Monday, December 26, 2011

Repentance, Faustus, and an Impatient Demon

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

Comic Relief? Probably Not

I introduced Marlowe's OLD MAN last week. I might assume that, with lines like "such flagitious crimes of heinous sin," Marlowe had comic relief in mind: but all the characters talk like that, more or less, at some point.

English has changed since Elizabethan times, and so have what audiences expect. Back in Marlowe's day, it was flowery, over-the-top, long-winded speeches. More recently, it was helicopter chases, and I've been over that before.

Whatever Christopher Marlowe had in mind, OLD MAN has some pretty good advice. This comes right after Faustus said "despair and die!" - among other things - and Mephistopheles handed him a dagger:
"...OLD MAN. Ah, stay, good Faustus, stay thy desperate steps!
I see an angel hovers o'er thy head,
And, with a vial full of precious grace,
Offers to pour the same into thy soul:
Then call for mercy, and avoid despair.

"FAUSTUS. Ah, my sweet friend, I feel
Thy words to comfort my distressed soul!
Leave me a while to ponder on my sins.

"OLD MAN. I go, sweet Faustus; but with heavy cheer,
Fearing the ruin of thy hopeless soul.

("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Suicide is a bad idea, and I've been over that before:

Emotions, Stress, and Marlowe's Faustus

There's nothing wrong with emotions: they're part of being human. But emotion and reason don't play well together.1 Marlowe's Faustus is under a lot of stress in this scene: OLD MAN pointed out that his "flagitious crimes of heinous sin" have consequences; and that Faustus has limited options.
"...mercy, Faustus, of thy Saviour sweet,
Whose blood alone must wash away thy guilt....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Applying conventional wisdom from a few decades back, it's OLD MAN's fault that Faustus feels bad. That's true, as far as it goes, but I think we need reality checks now and again.

Which isn't the same as approving of 'fire and brimstone' preaching, and that's another topic.

Repentance, Despair, and an Impatient Demon

Marlowe's John Faustus is still alive, he's got free will, and time to change his mind about the deal he made. He's also got a demon in the room, which makes things a trifle awkward. Let's see how he handles the situation:
"...FAUSTUS. Accursed Faustus, where is mercy now?
I do repent; and yet I do despair:
Hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast:
What shall I do to shun the snares of death?

"MEPHIST. Thou traitor, Faustus, I arrest thy soul
For disobedience to my sovereign lord:
Revolt, or I'll in piece-meal tear thy flesh.

"FAUSTUS. Sweet Mephistophilis, entreat thy lord
To pardon my unjust presumption,
And with my blood again I will confirm
My former vow I made to Lucifer.

"MEPHIST. Do it, then, quickly,159 with unfeigned heart,
Lest greater danger do attend thy drift....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Faustus is, metaphorically speaking, dancing on the doorstep of Hell: just how much more danger could he be in? But, as I've said before, I don't think Mephistopheles has the best interests of John Faustus in mind.

What about repenting, though? Isn't it a little late for that? "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and all that. I've read the play before, and know how it comes out: but in principle John Faustus could still repent at this point.

Repentance, Despair, and the Catholic Church

Repentance is a good idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1427, 1429, 1430-1433 and following) It's a sort of 'limited time offer,' though. since repentance is possible before death, not after. (Catechism, 393, 2283)

Despair, on the other hand, is a bad idea:
"In their religious behavior, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them:
"Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair.333"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 844)
"The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption:

"By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God's goodness, to his justice—for the Lord is faithful to his promises—and to his mercy."
(Catechism, 2091)

Repentance, Despair, and John Faustus

I'll grant that Marlowe's Faustus is in an awkward situation. OLD MAN has left, leaving Faustus alone with his none-too-well-formed conscience. And Mephistopheles.

Given his track record, it's no surprise that Faustus says, "...I do repent; and yet I do despair...." Then, when Mephistopheles rather abruptly reminds him of his contractual obligation, Faustus does another 180:
"...FAUSTUS. Sweet Mephistophilis, entreat thy lord
To pardon my unjust presumption,
And with my blood again I will confirm
My former vow I made to Lucifer.

"MEPHIST. Do it, then, quickly,159 with unfeigned heart,
Lest greater danger do attend thy drift....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Remember what I said, about OLD MAN being 'to blame' for making Faustus feel bad? I'll get back to that next week.

Other posts in this series:Related posts:"...Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from:
1 I've discussed emotions and reason before. Quite a bit, including:


Brigid said...

Missing a period: "pretty good advice This comes"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Oops. Thanks!

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