The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus’

By Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.
August 26, 2021 Updated: August 30, 2021

A member of Congress wakes one night and finds Lucifer standing at the foot of his bed and staring at him. “What do you want?” he asks.

“I want to give you everything you desire or could imagine,” Lucifer answered. “You’ll be reelected in every election. You’ll have a fortune beyond your wildest dreams, beautiful women, mansions, expensive cars, a yacht. You name it, and it’s yours.”

The Congressman sat up in bed. “Wow, that sounds great! But what’s in it for you?”

“In 24 years, you give me your immortal soul,” Lucifer replied.

The Congressman was astonished, but then burst out laughing. “No, really, come on. What’s the catch?”

That old joke, or its variations, speaks volumes about modernity. Like our ancestors, we still see evil in the world, but in our age of science, psychology, social science, and statistics we nearly always look to genetics, circumstances, or environment as explanations for wickedness. Childhood abuse accounts for the man who shoots up a tavern; a boatload of debt drives the executive who embezzles money and bankrupts her company; ideology infects and sickens the dictator who orders millions executed.

Rarely in these explications do we hear about evil or the human soul. And certainly no one in the public square brings up the devil.

Which brings us to “Doctor Faustus.”

The Basic Plot

Christopher Marlowe’s 17th-century play “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus,” now routinely referred to as “Doctor Faustus,” is based on the stories told of Johann Faust, a German magician and alchemist who became a Renaissance legend. In Marlowe’s play, Faustus is a professor and intellectual star at the University of Wittenberg. Eager to win greater fame and power, he turns away from logic, reason, and theology and seeks to gain power through the use of magic.

Very quickly in the play, Faustus finds himself in league with Lucifer and his emissary, Mephostophilis. He signs a contract in his own blood affirming that in exchange for his soul, these dark powers will give him all that he wishes for the next 24 years. For the most part, Faustus abuses or wastes these powers, thinking of little but his personal gain, spending time playing jokes on the pope, for example, or demanding the affections of Helen of Troy.

Meanwhile, Faustus dithers back and forth between God and Lucifer, inclined to seek forgiveness from God but then returning to his alliance with evil. Finally, he believes that his time for the possible expiation of his sins has run out and he sees himself as doomed. “For the vain pleasure of four and twenty years,” Faustus says near the end of the play, “hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with my own blood. The date is expired.”

And so Faustus dies, estranged from heaven, his body torn apart by demons, and his soul dispatched to hell. The play ends with these lines:

Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits.

the-tragical-history-of-doctor-faustus-from-the-quarto-of-1620-by-christopher-marlowe
Title page of a 1620 edition of Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus,” with a woodcut illustration of Doctor Faustus and a devil coming up through a trapdoor. (Public Domain)

Pride Goeth Before a Fall

His enormous ego and intellectual arrogance at first blind Faustus to the consequences of his flirtations with the diabolic. In Act 1, for example, when Mephostophilis pays his first visit, Faustus tells him:

The word “damnation” terrifies not me
For I confound hell in Elysium.
My ghost be with the old philosophers!

And when Mephostophilis tries to warn Faustus about the loss of heaven that awaits him if he continues this course, Faustus replies:

What, is great Mephostophilis so passionate
For being deprived of the joys of heaven?
Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude
And scorn those joys thou shalt never possess.

Even after he has met Mephostophilis and signs the diabolical contract, the hubristic Faustus declares, “I think hell’s a fable.”

In the end, Faustus’s overweening pride brings his destruction.

Mephisto_by_Mark_Antokolski,_marble_after_1883)_by_shakko
The devil Mephostophilis in Faust stories goes by many names. “Mephisto,” after 1883, by Mark Antokolski. (Shakko/CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Power

Had I as many souls as there be stars
I’d give them all for Mephostophilis.
By him I’ll be a great emperor of the world,
And make a bridge through moving air
To pass the ocean with a band of men;

Here in this early scene, we hear Faustus speculating on the power that will soon belong to him, the ability to control the earth and all that dwell upon it. This newfound power will not draw on logic or reason, but on magic and the supernatural—the dark arts that allow their practitioner to step outside the order and laws of the physical realm and so control nature and human beings.

“Power tends to corrupt,” Lord Acton famously stated, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Faustus will soon learn this lesson in corruption known to every absolutist monarch and dictator who ever lived.

Lust

In Act 5, near the end of the play, Faustus implores Mephostophilis to grant him the affections of Helen of Troy.

That I may have unto my paramour
That heavenly Helen which I saw of late,
Whose sweet embraces may extinguish clear
These thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow,
And keep mine oath I made to Lucifer.

Mephostophilis grants this wish, and when Helen enters, Faustus speaks the most famous lines of this play:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul. See where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips.

We may construe these lines as compliments rendered by a man smitten with beauty, a bouquet of words to win affection, but something more sinister lies at the heart of this laudatory speech. Helen has no power to make Faustus immortal, and the lines “Her lips suck forth my soul” and “heaven is in these lips” tell us that Faustus, like so many others before and after him, has mistaken the pleasures of the flesh for the raptures of heaven.

Antonio_Canova-Helen_of_Troy-Victoria_and_Albert_Museum
Bust of Helen of Troy, wearing a pileus (brimless hat), by Antonio Canova. Victoria and Albert Museum. (Yair Haklai/CC BY-SA 3.0)

An Upside-Down World

At one point, Lucifer and Beelzebub entertain Faustus by parading before him the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Covetousness, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lechery. After these seven explain themselves and exit the stage, Faustus exclaims, “O, how this sight doth delight my soul!”

Lucifer then reassures him, “But Faustus, in hell is all manner of delight.”

Here Faustus, encouraged by Lucifer, turns the moral order on its head.

Scenes such as this one, found throughout the play, demonstrate the give-and-take between the tempted and the tempter. Lucifer and Mephostophilis offer a banquet of enticements, and Faustus, so brilliant as a scholar, lacks the foresight and wisdom to refuse them.

Lessons From ‘Doctor Faustus’

Is there a more appropriate play than “Doctor Faustus” for the 21st century?

Some of us may no longer believe in hell or Lucifer, the Father of Lies; but the “Faustian bargain,” when we exchange our principles or upright character for power, fame, or wealth, remains very much in play. The same temptations faced by Faustus—the blind pride, the burning desire for power, the greed, the belief that we can be as gods and shape the world and human beings as we wish in spite of their nature, and the same catastrophic falls into ruin and disgrace—occur all the time in our postmodern world. We can daily read the stories of these modern-day versions of Faustus in our newspapers and online blogs.

Some American politicians and statesmen, for example, believed we could build a modern nation-state out of Afghanistan. Others more recently told us that our departure from that country would be orderly, an analysis far removed from reality. Some experts are certain that we humans can control manifestations of nature, like gender or the climate. Some Hollywood moguls believe they can take sexual advantage of actors and actresses, too far above the law to be in danger of detection or punishment. Because of pride and their conviction that they know what’s best for the rest of us, some of our elite—members of our Congress and our governors, men and women in media and academia, the big tech gang—behave like Faustus as well, wielding power as if they were great emperors of the world.

This self-exaltation often leaves such people, and the rest of us as well, blind to the ending of their own stories, oblivious to the possibility of shame and wreckage ahead of them, the demolition of their good name and character. They overlook what Faustus realized with only one hour left on his contract:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.