The text I have selected is one that raises numerous themes and issues which are reiterated and developed throughout the play. Many of these themes are typical of the Renaissance period. In particular we see the notion of personal despair due to Faustus being denied salvation. This idea of personal despair, and the emphasis that Marlowe places on it, is what contributes to this play’s pronounced reformation feel, hence why I chose this text, as it is the beginnings of Faustus’ undoing and his loss of trust in personal salvation. Furthering this, I would agree with Sachs, who argues that Doctor Faustus is ‘a religious despair of salvation, seen as springing from the primordial guilt of Pride but sufficiently recurrent in the play to justify our regarding it as Faustus’ main transgression.’ Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has continued to be the subject of analysis for many modern and postmodern critics. It has long been a debate amongst Faustian commentators whether the play reflects an intense, constant religious standpoint, or whether it is in fact anti religious. This essay seeks to dissect the play whilst exploring how religion is presented, its connection with the dark world of necromancy, but also the intrinsic relationship between religion and the notions of good and evil, repentance, and salvation.
Throughout the play we see Marlowe using Doctor Faustus’ own speech in order to illuminate his own flawed thinking in reference to religion. In his opening speech Faustus lists various disciplines and establishes a hierarchy, deciding which of these professions is the most noble. After moving on from law and medicine, not wanting to protect man through their bodies or through their property, he decides he is striving for higher things, thus proceeds to religion. Here we witness him quote selectively from the New Testament, opting for the passages that present christianity in a negative manner. He reads ‘the reward of sin is death: that’s hard’ and ‘if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and there’s no truth in us’(1. 43). Faustus distorts the reading here and in doing so finds inevitable condemnation within these words, as opposed to charity. Having such a clinical view of sin allows him to detach from the damning nature of sin and is the beginning of Faustus’ fall as he descends further into sin. This leads to him rejecting religion as a possible venture, which he does by stating ‘What will be, shall be! Divinity adieu!’(1. 48) What Faustus neglects to do is read the very next line of the bible which reads ‘If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ This suggests that despite Faustus’ initial reading of the bible, salvation was very much available to him and if he’d managed to see this earlier then he would have been spared eternal damnation.
Eventually religion was banned from being presented on Elizabethan stage due to the sensitive nature of the subject, and Doctor Faustus was one of the last plays to deal with religion directly as a topic. Also presented in this play is the close link between religion and the supernatural. Religion involves having faith or belief in that there is no tangible proof for, thus the line between religion and magic was oftentimes blurred, and this play is an example of this. Initially, the longing Faustus had to practise magic appears relatively admirable to the reader. What Faustus yearns for is to push the boundaries of human knowledge, expanding frontiers and achieving great things by wielding such a power. He describes the necromantic books as ‘heavenly’ as he states ‘O, what a world of profit and delight/Of power, of honour, of omnipotence’(1. 54). Marlowe implements the use of a semantic field of religious imagery to further reflect the sheer extent of Faustus’ selfish ambition. There is a level of irony that Marlowe presents here, as Faustus crowns what appears to be the least noble of all the disciplines and decides that this is the one he shall opt for. Also ‘Omnipotent’ connotes a level of power that is godlike in stature, thus reflecting Faustus as a character that believes he can be the first to transcend the normal, mortal boundaries and foreshadowing his growing hubristic beliefs, the corruption that wielding unlimited power brings and his inevitable fall from grace as a tragic hero. Furthering this, ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’ (1. 62) and ‘try thy brains to gain a deity’ (1. 63) both present this sin as an ‘extreme commitment to cupidity by which he would direct all of his developed human gifts towards a self-exaltation that further aspired to godhood’. This cupidity symbolises a human representation of the first sin that Lucifer committed. Satans fall is outlined in Isaiah 14:12-15 and declares, about Satan, ‘For you have said in your heart: I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation On the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’ Thomas Acquinas said of this ‘Without doubt, the angel sinned by seeking to be a God…. he sought to have final beatitude of his own power, whereas this is proper to God alone.’ Direct parallels can be drawn between the two, Faustus behaving exactly as the devil did, so it is no surprise to a devoutly religion audience that Faustus’ pride was going to be his ultimate downfall. This downfall will have been viewed in light of the notions of salvation, damnation and redemption, all of which are ideas heavily rooted in christianity. Additionally, Acquinas also argues that ‘Consequently, no creature of a lower order can ever covet the grade of a higher nature; just as an ass does not desire to be a horse: for were it to be so upraised, it would cease to be itself.’ Therefore Faustus was doomed form the start, his chances of repentance are further diminished when it is taken not account the highly trained intellect that he possesses. The total deliberation that precedes his choosing of Satan proves that he was not acting on a whim that he then later regretted, but rather he made a calculated choice, knowing the risks of his actions. Throughout the play he is reminded of God’s grace and mercy and of the possibility of repentance. He disregards this however, due to his own conviction that, and he reiterates this several times throughout the play, that God hates him. It must also be noted that this redemption is only available to those who truly feel remorse and penitence. Whilst his final speech is poignant, it is a speech made out of fear for losing his life. Instead of a feeling of remorse, he feels sheer terror at knowing this is the end that makes him want to repent.
The scheme of values presented in Doctor Faustus are the fundamental christian values that dominated the western world. Although Doctor Faustus presents the reader with a character who has entirely abandoned his christian faith, it would be wrong to suggest that ‘Faustus’ view of Christianity is the only one made explicit in the play.’ An omnibenevolent god is depicted throughout the play and this abundance of love that Faustus chose to reject allowed the Christians of Marlowe’s era to both condemn Faustus as a character and revel in the ‘justice of God’ revenging the blasphemies Faustus committed. The character of Faustus emerges from the play as one who portrays a man seduced by his own damnation. A character who, through his own cupidity, is made incapable of salvation. He contravenes the sovereign values that allow for order upon civilisation, and consequently pays for it with his life. In explicitly damning Faustus to death at the end of the play, Marlowe allows the values that form the foundations of Christianity to triumph, albeit on his own terms.