Scene twelve

Synopsis of scene 12

Helen of Troy

Faustus is entertaining his scholarly friends. First, there is a friendly debate on the identity of the most beautiful woman in history, then he conjures up the person of Helen of Troy.

He then encounters an Old Man who pleads with him to turn away from Satan and repent. Faustus considers turning to God, but is frightened by the threats of Mephastophilis. Faustus is granted his wish to have Helen as his mistress. The Old Man is threatened by demons but knows that his soul will go to Heaven.

Commentary on scene 12

beautifullest … admirablest This use of superlative adjectives demonstrates one aspect of Elizabethan and Renaissance literature – the invention of new words and spellings. Without rigid rules of grammar and spelling, there was more scope for creativity and innovation in the literary language of the time.

since our conference The men have engaged in a light-hearted debate.

peerless Unique, unequalled.

Paris The Trojan prince who fell in love with Helen and abducted her from her husband, Menelaus, King of Sparta.

Dardania Another name for Troy.

Be silent then, for danger is in words Faustus suggests that speaking would break the spell of Helen's appearance.

Too simple … blest be Faustus evermore The focus is on the reaction of the men as Helen appears to them. The actor playing Helen would have been a young male, whose ‘female' beauty has to be asserted as much by the Scholars' words as by his appearance.

heavenly beauty passeth all compare … the pride of Nature's works, / And only paragon of excellence These are all examples of hyperbole, an exaggerated statement of Helen's beauty. Her appearance suggests the extent of Faustus' skills. The more sinister aspect of the scene is that Faustus' pride is fed by the Scholars' praise.

blest be Faustus evermore This is heavily ironic, as Faustus' life will soon be over and he is neither happy nor at peace, since he anticipates a future of eternal suffering in Hell.

I might prevail … way of life This echoes Jesus' description of himself in John 14:6:‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me' TNIV

celestial rest The heavenly peace of eternal life.

drop blood The references to blood intensify in the final part of the play.

flagitious Villainous.

‘mercy … of thy saviour sweet' – Mercy, often called grace, refers to God's love and care irrespective what people deserve.

whose blood alone must wash away thy guilt Christ's blood, spilt on the Cross to redeem the sins of humanity, is seen by Christians as the only means by which Faustus could be cleansed of his sin. More on the significance of blood?

Damned art thou Faustus Note that Faustus does not take the opportunity presented by the Old Man.

Stage direction: Mephastophilis gives him a dagger He does this in order to tempt Faustus with the idea of suicide, whilst Faustus is in a state of despair. The ending of one's own life (a life that, the Bible taught, had been created by God) was believed to be a sin, as was despair (because it denied the possibility of God's grace). Both of these would condemn a person to hell according to church teaching of the time.

a vial full of precious grace Grace and mercy are central concepts in the final part of the play. In this context, the vial might be imagined as containing the love of Christ which has the power to rescue Faustus.

my sweet friend … sweet Faustus Note that they address each other in the same affectionate manner, even though both fear that Faustus is doomed. Note also that, a few lines later, Faustus uses the same term for Mephastophilis.

I do repent … in my breast! Faustus is caught between contradictory emotions, and this is emphasised by the use of Hell contrasted with grace. The use of warlike terms like ‘strives' and ‘conquest' suggests the power of the struggle that is taking place.

arrest Capture.

Revolt Return, i.e. back to Satan

I'll in piecemeal tear thy flesh Mephastophilis is becoming more direct in his threats to Faustus, whose soul will soon be his.

that base and crooked age Faustus means the Old Man

I cannot touch his soul, / But ... I may afflict his body This is reminiscent of Job 1:12; Job 2:6-7, where God allows Satan to test Job. This comment by Mephastophilis reveals that the demon's power is limited and that he can do nothing to harm a soul that is truly devoted to God. In this respect, it is perhaps puzzling and ironical that Faustus fears Mephastophilis.

paramour Lover or mistress.

Ilium Troy.

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss The romantic idea of the lover taking him to heaven on her kisses was partly a legacy of platonic views of love, where spiritual fulfilment was the result of romance. It also suggests that Faustus seeks an immortality other than that of suffering in Hell.

Achilles in the River StyxAchilles This legendary warrior was the chief Greek hero in the Trojan War. When he was a baby, his mother dipped him in the River Styx to make him invulnerable. But she held him in the water by one of his heels and he died when he was wounded in that spot during the war with Troy.

flaming Jupiter … hapless Semele Semele was one of the god Jupiter's human mistresses. He visited her in various disguises and when she insisted on seeing him in his true form, she was consumed by his flame-like glory.

the throne of His tribunal seat! This refers to the heavenly throne of God's judgement and mercy – see Isaiah 6:1-7.

Satan begins to sift me with his pride This is similar to Jesus' warning to Peter in Luke 22:31: ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat'. TNIV

in this furnace God shall try my faith The Old Man is sure that his faith will be tested by the tortures he is about to face at the hands of the demons. The audience would be familiar with the story of faithful Jews being punished for their faith in a fiery furnace Daniel 3:1-30, as well as warnings in the New Testament that Christians are likely to face adversity (1 Peter 1:6-7.

Investigating scene 12

  • Think about this scene as part of a sequence beginning with Scene 6.
    • How does the text balance the elements of comedy and seriousness?
    • What seems to be happening to Faustus during these scenes?
  • How has Faustus' relationship with Mephastophilis developed and changed by this point in the play?
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