What religious issues are associated with Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus?

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The most important religious issue the play addresses is Christian salvation. What makes Doctor Faustus tragic is not that Faustus makes a bad bargain with the devil to sell his soul but that he assigns far too much power to the devil. Even after Faustus realizes—or should realize—how limited the powers are that Mephistopheles can grant him (for example, Faustus can't even marry), he is unable to grasp the Christian truth that God's good is more powerful than the devil's evil and can undo anything the devil has done. The devil has no power to torment his soul if Faustus decides to give it instead to God.

The play illustrates the theological notion that it is our pride in our own human wisdom and power (as it was Satan's own pride in himself) that is the architect of our damnation. If Faustus had simply accepted the truth of the gospel message of forgiveness, rather than listening to all the ways the devil twisted it, he could have avoided eternity in hell. Up until the end, salvation is possible for Faustus if he will simply humble himself and ask for it. Yet Faustus is too sure of what he falsely "knows," which is that there is no hope for him to avoid damnation, to ask God for help. To some extent, the sophisticated deception he imbibes from Mephistopheles that "Hell is just a frame of mind" is true: it is his prideful frame of mind that causes Faustus to end up in the real hell.

The play shows us that it is Faustus's small-mindedness that makes him incapable of seeing the full goodness of God and God's desire to love and forgive all humans, no matter what they have done. The play thus becomes a cautionary tale warning us not to follow in his footsteps.

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Religious issues of various kinds play very important roles in Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. Among those issues are the following:

  • As the prologue makes clear, Faustus is highly trained “In heavenly matters of theology” (19).  He has studied not only the Bible but numerous commentaries on the Bible, and thus he has little excuse for his later irreligious behavior in the play.
  • Religion is one of the many kinds of studies Faustus explicitly rejects in the opening scene of the play. Rather than continuing to study religion and devote himself to God, Faustus turns aside from religion as a way of life and as a focus of his thinking (1.38-48). In the process of rejecting religion, Faustus misquotes the Bible. If he does so deliberately, his behavior is shocking.  If he does so because he doesn’t know the Bible well, his behavior is still shocking. By making Faustus learned in religion, Marlowe makes Faustus all the more responsible for his misconduct.
  • When Mephastophilis, a devil, appears, seemingly in response to Faustus’s summons, Faustus finds this devil “too ugly” to be Faustus’s servant.  Faustus therefore commands the devil,

Go and return an old Franciscan friar,

That holy shape becomes a devil best. (25-26)

This comment suggests another way in which religion figures in this play: the play is full of references to the conflicts during the sixteenth century between Catholics and Protestants. This split within the Christian religion was one of the most important events in the whole history of Christendom, and Marlowe deals with the issues quite explicitly.

  • Faustus’s decision to commit his soul to the devil is the most crucial way in which religion plays a part in this play. Faustus behaves in ways that are foolish and impious, and he does so in a spirit of enormous pride – the root of all sin, according to contemporary Christians.
  • Yet another way in which religion is emphasized in this play involves the appearance of the Seven Deadly Sins themselves (5.278ff).
  • Faustus’s final speech (13.57ff) is full of religious implications. Thus, he claims that he must be “damned perpetually” (59), although he never actually asks God for forgiveness. Although Faustus sees a vision of God that might inspire him to repent, his attempt to call out for mercy only leads him to ask for mercy, ironically, from Lucifer (73). Faustus seeks to hide from the “heavy wrath of God,” although he should know that such hiding is impossible (77). Faustus suggests that God may choose not to have mercy on Faustus’s soul, although Faustus never actually asks for such mercy (89). Throughout this final speech, Faustus wastes precious time and reveals an astonishing ignorance of standard Christian theology.
  • As the play ends, the Chorus reminds us that Faustus’s “hellish fall” is relevant to the lives of everyone, including the audience. Thus religion is emphasized literally up until the very last line of the play, which warns against practicing “more than heavenly power permits” (8).

In short, there is hardly a line in Doctor Faustus that is not relevant to religious issues in one way or another. Marlowe’s original audience would have been especially alert to the manifold religious implications of this play.

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