Faustus at first seems moved by the Old Man’s words, one bad sign is that he directs passionate anger toward himself rather than with sincere humility toward God. Mephastophilis, trying to take advantage of Faustus’s angry despair, offers him a knife with which to kill himself. Suicide, of course, would lead Faustus straight to hell, and so the Old Man pleads with Faustus to seek mercy rather than to engage in self-punishment. Faustus is momentarily calmed, but when the Old Man leaves the stage, Faustus quickly relapses. He believes that he is inevitably condemned by the anger of God, but neither here nor elsewhere in the play does he ever truly show repentance or seek forgiveness.
When Mephastophilis responds with wrath to Faustus’s apparent backsliding, Faustus pleads with the demon to ask Satan to pardon him. In other words, Faustus fears the anger of Satan even more than the anger of God. Rather than seeking pardon from God, he seeks it from Lucifer. And then, in perhaps the most morally disgusting moment of the play, he urges Mephastophilis to attack the well-intentioned Old Man:
Torment, sweet friend, that base and crooked age
That durst dissuade me from thy Lucifer,
With greatest torments that thy hell affords.
Notice the phrasing here: Faustus does not simply want the Old Man to be kept at a distance or pestered by minor pains; he wants the Old Man to suffer the “greatest torments that . . . hell affords.” This is naked, ugly wrath. Fortunately, the Old Man responds appropriately to the torments he suffers: he seeks God’s help (as Faustus never does).
Further evidence of Faustus’s wrath appears, ironically, in the very final scene of the play. At precisely the time when Faustus should be seeking God’s forgiveness, he instead expresses wrath toward the last persons he should attack: his own mother and father. Thus he exclaims, “Cursed be the parents that engendered me,” but then he immediately continues,
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer,
That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.
Faustus doesn’t realize that this is no time to be cursing anyone. Certainly he should not blame Lucifer for his downfall, since Faustus himself chose his own fate. Nor should Faustus waste his time feeling angry toward himself. He should, it is true, confess responsibility for his sins, but this is no time for wrath, even wrath directed at himself. This is a time for humility, repentance, sorrow, and desire for forgiveness. Faustus, however, is too swallowed up by pride to ask for God’s mercy. He will therefore suffer God’s anger for all eternity.