Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus recounts the tragic tale of a man who sells his soul to Lucifer. Religious controversy in the play reflects the early seventeenth century Reformation. Doctor Faustus appears to readers as an educated but ordinary man. Faustus changes into an extreme example of a human being when he must choose between being satisfied with wisdom he already attains or selling his soul in exchange for power and knowledge. From this predicament, Marlowe reflects the religious debate of free will versus predestination that surfaces in Christianity.
The conflict compels Faustus to either take control of his choices or be subjected to fate. Three questions beg to be answered. Does humanity have the ability to choose his destiny or does God control who is and is not damned? Does an individual have the choice to repent or do the heavens conspire against him? Must one subject to a predestined fate in order to relieve themselves of the burdens of their consequences? Marlowe portrays the weakness of humanity and alludes to Faustus’s ultimate decision of accepting God’s damnation through the dialogue between Faustus and the Good Angel and Evil Angel in Act Two Scene Three.
Good Angel: Faustus, repent yet, God will pity thee.
Evil Angel: Thou art a spirit. God cannot pity thee.
Faustus: Who buzzeth in mine ears I am a spirit?
Be I a devil, yet God may pity me;
Ay, God will pity me if I repent.
Evil Angel: Ay, but Faustus never shall repent.
Faustus: My heart’s so hardened I cannot repent.
Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven
But fearful echoes thunders in mine ears:
“Faustus, thou art damned!” Then swords and knives,
Poison, guns, halters, and envenomed steel
Are laid before me to dispatch myself
Had not sweet pleasure conquered deep despair.
Have not I made blind Homer sing to me
Of Alexander’s love and Oenone’s death.
Faustus reveals an important aspect of his character by choosing to sell his soul to Lucifer and settle for the theory of predestination. Faustus convinces himself that he is chosen to be damned so that he isn’t forced to bear the guilt for his choices. By claiming he was doomed from the beginning, he avoids the consequences of his actions and transfers the blame to God. The Good Angel reveals Faustus’s blindness by reminding him that free will is possible if he chooses it. Marlowe used Faustus as an anecdote for a larger trend he viewed during the early seventeenth century.
Marlowe distinguished between those he considered enlightened and those he deemed stubborn and obtuse by classifying the enlightened as those who chose to exercise free will and bore the consequences of their decisions and those who simply resigned themselves to their predestined fate and excused themselves from penalties amassed by their choices.