The play begins with the Chorus informing the audience about the main character, Faustus, a scholar, like Icarus, “[whose] waxen wings did mount above his reach” (Prologue, 21). In the very first scene of the play, Faustus talks about philosophy, medicine, law, and theology and is hesitant about all. Lastly he chooses to study magic. He rejects theology. He is “glutted more with conceit” (Scene I, 18) and he prefers black magic to what he preferred before; he asserts: “. . . Divinity, adieu!” (Scene I, 48), that is, he rejects to be in heaven and reunite with God.
The Good and the Evil Angel that appear in several parts of the play are both real and symbolic; they represent Faustus’ inner conflict. They appear in the most dramatic scenes where Faustus is in conflict. They appear offering advice as Faustus is preparing to sign in blood a contract so as to give his soul to Lucifer. They also appear at the time Faustus is talking to Mephistopheles about repenting. Here, while Good Angel urges Faustus to repent and wish God’s mercy, Evil Angel tells him not to repent. Finally he agrees with Evil Angel.
GOOD ANGEL. O Faustus, lay that damned book aside,
And gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soul,
And heap God’s heavy wrath upon thy head:
Read, read the Scriptures; that is blasphemy.
EVIL ANGEL. Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art,
Wherein all nature’s treasury is contained:
Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,
Lord and commander of these elements.
[Exeunt] (Scene I, 70-77)
GOOD ANGEL. Sweet Faustus, leave that execrable art.
FAUSTUS. Contrition, prayer, repentance: what of them?
GOOD ANGEL. O they are means to bring thee unto heaven.
EVIL ANGEL. Rather illusions, fruits of lunacy,
That makes men foolish that do trust them most.
(Scene V, 15-19)
The angels do appear at the same time in the play; and they leave together as well. Interestingly enough, it is always the Good Angel that appears first and it is Evil Angel that speaks the last words. If we think of the angels symbolically, the Good Angel’s appearing first probably refers to Faustus’ conscience and Evil Angel’s last words may symbolize Faustus’ self-temptation.
Valdes and Cornelius – magicians – will teach Faustus black arts. As Faustus is about to sign in blood a contract so as to give his soul to Lucifer, the Good and Evil Angels enter again. As Faustus signs the contract he asks about hell, however convince himself that “hell’s a fable” (Scene V, 126) despite Mephistopheles’ honest response:
FAUSTUS. Was not that Lucifer an angel once?
MEPHIST. Yes Faustus, and most dearly loved of God.
FAUSTUS. How comes it then that he is prince of devils?
MEPHIST. O, by aspiring pride and insolence,
For which God threw him from the face of heaven.
FAUSTUS. And what are you that live with Lucifer?
MEPHIST. Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,
Conspired against our God with Lucifer,
And are for ever damned with Lucifer.
FAUSTUS. Where are you damned?
MEPHIST. In hell.
FAUSTUS. How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
MEPHIST. 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!
O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.
(Scene IV, 64-82)
There is the question of choice in the play. Faustus has chosen to sign the contract. He is completely free in his choice since Mephistopheles is quite honest in his attitude. Faustus’ fault here is to ignore repentance as an alternative. He also misunderstands the concept of “hell,” thinking that it is just physical torment. Faustus is unaware about the fact that hell is a kind of psychological torment which is in fact a part of his tragedy.
In the fifth scene, Faustus asks Mephistopheles who made the world (Scene V, 237). Mephistopheles avoids answering Faustus’ question and introduces seven deadly sins: Pride, Covetousness, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lechery (Scene V, 276).
In changing the spectacle to the Seven Deadly Sins, Marlowe has not only opened the way for some moral satire, but he has purposely and ironically presented the pageant as the visible “gratification” of Faustus. Faustus himself responds with the greatest delight, blasphemously comparing his joy in the procession with Adam’s joy at the sight of Paradise on the day of his creation. Delight in the Seven Deadly Sins is a far cry from the answer to who made the world, and it is not without point that, after this episode, Faustus makes no more speculative inquiries of any kind. (Cole 1962, 214)
As Fermor asserts, the character of Faustus “is not that of one man, but of man himself, of Everyman” (Fermor 84). In Everyman “the tragic flaw – pride, wilfulness – causes blindness to the nature and destiny of man; . . . hubris destroys the understanding of the nature and limitations of knowledge” (Cole 1962, 234). Faustus’ actions are completely humane. As Cole has suggested, Faustus “never causes anyone’s death” (Cole 1995, 124); he causes his own damnation.
Dr. Faustus suggests that because human beings are creatures in whom good and evil are tragically intermingled, the process of purification which the magicians described is impossible. The human aspiration to attain a godlike status and to exert benevolent control over history is almost inevitably corrupted by selfish desires for wealth, sensual indulgence, and political power. The refusal to admit this is Faustus’ fatal error, as is perfectly clear when he reads from Jerome’s Bible: “If we say that we haue no sinne, / We deceiue our selues” (69-70). (Mebane 135)
The theme of appearance versus reality is an important one throughout the play. Faustus’ confuses appearance and reality and wants to go beyond what he sees.
By Aristotelian definition, a tragedy is about a hero whose fatal flaw ends himself. Doctor Faustus is a typical Aristotelian tragedy where a man of high importance – a scholar – out of pride, sells his soul to Devil. The tragic downfall of the hero is when he signs the contract with the devil. There is also catharsis in the Aristotelian sense; the audiences feel pity and fear; pity for Faustus suffering his tragedy, then fear of themselves putting themselves in Faustus’ place. Faustus can repent before the end of the play but he prefers not to; he misleads himself:
FAUSTUS: My heart’s so hardned I cannot repent!
Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven,
But fearful echoes thunders in mine ears,
“Faustus, thou are damned” (Scene V, 192-95)
And long ere this I should have slain my self,
Had not sweet pleasure conquered deep despair.
Have not I made blind Homer sing to me
Of Alexander’s love, and Oenon’s death?
(Scene V, 195-98).
Why should I die then, or basely despair?
I am resolved! Faustus shall ne’er repent.
(Scene V, 205- 206)
Doctor Faustus represents the attitudes of Renaissance England, it symbolizes the Renaissance individual who wants to go beyond his perception. Marlowe reflects the Renaissance perception of reason that “gives human beings the power to discern,” as well as “the power to choose” and finally forms “the basis for moral responsibility” (Cole 1995, 127). Thus Faustus himself is responsible for his own actions; it is Faustus who causes his own fall. He suffers from personal responsibility of free human choice and the inevitable consequences of his own choice.
- Marlowe, Christopher. “Doctor Faustus” Norton Anthology of English Literature sixth edition vol. 1. Ed. Abrams, M.H. New York: M.H. Norton & Company: 1993.
- Cole, Douglas. Christopher Marlowe and the Renaissance of Tragedy. Westport, CT.: 1995.
- _. Suffering and Evil in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press: 1962.
- Fermor, U.M. Ellis. Christopher Marlowe. London, Methuen: 1927.
- Mebane, John S. Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare. Lincoln, NE., University of Nebraska Press: 1989.