The ‘Forward Wits’ of Doctor Faustus

It seems almost superfluous to state that Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is riddled with perplexing ambiguities. However, the convention is to acknowledge the success of Marlowe’s attempt at baffling his audience. The question, though, is, what was Marlowe’s aim behind writing such an ambivalent play? What exactly did he mean to convey through it?

Marlowe’s eccentric characters owe completely to his enigmatic life – short as it was. He was embroiled in several controversies during his lifetime and not just his life but also his death is a mystery to all. He was apparently killed in a bar-room brawl and today, it is ‘assumed’, merely assumed, that he was murdered – for political reasons, as a result of his dealings with the Elizabethan government.

During Marlowe’s time, England under Elizabeth largely persecuted non-protestants, and one of the many persecuted was Marlowe himself. His blasphemous heresy was discovered by the state officials. Interestingly, he wrote Faustus during the time when he was awaiting the court verdict on his case.

Confusingly enough, during the course of his life, he had been charged with atheism, was supposedly a Catholic by birth, and was very suggestively a Protestant in his writings. Critic Jill Barker has noted that because Marlowe chose to place Faustus in Luther’s home university, he can be said to have had essentially Protestant religious leanings. But if he hinted at Protestantism in Doctor Faustus, he brought in contradictory events into it as well. The very important words towards the end of the play: “Cut is the branch that may have grown straight”, probably alludes to this phenomenon.

Two themes in this play feature very prominently, that of Science and Religion. These two are in constant conflict; if science allows for free thinking and experimentation, religion demands complete faith and unquestioning behaviour. Thus, the “split in the branch” that I just talked about symbolises the essential split and incompatibility between Science and Religion, as well as the split in Marlowe’s religious stance.

The very first soliloquy of Faustus establishes the importance given to science and experimentation. He is a scholar and scientist but a ‘Doctor’ trained in medicine. In Act I, Scene I itself, where he delivers his soliloquy, he talks of the studies he has done so far in the filed of “medicine”. But there is a sense of dissatisfaction in him which is quiet evident:

“The end of physic is our body’s health.
Why, Faustus, hast thou not attained that end?”

It becomes apparent to us that he feels that whatever knowledge he has gained about the human body is still incomplete. He feels he needs to achieve more by becoming more familiar with the body of man, be able to scrutinise each and ever function of the human organs in order to be able to achieve extraordinary feats in the filed of biological science. He says:

“Yet art thou still but Faustus and a man.
Wouldst thou make men live eternally,
Or, being dead, raise them to life again,
Then this profession be esteemed.”

Faustus clearly aspires for a complete understanding of the human anatomy. The knowledge of the human anatomy, at that point of time in Renaissance England, was an emerging and developing area of medical study. Referring to the words Faustus uses, we may safely conjecture that Faustus was not only talking about gaining knowledge about the body but also immortality, and re-emergence from death.

Such fantastical ambition is obviously a result of the hopes created by the constant medical discoveries during the Renaissance Scientific Revolution. Man must have felt triumphant at his scientific capabilities and must have yearned for yet more knowledge, just as Faustus did. The concept of bringing back people from the dead through the process of galvanisation of corpses is something another writer, Mary Shelley, talked about in Frankenstien, much later in the nineteenth century.

However, what is more important is the moral implication of such presumption on Faustus’s part. Spiritual presumption and spiritual pride are cardinal sins and therefore we see Faustus has sinned right at the onset of the play. The sin is simply the utter arrogance and over-reaching ambition on Faustus’ part to replace God in the role he plays as the Creator and the Destroyer.

But Faustus knew he could never curb his thirst for knowledge and cease his worship of Science. He wanted to worship the devil, but was scared of God too…and therefore, being the intelligent man that he was, he trained himself in Theology, upholding the principle: “Know thy enemy”. He first wished to comprehend God’s extent of power, and then find ways to offset His curses, and the dreaded ‘Damnation.’

But what Faustus did realise after studying Theology was the fact that each and ever individual was expected to sin at one point in life or the other. And since it was accepted by even God that it was in a mortal’s basic nature to Sin, his ‘tendency’ to sin did not make him a special sinner in this respect. Further, Faustus also finds that their Protestant God of Predestination bestows ‘grace’ on a ‘select few’ irrespective of their virtues and faith. And if he must condemn, he shall do so without considering the degree of enormity of their sins committed.

Having realised that, Faustus completely absolves himself of the responsibility of living an ideal Christian life. He feels that he had absolutely no hand in achieving Salvation for if he is one of the “elect few”, he would be saved automatically, irrespective of what blasphemies he commits. And if he is one of the cursed ‘Reprobates’, then no amount of faith or repentance, or abstinence from such scientific explorations for that matter, will ever assure Redemption.

But, such beliefs are grave sins and Faustus knows it very well. He knows he gambled with his life to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, to explore unknown realms for his own material gains. But he defends himself:

Stipendium peccati mors est. Hal Stipendium, etc.
The reward of sin is death. That’s hard

Sipeccasse negamus, fallimur, et nulla est nobis peritas.
If we say we have no sin we deceive ourseleves and
there’s no truth in us.”

When he says “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us. Why, then, belike we must sin, and so consequently die”, we see a realisation in him that Calvinistic doctrines are not all that terrible. He now says:

“Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
Che Sera Sera,
What shall be shall be? Divinity, adieu!”

This repetition of “what shall be shall be”, with a question mark in the second, indicates a point of resolution in Faustus’s mind. He is then able to conclude: “Divinity, adieu!” He needn’t repose faith in abstract, intangible powers now. Now for him, only “Metaphysics of magicians and necromantic books are heavenly”. He says: “a sound magician is a mighty god”.

In her book The Scientific Renaissance 1450-1630 Marie Boas Hall explains how to a medieval layman a scientist was like a magician. Rational sciences invariably had their supernatural, occult counterparts. Science that trespassed in the realms of the Divine, sought to break the traditional, superstitious modes of thinking was deemed nothing less than evil. In the words quoted, Faustus acknowledges this stereotype but gleefully hails it as a highly potent power to be able to influence the minds of the people in ways even emperors and kings cannot, as they are merely “obeyed in their several provinces.”

Science and practical studies have become practically akin to religion for him. He says:

So soon he profits in divinity,
The fruitful plot of scholarism graced,
That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name…

Implying that for him, ‘Divinity’ is Scientific Knowledge. And it is because of Science and knowledge that he has and would be able to “gain and profit” so much. This is indeed true, for had he not embarked upon his quest for theological truth, he would have never discovered the amazing loopholes within the religious structures that allow for redemption despite a sinful nature.

“Of power, of honor, of omnipotence
Is promised to the studious artisan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command…”

Which means that by acquiring knowledge he shall achieve fame and fortune; something that is promised to the “studious artisan”. Faustus goes a step further by saying that “all things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command.” The use of the word “poles” is interesting, for it is a general fact today that the human body has magnetic properties. Standing vertically, the upper half of the body represents the ‘North Pole’ and the lower body repre-sents the ‘South Pole. Similarly, if the body is horizontal, the right hand, arm and side are considered the ‘North’ and left, ‘South’. Moreover, the front side of the body is said to be the ‘North’ and the back side is said to be the ‘South’. Thus Faustus could simply have been looking for ways to know the human body to find ways to bring back the dead and delay death, of no one but his own self. For he knows, the moment he dies, he has 50% chances of being amongst the damned reprobates. And if the Armenian God of Free Will is real, then he would surely be damned to Hell.

I now feel it then safe to propose that the “Devil” he conjures is one of the fraternity of the ‘wretched’ surgeons, anatomists, and dissectors, who could demonstrate to him more about the ‘anatomic structure’ through Prosection, which involves the dissection of a Cadaver, a human specimen. And the lines I quoted show perfectly the Renaissance fascination with the human body.

Thus Faustus makes the fatal bargain and summons Mephistophilis. Let us look into the conversation between Mephis and Faustus in Act I scene III:

Faustus: And what are you that live with Lucifer?
Mephistophilis: Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,
Conspired against our God with Lucifer,
And are forever damned with Lucifer. (italics mine)

This excerpt gives an analogy between Faustus and other fallen angels. Like Mephistophilis, Faustus too before sinning was unhappy with his limitations. We also know that after having studied Theology, he hatched a plan which went against the strict Christian principles of his day. He in one way did ‘conspire’ with Lucifer against God through Mephistophilis. But as far as redemption was concerned, Faustus was carefree. He had an infallible plan in mind which would help him rise above such earthly trivialities. At one point, however, he does get curious. He was a truth seeking man after all; he wants to know what Hells looks like. This exchange between them is interesting:

Faustus: Where are thou damned?
Mephistopheles: In hell.
Faustus: How come is it then that thou are out of hell?
Mephistopheles: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it… (Italics mine)

What is Mephistopheles, or rather Marlowe referring to by ‘this’? The mortal and material world? Or more specifically where they are at that point of time at Luther’s University of Wittenberg? Up until here we see a very smug, self-congratulatory Faustus, who is only too happy with his apparently ‘infallible’ plan. He asks him, “where is the place that men call hell.” But he doesn’t get straight factual answers. Also, when he asks for a wife, he is denied immediately. It is then that he suddenly realises that Mephistopheles is not imparting the kind of knowledge and power that he needs. And when he realises he has been fooled, self-doubt begins to creep in his mind.

Critic, Alan Sinfield has said that Faustus was not damned because he made a pact with the Devil, but he made the pact because he was already damned. However, this supra-lapsarianism makes God seem the author of sin. Also, many critics have pointed out that Faustus is simply not one of the ‘elected ones’ of the arbitrary God of Predestination. However, all this is oversimplification. The debate of Armenianism is closely entwined in the Calvinistic dealings of the play and it is worthwhile to delve in those matters as well.

Therefore, to understand the hidden message of the writer we need to first observe these points: Both Calvinists and Armenians acknowledge the idea of ‘Total Depravity’ in mortals. Doctor Faustus is believed to be upholding all the principles of Calvinism (Predestination), but it does so depicting it negatively: Unconditional Election is there yet, it is denied to Faustus. Limited Atonement is also there, yet, it too is denied to him, as are Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of Saints. This is unlike conventional morality plays where we are shown the ultimate salvation of protagonist.

Thus the Predestination God appear ruthless to the readers. It is precisely here that Armenianism, supported by the Catholics, comes into play. But again, atonement of sins that requires faith to take effect is not allowed for. We are shown that Faustus has becomes too rigid upon the Calvinistic doctrines.

Good Angel: Faustus, repent, yet God will pity thee.
Bad Angel: Thou art a spirit; God cannot pity thee…
Faustus: My heart is so harden’d I cannot repent.

Faustus seems to have become frozen in terror at the thought of being ‘destined’ for damnation, an irrevocable fate that shall come to pass despite any or all his efforts. He says, “My heart is so hardened I cannot repent.” Hardened by Calvinistic thoughts and disbelief in Protestant doctrines or simply spiritual scepticism at this point? Is his heart hardened by the sense of guilt at having continually blasphemed, deliberately so, and upholding science as his only religion? Or was his heart hardened by rational empirical judgement because science was more important to him? We see he almost involuntarily blurts out more and more sinful questions to Mephistopheles and demands to know the answers.

And then:

…But fearful echoes thunder in mine ears.
‘Faustus thou art damn’d’; then swords and knives,
Poison, guns, halters and envenomed steel
Are laid out before me to dispatch myself…

So when the hour really arrives, he panics and is unable to act according to his plan. Is it safe then, to infer from this that Faustus was not really ‘destined’ for Hell, rather he caused his doom by not exercising his Free Will? The Good and Bad Angels, that held long discourses in his mind, had more or less represented the voices of Arminius and Calvin respectively. It was up to Faustus to follow either of the two voices, forms of Christian beliefs. The Bad Angel tells him it is “too late” for repenting and the good one says its not.

So the essential chain of questions becomes self explanatory here: why did Marlowe stress upon Free Will in a story that was meant to stress on Predestination? If it was meant to be about exercising Free Will then why was it in-executable by Faustus? If it was purposely made in-executable by Marlowe, why did he make the ‘good’ angel talk about Free Will in terms of “repenting” and the ‘bad’ one talk hopelessly in the language of Calvin, Predestination? Moreover, God’s Grace that is resistible in Armenian ideology is not exactly rejected by Faustus, it is simply not accepted. Why? Did he not repent enough? But then that’s actually a concept of Armenianism, isn’t it? And here the circle of questioning and contradicting begins again.

At the scientific level, Marlowe could perhaps been depicting Faustus as a victim of an anatomy murder. Murders for obtaining corpses for dissection studies were very rampant during the Scientific Revolution of the Renaissance period. It is possible that in his greed for learning more about the human body, Faustus resorted to trading his own body for ‘scientific knowledge’ with the anatomists he summoned. (That’s why it is specifically Doctor Faustus.) He probably thought that after 24 years, he would have obtained enough knowledge and would have found ways to bring himself back to life. But that does not happen. He is instead used up as a Cadaver, and does not even benefit by it.

In fact, even before his death, there are signs of light mutilations. In Act IV, Scene III, Faustus exclaims:

“I was limited four and twenty years to breathe on earth?
And had you cut my body with your swords,
And hew’d this flesh and bones as small as sand…as he intended to dismember me.” (italics mine)

Then Devils enter “bearing an ensign; and divers with weapons” the dismemberment does indeed happened. Because in Act IV, Scene V, the Horse-courser pulls off Faustus’ leg. Was he sporting an artificial leg in place of the real one which may have been taken away by the exploitative dissectors in the previous scene?

There are several phrases in the text that suggest he was being threatened with death before the stipulated time. In Act II, Scene II, Bad Angel says: “If thou repent, devils will tear thee in pieces.” And the Good Angel says: “Repent, and they shall never raze thy skin.”

When it is time for Faustus’ death in Act V, Scene I, there is “Thunder and lightning. Enter Devils with covered dishes.” The image of “covered dishes” reminds one of the surgical instruments placed on trays near a surgery table. Mephistophilis sadistically hands him a “dagger” as if telling him to do all the experiments he wants to on his own self. He says, “now his heart-blood dries with grief,/ His conscience kills it, and his labouring brain/ begets a world of idle fantasies”. The heart being drained of blood for preservation, and the brain labouring, as if taken out and throbbing to a stop, are extremely gory images. Faustus, in his despair says: “one blood would save my soul, half a drop.” As if his body needs transfusion. Thus the scholars in the last scene exclaim:

“Oh help us, heaven! See, here are Faustus’ limbs, all torn asunder by the hand of death.”

And so, this how the branch of analysis that ‘may have grown straight’ was purposely cut in the middle by none other than the eccentric author.

“Cut is the branch that may have grown full straight…
Whose fiendish 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.” (italics mine)

‘Fiendish fortune’ refers to the fame, ‘wise’ were the ones in the medical field. Anatomy murder was one of the ‘unlawful things’ indeed. And the ‘deepness’ was the unknown parts of the body that did tempt the one with the ‘forward wits’ to ‘practice’ this profession against the Church’s teachings.



“History of Anatomy.” Wikipedia, Web. .
“Dissection.” Wikipedia, Web. .
“Lapsarianism.” Wikipedia, Web. .
“Calvinism.” Wikipedia, Web. .
“Earth’s Magnetic Effect on Human Body.” Indianetzone, 2008. Web. .
Carr, Ian. “Dissection and Vivisection in the European Renaissance.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. Web.


Ipshita Nath
B.A. (Hons.) English; III Yr.
Kamala Nehru College,
University of Delhi

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