As might be expected, a play in which the main character makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for earthly power, raises many interrelated themes. These issues resonate with readers today, though they become more complex when they are situated within the Renaissance, a time in many ways different from contemporary life.
The status of the individual during the Renaissance is central enough to have its own name: “Renaissance Individualism.” This comes about for a variety of reasons. Most importantly perhaps, during the Medieval Period, the largely church-dominated society attended primarily to things of the next world. The Renaissance, though still spiritual, brought with it a new focus on seeking happiness and fulfillment in this world. Society’s secularization and the invention of printing enhanced people’s literacy and political and economic changes made entirely new ways of life possible.
The Renaissance applauded those people — explorers, courtiers, traders — who successfully took advantage of these opportunities. This was also the age of the “Renaissance Man,” a person who could succeed in a variety of seemingly unrelated projects. Think of men like Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh, who were warriors, diplomats, courtiers, and poets. Remember that even the king and queen pursued a variety of interests: Henry VIII wrote music, and Elizabeth wrote poetry.
Finally, the Renaissance was an age in which people who had read Machiavelli’s The Prince and Castiglione’s The Courtier knew that the image people created for themselves also contributed significantly to their success. In that sense, Doctor Faustus illustrates the negative side of Renaissance Individualism, for he gains power but uses it foolishly.
Good and Evil
Ethical issues are central to Doctor Faustus. Even Faustus knows that justice demands he be punished for selling his soul to the devil, though his pride blinds him to the fact that divine mercy could in time forgive his transgression. After all, aside from his demonic exchange (admittedly, a big exception) Faustus does not do anything truly evil. He plays a few cruel jokes, but he does not really cause any permanent damage or harm. In Christian terms, Faustus confuses the Old Testament God of justice with the New Testament God of mercy. Faustus experiences a moral corruption and misunderstands that it is possible for him to repent, seek atonement, and earn forgiveness.
Another way to see Faustus’s actions is in Platonic terms. Plato believed that, although people obviously did evil, they always believed their actions were for good. This is not to say that they did not know the difference between right and wrong but that they acted out of a mistaken idea of good. This describes Faustus’s behavior. In the entire play, though he plays a few cruel pranks, he never performs any truly evil actions against other people. He does do evil, of course, when he renounces God and embraces Lucifer, but while he knows this is wrong, he acts based on a mistaken understanding of scripture. Believing himself to be damned and alienated from God, aligning himself with the devil seems the best remaining alternative. In that sense, Faustus acts out of a mistaken idea of good.
The issue of knowledge occupied a central place during the Renaissance: what kinds of knowledge should be pursued, how far, by whom, and for what purposes? Faustus seeks knowledge — something we might see as good — though that knowledge only leads him to destruction; this is not the fault of the knowledge but of the knower. Marlowe partially implies, however, that there should be limits to human knowledge. Both the Bad Angel and the Chorus at the play’s end seem to suggest that man can only know so much without falling to evil, but other voices in the play suggest that knowledge is good if it is understood and used within proper contexts. The issue seems to be not what should be known but how one distinguishes valuable, accurate knowledge from useless error. Ironically, Act I suggests that Faustus’s theological misunderstandings stem from misreading the bible. Faustus’s pride prevents him from learning. Instead, he concentrates on what he already knows — or believes he knows — rather than what he has to learn — from the Bible, from the devil, and from the Good Angels who hope to save him.
Faustus makes one of the most famous choices in literary history — to sell his soul to the devil. He chooses freely, though with faulty knowledge of both his options and the consequences (at one moment in the play, Faustus suggests that the “stars” have caused his downfall, but this seems difficult even for Faustus himself to accept). Failing to see repentance as an option, Faustus misunderstands the nature of hell, which he believes is physical instead of psychological. Actually, though not technically “damned’ until the play’s end, he seems in hell right from the moment he separates himself from the divine. Of this, he remains unaware; it is part of his tragedy.
Faustus makes a second choice. Right up to the play’s penultimate act, he has the option of repenting, but because of pride and ignorance, as well as fear of physical punishment, he fails to do so and damnation results. Faustus seems to take responsibility for his actions, though in the final scene, he desperately wishes he had never existed — or existed in a different way that might mitigate his punishment. Right up to the very end, he tries to argue or reason his way out of a situation from which only repentance can save him.
If Faustus learns one lesson before his tragic end, it is that things are not always what they seem. This theme is treated seriously and comically throughout the play.
Faustus’s problem with appearance and reality begins with his basic assumption that he can use magic — something inherently not real — to go beyond appearance and gain true understanding of the natural world. Faustus’s magic makes things happen but nothing true arises from it. When Faustus shows Alexander the Great to the Emperor, Faustus admits that he is not real, but spirit. The Emperor wants to see a mole on Helen of Troy’s neck, to see if the “real” Helen had one. This attention to specific detail creates a kind of “reality-effect,” but the fact is, as they both know, she is not real but a spirit. Faustus’s warning to the Emperor not to touch her suggests the danger of the products of magic and suggests that the natural knowledge and worldly good that Faustus seeks are not permanent but illusory.
In a broadly comical scene in Rome, Faustus makes himself invisible and interrupts the papal banquet. The scene’s comedy depends on confusion between what is and what appears to be. The popes and cardinals appear to be religious figures but are in reality political ones concerned more with temporal than spiritual power. Faustus appears to be an otherworldly spirit with magical powers, but he actually only controls the powers of Mephistophe-les or in a broader sense, hell. The scene comically reveals temporal power to be insubstantial.
Finally, when Faustus makes love with the spirit of Helen at the play’s end, he knows that she is not real and that contact with a spirit will damn him. This comments on the nature of love and symbolizes the absolute lack of substance involved in sex without emotional and psychological contact.
After Faustus has magically entertained the Duke, he says that Faustus’s “artful sport drives all sad thoughts away.” Faustus appears to have everything. Ironically, however, the audience knows that Faustus cannot drive away his own sad thoughts.
In several scenes, discussions between Faustus and Mephistopheles address the central issues of the human condition: who made the world? What is the purpose of human life? Why does evil exist? The devil’s replies fail to satisfy Faustus, who only wants to hear what he already believes to be true. Those who will not learn cannot be taught, and Faustus learns the truth about the spirituality which underlies the human condition too late to avoid destruction.
Throughout the play, Faustus searches for the meaning of life, but his search is inhibited because he believes he knows what life is all about. His search for the truth fails because of his own incorrect preconceptions and beliefs.
As the world’s greatest scholar, Faustus believes he has nothing to learn from other people and little to learn even from the devil to whom he has sold his soul. When Mephistopheles tells Faustus about the nature of hell, he does not believe him. Because of pride, Faustus cannot learn from others. Pride in his own knowledge prevents him from evaluating the world around him in a meaningful manner. When he does act, he bases his decisions on prejudice rather than objective and empirical data.
Finally, everything Faustus does is egocentric: he performs no altruistic deed, no humanitarian gesture. His pride motivates him only to seek admiration from others but never to really deserve it — from them or from himself.
Success and Failure
Faustus’s experiences illustrate the maxim: be careful what you wish for — you just might get it. He successfully obtains his desires. Ironically, however, his power over the devils and material world leaves him unfulfilled and empty. His material success fails to make him happy, and his pact with the devil makes spiritual happiness impossible. His is an empty success, based on actions which are selfish and immature.
Topics for Further Study
Characters who sell their souls to the devil are a common plot device in stories such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” novels like William Faulkner’s The Hamlet, and movies from Rosemary’s Baby to Angel Heart. Compare and contrast the themes raised by these works with themes from Marlowe’s play. Despite similar plot element, the significance of these stories differs. What do those different stories say about the societies which produced them?
Anyone who has spent time with children knows one reason they get into mischief is because of what might be called their natural curiosity. Some thinkers believe curiosity forms the basis of our humanity. What is it that makes people wonder and want to know more? In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the desire for knowledge fails to produce happiness. Do you believe that limits should be placed on the pursuit of knowledge? Are there some things people were not meant to know? The Angels and Chorus in Marlowe’s play seem to think so — do you? You might study the issues surrounding free speech and censorship, or controversial scientific research, exploring what kinds of things society believes should and should not be thought and communicated.
Most readers of Marlowe’s play feel that Doctor Faustus wastes a wonderful opportunity. We condemn his selling his soul to the devil, of course, but we also condemn the fact that he fails to make significant use of his infinite power. If you had Faustus’s power, what would you do?
Ethicists examine the rights and wrongs of human behavior. One question that comes up relates to goals (ends) and the actions necessary to accomplish them (means). For example, stealing is wrong, but do we condemn stealing from the rich to feed the poor, as Robin Hood did? Wounding someone is wrong, but surgeons “wound” people every day in efforts to heal them. In both these cases, we might be tempted to say the ends justify the means. If you could do infinite good for all the world, would you sell your soul to the devil? Before you answer, read the works of several ethical philosophers. They may help you answer, or they may make your answer even more difficult.