In Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe supplies a nearly diagrammatic study of damnation—of the decline and fall of a human soul—growing out of excessive pride and overreaching ambition. The well-schooled Faustus, with his unbridled curiosity, skepticism, and knowledge, stands as the epitome of the Renaissance “new man.” On his graduation from the German university at Wittenberg, Faustus casts about for a suitable profession. He rejects, in turn, philosophy, medicine, law, and theology, finding that all these fields fall short of what amounts to his supra-human desires. For example, medicine (“physic”) promises the possibility of temporary healing but not of bestowing everlasting life or of raising the dead. Accordingly, Faustus at last lights upon necromancy—magic and the black arts—as providing the sole means whereby he can achieve “omnipotence” and become a “mighty god.”
In the company of his like-minded friends Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus summons up the demon Mephistophilis and informs him that, in exchange for twenty-four years of earthly pleasure, wealth, and honor, he is ready to abandon his soul to Lucifer, the evil one himself. Immediately, Good Angel and Bad Angel appear to Faustus, the former urgently pleading for the scholar’s repentance, and the latter airily dismissing the efficacy of prayer. Willfully determined, Faustus stabs his arm and writes out his agreement with the devil in his own resisting blood.
Almost immediately, however, it becomes clear that there are limits to demonic power: For example, Faustus asks for a wife only to learn that holy matrimony, a sacrament of the Church, is not open to him now. In place of a wife, Mephistophilis promises Faustus a succession of prostitutes, an adjustment that the lascivious Faustus finds congenial. The demon then converses with Faustus about astronomy and cosmology. Throughout this long discourse, Faustus is tempted to repent from time to time; but Mephistophilis, Belzebub, and Lucifer are each time able to distract him with entertaining (if insubstantial) “shows”—for example, with a diverting parade of the personified Seven Deadly Sins—so that the enthralled scholar forgets any misgivings and hews to his bargain.
In a subsequent series of relatively brief and decidedly farcical vignettes—first at the Vatican at Rome, then at the imperial German court, and finally in the swindling of a lowly horse seller—Faustus, aided by the devils who accompany him, demonstrates the arguably paltry powers he has attained at the cost of his soul. In Rome, for example, he assumes invisibility in order to strike the pope about the head, set free the pontiff’s enemy Bruno, and befuddle a host of Ecclesiastes. At the royal court, he beguiles Emperor Charles by evoking the forms of such historical figures as Alexander the Great and Darius—all the while reminding the monarch that these apparently tangible manifestations are in fact “but shadows, not substantial.” Finally, he provides out-of-season grapes for the duchess of Inhaled and, in the role of court jester, amuses himself and the ducal assembly by cruelly hoodwinking some rustic yokels.
At last, however, as the end of Faustus’s life draws near, the mood of the play inevitably lurches from the farcical to the terrifying and demonic. Back in the magician’s study, a pious Old Man, representing God’s infinite mercy, warns Faustus of the eternal agonies of hell and entreats him, even at this late hour, to repent. Shaken, Faustus nonetheless gives way to the sin of despair and begs Mephistophilis to summon up the distracting image of Helen of Troy, a mythic figure metaphorically associated with fire—in this case, the fires of hell. Kissing Faustus, her “lips suck forth [his] soul.” By willfully embracing this demonic figure, Faustus permanently seals his fate, and even as he cries out pitifully for more time, the unholy trinity of Lucifer, Belzebub, and Mephistophilis lead the magician offstage to the unending torment that awaits his spirit. Two scholars later discover his earthly body, horribly torn and dismembered.
Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus is generally considered his greatest. The play shares certain elements with its ancestor, the medieval morality play: the opposing admonishments of good and bad angels; the characters of Lucifer and Mephostophilis; and the appearance of the Seven Deadly Sins. Yet it breaks with tradition in two important respects: in the sympathy evoked for the straying hero, and in the questions raised against the cosmic order of conventional Christian doctrine.
Faustus pursues his grand aspirations in what Marlowe portrays as a repressive climate of Christian orthodoxy, which, in designating certain knowledge as forbidden, blocks fulfillment of his desires and effectively becomes his antagonist. The play opens with Faustus in his study. He has plumbed the depths of all disciplines and found them unfulfilling. He will settle for no less than a dominion that “Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man”—a world of physical beauty, sensual delight, and power over life and objects. He decides his best hope is necromancy, an art forbidden by Christian doctrine.
Thus, the scene is set for Faustus’s tragic decline. Planted in the text, even from the beginning, are warnings of the terrible fate awaiting Faustus. A master of dramatic irony, Marlowe has these warnings go unheeded by his hero while they build an uneasy tension in the audience’s awareness. An example is Faustus’s remark on his own great powers in conjuring up Mephostophilis. Only a few lines later, it is revealed that Mephostophilis has come more out of his own and Lucifer’s self-interest than in deference to Faustus’s wishes. Similarly, when Mephostophilis tells Faustus that Lucifer was thrown from Heaven for aspiring pride and insolence, the audience recognizes that Faustus exhibits the same faults and may meet the same fate. There is ambivalence, too, in Faustus’s repeated exhortation to himself to be resolute in his damnable course of action. The word, used more often in connection with Christian virtue, gains an ironic weight, rendering Doctor Faustus a negative version of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684).
Counterbalanced against this carefully crafted tragic inevitability is the hope that Faustus will repent and save himself. Marlowe keeps the conflict in Faustus’s soul active until the end. In the moving soliloquies, Faustus’s initial confidence in his pact with Lucifer alternates with regret and determination to turn back to God. Despair however, prevails. In his second soliloquy, Faustus is turned back from repentance by his sense of God’s indifference to him and his own indifference to God: Faustus serves only his own appetite. In one profoundly moving scene, Faustus announces, “I do repent” only to have Mephostophilis threaten him with having his flesh torn into pieces for disobedience to Lucifer. Faustus effects a hasty turnabout of meaning in an ironic echo of his previous phrase: “I do repent I e’er offended him.”
Yet just as God failed Faustus in his aspirations, so does Lucifer. Disillusionment follows rapidly on his pact. Faustus asks for a wife; but marriage is a sacrament, so Mephostophilis cannot provide one. When Faustus questions him about astronomy, Mephostophilis tells him nothing the scholar Wagner could not have told him. Although the Chorus reveals that Faustus attains fame for his learning, his achievements are superficial and empty in comparison with his grandiose intentions at the outset. He humiliates the pope (a typically Marlovian scenario), avenges some petty wrongs done to him by Benvolio by attaching antlers to his head, and entertains the duke and duchess of Vanholt with insubstantial illusions. At the play’s start, no area of knowledge is large enough for Faustus’s overweening sense of self; toward the end, fear and despair have so diminished him that he wants only dissolution and oblivion: “O soul, be chang’d into little water drops,/ And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found.”
In spite of the intellectual nature of the play’s premise, it contains scenes of a striking visual immediacy. The first entrance of Mephostophilis, too ugly for Faustus’s taste, and the appearance of Helen of Troy are examples. Often, scenes of horror are not directly represented on stage but chillingly evoked in words. Faustus’s blood congeals as he attempts to sign his soul away to the Devil; a Latin inscription meaning “Fly, O man!” appears on his arm. That the audience is told this by Faustus rather than seeing it for itself lets it experience the terror through his awareness. Similarly, a chill of fear is produced by Faustus’s words to the Scholars: “Ay, pray for me, pray for me; and, what noise soever ye hear, come not unto me, for nothing can rescue me.” The image is as powerful in its understatement as the explicit horror of the final scene, where devils drag Faustus off to Hell.
Marlowe’s verse reached its full emotional power in Doctor Faustus. Faustus’s soliloquy beginning “Ah, Faustus,/ Now hast thou but one bare hour to live” is an example of the emotional intensity of which Marlowe was capable. Faustus’s request that the spheres of Heaven cease their motion to give him time to repent is heartrending because of its very impossibility. Desperation is conveyed in the rapid and diminishing series of time extensions that he demands. His violent reversals of mood—from calling on God to anguish at being dragged downward by devils, from the vision of Christ’s blood streaming in the firmament to the pain of Lucifer’s tortures—move the audience with him from despair to hope. His spiritual agony is summarized in the evocative and poignant line, “O lente lente currite noctis equi” (“Slowly run, O horses of night”).
The traditional morality play affirmed Christian virtue and faith and condemned the vices of those who strayed from the path. Doctor Faustus offers no such comfortable framework. It does not offer a reassuring affirmation of Christian faith or a straightforward condemnation of Faustus. Instead, it presents a disturbing challenge to the cosmic order as defined by Christian orthodoxy. Listeners are invited “Only to wonder at unlawful things,/ whose deepness doth entice such forward wits/ To practise more than heavenly power permits.”
The question with which the play ends is whether the tragedy of Faustus is individual, the tragedy of one man’s fall from grace, or universal, the tragedy of Everyman in a system of belief that offers no place or path for the growth of the illimitable human spirit.