What is the concept of hell in Dr Faustus?
In Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe does not present a hell where the guest list is already determined. One's descent into hell is ultimately a voluntary decision. Doctor Faustus, in his fervor to aspire to forbidden magical knowledge that he believes will confer power upon him, resolves to achieve it regardless of the means he must use to get...
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The concept of hell in Faustus contradicts the traditional idea that hell is a physical place where suffering occurs. Instead, hell is constructed as a mental state of suffering which arises from a lack of opportunity to interact with God and heaven.
Mephostophilis appears to Faustus to be on earth with him and therefore, in his mind, ‘out’ of hell. The protagonist asks: “How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” Mephostophilis’ answer clearly dismisses the idea of hell as a place which ‘bad’ individuals are constricted to:
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?
Firstly, Mephostophilis explodes any notion of a ‘local’ hell, defining hell instead as a state of mind. The ‘hell’ that he endures on a daily basis is being deprived of ‘everlasting bliss’ and the ‘eternal joys’ that being in heaven brings.
Secondly, Mephostophilis makes it very clear that he suffers and that Faustus will too: "O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands!". Whilst Faustus disputes with Mephostophilis the metaphysics of hell, he declines to accept that he will suffer if he sells his soul to Lucifer. He exercises his fatal flaw – arrogance – and the declarative “I think hell’s a fable” epitomises his naïve nature. He underestimates the effect that the deprivation of the divine will have on him and his repeated ignorance of the good angel and, eventually, the Old Man will culminate in his demise. Faustus’ spiritual decline sees his descent into hell, as he realises the opportunity he has given up – “Damn’d art thou, Faustus, damn’d; despair and die!” – in bequeathing his soul to Lucifer for “four and twenty years” of mischief he has "lost eternal joy and felicity".
In such a way, the concept of hell is used by Marlowe to explore following the wrong path. It is also a critique of the Elizabethan attitude that hell was a physical place filled with brimstone where damned souls were banished to after death. Arguably the idea of the suffering the psyche may endure from deprivation of the divine - especially if you don't believe in the divine whilst alive - is far more chilling than any physical suffering one could be subjected to in a physical hell.