Yet while the play seems to offer a very basic Christian message—that one should avoid temptation and sin, and repent if one cannot avoid temptation and sin—its conclusion can be interpreted as straying from orthodox Christianity in order to conform to the structure of tragedy. In a traditional tragic play, as pioneered by the Greeks and imitated by William Shakespeare, a hero is brought low by an error or series of errors and realizes his or her mistake only when it is too late. In Christianity, though, as long as a person is alive, there is always the possibility of repentance—so if a tragic hero realizes his or her mistake, he or she may still be saved even at the last moment. But though Faustus, in the final, wrenching scene, comes to his senses and begs for a chance to repent, it is too late, and he is carried off to hell. Marlowe rejects the Christian idea that it is never too late to repent in order to increase the dramatic power of his finale, in which Faustus is conscious of his damnation and yet, tragically, can do nothing about it.
Scholar R.M. Dawkins once called Faustus “a Renaissance man who had to pay the medieval price for being one.” Do you think this is an accurate characterization of Marlowe’s tragic hero?
While Marlowe’s Faustus is, admittedly, a magician and not a scientist, this distinction was not so clearly drawn in the sixteenth century as it is today. (Indeed, famous scientists such as Isaac Newton dabbled in astrology and alchemy into the eighteenth century.) With his rejection of God’s authority and his thirst for knowledge and control over nature, Faustus embodies the more secular spirit of the dawning modern era. Marlowe symbolizes this spirit in the play’s first scene, when Faustus explicitly rejects all the medieval authorities—Aristotle in logic, Galen in medicine, Justinian in law, and the Bible in religion—and decides to strike out on his own. In this speech, Faustus puts the medieval world to bed and steps firmly into the new era. Yet, as the quote says, he “pay[s] the medieval price” for taking this new direction, since he still exists firmly within a Christian framework, meaning that his transgressions ultimately condemn him to hell.
In the play’s final lines, the Chorus tells us to view Faustus’s fate as a warning and not follow his example. This admonition would seem to make Marlowe a defender of the established religious values, showing us the terrible fate that awaits a Renaissance man who rejects God. But by investing Faustus with such tragic grandeur, Marlowe may be suggesting a different lesson. Perhaps the price of rejecting God is worth it, or perhaps Faustus pays the price for all of western culture, allowing it to enter a new, more secular era.
Discuss the character of Mephastophilis. How much of a role does he play in Faustus’s damnation? How does Marlowe complicate his character and inspire our sympathy?
Mephastophilis is part of a long tradition
of fascinating literary devils that reached its peak a century later
with John Milton’s portrayal of Satan in
Again, when Faustus expresses skepticism that any afterlife exists, Mephastophilis assures him that hell is real and terrible. These odd complications in Mephastophilis’s character serve a twofold purpose. First, they highlight Faustus’s willful blindness, since he dismisses the warning of the very demon with whom he is bartering over his soul. In this regard, his remark that hell is a myth seems particularly delusional. At the same time, these complications inspire a kind of pity for Mephastophilis and his fellow devils, who are damned to hell just as surely as Faustus or any other sinful, unrepentant human. These devils may be villains, but they are tragic figures, separated forever from the bliss of God’s presence by their pride. Indeed, Mephastophilis and Faust are similar figures: both reject God out of pride, and both suffer for it eternally.