How Christopher Marlowe explores the reality of Satan and his followers in ‘Doctor Faustus’.
Being a play based on the story line of a man selling his soul to the devil, Christopher Marlowe’s play ‘Doctor Faustus’ is filled with various religious quotes, messages, and ideas. As the issue of this story is that Doctor Faustus has doomed himself eternally by selling his soul, hidden in this is the role of Satan. At the core of all religious discussion is just who the enemy of God is- with Christianity enemy being Satan himself. As the audience watches Satan’s devils talk this learned man into giving his soul for the exchange of power it begs the question ‘Why?’. Just why would Satan himself want to capture the souls of mortals? What purpose does it serve?
“FAUSTUS Stay, Mephistopheles, and tell me what good/Will my soul do thy lord? MEPHISTOPHELES Enlarge his kingdom. FAUSTUS Is that the reason he tempts us thus? MEPHISTOPHELES Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris.” (Act 2, Scene 1, lines 38-41) This quote is found less than twenty pages into the play itself and gives the audience the answer to the questions stated above. Satan’s entire purpose in dragging down souls to Hell is so that his own kingdom can grow larger and that is due to the latin phrase. In the footnotes, the latin phrase that Mephistopheles replies with means “to the unhappy it is a comfort to have had company in misfortune”. This is at the crux of all of Satan’s actions, of all the temptations that he and his followers have done since the beginning of time. As God’s faithful should expect, Satan’s efforts are incredibly selfish in nature.
Lucifer himself rebelled against God and, in the end, brought about his own fall and ruin. “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High”(Isaiah 14:12-14). In his bid for personal honor due to pride, Lucifer managed to convince a large portion of his spiritual brothers and sisters away from God’s plan- in the end, their bid and rebellion left these men and women cut off from God and his kingdom forever, left as spirits for eternity. In this rebellion, they were all doomed to misery and failure. In response, Satan made it his goal to use the very agency of souls to pull those who stayed on God’s side away- those who gained bodies and were given mortal lives. He would use their agency to his advantage to tempt them into choosing his path and cause them to turn against God as Satan once did. In this bid, Satan would gain more followers and pawns and would be able to further frustrate and push against God’s plan that his own plan lost against.
Yet, there is no true victory to Satan’s actions to pull mortals away from God, as from the moment of his fall, he was doomed and destined to fail. This is the very reality of Satan- he knows that he has failed in his goals and now holds no honor himself. His only consolation prize for his existence is if he manages to pull others down with him. It is a complete divergence from his original lifestyle- instead of wanting to have be among the children of God in achieving exaltation, it is now the entire mission and goal of his existence to make sure that he can stop as many from achieving this as possible. “MEPHISTOPHELES 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?”(Act 1, Scene 3, lines 76-80). This line shows just how terrible their eternity is; they have no more joy. They gave up the power and glory from God in heaven for the power and pride of a failed leader in hell.
And even when they are on earth with the mortals, they cannot escape for “MEPHISTOPHELES Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed In one self place, for where we are is hell, And where hell is must we ever be…All places shall be hell that is not heaven”(Act 2, Scene 1, lines 117-119, line 122). They can never escape. It is a miserable existence, one that holds no honor or future, but it is a ploy that has continuously pulled person after person away from God. He works hard to subvert the things of God with his own ‘plan of happiness’ of instant gratification and excitement of life. He preys on mortal’s doubts, pride, and desires to better control them, leading them down the path towards damnation. This is all shown by the characterizations given to the Seven Deadly Sins that follow Satan: Wrath, Greed, Sloth, Lust, Gluttony, Pride, and Envy. In this play, they often appear as actors meant to entice and distract Faustus so that he does not stop and realize the eternal damnation he faces.
He is so busy enjoying their pleasures and delights that he doesn’t realize that he is living on borrowed time until it is too late and death is upon him. And in that last moment he says, “FAUSTUS All beasts are happy, for when they die Their souls are soon dissolved in elements, But mine must live still to be plagued in hell. Cursed be the parents that engendered me! No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer, That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven”(Act 5, Scene 2, lines 103-108). He ran out of time and so his heart was too full of sins in the end, he feared what would come next and mourned the chance at heaven he had lost due to his pride and greed. This play pushes the idea that we must all recognize the reality of Satan and his ploy’s and the dangers that they present so that we ourselves are not led away to doom and misery and instead have clarity of mind and strength of heart to choose God no matter what. So that, in the end, we do not end up like Doctor Faustus, for “CHORUS Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight, And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough, That sometime grew within this learned man. 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”(Epilogue, lines 1-8).
Link to the Story
Project Gutenberg is the best place to find free copies of classic literature! Here is a free copy of the entire play of Doctor Faustus!
Marlowe, Christopher, and David Scott Kastan. Doctor Faustus: A Two-Text Edition (A-Text, 1604 ; B-Text, 1616), Context and Sources, Criticism. New York: Norton, 2007.