Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has been called Renaissance England’s “last avowedly religious drama.” While that assertion might be contested, it is certainly true that the play supplies the clearest and most emphatic representation of the psychomachia—the struggle between God and the devil for the fate of an individual human soul—that was available to English playgoers since the equally straightforward morality plays of the Middle Ages (with which Doctor Faustus bears many similarities.)
It is not that Faustus is unaware of this war between good and evil, between flesh and spirit, that is going on all around and within him. “Oh, I’ll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?” Faustus cries out at play’s end. What pulls him down is his obdurate pride, the habitual pattern of sins from which he cannot or will not release himself, and his condition of despair. Essentially, Faustus is convinced (wrongly, according to orthodox Christian thought) that his sins are so manifold and serious that they are beyond even God’s redress and forgiveness; accordingly, he cannot truly repent. To many Renaissance minds, such conscious embracing of despair constitutes the “sin against the Holy Spirit,” warned of in Scripture that alone resides outside the circumference of God’s mercy.
Faustus finally understands that he has long suspected on some level—namely, that “for the vain pleasure of four and twenty years,” he has “lost eternal joy and felicity” in the presence of God’s glory. He had dreamed of world conquest but ends up as little more than a court clown, fetching grapes for a bored and dissipated duchess. He had thought to acquire all knowledge but is at last left praying for the sublime oblivion of the bestial and even mineral worlds. This alarming declension—this devolution—of a human soul receives a powerful dramatic treatment in Marlowe’s famous play.