Relevant theology and other influences

  • Simon Magus – Samaritan sorcerer who tried to buy from Apostles power to confer gift of Holy Ghost (Bible, Acts 8, 18-24) – characteristics rhetorical skill, knowledge of astronomy etc. Parallels with Faustus, inc. Helen episode. Most of this material via Faust-book, but some evidence Marlowe might have read some of the original Simonian sources.
  • Importance of Simonian documents – raise a number of questions about nature of good and evil power. Parallel between F. and Simon: for both, the most divine knowledge is of the remote order of the cosmos/heavens – brings privileges of earthly powers exempt from the rule of moral and natural law. Magic wins emancipation from the commandments – a  magician is above the law.
  •  From the Christian perspective, both the Simonian and the Faustian myths show man punished for trying – through the proud exercise of forbidden knowledge – to transcend the bonds of his nature and oppose himself to the laws of creation. From the Simonian viewpoint, both myths show heroic feats of the learned magician who challenges the Creator, finds in the re-incarnated Helen the prospect of redemption , and is defeated by envious powers determined to keep man in subjection and frustrate his flight to God.
  • Simon believed that the world was created by powers hostile to God, who contested his rule over man and creation. He was a believer in dualism ( a heretical Christian belief in the separate nature of matter and spirit), and  in the continuing conflict between enduring powers of good and evil.

Early Christian theologians had problems with many forms of Gnostic dualism in first four centuries AD;  particularly, how to reconcile a belief in a God who was omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent, withthe  existence of evil in the world he had created. Doctor Faustus often expresses attitudes and ideas from this period.

The ideas in Doctor Faustus frequently echo those of St Augustine. St Augustine originally believed in Manicheism (an extreme Gnostic dualist sect, see below). He thought through the Manichean ideas and eventually rejected them.

  •  Manichees taught that the Father of Light and the Prince of Darkness have always existed; the unresolvable battle between these equal and opposite forces produced the world and humanity.
    Fable: the Word of the Father battles with Prince of Darkness and forces him to swallow the elements (light, water, wind, fire and air). Imprisoned Light has ever since struggled to escape from Darkness and so bring the World (a mixture of both) to an end. Salvation therefore means giving up the world, the flesh and the Devil – abstain from worldly affairs, meat, sex and violence.
  • The Manichees found the cosmic conflict (good versus evil) repeated in human nature: a human has two souls: the Good Soul, which is divine and of itself can do no evil BUT driven by the Evil Soul (of the flesh and the Devil) it does what it otherwise wouldn’t. Faustus in the play takes a Manichean view: “the god thou servest is thine appetite/ Wherein is fix’d the love of Beelzebub.” But Faustus. doesn’t make the GOOD Manichean choice of an abstemious life;  he sees himself as inescapably driven by appetite and  the devil.

To account for evil in the creation, Augustine taught that evil comes from the abuse of freedom. The will is not inherently evil – becomes so when it chooses to prefer the lesser good (earthly things) to the superior good (heavenly things). Evil has no existence by itself – it is a deprivation of good – a tendency towards non-being which grows stronger as the will falls away from its proper direction, ie towards God and good. Both the Fall of humanity and the Fall of the angels come from a perverse choice of the free will – lead to a complete negation of all good, both the superior good of Heaven and the inferior good of earth. No good, superior or inferior, can be enjoyed unless the will is devoted to God.

There are interesting parallels between Marlowe and Augustine:

  • Both proud and preoccupied with pride
  • Both skilled in rhetoric but suspicious of its seductive power
  • Both fascinated by the divinity of human aspiration
  • BUT appalled by the perversity of human will
  • Both began as sceptical critics of the Bible
  • Both “longed with an incredibly burning desire for an immortality of wisdom”

Doctor Faustus and the Bible

Marlowe was a trained divinity student with keen/informed interest in problems of Biblical interpretation.

Marlowe would expect his audience to be familiar with the Bible on Satan as adversary, accuser, and Prince of this World, on damnation and eternal torment, and on the temptation of Christ in the wilderness.

Doctor Faustus and Conscience

When Faustus blames the stars, the flesh and the devil, we are made to feel these are just excuses for wilful choice, made by his whole soul.

C16 accounts of conscience tell us fear is ordained by God, and its presence means there is still hope of salvation. But wilful man may continue to dismiss his fears until his heart is hardened, leading to despair and the loss of the capacity for contrition and repentance (cf Macbeth, Brutus). Faustus hardens his heart by resolutely dismissing the fears of conscience – he ignores the promptings of Good Angel and Old Man. In doing this his commits the ultimate sin against the Holy Spirit – he despairs.

Doctor Faustus and the Morality Play

Main elements are easily recognisable – Deadly Sins, Good Angel / Bad Angel, Vices (for example Valdes and Cornelius), Devils, the Old Man – the morality plays deal with central questions about good and evil and the human condition by showing the interaction of the personifications of abstract qualities.

Morality plays  were still current as entertainment in Marlowe’s day. Dramatic expression of traditional modes of thought.

Later moralities show the tension between medieval and Renaissance attitudes exemplified in Doctor Faustus.

Miracle and Morality plays offered two versions of the Devil:

  • Heroic – defiant Lucifer contesting throne of God
  • Unheroic and comic – Satan down on his luck and trying to get his own back! There is an obvious parallel here with the Faustus of the first and last parts of the play, and the comic practical joker of the central section.

Later Moralities

Becoming obvious in Tudor drama is an interest in knowledge, study, wit and science – only touched on in medieval Moralities – but had long been a theme in theological/homiletic writings (eg writing about religion, and sermons).

Eve and the apple – sin not just disobedience but curiosity – intellectual vice, but also (because of shame) linked to lustfulness.

Knowledge is a  Good Thing because humanity distinguished from beasts by it, and through refined knowledge of God’s creation man is led to a knowledge of God himself.

In Wit and Science (c1530, John Redford) science is God’s gift, to be used for the benefit of humanity – an idea developed in The Marriage of Wit and Science (c1570). The bad character is Will – an obstruction to the partnership of Wit and Science. Faustus is diverted from service – using his learning for good – by the seductive power of the perverse will.

Gmc2000 (from Brockbank: Marlowe)

page last edited 26 February 2007