Monday, November 14, 2011

Doctor Faustus and Redemption: You Gotta Wanna be Redeemed

New post about Marlowe's
"The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" each Monday

I left Christopher Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" at the point where John Faustus asks Mephistopheles, "who made the world." Why Faustus asked that is a fairly reasonable question, since he obviously knows the answer:
"..."MEPHIST. Ay, that is not against our kingdom; but this is. Think thou on hell, Faustus, for thou art damned.

"FAUSTUS. Think, Faustus, upon God that made the world....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Before getting back to Marlowe's play, what about Mephistopheles' parting line? Is John Faustus really, finally, irrevocably damned at that moment?

Elizabethan Drama, Theology, and Getting a Grip

First, Marlowe's "Faustus" is a drama. A play, written for audiences who paid to get entertained.

Second, Christopher Marlowe was a loyal Englishman. When a nasty rumor got started, that he'd converted to Catholicism, the Queen herself cleared him of that scurrilous reproach.1

Third, considering the demon's home address, and the vested interest he has in making sure Faustus actually winds up in Hell, I think Mephistopheles' statements about the doctor's destiny need to be taken with a grain of salt. At least.

Questions, Sensible and Otherwise

Okay, back to work. Mephistopheles has just left. Faustus is scared, or angry, or both:
"...FAUSTUS. Ay, go, accursed spirit, to ugly hell! 'Tis thou hast damn'd distressed Faustus' soul. Is't not too late?..."
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Finally, John Faustus asks a sensible question. Is it too late to change his mind?

He's still alive, so the answer is "no," it's not too late. I'll get back to that.

Unsubtle, but Effective

This is an Elizabethan-era English drama, where points are made with the subtlety of a Captain Planet episode. Here come that dichotomous duo, EVIL ANGEL and GOOD ANGEL:
"...EVIL ANGEL. Too late.

"GOOD ANGEL. Never too late, if Faustus can repent.

"EVIL ANGEL. If thou repent, devils shall tear thee in pieces.

"GOOD ANGEL. Repent, and they shall never raze thy skin.
[Exeunt ANGELS.]

"FAUSTUS. Ah, Christ, my Saviour, Seek to save104 distressed Faustus' soul!..."
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
GOOD ANGEL's line, "if Faustus can repent," may be what Drama textbooks call foreshadowing. Faustus could repent, since he's still alive. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 393) With his track record, though, I don't think a repentant Faustus is likely.

Then John Faustus asks for "Christ, my Saviour," and gets - LUCIFER, BELZEBUB, and MEPHISTOPHILIS. This is simply not his day.

Let's see what happens when the boys from below lean on Faustus.
"...LUCIFER. Christ cannot save thy soul, for he is just: There's none but I have interest in the same...."
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Remember: These demons have a vested interest in getting Faustus into Hell, and almost certainly don't follow 'truth in advertising' regulations. Besides, this is a play written for commercial purposes, by someone who lived in post-Henry VIII England. I don't think it's reasonable to expect too much theological accuracy. Moving on.

Lucifer's Feelings are Hurt

The actor who plays Lucifer in this play has some wonderfully wicked lines:
"...LUCIFER. We come to tell thee thou dost injure us;
Thou talk'st of Christ, contrary to thy promise:
Thou shouldst not think of God: think of the devil,
And of his dam too.

"FAUSTUS. Nor will I henceforth: pardon me in this,
And Faustus vows never to look to heaven,
Never to name God, or to pray to him,
To burn his Scriptures, slay his ministers,
And make my spirits pull his churches down....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
"...The devil, and...his dam?" That's another topic.2

Fear, Feelings, and Faustus

Detail from illustration by Harry Clarke for Goethe's Faust, via Wikipedia, used w/o permissionArchaic and rather formal language aside, Lucifer's line, "We come to tell thee thou dost injure us..." reminds me of those heavies in the old "B" movies. The ones who explain to some storekeeper, or informant, 'Lenny, you hurt my feelins.' While their goons pour cement around Lenny.

Then there's the somewhat more recent quote: "...Bonasera, what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?..." ("The Godfather" (1972))

Fear can be a powerful motivator. It's also an emotion. Like any other emotion, it doesn't help folks think clearly.

That little flash of clarity, or panic, that John Faustus experienced went out like a match in a downpour.

Emotions, Reason, and the Frontal Cortex

As I've said before, emotions and reason don't play well together. Part of it has to do with the way our brains are wired:
Is it possible for folks to think clearly, when fear is prodding them along? In principle, yes: but I think it takes effort. And practice. Imagine an ethically-challenged insurance salesman frightening someone into buying a policy, and that's yet another topic.

Lucifer knows his sales psychology. Right after Faustus asks Lucifer to "pardon me in this," Lucifer gives him a look at the Seven Deadly Sins. Marlowe's version, that is.

'Good Boy, Faustus! Here's a Bone'

After Faustus acted in a suitably accommodating manner, Lucifer gives him a little reward: the "Seven Deadly Sins" floor show.

In Marlowe's play, these are
  • Pride
  • Covetousness
  • Wrath
  • Envy
  • Gluttony
  • Sloth
  • Lechery
Marlowe's no theologian. The list of capital sins is okay. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1866) He got Sloth wrong, though: and that's for next week's post.

But - Faustus Said "Christ!?"

In another story, Faustus' problems would have been pretty much over after he said "Christ, my Saviour, seek to save distressed Faustus' soul!" In Marlowe's play, he gets visited by three demons. Like I said before, "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" is an Elizabethan drama: written for public entertainment, in a sincerely non-Catholic country. Theological accuracy is a bit much to expect.

Even so, it's not all that surprising that Faustus got the boys from below instead of a heavenly chorus. The sort of conversion and penance the Church teaches about happens inside a person. It's not so much about what we say and do. "Sackcloth and ashes" may come later: but that's not what starts the process. (Catechism, 1430-1433 and following)

The way John Faustus reacted to the Seven Deadly Sins floor show gives, I think, a more accurate picture of what's going on in his heart. And that's a topic for next week.

Other posts in this series:
Related posts:
  • Reason
    • " is not opposed to reason."
      (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35)
  • Repentence
    • "Jesus calls to conversion..."
      (Catechism, 1427)
    • Two conversion:
      • Water of Baptism
      • Tears of repentance
      (Catechism, 1429)
    • Interior repentance
      (Catechism, 1430-1433 and following)
    • Repentance is possible before death, not after
      (Catechism, 393)
      • Also see Catechism, 2283
  • Sin
    • An offense against
      • Reason
      • Truth
      • Right conscience
        (Catechism, 1849)
      • God
        (Catechism, 1850)
    • May
      • Concern mostly
        • God
        • Neighbor
        • Oneself
      • Be
        • Spiritual
        • Carnal
      • Be committed by
        • Thought
        • Word
        • Deed
        • Omission
        (Catechism, 1853)
    • Some sins are more serious than others
      (Catechism, 1854)
    (Not an exhaustive index)
  • Why thinking straight under stress is so hard
"...Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from:

1 After Henry VIII set up a little church for himself, being called a Catholic in England was a little like being called a commie in America's McCarthyism era. Like I said, the Queen Elizabeth I cleared Marlowe's name:
"...There are school buttery and audit records taken during his school years but little else to confirm his comings and goings, merely long absences that leave room for speculation as to his activities. Rumours suggested that he had travelled to Rheims, France as a Catholic convert but the Queen herself cleared his name in the Privy Council's letter of recommendation for his M.A. degree dated 29 June 1587;
" ' all his actions he had behaved himself orderly and discreetly, whereby he had done Her Majesty good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing.." and the letter goes further "..because it was not Her Majesty's pleasure that anyone employed, as he had been, in matters touching the benefit of his country, should be defamed by those that are ignorant in th' affairs he went about.'..."
("Christopher Marlowe (bap. 1564, d. 1593)," The Literature Network)
2 "Dam" means quite a few things, but I'm pretty sure Marlowe didn't have Lucifer talking about "a metric unit of length equal to ten meters." Anachronisms aside, that just doesn't makes sense. In Elizabethan English, and in this context, "dam" probably meant something along the lines of "female parent of an animal especially domestic livestock." (Princeton's WordNet) Which still doesn't make a lot of sense. At least it isn't quite as nonsensical. Another resource revealed that "the devil and his dam" " a common phrase in the Elizabethan drama, e.g. Shakespeare, Othello, iv. 1. 153; Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, vi. 97." Which is interesting, but not all that helpful.


Brigid said...

I think there's something missing: "that John Faustus went out like a match in a downpour."

There's a really big space after this line: "Other posts in this series:"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Quite right, on both points. Found and fixed: Thanks!

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