The scene now shifts to Faustus's study, and Faustus's opening speech about the various fields of scholarship reflects the academic setting of the scene. In proceeding through the various intellectual disciplines and citing authorities for each, he is following the dictates of medieval scholarship, which held that learning was based on the authority of the wise rather than on experimentation and new ideas. This soliloquy, then, marks Faustus's rejection of this medieval model, as he sets aside each of the old authorities and resolves to strike out on his own in his quest to become powerful through magic. As is true throughout the play, however, Marlowe uses Faustus's own words to expose Faustus's blind spots. In his initial speech, for example, Faustus establishes a hierarchy of disciplines by showing which are nobler than others. He does not want merely to protect men's bodies through medicine, nor does he want to protect their property through law.
He wants higher things, and so he proceeds on to religion. There, he quotes selectively from the New Testament, picking out only those passages that make Christianity appear in a negative light. He reads that "[t]he reward of sin is death," and that "[i]f we say we that we have no sin, / We deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us" (1. 40-43). The second of these lines comes from the first book of John, but Faustus neglects to read the very next line, which states, "If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1: 9).
Thus, through selective quoting, Faustus makes it seem as though religion promises only death and not forgiveness, and so he easily rejects religion with a fatalistic "What will be, shall be! Divinity, adieu!" (1. 48). Meanwhile, he uses religious language-as he does throughout the play-to describe the dark world of necromancy that he enters. "These metaphysics of magicians / And necromantic books are heavenly" (1. 49-50), he declares without a trace of irony.
Having gone upward from medicine and law to theology, he envisions magic and necromancy as the crowning discipline, even though by most standards it would be the least noble. Faustus is not a villain, though; he is a tragic hero, a protagonist whose character flaws lead to his downfall. Marlowe imbues him with tragic grandeur in these early scenes. The logic he uses to reject religion may be flawed, but there is something impressive in the breadth of his ambition, even if he pursues it through diabolical means. In Faustus's long speech after the two angels have whispered in his ears, his rhetoric outlines the modern quest for control over nature (albeit through magic rather than through science) in glowing, inspiring language. He offers a long list of impressive goals, including the acquisition of knowledge, wealth, and political power, that he believes he will achieve once he has mastered the dark arts.
While the reader or playgoer is not expected to approve of his quest, his ambitions are impressive, to say the least. Later, the actual uses to which he puts his magical powers are disappointing and tawdry. For now, however, Faustus's dreams inspire wonder. Having learned the necessary arts from Cornelius and Valdes, Faustus now takes the first step toward selling his soul when he conjures up a devil.
One of the central questions in the play is whether Faustus damns himself entirely on his own or whether the princes of hell somehow entrap him. In scene 3, as Faustus makes the magical marks and chants the magical words that summon Mephastophilis, he is watched by Lucifer and four lesser devils, suggesting that hell is waiting for him to make the first move before pouncing on him. Mephastophilis echoes this idea when he insists that he came to Faustus of his own accord when he heard Faustus curse God and forswear heaven, hoping that Faustus's soul was available for the taking. But while the demons may be active agents eagerly seeking to seize Faustus's soul, Faustus himself makes the first move. Neither Mephastophilis nor Lucifer forces him to do anything against his will.
Indeed, if anything, Mephastophilis seems far less eager to make the bargain than Faustus himself. He willingly tells Faustus that his master, Lucifer, is less powerful than God, having been thrown "by aspiring pride and insolence, /... from the face of heaven" (3. 67-68). Furthermore, Mephastophilis offers a powerful portrait of hell that seems to warn against any pact with Lucifer.
When Faustus asks him how it is that he is allowed to leave hell in order to come to earth, Mephastophilis famously says: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think " st thou that I, who saw the face of God, And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, Am not tormented with ten thousand hells In being deprived of everlasting bliss? (3. 76-80) Mephastophilis exposes the horrors of his own experience as if offering sage guidance to Faustus. His honesty in mentioning the "ten thousand hells" that torment him shines a negative light on the action of committing one's soul to Lucifer.
Indeed, Mephastophilis even tells Faustus to abandon his "frivolous demands" (3. 81). But Faustus refuses to leave his desires. Instead, he exhibits the blindness that serves as one of his defining characteristics throughout the play. Faustus sees the world as he wants to see it rather than as it is.
This shunning of reality is symbolized by his insistence that Mephastophilis, who is presumably hideous, reappear as a Franciscan friar. In part, this episode is a dig at Catholicism, pitched at Marlowe's fiercely Protestant English audience, but it also shows to what lengths Faustus will go in order to mitigate the horrors of hell. He sees the devil's true shape, but rather than flee in terror he tells Mephastophilis to change his appearance, which makes looking upon him easier. Again, when Mephastophilis has finished telling him of the horrors of hell and urging him not to sell his soul, Faustus blithely dismisses what Mephastophilis has said, accusing him of lacking "manly fortitude" (3. 85). There is a desperate na"i vet'e to Faustus's approach to the demonic: he cannot seem to accept that hell is really as bad as it seems, which propels him forward into darkness.
The antics of Wagner and the clown provide a comic counterpoint to the Faustus-Mephastophilis scenes. The clown jokes that he would sell his soul to the devil for a well-seasoned shoulder of mutton, and Wagner uses his newly gained conjuring skill to frighten the clown into serving him. Like Faustus, these clownish characters (whose scenes are so different from the rest of the play that some writers have suggested that they were written by a collaborator rather than by Marlowe himself) use magic to summon demons. But where Faustus is grand and ambitious and tragic, they are low and common and absurd, seeking mutton and the ability to turn into a mouse or a rat rather than world power or fantastic wealth. As the play progresses, though, Faustus's grandeur diminishes, and he sinks down toward the level of the clowns, suggesting that degradation precedes damnation. Even as he seals the bargain that promises his soul to hell, Faustus is repeatedly filled with misgivings, which are bluntly symbolized in the verbal duels between the good and evil angels.
His body seems to rebel against the choices that he has made-his blood congeals, for example, preventing him from signing the compact, and a written warning telling him to fly away appears on his arm. Sometimes Faustus seems to understand the gravity of what he is doing: when Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephastophilis appear to him, for example, he becomes suddenly afraid and exclaims, "O Faustus, they are come to fetch thy soul!" (5. 264). Despite this awareness, however, Faustus is unable to commit to good. Amid all these signs, Faustus repeatedly considers repenting but each time decides against it. Sometimes it is the lure of knowledge and riches that prevents him from turning to God, but other times it seems to be his conviction-encouraged by the bad angel and Mephastophilis-that it is already too late for him, a conviction that persists throughout the play.
He believes that God does not love him and that if he were to fly away to God, as the inscription on his arm seems to advise him to do, God would cast him down to hell. When Faustus appeals to Christ to save his soul, Lucifer declares that "Christ cannot save thy soul, for he is just," and orders Faustus to cease thinking about God and think only of the devil (5. 260). Faustus's sense that he is already damned can be traced back to his earlier misreading of the New Testament to say that anyone who sins will be damned eternally-ignoring the verses that offer the hope of repentance. At the same time, though, Faustus's earlier blindness persists.
We can see it in his delighted reaction to the appalling personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins, which he treats as sources of entertainment rather than of moral warning. Meanwhile, his willingness to dismiss the pains of hell continues, as he tells Mephastophilis that "I think hell's a fable /... / Tush, these are trifles and mere old wives' tales" (5. 126-135). These are the words of rationalism or even atheism-both odd ideologies for Faustus to espouse, given that he is summoning devils. But Faustus's real mistake is to misinterpret what Mephastophilis tells him about hell.
Faustus takes Mephastophilis's statement that hell is everywhere for him because he is separated eternally from God to mean that hell will be merely a continuation of his earthly existence. He thinks that he is already separated from God permanently and reasons that hell cannot be any worse. Once Faustus has signed away his soul, his cosmos seems to become inverted, with Lucifer taking the place of God and blasphemy replacing piety. After Faustus has signed his deed, he swears by Lucifer rather than God: "Ay, take it; and the devil give thee good on't" (5.
112). His rejection of God is also evident when he says, "Consummatum est," meaning "it is finished," which were Christ's dying words on the cross (5. 74). Even Faustus's arm stabbing alludes to the stigmata, or wounds, of the crucified Christ. Meanwhile, the limits of the demonic gifts that Faustus has been given begin to emerge.
He is given the gift of knowledge, and Mephastophilis willingly tells him the secrets of astronomy, but when Faustus asks who created the world, Mephastophilis refuses to answer. The symbolism is clear: all the worldly knowledge that Faustus has so strongly desired points inexorably up ward, toward God. The central irony, of course, is that the pact he has made completely detaches him from God. With access to higher things thus closed off, Faustus has nowhere to go but down. The scenes in Rome are preceded by Wagner's account, in the second chorus, of how Faustus traveled through the heavens studying astronomy. This feat is easily the most impressive that Faustus performs in the entire play, since his magical abilities seem more and more like cheap conjured tricks as the play progresses.
Meanwhile, his interests also diminish in importance from astronomy, the study of the heavens, to cosmography, the study of the earth. He even begins to meddle in political matters in the assistance he gives Bruno (in the B text only). By the end of the play, his chief interests are playing practical jokes and producing impressive illusions for nobles-a far cry from the ambitious pursuits that he outlines in scene 1. Faustus's interactions with the pope and his courtiers offer another send-up of the Catholic Church. The pope's grasping ambition and desire for worldly power would have played into late-sixteenth-century English stereotypes. By having the invisible Faustus box the papal ears and disrupt the papal banquet, Marlowe makes a laughingstock out of the head of the Catholic Church.
Yet the absurdity of the scene coexists with a suggestion that, ridiculous as they are, the pope and his attendants do possess some kind of divinely sanctioned power, which makes them symbols of Christianity and sets their piety in opposition to Faustus's devil-inspired magic. When the pope and his monks begin to rain curses on their invisible tormentors, Faustus and Mephastophilis seem to fear the power that their words invoke. Mephastophilis says, "[W]e shall be cursed with bell, / book, and candle" (7. 81-82). The fear-imposing power these religious symbols have over Mephastophilis suggests that God remains stronger than the devil and that perhaps Faustus could still be saved, if he repented in spite of everything. Faustus's reply-"Bell, book and candle; candle, book, and bell / Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell"-is fraught with foreshadowing (7.
83-84). Hell, of course, is exactly where Faustus is "curse[d]" to go, but through his own folly and not the curses of monks or the pope. The absurd behavior of Robin and Rafe, meanwhile, once again contrasts with Faustus's relationship to the diabolical. Robin and Rafe conjure up Mephastophilis in order to scare off a vintner, and even when he threatens to turn them into animals (or actually does so temporarily-the text is unclear on this matter), they treat it as a great joke. Yet the contrast between Faustus on the one hand and the ostlers and the clown on the other, the high and the low, is not so great as it is originally, since Faustus too has begun using magic in pursuit of practical jokes, like boxing the pope's ear.
Such foolishness is quite a step down for a man who earlier speaks of using his magic to become ruler of Germany. Although Faustus does step into the political realm when he frees Bruno and sends him back to Germany, this action seems to be carried out as part of the cruel practical joke on the pope, not as part of any real political pursuit. The degradation of Faustus's initially heroic aims continues as the play proceeds, with Faustus coming to resemble a clown more and more. Twenty-four years pass between Faustus's pact with Lucifer and the end of the play.
Yet, for us, these decades sweep by remarkably quickly. We see only three main events from the twenty-four years: Faustus's visits to Rome, to the emperor's court, and then to the Duke of Vanholt in scene 11. While the Chorus assures us that Faustus visits many other places and learns many other things that we are not shown, we are still left with the sense that Faustus's life is being accelerated at a speed that strains belief. But Marlowe uses this acceleration to his advantage.
By making the years pass so swiftly, the play makes us feel what Faustus himself must feel-namely, that his too-short lifetime is slipping away from him and his ultimate, hellish fate is drawing ever closer. In the world of the play, twenty-four years seems long when Faustus makes the pact, but both he and we come to realize that it passes rapidly. Meanwhile, the use to which Faustus puts his powers is unimpressive. In Rome, he and Mephastophilis box the pope's ears and disrupt a dinner party. At the court of Emperor Charles V (who ruled a vast stretch of territory in the sixteenth century, including Germany, Austria, and Spain), he essentially performs conjuring tricks to entertain the monarch. Before he makes the pact with Lucifer, Faustus speaks of rearranging the geography of Europe or even making himself emperor of Germany.
Now, though, his sights are set considerably lower. His involvement in the political realm extends only to freeing Bruno, Charles's candidate to be pope. Even this action (which occurs only in the B text) seems largely a lark, without any larger political goals behind it. Instead, Faustus occupies his energies summoning up Alexander the Great, the heroic Macedonian conqueror. This trick would be extremely impressive, except that Faustus tells the emperor that "it is not in my ability to present / before your eyes the true substantial bodies of those two deceased / princes" (9. 39-41).
In other words, all of Mephastophilis's power can, in Faustus's hands, produce only impressive illusions. Nothing of substance emerges from Faustus's magic, in this scene or anywhere in the play, and the man who earlier boasts that he will divert the River Rhine and reshape the map of Europe now occupies himself with revenging a petty insult by placing horns on the head of the foolish knight. The B-text scene outside the emperor's court, in which Benvolio and his friends try to kill Faustus, is utterly devoid of suspense, since we know that Faustus is too powerful to be murdered by a gang of incompetent noblemen. Still, Faustus's way of dealing with the threat is telling: he plays a kind of practical joke, making the noblemen think that they have cut off his head, only to come back to life and send a collection of devils to hound them. With all the power of hell behind him, he takes pleasure in sending Mephastophilis out to hunt down a collection of fools who pose no threat to him and insists that the devils disgrace the men publicly, so that everyone will see what happens to those who threaten him. This command shows a hint of Faustus's old pride, which is so impressive early in the play; now, though, Faustus is entirely concerned with his reputation as a fearsome wizard and not with any higher goals.
Traipsing from court to court, doing tricks for royals, Faustus has become a kind of sixteenth-century celebrity, more concerned with his public image than with the dreams of greatness that earlier animate him. Faustus's downward spiral, from tragic greatness to self-indulgent mediocrity, continues in these scenes. He continues his journey from court to court, arriving this time at Vanholt, a minor German duchy, to visit the duke and duchess. Over the course of the play we see Faustus go from the seat of the pope to the court of the emperor to the court of a minor nobleman. The power and importance of his hosts decreases from scene to scene, just as Faustus's feats of magic grow ever more unimpressive.
Just after he seals his pact with Mephastophilis, Faustus soars through the heavens on a chariot pulled by dragons to learn the secrets of astronomy; now, however, he is reduced to playing pointless tricks on the horse-courser and fetching out-of-season grapes to impress a bored noblewoman. Even his antagonists have grown increasingly ridiculous. In Rome, he faces the curses of the pope and his monks, which are strong enough to give even Mephastophilis pause; at the emperor's court, Faustus is opposed by a collection of noblemen who are brave, if unintelligent. At Vanholt, though, he faces down an absurd collection of comical rogues, and the worst of it is that Faustus seems to have become one of them, a clown among clowns, taking pleasure in using his unlimited power to perform practical jokes and cast simple charms. Selling one's soul for power and glory may be foolish or wicked, but at least there is grandeur to the idea of it.
Marlowe's Faustus, however, has lost his hold on that doomed grandeur and has become pathetic. The meaning of his decline is ambiguous: perhaps part of the nature of a pact with Lucifer is that one cannot gain all that one hopes to gain from it. Or perhaps Marlowe is criticizing worldly ambition and, by extension, the entire modern project of the Renaissance, which pushed God to one side and sought mastery over nature and society. Along the lines of this interpretation, it seems that in Marlowe's worldview the desire for complete knowledge about the world and power over it can ultimately be reduced to fetching grapes for the Duchess of Vanholt-in other words, to nothing.
Earlier in the play, when Faustus queries Mephastophilis about the nature of the world, Faustus sees his desire for knowledge reach a dead end at God, whose power he denies in favor of Lucifer. Knowledge of God is against Lucifer's kingdom, according to Mephastophilis. But if the pursuit of knowledge leads inexorably to God, Marlowe suggests, then a man like Faustus, who tries to live without God, can ultimately go nowhere but down, into mediocrity. There is no sign that Faustus himself is aware of the gulf between his earlier ambitions and his current state. He seems to take joy in his petty amusements, laughing uproariously when he confounds the horse-courser and leaping at the chance to visit the Duke of Vanholt. Still, his impending doom begins to weigh upon him.
As he sits down to fall asleep, he remarks, "What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die?" (10. 24). Yet, at this moment at least, he seems convinced that he will repent at the last minute and be saved-a significant change from his earlier attitude, when he either denies the existence of hell or assumes that damnation is inescapable. "Christ did call the thief upon the cross," he comforts himself, referring to the New Testament story of the thief who was crucified alongside Jesus Christ, repented for his sins, and was promised a place in paradise (10. 28).
That he compares himself to this figure shows that Faustus assumes that he can wait until the last moment and still escape hell. In other words, he wants to renounce Mephastophilis, but not just yet. We can easily anticipate that his willingness to delay will prove fatal.