Themes in Doctor Faustus
The major critical debate in Doctor Faustus concerns the title character’s damnation, namely why Faustus sells his soul to the devil despite enormous evidence that hell exists, multiple warnings from Mephistophilis and other characters, and numerous opportunities to repent to God.
Predestination: One theory concerns the Calvinist belief in predestination, a theological principle that claimed all events in one’s life were predetermined by God. In this belief, certain people were predestined for damnation while others were predestined for salvation. Contrary to Catholic theology, Protestant predestination believed that people could not impact their eternal afterlife by good works, repentance, or confession. Some critics have read Doctor Faustus as a critique of predestination theology; if Faustus knows that he is predestined for damnation, he makes this deal because he does not have eternal salvation to lose.
Dangerous Knowledge: Another theory suggests that the play is a Protestant critique of humanism, a cultural and artistic movement of the Renaissance that turned away from medieval religious scholasticism in favor of ancient Greek and Roman thought. Humanists focused on human desires, feelings, and thoughts instead of divine doctrine and pursued knowledge and rational discourse. Some called this “dangerous knowledge” that humans were not meant to have; knowledge that attempted to reach a divine understanding of the universe. Some critics have said that Faustus falls because he desires knowledge that he should not have and turns his back on God to get it.
Medieval Values vs. Humanism: Other critics have argued that the play shows a Renaissance man, or humanist, condemned by medieval values. During the Renaissance, scholars and artists began turning away from divine influences to instead value the individual and secular spheres. This play can be read as a demonstration of the anxiety felt by this changing culture. In other words, Faustus falls because he espouses secular ideals within a
Themes Examples in Doctor Faustus:
Scene 3 5
"desperate..." See in text (Scene 3)
"Desperate" means having abandoned hope or being driven to despair. Faustus's use of this adjective to describe his denunciation of God supports the reading of his decision as a reaction to predestined damnation. Faustus can be seen as embracing his damnation because he is "desperate;" God has already forsaken him.
"thou never shalt possess...." See in text (Scene 3)
Predestination was a theological philosophy in Protestantism that states that souls are predestined to be saved or damned despite one's actions or character on earth. Scholars have looked to this exchange to argue that Faustus's decision to pursue magic comes from his knowledge that his is predestined to be damned and "never shalt possess" heaven. With this reading, his deal with Mephistophilis becomes a way in which he makes the most out of his inevitable fate, the only thing he can do, rather than an arrogant and erroneous decision.
"dedicate himself...." See in text (Scene 3)
Faustus's grand ideas of enacting whatever magic he wishes and commanding ultimate power in the world here devolves into dedicating himself to a higher power. Ironically, thought Faustus initially turns to black magic because he believes it will give him the most power, it takes away all of his power and makes him a servant to the devil.
"per accidens;..." See in text (Scene 3)
"Per accidens" is a way to say that Faustus's incantations were an immediate but not ultimate cause. In other words, Mephistophilis was going to appear to Faustus because his soul is damned whether or not Faustus actively called to him. This is another way in which Mephistophilis deflates Faustus's inflated perception of his own power: he does not command this demon, this demon already owns his soul.
"he commands ..." See in text (Scene 3)
Mephistophilis immediately contradicts Faustus's illusion of power. He is not here to serve Faustus's every whim, but rather to serve Lucifer's purposes. Ironically, black magic does not give Faustus ultimate power as he believed, but rather makes him a servant to Lucifer.
Scene 5 4
"Christ cannot save thy soul, for he is just; There's none but I have interest in the same. ..." See in text (Scene 5)
Lucifer's statement here can be read as a sign of Faustus's predestined damnation: not even repentance or Christ can save him because he has been made for hell. However, this could also be read as a trick played on Faustus by the devil. Just as he is about to ask forgiveness and turn to God, Faustus is told that he cannot do so by the devil.
"Homo, fuge..." See in text (Scene 5)
"Homo fuge" means "O man, fly!" These words imprinted in his arm are a divine or psychological warning to not sign this contract with Mephistophilis. However, Faustus once again dismisses this thought by stating his inability to do anything else: if he were to walk away from the Devil, where would he go? This claim supports reading Faustus's decision as a reaction to his predestined damned nature.
"Is not thy soul thine own?..." See in text (Scene 5)
This rhetorical question inadvertently invokes Predestination philosophy. Predestination proposes that the soul does not actually belong to a man, but to God. God decides what will become of the soul before the person even comes into existence. Thus, Faustus is selling something that does not really belong to him.
"canst thou not be saved..." See in text (Scene 5)
Here Faustus directly states the hopelessness of his situation: he cannot even think about God because he "cants not be saved." This can be interpreted as a statement that claims his actions are so terrible no amount of repentance can save him or a recognition of his irreversible, predestined damnation.
Scene 8 1
"damned slaves...." See in text (Scene 8)
Notice that Mephistophilis does not consider Robin and Ralph "glorious souls" that are worth buying for the Devil. This could be a classed understanding of the afterlife, that low souls are not worth collecting. Or it could be another exploration of predestination. Perhaps Mephistophilis cannot collect these two souls because they are not predestined to damnation. Thus their involvement with magic is only a waste of his time.
Scene 9 1
"scholars..." See in text (Scene 9)
Notice that Faustus calls himself a "scholar" rather than a magician. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Humanism became a dominant philosophical idea. Humanism held that humans could achieve divine grace by the cultivation of intellect, human goodness, and rational thinking. Some scholars have considered this play an exploration of this humanist idea: Faustus demonstrates the reality of a man focusing entirely on learning instead of the power of God?
Scene 12 3
"furnace..." See in text (Scene 12)
Notice that the Old Man calls Earth a "furnace," a descriptor generally reserved for Hell. To this pious man, Earth itself has been a Hell because he is so pure. Unlike Faustus, the Old Man was able to resist temptation and pride and will now be rewarded with Heaven. The Old Man acts as a foil that demonstrates Faustus's faults.
"immortal..." See in text (Scene 12)
Notice again that Faustus is not looking for salvation, he is looking for immortality. Faustus's pact with the Devil can be interpreted as a fear of inevitable death, and his attempt to outsmart death.
"Damned art thou..." See in text (Scene 12)
At the end of the play, Faustus fully recognizes the damnation that he has been pretending to ignore since the beginning. Notice though that Faustus does not react to the Old Man's warning the way a typical Renaissance character would. The recognition of his damnation and inevitable death does not make him repent. This suggests that Faustus cannot repent; he is predestined to die damned.
Scene 13 3
"I'll burn my books..." See in text (Scene 13)
Notice that Faustus's last words are to renounce his books, not repent. This suggests that he believed knowledge was his greatest sin. This ending emphasizes the theme of dangerous knowledge damning Faustus.
"but the Devil threatened to tear me in pieces if I named God..." See in text (Scene 13)
Faustus demonstrates his lack of faith in God in this sentiment. In Christian doctrine, there is no higher power than God and his mercy. If Faustus were a true Christian, he would repent and believe that God would protect him from the Devil. However, Faustus believes the Devil will take him and God will not protect him, so he cannot repent. This suggests that Faustus was predestined to be eternally damned.
"I have been a student..." See in text (Scene 13)
The theme of dangerous knowledge resurfaces at the end of the play. Faustus blames his damnation and deal with the Devil on his identity as a "student." This suggests that he does not engage in this deal out of hubris, or evil intention, but out of a desire for knowledge.
"entice..." See in text (Epilogue )
In using the word "entice," tempting or deviously attracting, the Chorus also blames the knowledge itself for Faustus' fall. In other words, Faustus was just as much tricked into selling his soul to the Devil as he is at fault for selling his soul to the Devil. While one might think that this play offers a straight forward moral about having faith in God, these final lines suggest the play holds more empathy for the damned.
"unlawful things..." See in text (Epilogue )
To "wonder at unlawful things" could be read as a condemnation of the pursuit of knowledge. In this way, the Chorus blames Faustus' fall on his pursuit of dangerous knowledge, knowledge that man was not meant to have.