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A Few Christian Notes on Christopher Marlowe’s Drama: The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus

A Few Christian Notes on Christopher Marlowe’s Drama:

The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus

This play has been called a Christian Tragedy. The discussed scene is from Act 1 scene 1:

FAUSTUS in his Study.
Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin
To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess;
Having commenced, be a divine in show,
Yet level at the end of every art,
And live and die in Aristotle’s works.(5)
Sweet Analytics, ’tis thou hast ravished me! [Reads.]
Bene disserere est finis logices.
Is, to dispute well, logic’s chiefest end?
Affords this art no greater miracle?
Then read no more; thou hast attained that end;(10)
A greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit:
Bid Oncaymaeon farewell, Galen come,
Seeing, Ubi desinit Philosophus, ibi incipit Medicus:
Be a physician, Faustus; heap up gold,
And be eternised for some wondrous cure. [Reads.](15)
Summum bonum medicinae sanitas,
The end of physic is our body’s health.
Why, Faustus, hast thou not attained that end?
Is not thy common talk sound aphorisms?
Are not thy bills hung up as monuments,(20)
Whereby whole cities have escaped the plague,
And thousand desperate maladies been eased?
Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.
Wouldst thou make men to live eternally,
Or, being dead, raise them to life again,(25)
Then this profession were to be esteemed.
Physic, farewell!—Where is Justinian? [Reads.]
Si una eademque res legatur duobus, alter rem,
alter valorem rei, &c.
A pretty case of paltry legacies! [Reads.](30)
Exhaereditare filium non potest pater, nisi, &c.
Such is the subject of the institute,
And universal body of the law:
This study fits a mercenary drudge,
Who aims at nothing but external trash;(35)
Too servile and illiberal for me.
When all is done, divinity is best:
Jerome’s Bible, Faustus; view it well. [Reads.]
Stipendium peccati mors est. Ha! Stipendium, &c.
The reward of sin is death. That’s hard. [Reads.](40)
Si peccasse negamus fallimur et nulla est in nobis
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,
and there’s no truth in us. Why then, belike we
must sin, and so consequently die.(45)
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera,
What will be shall be? Divinity, adieu!
These metaphysics of magicians
And necromantic books are heavenly:(50)
Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters:
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!(55)
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command. Emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this,(60)
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;
A sound magician is a mighty god:
Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.

(The numbers (60) above are line numbers to help me reference lines in my words)

Paraphrase: Faustus is considering what subject he shall study. He is person enamoured of ideas, in love with learning, to the point where he is ambitious for himself to excel. This passage is about the seductive allure of intellectual endeavour then. ‘Sweet analytics, thou hast ravished me’

‘To live and die in Aristotle’s works’ Faustus says this is what he will devote his life to – poring over Aristotle’s writings and eliciting fine distinctions and close inferences from them, and never get bored or tired. There is enough of the ‘drug’ of intellectual endeavour in Aristotle to last him a lifetime.

The foreign language quotations that Faustus speaks are Latin, the international language of his day (just as English is in ours). The quotations are well-known ones and would be familiar to educated men hearing the actor playing Faustus speak them. They are from famous people in the various fields of learning which Faustus considers in turn whether to pursue as his life work. These authors and disciplines are: (in sequence) Aristotle (Philosopher); Oncaymaeon (Orator); Galen (Medicine); Justinian (Lawyer); and Jerome (Bible Theologian). It’s important that Theology is seen by Faustus as the ultimate study to study in the normal course of things.

Faustus ‘translates’ or gives the meaning of each Latin quote in English after he has spoken the Latin of each. He goes through the learning options and is dissatisfied with each in turn and dismisses them in turn. The pinnacle of dismissal is again Jerome’s Theology studies.

Faustus does a little bit of sophistry next, twisting the meaning of Jerome’s words that

‘The reward of sin is death.
That’s hard.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,
and there’s no truth in us’.

Faustus construes them into this understanding in his mind,

‘Why then, belike we
must sin, and so consequently die.(45)
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera,
What will be shall be? Divinity, adieu!’

And so Faustus ditches what reasonable men consider(ed) the ultimate legitimate study for people: theology.

Now it’s very important what comes next. Faustus has dismissed systematically the lawful studies of man, even to the ultimate available. (By lawful I mean ordained by God as lawful). Two important things come out of this, and from this point onwards we begin to see clearly the transgression of Faustus. And his transgression is not his study of the Dark Arts and Necromancy, nor is it his selling of his soul to Mephistopheles which this passage is leading up to in the drama. He has two Cardinal sins:


‘These metaphysics of magicians
And necromantic books are heavenly:(50)
Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters:
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires’

Faustus is tempted by his besotted desire for ultimate learning by what he sees is the ultimate study: Black Magic. He loves learning above and beyond his love for God. Remember the First Commandment in Leviticus:

‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart
and all thy soul and all thy being; and have no other
gods but me’

Faustus has another god than The Lord: Necromancy


‘O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!’ (55)

Faustus longs for power, ultimate power, like a James Bond villain, it’s world domination Renaissance style. Together, his besotted desire for forbidden knowledge and his gross ambition to power are his faults and lead to transgression.

Behind all this, then, some background to Christopher Marlowe, the poet dramatist and author of Faustus (The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus) – He was a riotous liver. He died in a brawl in a tavern (pub) in Deptford in theLondon suburbs in the late 1590’s. He was 29 years old.

He was stabbed in the eye, and died a day later. Reputed to be a wild liver and sacrilegious but not an aggressively evangelical atheist in today’s mold, he was considered merely one who rejected the idea of there being a God.

He was said to be a spy for the British Government and some think he was assassinated in Deptford. He was said to be homosexual.

His poetic gifts were extraordinary. He can pile exotic and sumptuous images and words onto one another without pause and so overwhelm the senses with opulence. He can be extraordinarily tender at times too. He can do pomp, power and pride and glory in great speeches and sentences that conjure before the eyes the real images of mighty and proud rulers speaking.

Unlike Shakespeare he was a University wit, like John Donne: Hence the fluidity with Latin and with Classical imagery and mythology in his works. Shakespeare himself acknowledges his eminence as a poet and dramatist and praises him lavishly (after his death) him in the play ‘As You Like It’. Shakespeare owed a lot to him.

Now back to the play Faustus. The fear of learning portrayed in this drama is Marlowe’s exploitation of the unlearned person’s awe and distrust of cleverness and of much knowledge. Unlearned people feel at a disadvantage and vulnerable before clever learned people. Learned people generally govern them as politicians and belong to a very different social class of person – as now, so as then. There lies behind this fear of learning too the idea, found in Genesis and in many primitive stories and outlooks of ‘forbidden knowledge’ All these anxieties are played upon by Marlowe. His educated audience would recognize this and applaud; his unlearned audience would sense this and tremble.

Marlowe himself has been called an ‘overreacher’ just as Faustus himself is, and how far this is us as readers writing in as Marlowe’s views the plot of Faustus is hard to say, since not a lot is known about Marlowe compared to what we know of many other famous writers. It may be just our romantic imaginations wishing it to be so – or there may be something to the idea?

Like Jesus who was ‘driven by the Spirit into the wilderness’ to be tempted by Satan; Faustus is the mirror image of the Biblical episode. His desire and ambition seek temptation out and temptations in the form of Fallen Angels egging him on are not long absent. Jesus does not solicit temptation and Satan is defeated on three counts by him, and goes away till a later opportunity (in Gethsemane before Jesus’ arrest).

Faustus falls clearly by way of his own character deficiencies. Like a child he is unable to curb his appetites and control his desires. The Mediaeval concern with the cupidity that overpowers people as an idle curiosity is also present as an idea in this drama. For along with this disapproval of curiosity came the idea that learning could be vain and fruitless and it even goes back to St Paul, who castigates those who eagerly chase ‘vain philosophy’ and ‘arcane’ knowledge and who frown upon the simple knowledge of God and his commandments. Again, it is the setting up of graven images of learning and of the self as narcissistic idol that are the sins St Paul nails.

And this other issue too is important – the connection of knowledge with power, worldly power. Faustus, like many clever persons, is very enamouredof himself and of his own abilities. He thinks well of himself; too well, and is seduced by his own self-love into sin where he becomes a slave to ambition and to a vain thirst for ultimate knowledge.

A great deal of the learning of the Greek and Roman worlds, as well as the Hebrew and New Testament worlds is packed into the drama of Faustus. This includes the issues on proper role and uses of learning; the self control one should exert over appetite and desire; the weaker argument defeating the stronger – which is sophistry; the idea that ‘might is right’; the idea of temperance and of The Golden Mean in ethics and behaviour; and much more.

Pretty soon after this speech is spoken by Faustus’ which we are discussing and which is printed above, and that I have selected to comment on, Good Angels and Evil Angels appear on stage and vie for the soul of Faustus. They appear from time to time in the drama to give a Cosmic Significance to Faustus’ petty follies. They fight out the Cosmic Battle always going on between Good and Evil and do this through the medium of Faustus’ frivolous actions and behaviour.

Of very great importance is what Faustus does with the forbidden knowledge he accesses once he has signed away his soul to Mephistopheles in blood and on a contractual document.

It’s important that Faustus has to sign this document, since the Lord Jesus requires no similar signed pledge of fealty from his people, who adhere because of love and veneration to his Person. Whereas Mephistopheles knows that Faustus’ bargain with him will bring Faustus only hollow fruit, and frustrate his every expectation, and eventually will damn him to everlasting perdition. So Mephistopheles has Faustus sign a binding contract, so as to hold him to the empty bargain.

And so it transpires that Faustus can only use his powers to do cheap circus tricks and pantomime clowning; like going to St Peter’s and tweaking the nose of The Pope, and doing petty practical jokes on unwitting people. Really sad and bathetic stuff

Faustus asks questions about man and origins of things to Mephistopheles and finds out merely what he knew before, and absolutely nothing that he could not have got from The Bible; everything s ordered in every way all as the Testaments lay it out, and Faustus is deeply disappointed.

He begins to realise the emptiness of the bargain he has made. All he has then is riotous living and the prospect of death and damnation after the 25 years contract. He does some vanity projects like calling up the Spirit of Helen of Troy (and spurring the famous line ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?’) She is beautiful, but unattainable; she feeds the appetite but cannot slake it.

Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet he soon grows to understand that:

‘Fie, why unto me are all the uses of this world
Dull, stale, flat, and unprofitable?’’

and then knows that there is also good practical reason indeed why Jesus refused the offer from Satan of dominion over all the nations of the world, and chose to be no earthly king of an earthly kingdom.

A telling episode in the Faustus drama is when Faustus questions Mephistopheles why he is not in Hell by with him: Mephistopheles replies:

‘Why this is Hell; nor am I out of it’

meaning that Mephistopheles carries his Hell with him wherever he goes, and never has ease or respite. This discovery, as it should, perturbs Faustus enormously.

On a knockabout comedy level the Faustus drama is vaudeville and farce and the common man’s entertainment. On a metaphysical and spiritual level it is a deep discussion of the ‘vanity of the world’ and of the ultimate soundness and truth of Biblical teaching and its recommendations.

The approach of an audience should be not to take the action and plot and dialogue of the play as literally true in any way, as like history works claim to be, but to see into the work’s semblances and use of symbols, images, allegories, parodies, metaphors, similes, personifications and enjoy the sheer verve and dynamism of the play’s action and ideas. The play when looked at in this figurative way turns the key to many human and divine truths, incontrovertible and necessary, whether one is Christian or not, whether one likes it or not. It’s about the way the world is set up (I believe by God) to work and to operate.

The weakness of men and women is exposed. Their sense of their own worths; their insatiable appetites, their lust for power and for knowledge for power’s sake, and their intellectual pride, make us all the slaves of evil desires and not our own masters, who would otherwise be our own persons but voluntarily and willingly and joyously following the Way of our Lord andSaviour in love and truth and grace.

But this has all been exposition of the content and subject matter of the drama. Look and read over Faustus’ speech, and then go to the full drama at the link below, and as you read listen in your mind’s ear to the sumptuous poetry; the power of what John Milton called ‘Marlowe’s mighty line’, and the tenderness and poignancy of his pitiful art.

Another Grand Master of the world of words