Doctor Faustus Contents
- The Faust figure in European culture
- Social / political context
- Religious / philosophical context
- The theatrical context
- The texts of Doctor Faustus
- Prologue: Chorus one
- Scene one
- Scene two
- Scene three
- Scene four
- Scene five
- Chorus two
- Scene six
- Scene six, version B
- Scene seven
- Scene seven, version B
- Scene eight
- Scene eight, version B
- Chorus three
- Scene nine
- Scene nine, version B
- Scene ten
- Scene eleven
- Chorus four
- Scene twelve
- Scene thirteen
This discussion of Faustus' character traces him through the play, as he appears in the words of other characters and by his actions and speeches on the stage. His state of mind and behaviour are constantly changing as the play goes on, and this approach to his character is appropriate to the dynamic nature of his representation.
Achievement and arrogance
Chorus 1 includes an account of Faustus' life up to the beginning of the play. It is a story of considerable achievement for a child of humble birth and the Chorus' description is packed with positive terms: ‘profits', ‘fruitful', ‘graced', ‘excelling all', ‘sweet delight' and ‘heavenly matters' (Chorus 1, 15-19).
At line 20, however, the tenor of the speech changes abruptly to become negative and heavily judgmental:
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.
For falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted more with learning's golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy.
Chorus 1, 20-25
These lines make clear the nature of Faustus' weakness – his intellectual vanity and arrogance and his boredom with what he already knows. A strong indication of his eventual fate is also given by the allusion to the story of Icarus, whose waxen wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. (See the discussion of this passage in Imagery and symbolism > Flight and falling.)
A bored polymath
In Scene 1, we witness a dramatisation of this arrogance and boredom, as Faustus reviews, then rejects, the branches of knowledge in which he has become expert: logic, medicine, law and theology (divinity). His attainments are wide-ranging but he feels that he has gone as far as he can with all these subjects. He has become bored and contemptuous of what they can offer him. As he dismisses each of them, he says something to suggest that he is above and beyond such knowledge and is looking for something more exciting and engaging:
Then read no more, thou hast attained the end;
A greater subject fitteth Faustus' wit.
Scene 1, 9-11
Yet art though still but Faustus, and a man,
Wouldst thou make man to live eternally,
Or, being dead, raise them to life again,
Then this profession were to be esteemed.
Scene 1, 23-26
His study fits a mercenary drudge
Who aims at nothing but external trash!
Too servile and illiberal for me.
Scene 1, 34-36
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this? Che serà, sera:
What will be, shall be! Divinity, adieu!
Scene 1, 46-48
In each of these quotations, Faustus criticises the main established scholarly subjects – those considered worthy of study by the greatest intellects and approved by the Church. In doing so, he states at least partly heretical views:
- He regrets that his power is limited by his humanity. By even implying that he wishes to raise the dead, he aspires to a power reserved only to God and to Christ during his ministry on earth
- Stating that the only conclusion of divinity is ‘Che serà, sera: What will be, shall be!' goes against Church doctrine. The proverbial saying he quotes suggests that life is a matter of chance, fate or destiny, but these were regarded as pagan concepts, foreign to a Christian framework that sees the hand of God in human events
- He reiterates his attack in his words to Cornelius and Valdes in Scene 1, l.106-109.
Knowledge, magic and power
In the final part of the long speech from which these quotations are taken, Faustus goes on to set out what he believes is a preferable alternative to these stale branches of knowledge. It is clear that, in practising magic, he seeks power over people and the natural world.
In this scene and in the following encounter with Cornelius and Valdes, Faustus constantly repeats the advantages he believes he will gain. Much of his meaning is conveyed through the imagery he employs and this is discussed in Imagery and symbolism > Appetite and Universal and cosmic.
Power and Mephastophilis
Mephastophilis is the source of such power as Faustus enjoys, but he is also arrogant enough to believe that he has power over Mephastophilis, in spite of clear indications to the contrary. In spite of Mephastophilis' warnings, Faustus continues to assert his power and to take command of his own destiny at intervals throughout the play.
Commitment and damnation
Once Mephastophilis has appeared, Faustus is very impatient to acquire the power he seeks. He does not even hesitate when Mephastophilis expresses grief at his own fate for joining Satan. He is one of the:
Conspired against our God with Lucifer,
And are for ever damned with Lucifer'
(Scene 3, 69-71).
A few lines later, he asks Faustus:
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
Scene 3, 76-80
These lines show that Mephastophilis is capable of feeling grief and regret and is troubled by memories of the lost joys of Heaven. Yet in response, Faustus mocks him for not showing more ‘manly fortitude' (Scene 3, 84). As if given greater confidence by this sign of ‘weakness', he goes on to address Mephastophilis in a commanding manner (Scene 3, 86-99).
Faustus' inner debate: determination and hesitation
The next time we see Faustus, at the beginning of Scene 5, he is debating with himself whether he is inevitably damned or whether he still has an opportunity to repent and return to God. The first appearance of the Good and Evil Angels makes him determined to follow the latter course. (See Characterisation > Good and Evil Angels and the Old Man).
Even as he in the process of signing his contract with Lucifer, Faustus briefly hesitates at the sudden congealing of his blood. However, on this occasion, he quickly regains his resolution and Mephastophilis is equally quick to ensure that his blood flows again. Once the signing is completed, Faustus is again stopped short by the words Homo fuge (‘Flee, O man') that appear on his arm. These words are another warning that Faustus once again ignores, not least because Mephastophilis, realising that he is wavering, takes prompt action to divert him.
This pattern of determination and hesitation, of the weakening and strengthening of Faustus' resolves, recurs at intervals throughout the play. Often, when he senses Faustus' uncertainty, Mephastophilis acts to please or to warn him in some way.
Hell: reality and denial
In the early days of his commitment to Lucifer, Faustus is inclined to doubt the reality of Hell:
Thinks't 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.
Scene 5, 126, 132-134
Mephastophilis, on the other hand, is always ready to attest to the real existence of Hell and the sufferings of the damned:
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, must we ever be.
For I am damned, and am now in hell.
Scene 5, 120-122, 136
Faustus is inclined to scoff at such statements: ‘How, now in hell? Nay, and this be hell, I'll willingly be damned here / What, walking, disputing, etc' (Scene 5, 137-138).
Learning and aspiration
In many respects, Faustus is the epitome of the new Renaissance scholar. As well as having command of the established branches of knowledge, he is familiar with more recent learning and geographical discoveries. The language of the play is full of references to distant lands and the treasures that they yield.
Faustus yearns to know and understand a good deal more and to push beyond the boundaries of contemporary knowledge. To a large extent, the play is sympathetic to these aspirations:
- They represent the human capacity for asking and trying to answer questions about the universe
- The humanistic philosophy of the Renaissance encouraged scholars to develop new means of enquiry in seeking answers
- In pursuing knowledge for its own sake, free of censorship or sanction, Faustus is a representative of the intelligent, well-informed, questing Renaissance man.
The problem lies in the means he chooses to acquire greater knowledge.
Faustus' disappointment with what is available to him after his pact with Lucifer begins almost immediately. He asks Mephastophilis for books of spells and others about astronomy and plants and trees, but is dismayed that they are all contained in a single volume. ‘O thou art deceived,' he exclaims to Mephastophilis, who replies, as if impatient and irritated by Faustus' sceptical remark, ‘Tut, I warrant thee.' (Scene 5, 173-4). Mephastophilis is telling the truth: Faustus is the one who is deceived or who has deceived himself.
It is also important to note that Faustus only asks for this knowledge after he has asked Mephastophilis for a wife and, after the brief appearance of a devil-wife, has been promised his choice of courtesans. This is not simply an opportunity for another piece of spectacular stage business: it shows another side of Faustus' nature – his love of sensual pleasure.
Repentance, appetite and resolution
Faustus' uncertainty about the consequences of his bargain continues in his next encounter with Mephastophilis (Scene 7). Faustus enters cursing and determined to repent (and, once again, the Good and Evil Angels appear as an externalisation of his inner conflict). He speaks of the impossibility of repentance, the temptations of suicide and his reasons for not taking his own life:
Had not sweet pleasure conquered deep despair.
Scene 7, 24-25
Faustus is reconciled and soothed by the pleasures he can obtain through his magical ‘power' – though the power really derives from Mephastophilis. But the pleasures he enjoys are those of the sense rather than the intellect. Nonetheless, the thought of them strengthens his determination: ‘I am resolved Faustus shall ne'er repent', (Scene 7, 32).
This is only one example of a pattern that Faustus will repeat more than once:
- Wishing to repent
- Discovering the impossibility of repentance.
Indeed, much the same process is repeated in his immediately following conversation with Mephastophilis.
Although Faustus is disappointed by the knowledge Mephastophilis offers him, dismissing it as ‘slender trifles Wagner can decide' (Scene 7, 48), he continues to question his companion, who refuses to answer him:
…. Tell me who made the world?
I will not.
Sweet Mephastophilis, tell me.
Move me not for I will not tell thee.
Villain, have I not bound thee to tell me anything?
Ay, that is not against our kingdom; but this is.
Think thou on Hell Faustus, for thou art damned.
Think, Faustus, upon God, that made the world.
Remember this. Exit
Ay, go accursed spirit, to ugly hell,
‘Tis thou hast damned distressed Faustus' soul:
Is't not too late?
Scene 7, 64-74
This is one of the most important exchanges between Faustus and Mephastophilis, for here we witness Faustus coming up against the boundaries of permitted knowledge, even for someone who has pledged himself to the Devil. It would be obvious to Marlowe's church-taught audience that the answer to Faustus' big question about Creation was that God was the Creator. When Mephastophilis refuses to answer, however, Faustus first tries persuasion (‘Sweet Mephastophilis'), then anger (‘Villain'), before answering his own question (‘God, that made the world'). He is now working to the rules of a different kingdom, that ruled by Satan, and one which does not acknowledge the supremacy of the Christian God.
Two things happen as a result of this exchange:
- The Good and Evil Angels again appear, presenting their arguments for and against repentance
- Mephastophilis returns, accompanied by Lucifer and Beelzebub.
Faustus on the brink
It is clear that, at this point, Mephastophilis believes that Faustus is dangerously close to genuine repentance and takes steps to prevent this from happening:
- He intimidates Faustus by summoning the greater powers of Lucifer and Beelzebub. This causes Faustus to beg for forgiveness and to make extravagant promises:
… Faustus vows never to look to heaven,
Never to name God, or to pray to him,
To burn his Scriptures, kill his ministers,
And make my spirits pull his churches down
Scene 7, 91-94
Faustus gives these promises in fear and panic in order to escape from his present danger, but he is not seen performing any of these actions in the play. His behaviour at the Pope's court is mischievous rather than seriously destructive.
- Lucifer diverts him with the appearance of the Seven Deadly Sins, to which Faustus responds with blasphemous enthusiasm:
‘That sight will be as pleasing unto me, as Paradise was to Adam, the first day of his creation' (Scene 7, 98-99)
His following comment, ‘O this feeds my soul' (152) confirms that he is readily distracted from his intellectual aspirations and his religious faith by what should be a repellent display
- Lucifer also promises him ‘all manner of delight' (153), beginning with a visit to Hell.
Faustus in the world: magician and mischief-maker
In the next few scenes, Faustus travels around the world (see Chorus 2 and Scene 8, 1-19) before arriving in Rome. This travel seems to mark the beginning of his international career and renown.
Here we see the use to which he puts the powers he obtains from Mephastophilis:
- Rendered invisible, he plays tricks on the Pope and the Cardinal of Lorraine, snatching their food and drink and tormenting them with fireworks (Scene 8)
- For the Emperor, he summons the spirits of Alexander the Great and his mistress (Scene 10)
- He punishes the sceptical Knight by giving him horns (Scene 10)
- He cheats and torments the Horse-Courser (Scene 10)
- He produces an unseasonable dish of grapes for the pregnant Duchess of Vanholt (Scene 11).
This is hardly a glorious list of achievements: in fact, Faustus is behaving like an illusionist or conjuror, subverting the dignity of the Pope, humiliating easy targets and pandering to the wishes of the rich and powerful. Although there are references to his famed learning, this is reported rather than shown. What the audience sees Faustus doing seems trivial and pointless.
A change of tone
In this central part of the play, the tone and nature of the action are more comic and farcical, especially after the tensions and uncertainties of Scenes 5 and 7. However, at one point in the midst of his mischief-making, Faustus pauses for reflection and takes refuge in sleep:
Thy fatal time doth draw to a final end.
Despair doth drive distrust unto my thoughts:
Confound these passions with a quiet sleep.
Tush, Christ did call the thief upon the cross;
Then rest thee Faustus, quiet in deceit.
Scene 10, 117-122
The extent of Faustus' despair at this moment is emphasised by the alliteration on D in the first three lines: ‘ (con)demned to die … doth draw … despair doth drive distrust'. Faustus comforts himself with the thought of Christ's words of forgiveness during his crucifixion to the thief on the cross: ‘This day thou shall be with me in paradise' (Luke 23:43). He clearly hopes that he will be able to obtain a last-minute reprieve from damnation, though is still arrogant in thinking he can ‘trick' God.
Regret and sensual diversion
In the final two scenes of the play, Faustus becomes unequivocally regretful and repentant. As the moment of his death approaches, he is unable to accept the consequences of his actions. It is at this point that the Old Man enters the play. Marlowe employs this character to demonstrate to Faustus what his life might have been. Faustus responds feelingly:
Damned art thou, Faustus, damned: despair and die!
Hell calls for right, and with a roaring voice
Says, ‘Faustus come: thine hour is come'!
Accursed Faustus, where is mercy now?
I do repent and yet I do despair:
Hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast!
Scene 12, 46-49, 61-63
Once again, the alliteration on the letter D adds power to his speech in the first of these quotations. In the second, Faustus is very conscious of the internal battle between good and evil.
Mephastophilis is, as ever, at hand. He offers Faustus a dagger to end his life, then he challenges Faustus for wavering. When threatened with physical punishment for his disloyalty to Lucifer, Faustus is yet again quick to reaffirm his devotion. In such circumstances he is caught in a cycle of uncertainty, fear and desperation and abases himself with the words ‘entreat', ‘pardon' and ‘presumption':
To pardon my unjust presumption;
And with my blood again I will confirm
My former vow I made to Lucifer.
Scene 12, 68-71
A sensual panacea
Faustus' last fulfilled request to Mephastophilis is (once again) for sensual pleasure, in the form of Helen of Troy. As on previous occasions, it is only by absorption in sensuality that Faustus can block out the rapid approach of his death. In Helen, he seeks a kind of heavenly transcendence associated with bodily rather than heavenly pleasures. (See Imagery and symbolism).
His final meeting with the Scholars finds that Faustus' mood has again changed. He is now regretful and confessional. He seems resigned to his fate and he begs the Scholars to leave him in case they come to any harm at the hands of Lucifer. He also tells them not to attempt to rescue him, whatever sounds they might hear coming from his study. These are gestures that demonstrate that, whatever his fate may be, it is his alone and he is anxious that no one else should suffer or be punished for his shortcomings. At this point in the play, Marlowe is increasing the audience's empathy with a man who could have been generous and good had he so wished.
Damnation and dissolution
The last fifty lines of the play show Faustus as a terrified and despairing man. He desperately seeks ways of postponing his damnation:
- By slowing time
- By returning to God
- By disappearing into the earth
- By being changed into a beast
- By being dissolved into little water drops.
The sense of being irrevocably excluded from God's grace and the blood of Christ, which could rescue him, drives him to a point at which he wishes that he were no longer Faustus, but somehow transformed to avoid damnation. His last words, as he both feels and sees his fate, reveal his impotence, regret and despair:
Ugly hell gape not! Come not Lucifer!
I'll burn my books – ah Mephastophilis!
Scene 13, 109-111
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
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