Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

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Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

2.2 Act 2, Scene 1: Faustus and God

By the end of Act 1, Faustus appears to have made up his mind to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for twenty-four years in which he will ‘live in all voluptuousness’ (1.3.94). Act 2, Scene 1 opens with another soliloquy.

Activity

Please look now at this soliloquy (page 15, lines 1–14). How would you describe its mood? Jot down any points you think are important about the way the language helps to create this mood.

Discussion

I would say that the mood of this speech is one of self-doubt and inner division. Just as in the first soliloquy, Faustus is talking to himself, but on this occasion the voice we hear sounds markedly less confident. One possible reason for this is that the speech is peppered with questions which seem to betray his uncertainty about his chosen course of action; for example, in line 3 he asks himself, ‘What boots it [what use is it] then to think of God or heaven?’. The question is followed by a series of commands: ‘Away with such vain fancies and despair! / Despair in God and trust in Beelzebub. / Now go not backward. No, Faustus, be resolute’ (ll. 4–6). Faustus is ordering himself not to backtrack, but to no avail, as his next question makes clear: ‘Why waverest thou?’ (l. 7). Suddenly another voice appears, urging repentance: ‘Abjure this magic and turn to God again!’ (l. 8). This voice seems to get the upper hand briefly, but Faustus silences it with an extreme statement of his commitment to the devil.

Faustus appears to be wrestling with his conscience in this soliloquy. He clearly feels the urge to repent, so why doesn't he? It is interesting that although he delivers this speech before he has signed his contract with Lucifer, he tells himself in the first line that he must ‘needs be damned’; in other words, he sees his own damnation as unavoidable. So what's the point, he asks himself, of thinking of God or heaven? The repetition of the word ‘despair’ in lines 4 and 5 emphasises Faustus's hopeless state of mind. If you count the syllables in lines 2 and 10, you will see that each line has only six. This means that in performance the actor would have to pause for a moment because the lines are shorter than normal, and this would have the effect of drawing attention to the sentiments expressed in the two lines, that is, to Faustus's despairing conviction that he cannot be saved and that God does not love him.

Why should Faustus feel so strongly that he is damned, when at this point in the play there seems to be every reason to believe that repentance will secure God's forgiveness? Some critics, most notably Alan Sinfield (1983) and John Stachniewski (1991), have argued that Marlowe is exploring the mental and emotional impact of the form of Protestantism that prevailed in England during the late sixteenth century, based on the doctrines of the French-born Protestant reformer Jean Calvin. Calvinist theology developed and changed over time, but at this historical juncture it stressed the sinfulness and depravity of human nature. In contrast to the traditional view of salvation as something that an individual could earn by living a virtuous Christian life, Calvinism argued that salvation is entirely God's gift rather than the result of any human effort. Moreover, according to the doctrine of predestination, God gives that gift only to a fortunate few whom he has chosen; everyone else faces an eternity of hellfire.

This theology formed the official doctrine of the Elizabethan Church. However bleak it sounds, its effect on believers was often positive; for those persuaded by their own virtuous impulses that they were chosen by God, it proved an enormous source of comfort and well-being, perhaps especially for poorer members of society, for whom the conviction of divine favour could be empowering. But for some, these doctrines provoked a sense of powerlessness and anxious fear about their spiritual destiny. It is possible to argue that Marlowe's Faustus is a depiction of one of these casualties of Calvinist doctrine, and that this helps to explain not only his opening dismissal of Christianity as obsessed with sin and damnation, but his repeated inability to repent. As in the soliloquy that opens Act 2, he cannot bring himself to believe that God favours him and has granted him salvation. The desire for repentance is overwhelmed by a still stronger belief, consistent with Calvinist doctrine in its early modern form, that the chances are that God does not love him at all.

However, it isn't necessary to believe that Doctor Faustus is specifically about Calvinism to feel that its portrait of the Christian God who vindictively ‘conspires’ Faustus's overthrow is not entirely flattering. Numerous critics have been troubled by a particular episode in the play that seems to cast doubt on the presence of divine mercy and benevolence. This is the moment in Act 2, Scene 3 when Faustus makes his most serious attempt at repentance. He quarrels with Mephistopheles, the Good Angel (unusually) gets the last word in the debate with the Evil Angel, and Faustus calls out to Christ ‘to save distressèd Faustus’ soul’ (2.3.85). And what happens? Lucifer, Beelzebub and Mephistopheles enter. Why does God not intervene to save Faustus? The stony silence that greets his plea for divine assistance seems to call into question the traditional Christian notion of a loving and merciful God.

Other critics have argued that God is silent on this occasion because Faustus's repentance is insincere, and that he consistently fails to repent not because he is suffering from theologically-induced despair, but because he is afraid of the devils and constantly distracted by the frivolous entertainments they stage for him, like the pageant of the seven deadly sins which follows this episode. One could argue as well that the play does represent the Christian God as loving and merciful, and shows human beings to be free to shape their own spiritual destinies. The Good and Evil Angels, after all, seem to give dramatic form to Faustus's freedom to choose: he has a choice between good and evil, and he chooses evil in full knowledge of what the consequences will be. As late as Act 5, Scene 1, the Old Man appears on stage to drive home the availability of God's mercy if only Faustus will sincerely repent his sins. Looked at from this perspective, it is Faustus and not God who is responsible for the terrible fate that greets him at the close of the play.

This critical debate serves to remind us that it is difficult to evaluate how much sympathy the play arouses for its protagonist without taking into consideration its treatment of the Christian God. If you think the God of the play is fundamentally benevolent then you are less likely to feel favourably disposed towards Faustus than if you think he comes across as a harsh and punitive cosmic despot. It is clear, though, that the play offers textual evidence in support of both views. Once again, we find Marlowe refusing to be pinned down to one interpretation.

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