What are some of the meanings of heaven and hell and the complexities of defining the relation between them in Doctor Faustus?

Some of the meanings of heaven and hell in Doctor Faustus involve moral states, not physical places for rewards or punishments. The relationship between them is complex. Like good and evil, heaven and hell complement each other. They pull Faustus in opposite directions until he makes his choice and loses his chance for redemption.

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In the drama The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus, author Christopher Marlowe deals with the concepts of heaven and hell in a non-traditional manner. Instead of describing the biblical locations for punishment or reward depending upon the manner by which a human being approaches life, Marlowe rejects the notion of either heaven or hell as being actual places. The author envisions both as mental states.

Rather than a particular location, the author treats hell as the moral condition of living one’s life without God or His grace and mercy. For example, Mephistophilis warns Faustus against selling his soul despite the fact that he is a devil condemned to hell:

MEPHIST. Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv'd of everlasting bliss?
O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!

Mephistophilis has committed himself to the service of Lucifer and is sent to claim Faustus’s soul, yet it appears he makes an attempt to dissuade the protagonist from selling his soul and urges him not to renounce God and swear allegiance to Lucifer. Faustus makes his choice to pact with Lucifer for knowledge and power:

FAUSTUS. What, is great Mephistophilis so passionate
For being deprived of the joys of heaven?Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude,
And scorn those joys thou never shalt possess.
Go bear these tidings to great Lucifer:
Seeing Faustus hath incurr'd eternal death
By desperate thoughts against Jove's deity,
Say, he surrenders up to him his soul.

Once Faustus accepts his fate, Marlowe shows his readers the extent of the complexities in defining the relationship between heaven and hell. The protagonist is already in hell by virtue of his free will. His damnation is portrayed by his conscious choice uninfluenced by God. Before he opts for service to Lucifer, Faustus thinks of hell as a mythical place. After signing his pact with the Devil, he realizes it is actually the experience of living in despair without God.

As symbolized by the Good and Evil Angels, Faustus’s conscience is divided between good and evil human impulses. He is warned by the Old Man to repent his sins and choose God’s path through life. In Marlowe’s view, that is heaven. Rather than enjoying the “everlasting bliss” available by allegiance to God’s will, the protagonist yields to his sin of pride and decides to live without God, which is hell. Faustus’s flawed judgment condemns him to the state of hell. Although throughout the play Faustus is afforded the opportunity to repent, he refuses. In the end, he regrets his choice and wants to repent:

My God, my god, look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!

However, it is too late. “Faustus is gone” because he chooses “To practice more than heavenly power permits.”

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

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