After reading Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, how might one explain the meaning of "sloth" and link it to the contents of the play?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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During Christopher Marlowe’s time and for centuries before then,“sloth” was considered one of the “seven deadly sins.” In fact, Sloth appears in as a character in Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus in precisely that capacity. Sloth was traditionally defined as apathy or laziness, especially in matters involving one’s own soul and the souls of others. Doctor Faustus is guilty of sloth, as even the opening scene of the play implies.

In that scene, Faustus demonstrates again and again that he is incapable of the hard work and true commitment demanded by various callings in life. He rejects one possible career after another, partly because he cannot focus on any single one of them. Despite his great learning, he is in some ways very intellectually lazy.

Faustus himself seems to recognize this problem; in his very first words of the play, he urges himself to

Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin

To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess . . .

The irony of this statement, of course, is that for the next 64 lines he demonstrates anything but depth or a settled attitude toward his studies. Instead, he flits from one option to another because he is too mentally lazy to devote himself whole-heartedly to any single one of them.

Faustus’s opening speech reveals his intellectual sloth in other ways, too. This is particularly evident when he quotes from the Bible (a book he should know very well since he has been studying it for years) and either deliberately or inadvertently omits crucial phrasing from the relevant passage. Thus, he proclaims that “Stipendium peccati mors est” and then immediately translates these Latin words into English: “The reward of sin is death.”  However, he neglects to cite the rest of the passage from Romans 6.23: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Perhaps Faustus, at this point in his life, does not want to remember the second half of the verse, since doing so would mean recalling his need to commit himself to Christ. Such commitment would involve dedication, self-denial, and the ability to resist temptation.  Faustus is too lazy – too slothful – to undertake this kind of difficult task.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that Faustus reveals such a strong interest in magic.  Magic, almost by definition, involves making difficult things seem easy. Magic, almost by definition, also involves an absence of hard work. By simply casting a spell or exercising some mysterious power, a magician achieves, in an instant, results that would otherwise involve laborious effort. Faustus’s fascination with magic, then, is a logical reflection of his fundamentally slothful nature.