Is Doctor Faustus a Christian tragedy? Why or why not?
Doctor Faustus has elements of both Christian morality and classical tragedy. On the one hand, it takes place in an explicitly Christian cosmos: God sits on high, as the judge of the world, and every soul goes either to hell or to heaven. There are devils and angels, with the devils tempting people into sin and the angels urging them to remain true to God. Faustus’s story is a tragedy in Christian terms, because he gives in to temptation and is damned to hell. Faustus’s principal sin is his great pride and ambition, which can be contrasted with the Christian virtue of humility; by letting these traits rule his life, Faustus allows his soul to be claimed by Lucifer, Christian cosmology’s prince of devils.
Yet while the play seems to offer a very basic Christian message—that one should avoid temptation and sin, and repent if one cannot avoid temptation and sin—its conclusion can be interpreted as straying from orthodox Christianity in order to conform to the structure of tragedy. In a traditional tragic play, as pioneered by the Greeks and imitated by William Shakespeare, a hero is brought low by an error or series of errors and realizes his or her mistake only when it is too late. In Christianity, though, as long as a person is alive, there is always the possibility of repentance—so if a tragic hero realizes his or her mistake, he or she may still be saved even at the last moment. But though Faustus, in the final, wrenching scene, comes to his senses and begs for a chance to repent, it is too late, and he is carried off to hell. Marlowe rejects the Christian idea that it is never too late to repent in order to increase the dramatic power of his finale, in which Faustus is conscious of his damnation and yet, tragically, can do nothing about it.
Scholar R.M. Dawkins once called Faustus “a Renaissance man who had to pay the medieval price for being one.” Do you think this is an accurate characterization of Marlowe’s tragic hero?
Doctor Faustus has frequently been interpreted as depicting a clash between the values of the medieval world and the emerging spirit of the sixteenth-century Renaissance. In medieval Europe, Christianity and God lay at the center of intellectual life: scientific inquiry languished, and theology was known as “the queen of the sciences.” In art and literature, the emphasis was on the lives of the saints and the mighty rather than on those of ordinary people. With the advent of the Renaissance, however, there was a new celebration of the free individual and the scientific exploration of nature.
While Marlowe’s Faustus is, admittedly, a magician and not a scientist, this distinction was not so clearly drawn in the sixteenth century as it is today. (Indeed, famous scientists such as Isaac Newton dabbled in astrology and alchemy into the eighteenth century.) With his rejection of God’s authority and his thirst for knowledge and control over nature, Faustus embodies the more secular spirit of the dawning modern era. Marlowe symbolizes this spirit in the play’s first scene, when Faustus explicitly rejects all the medieval authorities—Aristotle in logic, Galen in medicine, Justinian in law, and the Bible in religion—and decides to strike out on his own. In this speech, Faustus puts the medieval world to bed and steps firmly into the new era. Yet, as the quote says, he “pay[s] the medieval price” for taking this new direction, since he still exists firmly within a Christian framework, meaning that his transgressions ultimately condemn him to hell.
In the play’s final lines, the Chorus tells us to view Faustus’s fate as a warning and not follow his example. This admonition would seem to make Marlowe a defender of the established religious values, showing us the terrible fate that awaits a Renaissance man who rejects God. But by investing Faustus with such tragic grandeur, Marlowe may be suggesting a different lesson. Perhaps the price of rejecting God is worth it, or perhaps Faustus pays the price for all of western culture, allowing it to enter a new, more secular era.
Discuss the character of Mephastophilis. How much of a role does he play in Faustus’s damnation? How does Marlowe complicate his character and inspire our sympathy?
Mephastophilis is part of a long tradition of fascinating literary devils that reached its peak a century later with John Milton’s portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost, published in the late seventeenth century. Mephastophilis seems to desire Faustus’s damnation: he appears eagerly when Faustus rejects God and firms up Faustus’s resolve when Faustus hedges on his contract with Lucifer. Yet there is an odd ambivalence in Mephastophilis. Before the pact is sealed, he actually warns Faustus against making the deal, telling him how awful the pains of hell are. In a famous passage, when Faustus remarks that Mephastophilis seems to be free of hell at the moment, Mephastophilis retorts,
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?
Again, when Faustus expresses skepticism that any afterlife exists, Mephastophilis assures him that hell is real and terrible. These odd complications in Mephastophilis’s character serve a twofold purpose. First, they highlight Faustus’s willful blindness, since he dismisses the warning of the very demon with whom he is bartering over his soul. In this regard, his remark that hell is a myth seems particularly delusional. At the same time, these complications inspire a kind of pity for Mephastophilis and his fellow devils, who are damned to hell just as surely as Faustus or any other sinful, unrepentant human. These devils may be villains, but they are tragic figures, separated forever from the bliss of God’s presence by their pride. Indeed, Mephastophilis and Faust are similar figures: both reject God out of pride, and both suffer for it eternally.