Ambiguity in Doctor Faustus
Throughout Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, the themes of sin, damnation and redemption are presented somewhat ambiguously. The key focus of this ambiguity, is the identification of Faustus’ point of no return with regards to the damnation of his soul. It can be argued that the play, in the spirit of the Protestant reformation, shows Faustus’ soul to be damned right from the start. Either his existence is tainted by original sin, or his fate is already predetermined by higher powers. However, it can also be argued that Faustus is actually a free agent and walks his own path to damnation, without the influence of predestination or original sin.
It is tempting to argue that Faustus is not driven by freewill, but rather he is helplessly swept along by his predetermined fate. From this viewpoint, the play takes on a heavy sense of Calvinist influence, reflecting the religious unrest of the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, the conclusion drawn by Faustus himself as he reads from the Bible has much in common with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Faustus exclaims “What will be, shall be? Divinity Adieu!”, expressing his belief that no matter how much the Bible is studied or followed, nothing we do can change the predetermined fate of our souls. This is reminiscent of John Calvin’s belief that “all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is fore-ordained for some, eternal damnation for others.” In other words, earthly actions are irrelevant as the fate of our souls is set in stone right from conception. Therefore, when reading the play from a Calvinist perspective, the point at which Faustus’ soul is irrevocably damned occurs long before the play, right from the moment Faustus came into being. Lisa Hopkins highlights the Calvinist priority of predestination over freewill by stating that “From a Calvinist point of view, Faustus, if he is damned at the end, must automatically have been damned from the very beginning of the play, and never had any meaningful choice”. This could be interpreted to mean that Faustus was forced into his sinful choices by a predetermined fate, or to mean that his actions were completely obsolete as he would have burned in hell regardless of what he did or didn’t do. Faustus questions whether or not he really controls, or even owns, his soul as he hands it over to the devil. He says “Faustus gives to thee his soul. O, there it stayed! Why shouldst thou not? Is not thy soul thine own?”. From a Calvinist perspective, the answer to his question is essentially, no. His soul belongs to God, as does the control over its fate.
From a similar standpoint, the damnation of Faustus’ soul, along with the souls of all damned men, can be viewed as a result of mankind’s original sin. In other words, his soul is born damned and with an inevitable inclination towards sin, and can only be saved by trusting in Jesus Christ himself. This is fitting with Lutheran theology and further reflects the Protestant reformation of the time. Martin Luther himself stated that “We are sinners because we are the sons of a sinner. A sinner can beget only a sinner, who is like him”. From this angle, Faustus is once again damned from before the play begins, not because it is predestined, but because all men are born tainted by the betrayal of Adam. Sin is deemed hereditary, and not a product of freely making bad choices. Therefore, only faith can save man from a state of sin, regardless of good or bad deeds.. The key difference between viewing the play from a Lutheran viewpoint, and viewing it from a Calvinist viewpoint, is that while Faustus’ soul is technically damned from birth, it is not beyond salvation until the very end, as he can find salvation through opening his soul to divine grace. Unfortunately for Faustus, he does not, and so remains damned. Faustus’ constant choice of the devil over God, and adherence to the bad angel’s words over the good angel’s words supports the idea of human nature being inherently sinful. Indeed, even when Faustus considers seeking salvation, he is easily drawn back into the devil’s deal by a distracting show of the seven deadly sins. He says that the show would be “pleasing unto [him], As paradise was to Adam”. This reference to Adam, the supposed catalyst of mankind’s original sin, suggests that he is drawn to forbidden deeds just as his first ancestor was drawn to the forbidden apple. In addition, both Faustus and Adam are ultimately seduced by the devil’s promises, suggesting that sin is indeed in the nature of all men.
However, although Faustus clearly believes himself to be a victim of either his own inherently sinful nature, or of the predetermined damnation of his soul, it is less clear whether or not his belief is correct. Overall, Faustus seems to seal his own fate as he refuses to repent in spite of the good angel’s insistence. Just as the evil angel can be seen as a symbol for original corruption and tendency towards sin, the good angel can be seen to represent a chance for redemption or for man to reject sin in favour of good actions. The two angels show man not as an inherently corrupt being, but as a being with free choice over the kind of person he wants to be. Faustus, of course, chooses to turn to a life of sin, showing himself to be potentially corruptible, but not inevitably corruptible. It is his own choices which ultimately lead him to damnation. Jamey Heit highlights this as he argues that the play is a “classic literary portrayal of free will in the face of temptation from the devil…[Faustus] choose[s] evil over good and literally sell[s] [his] soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and wealth”. Of course this could also support the argument that the play is influenced by Adamic original sin as, like Adam before him who’s “freedom of choice led to original sin”, Faustus gives into his inner human corruption. Overall though, the argument of Faustus being driven by original sin is weaker than the idea that he simply makes bad choices as an individual.
When viewing the play from the standpoint of Faustus’s own actions leading to his downfall, it is debatable which of these actions in particular serves as the point of no return. The notable point of his resignation to sin is when he sells his soul to the devil at the start of the play. Indeed, this sin can be deemed to be a complete rejection and betrayal of God and the point at which his fate is sealed. The action of literally signing his soul over to the devil can be seen as being metaphoric of Faustus resigning his soul to hell through his sinful thirst for knowledge, money and power. Towards the start of the play, as the scholars discuss Faustus’ decision to sell his soul, the first scholar indeed supports the notion that his soul is damned by his decision to make a pact with the devil. He pessimistically states “I fear me nothing will reclaim him now”, undermining the chance of redemption from sin. David Bevington highlights that Faustus freely chooses this life of sin, as he states that “Faustus is, like Adam, fully informed of the consequences of his choice”. In this light, Faustus is entirely to blame for his own damnation as he is completely aware of what he is doing, and what it means for his soul, but he does it anyway. He is not tricked or forced into anything he is unwilling to do, he is simply willingly seduced by materialistic promises. David K Anderson backs up this notion as he points out that “Mephistopheles cannot be accused of sugar-coating the truth or entrapment when he answers Faustus’ questions about hell in the first act” . Indeed, the demon makes it clear that Faustus will pay with great suffering when he dies, as when asked why the devil wants Faustus’ soul, he responds by saying “Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris”. This Latin phase can be translated to the English phrase misery loves company. In other words, if the devil has to burn in hell for eternity, he wants as many souls as possible to burn with him. Therefore, it is strongly possible that this is Faustus’ point of no return, as his fully informed, and completely blasphemous choice of Satan over God leaves his soul without chance of redemption. Furthermore, the imagery of a contract signed with blood can be seen to symbolise Faustus’ entry into damnation which he cannot retreat from. Contracts are, in nature, legally binding, regardless of whether one party later changes their mind. On this basis it can be argued that this one should be seen as no different. Another notable possibility of Faustus’ point of no return is when he kisses the she devil Helen. Here he is not only committing lust, he is also allowing evil to taint not only his soul, but his body too. The imagery of her “lips suck[ing] forth [his] soul” suggests that this liaison with a demon is breaking point for Faustus’ chance at saving his soul.
Alternatively, it can be argued that Faustus’ true point of no return does not occur until he despairs of salvation. From this viewpoint, redemption is always right there for the taking, right up until his final soliloquy as Mephistopheles and the other devils are coming for his soul. From this viewpoint, the power of God outweighs the power of evil, as Christian salvation can break even the most binding of demonic pacts. Bruce E. Brandt highlights that “those who see Faustus as free to repent rely on the assertions of the good angel and the Old Man that grace is available if Faustus repents”. Indeed, all along Faustus is assured that he can still choose God, and it’s not too late to save himself. As the evil angel constantly attempts to legitimize Faustus’ decision to sell his soul, the good angel constantly disputes it. David K Anderson supports this as he argues that “Faustus is continually being told by the good angel that forgiveness is his for the asking, while the consequences of not being forgiven are perfectly plain”. Indeed, the good angel beseeches Faustus to pursue salvation saying ““Faustus, repent; yet God will pity thee”. His answer to the good angels pleas are simply “My heart is hardened; I cannot repent. Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven”. Here, Faustus convinces himself that his hand is being forced by predestination or original sin, rather than admit that he has freely made bad choices and ignored his chances for redemption. This is similar to his thoughts when he decides to sell his soul to Mephistopheles in the first place, that he is damned anyway so he may as well gain a lifetime enhanced by demonic servitude in return. Ultimately he does beg for mercy in the last moments of his life, but by then he has already completely despaired of salvation, as he tells the scholars “Faustus’ offence can ne’er be pardoned: the serpent that tempted eve may be saved, but not Faustus”.
Therefore, in conclusion, Faustus’ soul is not damned before the play begins, much less before his own birth. It is, however, his belief that his damnation is inevitable which informs his sinful choices. Indeed, as David Wooten states, “Some scholars read Doctor Faustus as representing a peculiarly Calvinist anxiety in which fear that one is predestined to damnation leads to despair”. Faustus’ soul is not truly damned until the last few moments of the play, as instead of truly asking God for forgiveness, he begs instead for his soul to “be chang’d into little water-drops, and fall into the ocean, ne’er to be found”. At this point, he has completely despaired of salvation, and this is truly the point of no return as he has run out of time to repent. His belief that his damnation is inevitable serves as his hamartia throughout the play as, ironically, it ultimately drives him to damn himself.
ANDERSON, David K. Martyrs and Players in Early Modern England: Tragedy, Religion and Violence on Stage. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2014.
BEVINGTON, David and Ramusen, Eric, eds. Doctor Faustus. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.
BRANDT, Bruce E. “The Critical Backstory.” In Doctor Faustus A Critical Guide, edited by Sarah Munson Deats, 17-40. Chippenham: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010.
CALVIN, John. Calvin’s Institutes A New Compend. Edited by Hugh Thomson Kerr. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989.
HOPKINS, Lisa. Christopher Marlowe, Renaissance Dramatist. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.
LUTHER, Martin. Commentary on Romans. Translated by J. Theodore Mueller. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003.
MARLOWE, Christopher. The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. New York: Start Publishing LLC,  2013. Kindle Edition.
WINSTEAD, Antoinette F. “The Devil Made Me Do It! The Devil in 1960’s – 1970’s Horror Film.” In Vader, Voldemort and Other Villains: Essays on Evil in Popular Media, edited by Jamey Heit, 28 – 45. Jefferson: McFarland, 2011.
WOOTEN, David. Introduction to Doctor Faustus: With The English Faust Book, by Christopher Marlowe, xvi. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2005.
 Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (New York: Start Publishing LLC,  2013), Kindle Edition.  John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes: A New Compend, ed. Hugh Thomson Kerr (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), 114.  Lisa Hopkins, Christopher Marlowe, Renaissance Dramatist (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 31.  Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.  Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), 95.  Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.  Antoinette F. Winstead, “The Devil Made Me Do It! The Devil in 1960’s – 1970’s Horror Film”, in Vader, Voldemort and Other Villains: Essays on Evil in Popular Media, ed. Jamey Heit (Jefferson: McFarland, 2011), 32.  Antoinette F. Winstead, “The Devil Made Me Do It! The Devil in 1960’s – 1970’s Horror Film”, in Vader, Voldemort and Other Villains: Essays on Evil in Popular Media, ed. Jamey Heit (Jefferson: McFarland, 2011), 32.  Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.  David Bevington and Eric Ramuson, eds., Doctor Faustus (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 20.  Professor David K Anderson, Martyrs and Players in Early Modern England: Tragedy, Religion and Violence on Stage (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2014), 171.  Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.  Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.  Bruce E. Brandt, “The Critical Backstory”, in Doctor Faustus A Critical Guide, ed. Sarah Munson Deats (Chippenham: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010), 32.  Professor David K Anderson, Martyrs and Players in Early Modern England: Tragedy, Religion and Violence on Stage (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2014), 171.  Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.  Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.  Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.  David Wooten, introduction to Doctor Faustus: With The English Faust Book, by Christopher Marlowe (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2005), xvi.  Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.
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