Religious and theological themes

Satire of the Pope and Catholicism

As you will see from the Social / political context section of this guide, Doctor Faustus was written at a time of religious conflict and controversy in England. Marlowe, through his work as a government agent (see Author section) was well acquainted with the nature of the conflict. The main anxiety was that, after the reformation of the English Church under Henry VIII, his eldest daughter's brief return to Catholicism, and the consolidation of Protestantism in the long reign of Elizabeth I, the country would be invaded or otherwise undermined and returned to Catholicism. (See Religious / philosophical context > Protestant versus Catholic)

In this atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that Doctor Faustus contains a good deal of satire of the Pope and his court as representatives of the Catholic faith (see Scene 8). The worldly interests in food and drink exhibited by the Pope, his cardinals and bishops carry the weight of the play's religious satire. Faustus and Mephastophilis play practical jokes on the Pope and his monks, exposing them as non-spiritual and materialistic. The Pope's inability to deal with the apparent presence of evil spirits at his court is also the target of Marlowe's satire and this is strengthened by the jokes about the excommunication ritual and the mocking remarks about Purgatory. (See Synopses and commentary > Scene 8 and Characterisation > The Pope, Emperor, the Duke and Duchess and his court)

Grace and damnation

The play is full of references to grace and damnation. Faustus' practice of black magic and his pact with Mephastophilis, the agent of God's enemy Satan, condemns him to damnation and eternal punishment in Hell. But throughout the play, almost until its last lines, Faustus is conscious of the possibility of repentance and salvation, by the intervention of God's grace and mercy. This is the message carried by the Good Angel and the Old Man (see Characterisation > Good and Evil Angels and the Old Man). Both these characters remind Faustus that God's forgiveness is granted to even the greatest of sinners, provided that they are truly penitent. It is for this reason that Mephastophilis is always alarmed when Faustus calls on God for help: he understands the power of God's grace as well as his punishments. And it is the sense that he has cut himself off from God that makes Faustus' final speech so anguished and poignant. (See Imagery and symbolism > Imagery in the final scene)

Good and evil

The conflict between good and evil and God and the devil lies at the heart of the play, and the battleground is Faustus' soul. The Good and Evil Angels, representing the two sides of Faustus' character, are constantly fighting for its possession, while the Old Man is a living example of an individual whose soul belongs firmly to God. Other characters also vie for Faustus' soul: Valdes and Cornelius tempt him towards necromancy and conjuring the devil, while Wagner and the scholars try to persuade him in the opposite direction. (See Characterisation > Valdes and Cornelius and Three Scholars) Increasingly, the speeches of the Chorus, especially that which ends the play, emphasise how far Faustus has strayed from the path of goodness. (See Structure > The role of the chorus).

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