Why does Faustus think that hell is a fable?

In The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Doctor Faustus has a "dispute" with Mephistophilis about the existence of hell. Mephistophilis tries to convince Faustus that hell is real, but Faustus thinks he is far too intelligent to believe in such a "fable" and tells Mephistophilis that stories about hell are are nothing but "trifles and mere old wives' tales."

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In scene 5 of Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Doctor Faustus trades his soul to Lucifer for twenty-four years of unlimited power, knowledge, and pleasure.

Faustus’s written agreement with Lucifer provides that Mephistophilis, a devil-servant to Lucifer, will serve at Faustus’s pleasure, “doing whatever he asks shall do for him and bring him whatsoever he desires.” Interestingly, the first thing that Faustus does after he signs his agreement with Lucifer is ask Mephistophilis not for power or pleasure but for knowledge.

FAUSTUS: First will I question with thee about Hell.

Tell me where is the place that men call Hell?

Mephistophilis tells Faustus that hell is “within the bowels of these elements” but that “Hell hath no limits” and that when the world ends, “all places shall be Hell that is not Heaven.”

Faustus scoffs at what Mephistophilis tells him:

FAUSTUS: Come, I think Hell's a fable. ...

Think'st thou that Faustus is so fond to imagine

That, after this life, there is any pain?

Tush; these are trifles and mere old wives' tales.

Mephistophilis tries to convince Faustus that he’s in hell now and continues to be in hell wherever he goes: “For I am damned, and am now in hell.”

Faustus thinks that he’s far too intelligent, too knowledgeable, and too worldly to believe Mephistophilis. He says that if he and Mephistophilis are in hell, as Mephistophilis says he is, then Faustus is happy to be there.

FAUSTUS: How! now in hell?

Nay, an this be hell, I'll willingly be damned here.

Faustus refuses to take Mephistophilis seriously, and he demands that Mephistophilis bring him a wife, “the fairest maid in Germany,” and that Mephistophilis bring him books, wherein he “might behold all spells and incantations,” wherein he “might see all characters and planets of the heavens,” and wherein he “might see all plants, herbs, and trees that grow upon the earth.”

It’s not until very near the end of the play, and the end of his life, that Faustus comes to realize that hell is indeed a place of eternal torment, to which he’s condemned himself forever.

FAUSTUS: Oh, would I had never seen Wertenberg, never

read book! and what wonders I have done, all Germany

can witness, yea, all the world: for which Faustus hath

lost both Germany and the world, yea, Heaven itself,

Heaven, the seat of God, the throne of the blessed, the

kingdom of joy; and must remain in hell for ever, hell,

ah, hell, for ever!

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
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