Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, written around 1592, is about as canonical as canonical gets. The play’s position in literary history (at the dawn of the Renaissance drama’s golden age), along with its poetic inventiveness, and its thematic engagement with lofty ideas such as predestination, metaphysics, and morality have made it a fixture of college syllabi and a site of perennial scholarly preoccupation. But more than that, the story of this daring magician who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for extraordinary power has become a sort of touchstone in our cultural imagination. The figure of Faustus has achieved an almost mythic status — not unlike Oedipus. What is it about Faustus that fascinates us?
I suspect the real attraction of Doctor Faustus is the tantalizing and terrible prospect of contracting with the Devil. What would it mean to make such an agreement? What would it cost? It is possible we find the Faustian bargain compelling because the very idea of doing business with demons is so fantastical. On the other hand, all of us have made promises we later lived to regret. And most of us have, no doubt, harboured secret longings for things, even though we knew we ought not to want them.
One might, then, interpret the magical contract administered to Faustus by Mephistopheles and signed in the sorcerer’s own blood as a metaphor for a more ordinary type of commitment. After all, despite the supernatural elements of Doctor Faustus, the protagonist gets himself into trouble by making a very common mistake: he imagines that having power will make him free. Faustus pursues magic because he wants to live a life unconstrained by laws, a life in which his will is unencumbered and uninhibited. He wants to transcend the laws of physics, to kill with impunity, to glut himself on pleasures, and to dominate other people.
Early in the play, for example, Faustus describes the potential benefits of selling his soul in expansive, limitless terms. He wants to contract with Lucifer so that he might “live in all voluptuousness,” and have demon servants “To give me whatsoever I shall ask / To tell me whatsoever I demand, / To slay mine enemies and to aid my friends” (1.3.91-3). He goes further:
Had I as many souls as there be stars,
I’d give them all for Mephostophilis.
By him, I’ll be great emperor of the world
And make a bridge through the moving air
To pass the ocean with a band of men.
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributory to my crown.
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate of Germany. (1.3.100-109)
Faustus fantasizes about a life free from necessity and constraint. It is not an accident that he here imagines redrawing political borders and rearranging land masses. He longs for a life without boundaries. He will bend rulers to his will, achieve everything he desires, and have access to forbidden knowledge.
Almost paradoxically, however, in order to achieve this kind of freedom, Faustus must bind himself to the Devil for all eternity. This is the crucial element of the story. It is the part of the Faustus narrative that bothers and even haunts us, because at one time or another we have all wanted what Faustus wants; it’s just that we aren’t willing to give up what he does in order to get it. More precisely, I suggest the contract with the Devil troubles us because we would like to convince ourselves that we can live like Faustus without giving up anything at all. But Marlowe refuses us that delusion.
Faustus offers us a tempting vision of human freedom, that through our own cleverness or some kind of moral loophole we might be escape the consequences of our choices. The conjurer advances this theory in an exchange he has with Mephistopheles immediately after signing away his soul. As soon as he has signed the contract Faustus questions the demon about hell. Metphistopheles responds with a chilling account: “Hell hath no limits nor is circumscribed / In one self place, but were we are is hell, / And where hell is there must we ever be.” The conjurer responds smugly, “I think hell’s a fable.” And then begins to taunt the demon:
Why, dost thou think that Faustus shall be damned?
Ay, of necessity, for here’s the scroll
In which thou hast given thy soul to Lucifer.
Ay, and body too, but what of that?
Think’st thou that Faustus is so fond to imagine
That after this life there is any pain?
No, these are trifles and mere old wives’ tales. (2.1.115-35)
Mephistopheles finds this interaction confusing. When Faustus asks for proof of his damnation, Mephistopheles points to the contract that the good doctor signed only moments before. When Faustus says he does not believe in hell, Mephistopheles responds incredulously by reminding Faustus he is — at that very moment — conversing with a demon: “But I am an instance to prove the contrary, / For I tell thee I am damned and now in hell” (2.1.137).
This is a strange moment, but Faustus’ disbelieving disposition should be familiar to us. The conjurer has convinced himself that freedom means a life without consequences, and that such freedom can be acquired through human genius. So thoroughly has he convinced himself of this that he believes he has tricked Mephistopheles into serving him, because though the demon and the power it promises are real, its place of origin and the source of its powers are somehow — probably — not. In this moment, Marlowe masterfully illustrates the mental gymnastics humans sometimes perform in order to reject the idea that our actions have necessary consequences.
It is quite common for us, like Faustus, to believe that power and freedom are the same, and that by increasing our power we will increase our freedom. But, Marlowe’s tragedy consistently complicates this easy equation. That Faustus can only acquire his power by binding himself to the Devil is meant to illustrate the intractability of human limits. By transcending the traditional boundaries of the human condition, Faustus only succeeds in introducing new, more terrible limtiations. This is not a liberation, so much as it is a substitution of one set of rules for another. Faustus imagines he can escape the bounds of the human condition to occupy some horizonless zone beyond the reach of gravity’s pull, somewhere where his will can operate unimpeded by obstacles. The impulse is seductive, and familiar to many of us. But through the image of the contract, Marlowe suggests such a life is not possible for humans; for humans, it seems, boundaries cannot be dispensed with, merely exchanged.
Of course, we might find the prospect of eternal damnation fanciful. We may (like Faustus) not really believe in immortal souls or eternal damnation. Such sophistication also promises a kind of liberty. But Marlowe insists our boundedness as human beings is impossible to deny.
In this respect, the temporal condition of Faustus’ contract is critical. Faustus will have these extraordinary abilities only for a set term of 24 years (1.3.89). When we fantasize about power — wealth, strength, authority over others — we often imagine it as an accumulation, or expansion of our capacities. We see individuals become richer or more influential, and we assume that their capacities increase in proportion to their riches or influence. We imagine the rich and powerful are able to transcend the boundaries which most of us cannot. What the contractual formulation in Doctor Faustus represents however, is the (sometimes invisible or unanticipated) costs attendant upon the acquisition of material power — even in the ordinary course of events. Time is the most intuitive example. Does power give us freedom to spend our time however we would like to spend it? Or rather, does the acquisition of power necessitate that we spend our time fostering, preserving, and defending that power? One might consider how the pursuit of wealth, for example, can turn a person into a workaholic, or how the pursuit of authority might make a person suspicious, jealous, and fearful of others? The time and energy one must sacrifice in order to acquire and maintain power actually binds the power-seeker. The pursuit of material power — even in a typical human life — constrains a huge number of our choices. It’s a devil’s bargain.
Still, we might persuade ourselves that Marlowe is mistaken or merely moralizing. We might yet maintain that the costs of acquiring power can be avoided or deferred, and that a life without limits could still be ours. However, Marlowe outmaneuvers us, by offering up an even more troubling critique of human power in his tragedy.
Consider the discrepancy between Faustus’ ambitions and his actual achievements. When Faustus tells us of his aspirations early in the play, we can likely relate. Who has not imagined having the power to fly, to rule, to bend others to their will? Every child fantasizes about such things. Early in the play Faustus muses about the “world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, and omnipotence” promised to the master magician. He sneers at “Emperors and kings” who are “but obeyed in their several provinces” while the sorcerer’s jurisdiction “Stretcheth as far as does the mind of man” (1.1.50-60).
However,, all of this ambition seems to be forgotten, when, later in the play, years into his compact, Faustus is seen playing pranks on the Pope and performing parlour tricks in the court of Charles V. Is this the same man who was going to join continents together and learn the answers to questions that have baffled philosophers? For someone with near absolute power, Faustus accomplishes very little. What are we to make of this?
Perhaps this evidences a weakness of moral character. Marlowe may be saying that an appetitive personality like Faustus, despite his ambitions, will ultimately succumb to temptation and use that power only in the pursuit of base pleasure. We might also be tempted to advance some form of the Platonic argument that wielding power is impossible without knowledge. The chainsaw is only useful in the hands of one who knows how to use it; in the hands of someone who does not know the same tool is ineffective and dangerous. If this is the case, then we might come to a better end than Faustus simply by being smarter and more virtuous.
But I suggest Marlowe’s analysis is different and more troubling than Plato’s, because Faustus should be one who knows. He tells us at the beginning of the play that he has turned to magic because he has mastered all of the other subjects. He has studied logic, medicine, law, and theology (1.1.1-62). Faustus is thus presented as a person of nearly unparalleled knowledge. Marlowe’s magician therefore has knowledge and power, and still his actual achievements are wildly incommensurate with his ambitions. Instead of a philosopher king, the person with both knowledge and power is presented here as a clown. And not only is Faustus’ magical enterprise pointless, it leads to his damnation! The knowing wielding of power does not give Faustus freedom to do what he wants; instead, it dooms him.
The real proposition posed to us by Doctor Faustus, then, is the disturbing suggestion that all human power is inherently illusory. All attempts to exercise power entail a devil’s bargain in which we act as if we have control, when in fact, we never have sufficient knowledge to achieve what we desire. Therefore, the claim that power makes us free can only ever be a joke.
If we were to follow this line of thought, we might arrive at the proposition that true freedom lies in the renunciation of material power as a goal — in subjecting oneself to some principle or end beyond the material. Perhaps freedom lies in embracing of a certain kind of powerlessness. But what would that mean for the world? Would such position be ethically or politically tolerable? Is it possible to conceive of ourselves as ‘powerless’ political agents? Maybe not. Though, for Marlowe, perhaps the alternative — believing that we have the knowledge and power necessary to organize and achieve our worldly goals — is akin to believing in magic.
Also see Gary Throne’s “Augustine: Memory as Sacrament,” Barry Craig’s “Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards,” Paulette Kidder’s review of “Fate and Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards,” Sara MacDonald’s review of “Mary Cyr,” Catherine Craig’s “Of Infinite Variety: The Promise of Comedy in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra,” and Mary Craig’s “On the Diamond and in the Pews: The Push to Legalize Sunday Baseball.”