‘Doctor Faustus’ and the question of Salvation

A main point of concern when reading Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe is if there was ever any hope of salvation for the main character, Dr Faustus. For many generations has such a question been considered. Several answers have been given. Which, by and large, diverge from each other, some in subtle and others in quite overt ways. The aim of this paper is to touch on such matters by presenting a quick overview of the historical and religious background of the play on the time it was presumably written and also to analyse some of the answers that were given to the question at hand. I also intend to draw some distinction between the Doctor Faustus in the text as it is written and the Doctor Faustus in our readings of it. All the extracts given are from the ‘A’ text.

The period in which Doctor Faustus was written was politically unstable, internally and externally, and turbulent in its religious tendencies. The political volatility was mostly due to the aging of The Virgin Queen and her lack of an heir. The conflict with the Church of Rome, which excommunicated Queen Elizabeth in 1570, and the attack by the Spanish Armada in 1588 caused fear of a revolt or overtake by the Catholics. Rumours of an assassination plot against the Queen were widely spread among the population. According to Simkin (2001),

The Catholic threat was a real one (the Queen was the target of a number of assassination plots and attempts) Elizabeth I’s secret service, headed by Sir Francis Walsingham, though not an official body of the government, operated with surprising effectiveness. Marlowe’s first extended absence from Cambridge comes shortly before the Spanish Armada sailed against England, and some scholars speculate that Marlowe may have been involved in the discovery of the so called Babington Plot, a plan to assassinate Elizabeth in order to allow Mary Queen of Scots to succeed her. (2001, 224)

Thus we can see the intricate intertwine of both religion and politics in Marlowe’s England, where the Queen was not only the Head of State but also God’s representative on Earth. Therefore, any disobedience to her laws was not only a crime but also a sin against God and any disobedience against the dogmas of the Church of England was both a sin and a crime in opposition to the Queen’s rule (White, 2004, p. 70). Religion at this time in England was heavily based on the principles of Calvinism and the Protestant Reform and consequently on the concept of predestination, breaking from the idea of free will preached by the Catholic Church. Predestination was so important for the theology of the English Church at the time that Archbishop Whitgift petitioned the Queen for it to be more explicitly explained in the official articles of the Church. Although his petition was denied, the fact it was made shows the importance of this doctrine at the time (White, 2001, p.81). Marlowe’s plays contain much of these religious and political disturbances and Doctor Faustus, in special, tackles the religious changes of his time.The readings of Dr Faustus under a religious light, and the answer of the question of whether he had any chance of salvation or not, are deeply influenced by the basic and opposing concepts of predestination and free will.

Predestination preaches that God determined the fate of all of Creation and chose those that shall be elect for Heaven (Calvin, 1953, pp. 159-70). It is this very concept of election that turns Faustus away from divinity in his initial soliloquy.  Faustus’ reading of the Bible is incomplete since going further into the Scriptures one finds the proposition that salvation can be found through faith in Jesus Christ. Taking the concept of predestination in mind when reading this moment critically, one can say that his failure in reading on, or taking into account the proposition of salvation and abandoning divinity was something he was destined to do, no matter if it was due to some scholarly pride and/or folly. There was no hope to save his soul at any point in the text whatsoever, be it due to his cowardice in succumbing to the Devil’s threats; his seduction by the power over the elements given by magic and the materialistic acquisitions that came with it; and/or his lack of faith in God. Faustus was damned from the beginning by God himself who, as Faustus himself puts it, “Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!” condemning the Doctor to an eternity of suffering since before his own birth. By considering the concept of free will, however, the fault for Faustus’ damnation lies with Faustus himself.

The doctrine of Free Will says that after the Creation God endowed us with the ability to do what we decide is best, even though there will be consequences in the afterlife, hence free will, and not freedom, for the existence of judgement and of consequences are forms of control in themselves. (Calvin, 1953, pp. 159-70) Therefore, by reading the text under the light of this concept, Doctor Faustus could have reached for salvation at any given moment. However, that is only true if you take to heart the idea of the ‘merciful’ God who will forgive your sins as long as you have faith in Him and repent, that is preached by the Catholic Church. There are, nonethless, key moments in the play that could be said to be the main chances Faustus had for salvation (Weil, 197, p. 52). One such moment arises even before his attempt at conjuration and of his more certain damnation, with the first appearance of the Good Angel and the Evil Angel,

GOOD ANGEL. O, Faustus, lay that damned book aside, / 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 treasure is contain’d: / Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky, / Lord and commander of these elements.

Faustus, however, ignores the Good Angel, opting for the command of the elements promised by the Evil Angel, showing that the seeds of sin and lack of will for repentance were already embedded within him. This caused the Doctor to be already set in the path of damnation even if he did not make his pack with the Devil. On the one hand, one could say that at this point salvation was much closer to him, if only he tried to reach for it; on the other hand, the fact that he shows absolutely no desire of reaching for it makes his salvation all the more impossible at this moment in the play. It continues to be so until after the first appearance of Mephistophilis, after which Faustus begins to realize the ‘reality’ of hell and begins to open his mind for salvation, as can be seen in the text, “Now, Faustus, must/Thou needs be damn’d, and canst thou not be sav’d:/ What boots it, then, to think of God or heaven?” This start of coming to terms with what he is about to do leads to a second appearance of the angels,

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 make men foolish that do trust them most.

GOOD ANGEL. Sweet Faustus, think of heaven and heavenly things.

EVIL ANGEL. No, Faustus; think of honour and of wealth.

Faustus then exclaims, ”Of Wealth!” aligning himself once more with the Evil Angel, but the fact that he actually answers to the Good Angel in this exchange is a subtle but important difference from their earlier appearance when Faustus pays no heed to its existence. After the pact is struck Faustus’ expectations of this new found source of power and knowledge are crushed by the constant shortcomings of Mephistophilis. He fails to answer to the Doctor’s first requests, such as the acquisition of a wife and of knowledge. Faustus is obviously disappointed by the books and knowledge imparted on him by the devil (Gatti, 2004, pp. 253-4) when he says, “O, thou art deceived.” It is then that Faustus really contemplates repentance for the first time,” When I behold the heavens, then I repent,/And curse thee, wicked Mephistophilis,/Because thou hast depriv’d me of those joys.” Such line of thought leads to the third appearance of the Good and Evil Angels,

GOOD ANGEL. Faustus, repent; yet God will pity thee.

EVIL ANGEL. Thou art a spirit; God cannot pity thee.

FAUSTUS. Who buzzeth in mine ears I am a spirit? / Be I a devil, yet God may pity me;/ Ay, God will pity me, if I repent.

EVIL ANGEL. Ay, but Faustus never shall repent.

In this exchange Faustus disagrees for the first time with the Evil Angel, embracing the concept of free will and the idea that, if he is willing to repent, he may yet achieve salvation, effectively siding with the Good Angel. The Evil Angel then gives an answer that could very much be read as adopting the concept of predestination, for it says that Faustus shall never repent, as if this has already been determined. It is extremely interesting that it is the Evil Angel, and not its counterpart, that first associates with a concept that was the basis of the Church of England at the time. After this Faustus decides that his heart is too hardened and cannot repent and that sweet pleasure has conquered his despair, siding once more with the Evil Angel in saying, “I am resolv’d; Faustus shall ne’er repent.”He then calls upon Mephistophilis only to be, once again, let down by his answers to his questions on astrology and divinity. The demon’s refuse to reply to the enquiry on who created the universe upsets Faustus further, leading him to say, “Think, Faustus, upon God that made the world.” and wonder if,” Is’t not too late?” It is with Faustus in this set of mind that we watch the fourth and final appearance of the two angels,

EVIL ANGEL. Too late.

GOOD ANGEL. Never too late, if Faustus can repent.

EVIL ANGEL. If thou repent, devils shall tear thee in pieces.

GOOD ANGEL. Repent, and they shall never raze thy skin.

The Evil Angel now openly antagonizes Faustus’ hopes. Its argument shifts in this exchange to the point of view of free will, for in saying it is too late one can ascertain that there was a moment when it was possible. This openly contradicts predestination and its idea of fixed fate and, therefore, explicitly clashes with the Evil Angel’s last remark in its previous appearance. However, it is both angels, not only the evil one that contradict themselves, since it is the Good Angel, who constantly pleas Faustus to repent, that now sides with predestination. Its choice of words in saying, “Never too late, if Faustus can repent” (my italics) gives the idea of an inherent ability to repent, one that would only be available to the elect to go to Heaven. It also sheds some light on the fact that even if fate has been predetermined, it is beyond humans to know it beforehand. Interestingly it is the Evil Angel that opens the possibility, however slim, that Faustus was saved in the less ambiguous ending of the ‘B’ text, in which Faustus is actually rendered to pieces. It is after this dialogue that Faustus actively tries to reach for salvation for the first time, crying, “Ah, Christ, my Saviour, /Seek to save distressed Faustus’ soul!” This misguided attempt, misguided for the one that has to seek to save “distressed Faustus’ soul “is no other than himself, is answered by Lucifer who threatens and tempts the Doctor back into submission to Hell.

After having visited Hell and returned Faustus’ next main chance at reaching salvation happens upon meeting the Old Man that pleas for his repentance and stays his hand when he tries to suicide, an act that would definitely take Faustus to Hell. The Old Man embodies the Christian belief that it is through suffered repentance and faith that one reaches Heaven, as can be seen in the following quote, “Break heart, drop blood, and mingle it with tears, / Tears falling from repentant heaviness”.  He also keeps his faith even while being physically attacked by devils later on the play, drawing a sharp contrast with Faustus who easily succumbs to Mephistophilis’ threat of tearing his flesh and furthers his fall by giving in to lust. It is only after that that the Old Man gives up hope on Faustus. His final chance at repentance could be said, under special conditions, to come at the rather ambiguous end of the play.

Therefore, if one is to consider the original question if there ever was any moment in which Faustus could have been saved, the answer can be either several, looking through the prospect of free will, or none when  approaching the matter under the light of predestination. Nevertheless, both answers take the fact the Faustus is damned and that he did not reach salvation as a truth. This truth is told to us by the final chorus and its rather preachy message about religion,

CHORUS. Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight, / And burned is Apollo’s laurel-bough,/ That sometime grew within this learned man. / Faustus is gone:  regard his hellish fall, / Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise, / Only to wonder at unlawful things,/ Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits / To practice more than heavenly power permits.

However, without these lines that tell us beyond doubt that he was damned, the play would most certainly not have been allowed to be staged by the Master of Revels, the censor in Elizabethan England, who would almost surely ban it due not only to religious reasons, but also political ones, for if a man that has struck a pact with the Devil can be forgiven and reach repentance, so can a murderer or an offender of the Crown for that matter. Consequently, it is not totally unreasonable to disregard this Chorus message in our readings of the text, therefore opening the chance of real salvation for the main character. Thus, even though the Doctor Faustus in the text is clearly damned and can never actually reach salvation, the Doctor Faustus in our readings of the text not only can but may actually be saved in his final moment.


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