During Christopher Marlowe’s time and for centuries before then,“lechery,” or lust, was considered one of the “seven deadly sins.” In fact, Lechery appears as a character in Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus in precisely that capacity. Lechery was traditionally defined as a selfish desire to use the body of another person to achieve self-centered pleasure. Lechery could also involve idolizing the body of another person and thus turning away from proper worship – the worship of God.
The clearest example of Doctor Faustus’s own lechery appears when he asks Mephastophilis to revive and bring before him the beautiful body of Helen of Troy, the woman whose own lust and infidelity were traditionally blamed for the horrors of the Trojan War described in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. Interestingly, Faustus deliberately asks to see Helen so that he will not be distracted from his demonic commitments. An Old Man has just tried to win him back to the worship of God; Faustus tries to use Helen as an antidote to counteract the Old Man’s persuasiveness.
When “Helen” appears, Faustus not only idolizes her but expresses lust for her:
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips sucks [sic] forth my soul, see where it flies!
Come Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be [sic] in these lips . . .
These lines are ironic in numerous ways. In the first place, only Christ can make Faustus “immortal.” Secondly, Helen does not literally suck forth Faustus’s soul; instead, Faustus himself has voluntarily sold his soul to Satan. Thirdly, Helen has no power to return Faustus’s soul to Faustus; only Christ can do that if Faustus sincerely repents of his bad bargain with Satan. Fourthly, when Faustus says that heaven is in Helen’s lips, he is either exaggerating or is deceiving himself. Heaven is where it’s always been (with God), but Faustus’s phrasing indicates just how much lechery is entangled with idolatry. Yet this kind of idolatry is ultimately rooted in self-love, not true affection for another person.
It seems significant that Helen never has a chance to speak a word in response to Faustus’s hyperboles. She matters to him only as a means of satisfying his own selfish desires. He claims devotion to her but is really devoted only to himself. He ignores the advice of the Old Man, perhaps, partly because the old man is in fact an old man. If the Old Man had been a beautiful young woman, Faustus might have paid a bit more attention.
In any case, Marlowe juxtaposes the superficial physical beauty of Helen with the true spiritual beauty of the Old Man. In the episode involving Helen, we see once again how Faustus is responsible for his own temptations and his own spiritual downfall.