The reward of sin is death? That’s hard.
Si peccasse negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veritas.
If we say that we have no sin,
We deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us.
Why then belike we must sin,
And so consequently die.
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this? Che sarà, sarà:
What will be, shall be! Divinity, adieu!
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly!
Faustus speaks these lines near the end of his opening soliloquy. In this speech, he considers various fields of study one by one, beginning with logic and proceeding through medicine and law. Seeking the highest form of knowledge, he arrives at theology and opens the Bible to the New Testament, where he quotes from Romans and the first book of John. He reads that “[t]he reward of sin is death,” and that “[i]f we say we that we have no sin, / We deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us.” The logic of these quotations—everyone sins, and sin leads to death—makes it seem as though Christianity can promise only death, which leads Faustus to give in to the fatalistic “What will be, shall be! Divinity, adieu!” However, Faustus neglects to read the very next line in John, which states, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). By ignoring this passage, Faustus ignores the possibility of redemption, just as he ignores it throughout the play. Faustus has blind spots; he sees what he wants to see rather than what is really there. This blindness is apparent in the very next line of his speech: having turned his back on heaven, he pretends that “[t]hese metaphysics of magicians, / And necromantic books are heavenly.” He thus inverts the cosmos, making black magic “heavenly” and religion the source of “everlasting death.”
MEPHASTOPHILIS: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.
FAUSTUS: What, is great Mephastophilis so passionate
For being deprivèd of the joys of heaven?
Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude,
And scorn those joys thou never shalt possess.
This exchange shows Faustus at his most willfully blind, as he listens to Mephastophilis describe how awful hell is for him even as a devil, and as he then proceeds to dismiss Mephastophilis’s words blithely, urging him to have “manly fortitude.” But the dialogue also shows Mephastophilis in a peculiar light. We know that he is committed to Faustus’s damnation—he has appeared to Faustus because of his hope that Faustus will renounce God and swear allegiance to Lucifer. Yet here Mephastophilis seems to be urging Faustus against selling his soul, telling him to “leave these frivolous demands, / Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.” There is a parallel between the experience of Mephastophilis and that of Faustus. Just as Faustus now is, Mephastophilis was once prideful and rebelled against God; like Faustus, he is damned forever for his sin. Perhaps because of this connection, Mephastophilis cannot accept Faustus’s cheerful dismissal of hell in the name of “manly fortitude.” He knows all too well the terrible reality, and this knowledge drives him, in spite of himself, to warn Faustus away from his t-errible course.
MEPHASTOPHILIS.: Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self-place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.
. . .
All places shall be hell that is not heaven.
FAUSTUS: Come, I think hell’s a fable.
MEPHASTOPHILISs.: Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind.
. . .
FAUSTUS: 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.
This exchange again shows Mephastophilis warning Faustus about the horrors of hell. This time, though, their exchange is less significant for what Mephastophilis says about hell than for Faustus’s response to him. Why anyone would make a pact with the devil is one of the most vexing questions surrounding Doctor Faustus, and here we see part of Marlowe’s explanation. We are constantly given indications that Faustus doesn’t really understand what he is doing. He is a secular Renaissance man, so disdainful of traditional religion that he believes hell to be a “fable” even when he is conversing with a devil. Of course, such a belief is difficult to maintain when one is trafficking in the supernatural, but Faustus has a fallback position. Faustus takes Mephastophilis’s assertion that hell will be “[a]ll places … that is not heaven” to mean that hell will just be a continuation of life on earth. He fails to understand the difference between him and Mephastophilis: unlike Mephastophilis, who has lost heaven permanently, Faustus, despite his pact with Lucifer, is not yet damned and still has the possibility of repentance. He cannot yet understand the torture against which Mephastophilis warns him, and imagines, fatally, that he already knows the worst of what hell will be.
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 sucks 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!
These lines come from a speech that Faustus makes as he nears the end of his life and begins to realize the terrible nature of the bargain he has made. Despite his sense of foreboding, Faustus enjoys his powers, as the delight he takes in conjuring up Helen makes clear. While the speech marks a return to the eloquence that he shows early in the play, Faustus continues to display the same blind spots and wishful thinking that characterize his behavior throughout the drama. At the beginning of the play, he dismisses religious transcendence in favor of magic; now, after squandering his powers in petty, self-indulgent behavior, he looks for transcendence in a woman, one who may be an illusion and not even real flesh and blood. He seeks heavenly grace in Helen’s lips, which can, at best, offer only earthly pleasure. “[M]ake me immortal with a kiss,” he cries, even as he continues to keep his back turned to his only hope for escaping damnation—namely, repentance.
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually.
. . .
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah my Christ—
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;
Yet will I call on him—O spare me, Lucifer!
. . .
Earth, gape! O no, it will not harbor me.
You stars that reigned at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist
Into the entrails of yon laboring cloud,
That when you vomit forth into the air
My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,
So that my soul may but ascend to heaven.
. . .
O God, if thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,
. . .
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,
A hundred thousand, and at last be saved.
. . .
Cursed be the parents that engendered me:
No, Faustus, curse thy self, curse Lucifer,
That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.
. . .
My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!
. . .
Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books—ah, Mephastophilis!
These lines come from Faustus’s final speech, just before the devils take him down to hell. It is easily the most dramatic moment in the play, and Marlowe uses some of his finest rhetoric to create an unforgettable portrait of the mind of a man about to carried off to a horrific doom. Faustus goes from one idea to another, desperately seeking a way out. But no escape is available, and he ends by reaching an understanding of his own guilt: “No, Faustus, curse thy self, curse Lucifer, / That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.” This final speech raises the question of why Faustus does not repent earlier and, more importantly, why his desperate cries to Christ for mercy are not heard. In a truly Christian framework, Faustus would be allowed a chance at redemption even at the very end. But Marlowe’s play ultimately proves more tragic than Christian, and so there comes a point beyond which Faustus can no longer be saved. He is damned, in other words, while he is still alive.
Faustus’s last line aptly expresses the play’s representation of a clash between Renaissance and medieval values. “I’ll burn my books,” Faustus cries as the devils come for him, suggesting, for the first time since scene 2, when his slide into mediocrity begins, that his pact with Lucifer is about gaining limitless knowledge, an ambition that the Renaissance spirit celebrated but that medieval Christianity denounced as an expression of sinful human pride. As he is carried off to hell, Faustus seems to give in to the Christian worldview, denouncing, in a desperate attempt to save himself, the quest for knowledge that has defined most of his life.