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Doctor Faustus and Free Will

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus presents a contextually layered play, influenced by both the morality tradition and Faustian legend, while updating the didacticism of previous morality plays by blurring conventional definitions of good and evil, and focusing on Faustus’ decision to sin without temptation from traditional vices. The ideological divide between Anglican tradition and the emerging Calvinist, ultra-protestant belief system imbues the text with unresolvable uncertainty, made more complex by Marlowe’s own alleged atheism. However, ultimately the play serves both to explore Calvinist notions of God as an unfeeling, wrathful cosmic entity who is thus ‘not unlike Satan’ in his predetermined judgement of souls, while also providing a deeply personal insight into the downfall of a renaissance individual whose megalomania and choice to avoid sincere repentance secures his damnation.

Conventional morality plays present the “Everyman” character with temptations that can lead him to sin, however Marlowe, who writes at the confluence of medieval traditions and modern renaissance thought inherited from Italy, updates this form by framing Faustus as a man who chooses sin despite ample forewarning, thus making the protagonist responsible for his damnation. Marlowe’s alterations to the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, the first “Faust Book”, are significant; the Faustian legend depicts its protagonist as being subject to the temptations of Mephistopheles and thus can be read as a text in which hellish inducement to sin overrides the human faculty of free will. Marlowe subverts this notion by depicting Mephistopheles as a figure who is initially faithful to the truth, even taking on the conventional role of the “Good Angel” by leading Faustus away from sin: having once ‘tast[ed] the eternal joys of heaven’, he is ‘tormented with ten thousand hells […] deprived of everlasting bliss’, and even advocates for Faustus to ‘leave these frivolous demands’. Faustus’ decision to pursue his desire for ‘power […] honour’ and ‘omnipotence’ (p. 9) in the face of certain damnation indicates that he belongs to Marlowe’s “over-reaching” protagonists, who forget their position as mere mortal beings: Faustus uses magic, Barabas uses cunning, and Tamburlaine uses his sword; each to overcome the limitations of humanity and transcend God. Indeed, Faustus’ diabolical ambitions to take the position of ‘great emperor of the world’ (p. 17) parallels Lucifer’s own ‘aspiring pride and insolence’ (p. 16), while starkly juxtaposing the more innocent characterisation in the Faust Book, where the protagonist desires knowledge merely for the sake of acquiring wisdom. By accentuating the contrast between the two Faustian traditions, Marlowe emphasises the decisions made by delusions of grandeur that will condemn his protagonist to hell. Moreover, the notable absence of the Vice stock character found in conventional medieval morality plays conveys the lack of persuasion Faustus needs to be driven to sin; in Doctor Faustus, the protagonist is repulsed by the grotesque reality of the seven sins and commands them ‘away, to hell, to hell!’ (p. 33). Therefore, even in the face of a prefigured destiny in hell, he still cannot save himself by choosing not to forfeit his pride for salvation, which prompts Cole to identify Faustus as ‘his own worst deceiver’ and ‘tempter’, thus challenging the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which argues that Faustus is hopelessly condemned to hell, regardless of his choices. According to this reading, Marlowe presents an updated morality play that is focused on the fault of individual autonomy rather than external temptation.

Doctor Faustus, being written at a time of intense theological debate between emerging interpretations of Christianity, is thoroughly conflicted with issues of predestination, God’s role in salvation and religious despair. The play can be read as both an endorsement and critique of Calvinist doctrine, which Marlowe was extensively exposed to at Cambridge, and was the academic zeitgeist in the late sixteenth century; however, one is more inclined to view God as a dominating, celestial dictator displaying no possibility of salvation to reprobates. Faustus learns theology in ‘Wittenberg’ (p. 55), an emblem of the heart of Protestantism, and omits benevolent biblical passages emphasising forgiveness, instead presenting an ultra-protestant interpretation of man as perpetually damned: ‘Stipendium peccati mors est’ (p. 8) (‘the wages of sin are death’), however leaving out the ‘gift of […] eternal life’ that can be achieved ‘through Jesus Christ.’ Here, Faustus embodies Marlowe’s alleged atheism, more specifically a reaction against the absolutism of Calvinism, where the assumption of being ‘damned perpetually’ (p. 51) by the ‘heavy wrath of God’ (p. 52) leads him to abandon Christianity completely: ‘Divinity, adieu!’ (p. 9). Faustus accepts Calvin’s denial of Mankind’s autonomy, and thus is therefore ‘not possessed of free-will for good works’, and in lacking the ‘grace […] bestowed on the elect alone’, he finds little reason to repent since neither God nor himself offer redemption, driving him further into despair. On the contrary, Doctor Faustus’s worldview can be construed as more Anglicised, which is more overtly realised in the B-text through the Old Man conveying a more loving God who acknowledges Faustus’ ‘amiable soul’ as opposed to being born in sin. Marlowe places the responsibility on the archetypal renaissance individual, whose own choices to sin thus ‘by custom grow […] into nature’ (p. 113), rendering him unable to repent due to ingrained habits. Indeed, Marlowe further distances himself from the medieval tradition that viewed angels as corporeal beings, acting as an intermediary between the spiritual and physical world, instead exposing their presence as abstract and effusive. Given Faustus never interacts with the two angels, they act as a spiritual part of his conflicted consciousness; indeed, when they speak to him he hears ‘something sound[ing] in [his] ears’ (p. 20), instead of acknowledging an exterior voice. This transition of focus to interiority as opposed to supernatural causes of events emphasises the tragedy of Faustus as a man whose attempts to choose between good and evil render him helpless in the face of absolute celestial power.

Marlowe does not clearly dichotomise God and Lucifer into good and evil, instead they are rendered similar through their mutual desire to obtain the souls of those within their dominion, and thus Faustus is presented as victim of cosmic war. Doctor Faustus departs from the morality play tradition by presenting God as a wrathful deity who does not give his people a chance to repent, as opposed to a God of omnibenevolence who forgives mankind for their collective sin. Indeed, Honderich identifies the Castle of Perseverance as a play that places ‘twin emphasis on the free-will of man and the mercy and tolerance of God’, while Doctor Faustus undermines both traditional emphases by presenting an ‘implacable’ God who, by denying the autonomy of Mankind ‘deprive[s] them of all will and energy’, effectively paralyses them in despair. This reflection on God is subversive; his omnipotence, combined with his refusal to provide salvation to sinners and lack of physical presence in the play leads the audience to sympathise with Faustus’ theological conflictions and ultimate decision to seek other pleasures. Even if he is granted the freedom of will, he cannot be entirely blamed for rejecting a God whom he believes ‘loves [him] not’ and thus his ‘offence can ne’er be pardoned’ (p. 50), and finally turning to the satanic trinity who respond to his requests with physical presence. Faustus’ only interaction with God comes from the Good Angel, who warns him of ‘God’s heavy wrath’ (p. 52), reinforcing the ambiguous morality of divine judgement from a deity that would deny the heavenly desires of ‘salvation, faith, or heaven’ by making Faustus’ ‘heart’ be so ‘hardened [that he] cannot repent’ (p. 28). God is depicted as unjust in failing to offer hope to a sinner who is arduously endeavouring to repent after recognising their sin, thus embodying Marlowe’s own criticism of Calvinist doctrine. Perhaps most subversively in the play are the blasphemous comparisons between God and Lucifer, which reveal upsetting similarities, while generating considerable sympathy for Faustus as a victim, where the ambivalent morality of divine judgement forces the audience to question whether Faustus’ mortal quest for knowledge can be wholly condemned as sacrilegious. Critics have converged on Marlowe’s intention to subvert the actions of a supposedly just God; Faustus’ demise is, according to Cox, ‘less an opposition of good and evil than one of overwhelming cosmic power’, while Dollimore highlights God and Lucifer as ‘two supreme agents’, who despite being ‘deeply antagonistic to each other’ will ‘temporarily co-operat[e]’ in Faustus’ demise, suggesting an unholy alliance which temporarily reduces God to the status of the fallen world.


Faustus’ eternal spiritual contract with the Lucifer, and his supposed inability to repent following his decision to reject God, is continually called into question by Mephistopheles’ actions. In Mephistopheles’ attempts to keep Faustus continually tempted to sin, rather than leaving him to pursue other souls, Marlowe suggests that Faustus can still exercise his will to choose salvation, thus offering a less absolutist representation of God, who will attempt to intervene to persuade fallen men to salvation. Faustus must ‘bequeath’ his pact ‘solemnly’, rather than merely ‘hazard[ing]’ it, by sacrificing his blood; this pact is shown to be of paramount importance to Faustus’ worship of Lucifer, for if he refuses Mephistopheles will return ‘back to hell’ (p. 21). In an act of divine intervention, however, Faustus’ ‘blood congeals’ (p. 22), meaning he cannot write his satanic consummation, yet this intervention can still be construed as merely God’s attempt to win back a soul from his arch-enemy Lucifer, rather than as an act of sympathy to a victim of temptation. Mephistopheles’s desire to ‘obtain [Faustus’] soul’ (p. 23) reinforces this war over immortal entities; even if Faustus summoned him ‘per accidens’ (p. 16), his freedom to be tempted by heaven also provides the cause for hell’s need to tempt him again back to earthly pleasures. Thus, following divine instruction: ‘Homo, fuge!’, Mephistopheles must ‘fetch him somewhat to delight his mind’ (p. 23), thus suggesting a fear that Faustus could choose to turn back to his ‘orthodox early life’, inverting the ‘didactic biography’ of a Saint’s life outlined by Snyder. Her assertion of Faustus’ life as an ‘Inverted Saint’s Life’ renders Mephistopheles’ actions understandable in theological terms; since the reprobate is ‘not damned until he dies’, and ‘last minute’ temptation to divinity often being presented in the ‘dramatic tradition of […] morality’, Lucifer’s servant must continually guard against his subject being ‘tempted by heaven’. Indeed, Mephistopheles must threaten Faustus with a gruesome death by ‘tear[ing his] flesh’ (p. 48), showing the supposed strength of moral autonomy within Faustus which Mephistopheles fears and must ultimately suppress. These actions serve to emphasise the power of human choice, however, through continually seeking evil and as a result being bent over in sin, Faustus secures his seat among the damned unrepentant souls, ultimately advising the audience to avoid the “tree of knowledge” which Faustus’ pride condemned himself with.

Textual differences between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ versions of Doctor Faustus highlight ideological shifts and debate, with some additions in the ‘B’ Text accentuating the presentation of a post-reformation, tyrannical God, while the modifications of Mephistopheles as a scheming figure gives a more sympathetic approach to Faustus as a figure who is led astray by temptation rather than of his own free will. Empson famously viewed the added material in the 1616 quarto as the ‘sadistic additions’, arguing that these were forced by a ‘censor’ to emphasize a Post-Reformation characterisation of God. Faustus’ temptation at the hands of Mephistopheles conforms to the Calvinist notion of a predestined fate from which he cannot escape: Mephistopheles ‘turned the leaves’ of the Bible and ‘led [his] eye’ (p. 118) over the scriptures, compelling him to accept a version of reformed Christianity devoid of hope or salvation and thus eventually reject it, conveying Marlowe’s personal anger and ultimate dismissal of the belief system. These supposedly ‘sadistic’ additions, which Empson deemed un-Marlovian, can be interpreted as offering a more sympathetic view of Faustus as belonging to a previous morality tradition of being drawn to sin by earthly seduction, rather than actively seeking to subvert the authority of God. The final scene where the scholars discover Faustus’ physical manifestation of corruption, with ‘limbs all torn asunder’ (p. 121) can also be used to suggest Christian sympathy for Faustus’ unchosen fate, since he will still be given ‘due burial’ (p. 122) by the church. Ultimately, however, both versions of the Play end with Faustus choosing the ‘heaven’ (p. 115) in Helen’s lips rather than the paradise promised to the elect, thus representing an acceptance of temporary pleasure over salvation and eternal bliss.

To conclude, the epistemology and theological ambiguities in Doctor Faustus cause authorial intention to be obscured and difficult to unpack. Given Marlowe’s atheistic beliefs, one may be persuaded to read Faustus as a lamentation on the ruthlessness of divine judgement, subverting the figure of God to the moral equivalent of Satan. However, when comparing Faustus to other over-reaching protagonists Marlovian tradition, Faustus can be viewed as an updated morality play that documents individual tragedy; the protagonist’s decision to indulge grandiose delusions, and the resulting religious conflict between autonomy and predestination and ultimate damnation serves as a didactic deterrence to the audience, warning them not to practice more than ‘heavenly power permits’ (p. 53).


Primary Texts

Marlowe, Christopher, Doctor Faustus, ed. by David Scott Kastan (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005)

Secondary Texts

Cole, Douglas, Suffering and Evil in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1962)

Cox, John D., The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

—— ‘“To obtain his soul”: Demonic Desire for the Soul in Marlowe and Others’, Early Theatre, 5. 2 (2002), 29-46

Deats, Sara Munson, ‘Doctor Faustus: from Chapbook to Tragedy’, in Essays in Literature 3 (1976), pp. 3-16

Dollimore, Jonathan, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1984)

Empson, William, Faustus and the Censor, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987)

Honderich, Pauline, ‘John Calvin and Doctor Faustus’, The Modern Language Review, 68. 1 (1973), 1-13

Marcus, Leah S., ‘Textual Indeterminacy and Ideological difference: The Case of Doctor Faustus’, Renaissance Drama, 20 (1989), 1-29

Snyder, Susan, ‘Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus as an Inverted Saint’s Life’, Studies in Philology, 63. 4 (1966), 565-577

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