Doctor Faustus

by: Christopher Marlowe

Scenes 2–4

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?
         (3.7680)

Mephastophilis exposes the horrors of his own experience as if offering sage guidance to Faustus. His honesty in mentioning the “ten thousand hells” that torment him shines a negative light on the action of committing one’s soul to Lucifer. Indeed, Mephastophilis even tells Faustus to abandon his “frivolous demands” (3.81).

But Faustus refuses to leave his desires. Instead, he exhibits the blindness that serves as one of his defining characteristics throughout the play. Faustus sees the world as he wants to see it rather than as it is. This shunning of reality is symbolized by his insistence that Mephastophilis, who is presumably hideous, reappear as a Franciscan friar. In part, this episode is a dig at Catholicism, pitched at Marlowe’s fiercely Protestant English audience, but it also shows to what lengths Faustus will go in order to mitigate the horrors of hell. He sees the devil’s true shape, but rather than flee in terror he tells Mephastophilis to change his appearance, which makes looking upon him easier. Again, when Mephastophilis has finished telling him of the horrors of hell and urging him not to sell his soul, Faustus blithely dismisses what Mephastophilis has said, accusing him of lacking “manly fortitude” (3.85). There is a desperate naïveté to Faustus’s approach to the demonic: he cannot seem to accept that hell is really as bad as it seems, which propels him forward into darkness.

The antics of Wagner and the clown provide a comic counterpoint to the Faustus-Mephastophilis scenes. The clown jokes that he would sell his soul to the devil for a well-seasoned shoulder of mutton, and Wagner uses his newly gained conjuring skill to frighten the clown into serving him. Like Faustus, these clownish characters (whose scenes are so different from the rest of the play that some writers have suggested that they were written by a collaborator rather than by Marlowe himself) use magic to summon demons. But where Faustus is grand and ambitious and tragic, they are low and common and absurd, seeking mutton and the ability to turn into a mouse or a rat rather than world power or fantastic wealth. As the play progresses, though, Faustus’s grandeur diminishes, and he sinks down toward the level of the clowns, suggesting that degradation precedes damnation.