Student Question

What is the relationship between place, eternity, and sensual experience in Doctor Faustus?

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Faustus finds a kind of religious transcendence through sensual experience, but it leads him to stray further from God and salvation, suggesting that religion and sensual pleasure are incompatible. Though he tries, Faustus cannot find God in these physical pleasures and must turn back and pray for forgiveness. 

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For much of Doctor Faustus, when he is not wasting time pranking clergy in Rome or conjuring magic tricks, Faustus sometimes pauses in an attempt to find some sense of meaning in his quest for power and pleasure. Several times, he is tempted to turn back to God and ask to be forgiven for making a deal with the devil. However, he does not turn to God for meaning and salvation, but in earthly pleasures, most famously, sexual desire when he conjures Helen of Troy.

Faustus' famous speech connects spiritual transcendence with sensual pleasure:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips suck forth my soul, see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena!
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy shall Wittenburg be sacked;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest:
Yea, I will wound Achilles on the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O thou art fairer than a thousand stars,
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appeared to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azured arms;
And none but thee shall be my paramour.

Here, Helen becomes a stand-in for Christ and God, a perversion of true spiritual guidance and transcendence. Faustus is trying to lose himself through intercourse with Helen rather than by giving himself up to a greater, non-earthly power. In terms of place, he is quite limited, only thinking of the physical world. Once again, he is looking for transcendence in all the wrong places, and his ignorance costs him dearly at the end of the play, where he achieves no transcendence and earthly pleasure proves as fleeting as his powers.

What does this say about the intersection of eternity and physical place/sensual pleasure? It suggests that the two are incompatible. No matter how enervating his physical experience, Faustus cannot find what he seeks by giving himself over to sexual pleasure or by hoarding power, but only through humbleness through asking for forgiveness from God.

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What is the relation between place, eternity, and sexual (or sensual) experience in Doctor Faustus? What are some moments in the play that represent this?

"Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight."

The English playwright (and possible spy and atheist) Christopher Marlowe's late sixteenth-century play Doctor Faustus has a setting that can only be described as cosmic. There is the literal setting of the play, which is Wittenberg, Germany (one wonders if he chose it because of Luther), but it is not as important as the larger setting, one that encompasses heaven and hell, the past and the present, and earth and space. The plot hinges on Faustus trading his eternal soul for occult powers, and he conjures the figure of Mephistopheles, a demon. Other supernatural characters include two angels, one good and one evil, the seven deadly sins, and even the Devil himself. Faustus is skeptical about hell, calling it a "fable," but in the end, he is dragged down there by devils. The interplay between the literal setting and the spiritual setting gets to Marlowe's theme of worldly success and the rewards of eternity. Faustus only cares about the former, and this is his downfall.

On the final issue of sexual/sensual experience, it's only of minor concern to Faustus. He uses his powers to ask Mephistopheles for a wife because he is "wanton and lascivious and cannot live without a wife" (1.5.143). In a comic moment, Mephistopheles gives him a devil dressed as a woman. The only other notable instance is the appearance of the legendary beauty Helen of Troy, she of "the face that launched a thousand ships." But, ultimately, Faustus is more concerned with power and knowledge than he is with sex and sensual experiences.

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