It had been about eight or nine years since I had last read Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus. I recall how I had had to study it on my own for I had been ill when my professor dealt with it in my undergraduate class. I also recall how much I loved, how it left me passion-spent, sitting at the edge of my chair as Faustus steadily moved toward eternal damnation.
A year later, while doing my masters, another professor asked us to do a short assignment on Marlowe. I had read of how, during his time Marlowe was considered an atheist. I still find it hard to understand why. Was he an atheist because he dared to be a 'freethinker'? That would be undrestandable, considering the power of the Church during the Renaissance, and their dislike of anything that went against what the Church fed the common people. So, if this be the case, then I am not confused.
What do I mean?
Dr Faustus is an incredibly passionate and powerful piece of work. It is all about a man who sells his soul to the devil for knowledge and power. While the story itself is based on a German history, the language, the ideas, the passion and conviction behind the words are so unmistakably un-atheist like. Throughout the play Faustus is plagued by the wrongness of what he has done. Yet Mephistophilis, one of the Devil's main agents, always wins over the words of the 'good angel', and we see Faustus digging his whole faster and deeper.
The irony of the deal struck with the devil
"When Mephistophilis shall stand by me, What god can hurt thee, Faustus? thou art safe Cast no more doubts.--Come, Mephistophilis, And bring glad tidings from great Lucifer;-- Is't not midnight?--come, Mephistophilis, Veni, veni, Mephistophile!" Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (Kindle Locations 228-230). manybooks.net.
In his bid to justify what he has done, Faustus, ironically and tragically places his trust in the one creature he should fear, believe himself safe from God. Yet, ambition and the thirst for knowledge are the real things that compel his continual foray into the occult. He seeks to enslave evil spirits, to make them do his every bidding:
"But, tell me, Faustus, shall I have thy soul? And I will be thy slave, and wait on thee, And give thee more than thou hast wit to ask." ibid (Kindle Locations 236-237)
Yet, who is really master? Faustus or Mephistophilis? Would Faustus be given all that he asks for? Yet the devil gets the better end of the bargain. However, the deal does not stop here. The 'good angel' and the 'bad angel' constantly make their appearance as Faustus' conscience. Right up to the very end he is pricked by doubt and shame.
The real tragedy
But the real tragedy is when he cannot bring himself to repent, for he cannot believe God would forgive him so much evil. It begins with his lust for power over the domain of the spirits, that leads him to strike a deal with the devil, pledging his soul for twenty-four years of knowledge and power. Once this is done we see the immediate deterioration of all things held sacred. Faustus wants a wife. But his 'slave' says marriage is of no consequence, he might have beautiful courtesans and other lovely women every day. Then comes his constant tryst with evil spirits, the ultimate being when he has physical intercourse with one disguised in the form of the fair Helene of Troy - "Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships, And burnt the topless towers of Ilium-- Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss."-- ibid (Kindle Locations 530-531)
Come the last hour of his freedom, and the agony he suffers is great. I find that last scene the most beautiful and nerve-wracking scene of the play. Faustus longs for the peace of forgiveness, mercy and salvation, but he cannot bring himself to believe that he can be forgiven. The last words he utters as the clock strikes the end is both pitiful and horrifying at the same time:
"O, it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air, Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell! O soul, be chang'd into little water-drops, And fall into the ocean, ne'er be found!" ibid (Kindle Locations 576-577). manybooks.net.
In the footnote of my kindle version, is given a very gory description of Faustus' remains as written in The History of Doctor Faustus. One can only imagine the gruesome torture of his dying.