Doctor Faustus vs. Mephistopheles, or The Unfair Bargain
In Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, the title character learns too late that selling his soul to the devil is not a good plan. Not only is it a questionable bargain to trade one’s soul for twenty-four years of supposed superpowers, but Faustus either wastes his powers on frivolities or is not granted what he asks for. Mephistopheles is quite crafty when he promises Faustus his obedience. It soon becomes apparent that it is Faustus who is the servant to Lucifer and his demons.
The play raises many significant questions about Faustus’ choices. How is he tricked into thinking he can have ultimate power? Why does Faustus choose to remain in his damned state instead of turning back to God? The joke is on Faustus as he becomes the devil’s puppet, cursed with insignificant powers and ambitions because he rejects God. While Faustus originally has many impressive goals he would achieve with magical powers, his deal with Lucifer drains away his ambition and ability, until only his pride remains, keeping him from seeking redemption.
Full title: The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus
Author: Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
Play premiered: c. 1592
Play published: 1604
When Dr. Faustus first imagines having magical powers and spirits to grant his wishes, he pictures doing incredible feats: “I’ll have them wall all Germany with brass, / And make swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg. / I’ll have them fill the public schools with silk, / Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad” (1.1.87-90). He lists a lot of goals that seem somewhat ridiculous and grandiose, but they are powerful nonetheless and would inspire awe in anyone who witnessed it. He imagines himself becoming a king, all-powerful. Dr. Faustus is something of a Renaissance man, knowing physics, astrology, divinity, and other sciences. However, he rejects these fields, seeking something more. It is not enough for him to be a doctor and “be eternized for some wondrous cure” (1.1.15). Faustus turns his back on religion, too, purposefully misinterpreting Christian doctrine to suit his feelings. He notes that the reward of sin is death:
Why then, belike, we must sin,
And so consequently die.
Ay, we must die, an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this? Che sera, sera.
“What will be, shall be.” Divinity, adieu! (1.1.44-48)
Faustus believes that since all men sin, all are condemned to death, so he might as well sin as much as he wants. He conveniently ignores the Christian belief that God will forgive anyone who is truly repentant. Dr. Faustus is determined to become a necromancer, and he will employ the aid of Lucifer if that is what it takes.
Not only does Faustus turn his back on God, he profanes God’s name to summon the demon Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles appears, but not because of Faustus’ summons. He explains that demons naturally appear when people curse God, in order to take their souls. Already, Faustus believes he has more power than he actually does. Furthermore, Mephistopheles cannot automatically become Faustus’ servant at his command because the demon already serves Lucifer. Faustus should realize that he is dealing with spirits far more powerful than he, and that he should be cautious.
However, Dr. Faustus is deluded about what making a deal with the devil will entail. He tells Mephistopheles: “Had I as many souls as there be stars, / I’d give them all for Mephistopheles. / By him I’ll be great emperor of the world” (1.3.101-103). Faustus blindly believes that he will come out ahead in the deal, even if it means eternal damnation in the end. He puts temporary, immediate pleasures before his eternal fate, which reveals an impatient, unhappy spirit. Even when God reaches out to Faustus through the Good Angel, telling him to think of heaven, Faustus puts all his trust in Lucifer instead. He says, “When Mephistopheles shall stand by me, / What God can hurt thee, Faustus? Thou art safe” (1.5.24-25). Faustus clearly does not value his own soul and does not reflect on why Lucifer would want it.
Indeed, Faustus does not focus on or care about his ultimate fate, as he is willing to spend an eternity of damnation for a mere twenty-four years of amusement. Given what awaits him after his time runs out, Faustus had better make the most of his brief stint of power. Dr. Faustus seems to waver at times, wondering if he should turn back to God and repent. He claims that his heart is hardened and he cannot think of heavenly things without thinking of his inevitable damnation. He says:
Then swords and knives,
Poison, guns, halters and envenomed steel
Are laid before me to dispatch myself.
And long ere this I should have done the deed,
Had not sweet pleasure conquered deep despair. (2.1.21-25)
Faustus is so unhappy and depressed that he would commit suicide were he not constantly distracted by fleeting, hedonistic pleasures. Not only does he reject God, he also believes that God cannot and will not save him. In his paranoid, depressed state, he hears God telling him that he is damned. Perhaps because of his prideful and self-important attitude, he believes he is being unjustly persecuted. Faustus uses these feelings to justify his dangerous actions. If he believes God has rejected him, Faustus can in turn reject God.
Because Faustus is so blinded by pride and so vulnerable because of his unhappiness, Mephistopheles has an easy time deceiving him. He appears to warn Faustus not to make the deal: “Oh, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, / Which strike a terror to my fainting soul” (1.3.80-81). However, Mephistopheles is thinking of his own torment by being in a constant state of hell. The concept of hell in Dr. Faustus is not a physical location, but instead the absence of God. Mephistopheles chides Faustus, saying: “Think’st thou that I that 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?” (1.3.76-79). For Mephistopheles, who used to be a spirit with God until he was thrown out of heaven with Lucifer, poena damni—the punishment of separation from God—is a real torment.
Mephistopheles does not show true concern for Faustus’ soul, constantly deceiving him and confirming Faustus’ misconceptions. When the demon has Faustus sign the contract with his own blood, Mephistopheles tells him that Lucifer will claim his soul, “And then be thou as great as Lucifer” (1.5.52). Faustus is slow to realize that he is not the one in control, that Lucifer has all the power and that Mephistopheles is merely humoring him.
Indeed, Mephistopheles, Lucifer, and Belzebub reveal their true colors when they begin taunting Faustus in Act 2. Faustus is having some emotional distress, calling on Christ to save him. The demons appear almost instantly and scold Faustus for calling out to God. Lucifer says, “Thou call’st on Christ contrary to thy promise;” Belzebub adds: “Thou shouldst not think on God” (2.1.87-88). Chastened, Faustus apologizes and makes some extreme promises to make up for his transgression: “And Faustus vows never to look to heaven, / Never to name God or to pray to him, / To burn his scriptures, slay his ministers, / And make my spirits pull his churches down” (2.1.92-95). Lucifer seems appeased by Faustus’ hasty promises, even if he does not believe them. It is enough that Faustus realizes who is truly in control. To further distract Faustus from the severity of his situation, they put on a show for him, showing him the Seven Deadly Sins. From then on, Faustus has lost any true authority he once possessed.
Faustus no longer asks for Mephistopheles to perform incredible feats, seeming to forget his desire to be emperor over the world, move continents, and other such deeds. Instead, he is busy playing pranks and silly magic tricks on people of the court. His goals seem more frivolous: “My four and twenty years of liberty / I’ll spend in pleasure and in dalliance” (3.2.61-62). He seeks fame and attention, content with mediocrity and pettiness, not the majesty he once imagined.
It seems that part of the bargain says that Faustus will get what he wants, but what he desires will change. From the beginning, Mephistopheles does not grant his first request, that he supply Faustus a wife. The demon placates Faustus with some seemingly friendly advice, telling Faustus that he does not know what he wants. “I’ll cull thee out the fairest courtesans / And bring them every morning to thy bed” (1.5.148-149). Even though Faustus only desires a wife because he is “wanton and lascivious,” he does not ask for courtesans (1.5.137). Mephistopheles plays into Faustus’ desire for quick and easy pleasures.
As Faustus’ bargain grants him only insignificant magic tricks and denies him whatever he requests, Faustus really gets a raw deal. He cuts himself off from God, losing the divine blessing to achieve great things. He asks Mephistopheles for things that demons cannot grant him, such as a holy matrimony, or knowledge of the secrets of the universe. There is not much at all that the bargain can do for Faustus, yet he places himself in the devil’s hands for empty promises. The cruel joke is that Faustus at first does not know the severity of his damnation. He jests when Mephistopheles tells him that he is already in hell: “How? Now in hell? Nay, and this be hell, I’ll willingly be damned here. / What! Sleeping, eating, walking and disputing?” (1.5.135-136). Only when it is too late does Faustus realize the true meaning of hell, when he is cut off forever from God and forever damned.
Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. 1616. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004. 684-733.