Doctor Faustus | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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Doctor Faustus | Act 2, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

Once again, Faustus is wavering in his decision to follow magic, fearing damnation. Mephastophilis declares that the heaven the doctor imagines is not as glorious as man, for whom it was made. Contrary to the effect the devil intended, Faustus turns this statement into a reason to renounce magic and repent.

At the mention of repentance, the Good Angel and Evil Angel appear. The Good Angel assures Faustus that God will still pity him if he repents, while the Evil Angel claims that God cannot. Faustus asserts that God will pity him if he repents, to which the Evil Angel replies, "Ay, but Faustus never shall repent."

The angels depart, and Faustus admits that repentance feels impossible because "[his] heart's so hardened." He bemoans the fact that whenever he mentions salvation, faith, or heaven, the refrain "Faustus, thou art damned" echoes in his ears like thunder. He feels he might have committed suicide by now, except for the fact that the "sweet pleasure" that magic offers has "conquered [his] deep despair." So thinking, Faustus resolves yet again to never repent and calls upon Mephastophilis to discuss the nature of the cosmos. The discussion goes well until Faustus asks who made the world. Mephastophilis refuses to answer. He reminds Faustus that, in his fallen state, he should think more about hell, which he calls "our kingdom," and he can't tell Faustus anything that goes against it.

Faustus is shaken into wondering if it's too late for his soul. The Evil Angel appears and states firmly that it is. The Good Angel follows with assurances that it's never too late. The Evil Angel promises that devils will tear Faustus to pieces if he repents, while the Good Angel vows they will never cut his skin. Confused and terrified, Faustus cries out for Christ the Savior to save his wretched soul.

Hearing Faustus's appeal to Christ, Lucifer, Belzebub, and Mephastophilis appear. Lucifer bluntly tells Faustus that he is beyond salvation through Christ's intervention. He then warns Faustus to never again invoke Christ's name or think of God. To do so is against the pact Faustus made with him. Faustus asks Lucifer's pardon and vows to obey. To reinforce the doctor's resolve, Lucifer parades before him personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Covetousness, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lechery. The display appeals to Faustus's baser appetites, prompting him to exclaim, "Oh, this feeds my soul!" Lucifer promises that hell holds all such manner of delights. He then gives Faustus a new book of spells to peruse, which the doctor gratefully accepts, and reminds him to "think on the devil."

Analysis

Faustus is struggling to rekindle his faith; to find reasons to renounce magic and repent. The mere sight of the physical heavens suggests to him that a real heaven exists and must be too wonderful to forego. Yet the doctor wants to be convinced otherwise. He does not turn to the Bible or a priest for wisdom and encouragement. He complains to Mephastophilis and then allows himself to be persuaded to continue in his evil ways, justifying them with the idea that he may repent at the last minute and be saved. "Be I a devil," he says, "yet God may pity me ... if I repent." The Evil Angel knows Faustus better than he knows himself and observes, "Ay, but Faustus never shall repent."

Faustus proves the Evil Angel right. Hardening his heart once more, he resolves never to repent, but to pursue the "sweet pleasures" and refrain from despair. He turns his thoughts to astronomy, though he calls it "divine astrology." In the 16th century the term could apply to both fields of study; little differentiation was made between the two. His first question to Mephastophilis on the topic receives a disappointing answer. The devil recites the traditional view held by academia—a very old, Earth-centered description of the "heavens [planets] above the moon," based on ideas developed by the Greek astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy in the 2nd century. This view had been challenged by 16th-century Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. He theorized that the sun, not Earth, was the center of our system of planets. During Marlowe's time, the idea that Copernicus could be right was still being debated. Faustus scolds Mephastophilis for providing an answer Wagner could have thought up.

His next question seeks answers concerning the erratic motion of certain spheres, or planets—another unresolved question during Marlowe's lifetime. Mephastophilis offers a vague response: variation in phenomena related to movement among spheres is "because of their unequal motion with respect to the whole." Faustus seems to give up this line inquiry in frustration, stating, "Well, I am answered." In other words, it's an answer—not a good one, but an answer. His disappointment is clear. Thinkers of Marlowe's day could not provide a definitive answer. Therefore, Marlowe uses the devil's unwillingness or inability to answer to signal that the deal Faustus has made for unlimited knowledge may fall short on its promises. This raises the possibility that Faustus has been duped into selling his soul for very little in return.

By refusing to answer the doctor's final question, "Who made the world," Mephastophilis all but admits the supremacy of God over Lucifer. Lucifer dared to challenge this supremacy and was cast from heaven for it. Mephastophilis, as Lucifer's ally, was cast out as well. His pride will not let him admit, even by inference, that he was mistaken. If only God could make the world, then Lucifer, logically, must be an inferior entity.

Faustus's next twinge of conscience brings him closer than ever to the brink of repentance. This time Lucifer shows up to frighten Faustus into honoring the pact. He then rewards the doctor with personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins. More than entertainment for Faustus, they represent the sins he will indulge in over the course of 24 years. Pride is the first and most glaring of these. In pride of ambition, Faustus and Lucifer are alike. Their desire for godlike power leads to defiance of divine power and is the most important step in their damnation. Envy plays into this high-flying ambition. Faustus envies those who possess knowledge and power that is hidden from him and will do whatever he must to acquire it. The doctor will also participate in lechery with "the fairest courtesans" and Helen of Troy; in wrath to punish enemies; and in avarice (i.e., covetousness), gluttony, and sloth as he acquires vast, useless wealth and overindulges in the forbidden arts and sensual pleasures.

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