The tale that brought us the phrases "Faustian Bargain," "selling your soul to the devil," and "the shoulder angel and devil" convention is still as accessible and poignant today as it was to 16th century Elizabethans. And it's still one of my favorite plays ever written!
The biggest difficulty in reading Dr. Faustus is the uncertainty of Marlowe's original point. Being an Elizabethan in the time of turbulent religious upheaval and the birth of "scientific thought," Marlowe could have been a doctrinal Christian writing about the damnation of a humanist scholar...or he could have been that humanist scholar writing about the glories of scientific thought and the absence of God.
It's difficult to say, as most of Marlowe's life is shrouded in mystery and conflict. Scholars have debated on both his life and his writings, especially Dr. Faustus, with few creditable results. Still, regardless of his intentions in Faustus, Marlowe's most infamous play leaves a lot for us to chew on every time.
To sum up, Faustus is a doctor of practically everything; he's studied philosophy and law, medicine and theology...and wants more. He makes the fatal mistake of trying to subject the doctrine of total depravity to the rigors of brute logic, and strips the Bible of its entire Gospel message. In his analysis of sin in the first scene, Faustus quotes Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death..." but completely forgets (or ignores) the second half of the verse: "...but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." It is this "reasoning" that dilutes Christ's sacrifice and pulls Faustus to only one conclusion: If all people sin, and the wages of sin is only death, I might as well sin since my soul is lost anyway.
In concluding this, Faustus draws another point: If he's already damned to hell, he can join with the demons of hell to learn about the one thing that has alluded him all his life: the knowledge of the supernatural. More specifically, the dark side of the supernatural.
And thus it spirals downward. Faustus' rejection of the Gospel spurns him to conjure up the dark demon Mephostophilis, a servant of Lucifer himself. Mephostophilis promises to show Faustus all he wishes to know so that he can truly attain all knowledge, in exchange for selling his soul to Lucifer. Faustus willingly agrees, and seems on his way to being truly happy and satisfied...but even Mephostophilis knows that Faustus has damned himself to something more horrible than he can imagine.
It's dark and thought-provoking, beautifully written and magnificent in its points and conclusion. Everyone should read this play, if only to be reminded of the dangers of trying to reach beyond our human limitations...and to see the horrific ramifications of "exchanging the truth of God for a lie, making the image of the incorruptible God into an image of corruptible man" (Romans 1:23).
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