“Almost Persuaded: Doctor Faustus’ Tragic End. Part One of Two."
Editor's Note: Here's an essay I wrote for a British Literature class. The essay is two years old so the MLA formatting is a different version than the current.
“Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Acts 26:28
The story of Doctor Faustus is a fascinating exploration of the lengths that people will go to in pursuit of their heart’s desire. In Faustus’ case, the thirst for knowledge leads to a pact with the Devil where Faustus will receive ultimate knowledge in exchange for his soul. This questionable deal is made all the more tragic when playwright Christopher Marlowe raises the intriguing possibility that Faustus could have repented of his pact and achieved salvation rather than eternal damnation.
There are several trains of thought on Faustus’ ability to achieve salvation. They boil down to whether one subscribes to the doctrine of salvation by faith, salvation by faith (predestination) or that of salvation by works. A simplified explanation would state that most Protestants believe in salvation by faith i.e. trusting in Christ’s death on the cross as atonement for our sins. Calvinists believe that God has predetermined who will obtain salvation before they are even born. Catholics believe in salvation by works, the idea that our good deeds (coupled with Christ’s sacrifice) are the determinant for getting into heaven. Since Marlowe was a non-Calvinist Protestant and writing for a non-Calvinist Protestant audience, one would think that the “rules” in his story would allow for a last minute reprieve if Faustus repented at some point before he did. A Calvinist approach would be that Faustus’ actions wouldn’t matter because his salvation (or damnation) was predetermined before birth. The Roman Catholic version would be that Faustus’ sins had been too terrible and that he had reached a point of no return.
Like any good scientist, Faustus employs the scientific method before embarking on his journey to magical knowledge. He weighs the evidence and relies on two Biblical passages to conclude that he is damned to hell, the first being Roman 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The second is 1 John 1:8 which states, “If we say that we have no sins, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us”.
One particularly surprising thing is that for a man who studied religion, Faustus is painfully oblivious to certain Biblical principles and doctrine. Although Faustus is well learned in the Bible, he fails to follow the warning in Proverbs 18:12 “Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, and before honour is humility.” Faustus is also somehow unaware of the basic doctrine of eternal salvation. One could argue that this is a gaping plot hole or one could blame it on Faustus’ hubris. Thus Faustus starts his journey without a crucial piece of information that might save him. As scholar Adrian Streete notes, Faustus relies on 1 John 1:8 but fails to read further and note 1 John 1:9 which reads, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Thus Faustus falsely believes that he is eternally damned to hell and that he has nothing to lose by pursuing a quest for magical knowledge.
Scholars have noted the parallels of Doctor Faustus to the mythological character Icarus who ignored his father’s wisdom and reached for the sun, leading to his death. Unlike Icarus, Faustus has several chances to avoid destruction. As scholar Li Li notes, “Throughout the five acts, actually, the Icarian plot recurs four times and Faustus has gone through four times fall and is doomed to death” (25).
Interestingly enough, Mephastophilis seems to warn Faustus against damning his soul to hell by selling it to Lucifer. “O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,/Which strike a terror to my fainting soul” (1136). One would think that a warning from a devil would be enough to dissuade Faustus but he continues on with his quest. This will establish a pattern of Faustus’ hubris keeping him from making the wise choice.
It is clear from the text that Faust is given several opportunities to repent of his actions. One of the primary ways is the repeated admonition by the good angel for Faustus to repent. Perhaps in an early form of the equal time doctrine, the good angel is always accompanied by an evil angel. The presence of a good angel and an evil angel provide a moral point and counterpoint for Faustus. Both angels are concerned with Faustus’ soul but their motivations are diametrically opposed with the good angel wanting Faustus’ soul for eternity in Heaven and the evil angel wanting Faustus’ soul to be added to Lucifer’s collection in Hell. The good and evil angels appear several times in the play. In Act One Scene 1. The Good Angel encourages Faustus to read the Bible and ignore reading a magical tome. The Evil Angel promises Faustus that he will be a god on earth if he pursues magic. Faustus is overwhelmed with how much he will be able to do and embarks on the journey to magical knowledge. Prior to selling his soul, Faustus is again visited by the two angels. The good angel reminds him that he can repent and to think on heaven. However the evil angel reminds Faustus of the power that awaits and Faustus continues.
After suffering a bit of buyer’s remorse when he learns that he cannot be wed, Faustus is troubled when he reads about the heavens. Faustus decides to renounce magic. The good and evil angel show up with the good angel reminding Faustus that repentance is still possible and the evil angel telling Faustus that his embrace of magic have made him into an irredeemable devil. Faustus considers his situation briefly and decides that his heart is too hardened to repent. He even contemplates suicide but the fleshly joys that still await him lead him to choose life.
Once more Faustus contemplates repentance. When the good and evil angel arrive, Faustus seems ready to repent, even when the evil angel warns him that, “If thou repent, devils shall tear thee to pieces” (1145). Faustus even calls on Christ for help. This seems like a very genuine move towards repentance and it’s enough for Lucifer, Belzebub, and Mephastophilis to show up and try to change his mind. Lucifer reminds Faustus of his promise not to talk of God and he seduces Faustus by showing him the pleasures of the seven deadly sins, telling him that they will keep him entertained in hell. Faustus once again gives up any thought of repentance.
Li, Li. “The Inevitable Fall: Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and the Icarus Myth”. Studiesi n Literature and Language. 5.3 2012: 24.. Google Scholar. Web. 28 Apr 2015.
Streete, Adrian. “Calvinist Conceptions of Hell in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus”. Notes and Queries. 47.4 2000: 430-432. Oxford University Press. Web. 28 Apr 2015.