Christianity in Doctor Faustus

Term Paper, 2009

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Christianity in Doctor Faustus
2.1 Negative allusions to Christianity in Doctor Faustus
2.2 Purgatory for Doctor Faustus
2.3 The Option of Repentance

3. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Many things are said about Christopher Marlowe, a playwright who died at the age of 29 in a pub in Deptford mysteriously. People say he used to be a spy for the British government and an atheist whose death was “God’s justice on a sinner”1. ”A blasphemer who had “denied God and his son Christ … affirming our Saviour to be but a deceiver […] and the holy Bible but vain and idle stories”.2 The question whether there is any truth in these accusations cannot be answered, but although we do not know whether Marlowe was an atheist, it is for sure that Marlowe got in touch with religion quite intensive. Born in Canterbury, “a cathedral town whose archbishop was Primate of the Church of England”3 Marlowe might have been being taught the catechism and the articles of the faith at a very young age.4 As a student at the Corpus Christi College, he qualified for one of the three scholarships which were offered by Mathew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury.5 There he “would have been expected to embark on a career in the church”6, but as we know today, he didn’t. He got raised up during the “religiously ecstatic period of the English Reformation”7 which lasted in the 16th century and split the Christians into several reformated groups. This tension can especially be noticed in some of his plays with “obvious religious themes as the damnation of a soul (Doctor Faustus), the scourge of God (Tamburlaine), and the controversy between Protestants and Catholics (The Massacre at Paris).”8 Quotes from his plays show his “widespread interest in the Bible (including the publication of the Bishops’ Bible, Tomson’s Geneva New Testament, and the Rheims New Testament)”9 as lots of them are taken out directly from biblical passages or show allusions to them. Doctor Faustus, the play about a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of power and magic, is one of Marlowe’s plays which alludes a lot to Christianity and Protestantism during his time. This term paper shall point out how Christopher Marlowe dealt with the topic of Christianity in Dr. Faustus. As it is clear, that a play that deals with God and the devil cannot leave Christian theology out, particular notes shall be written about the matters of the negative approach towards Christianity, the subject of repentance and the issue how the purgatory is being demonstrated in the play.

2. Christianity in Doctor Faustus

Lots of regulations and signs are based in Christian theology, i.e., sacraments. There are seven sacraments: baptism, eucharist, penance, confirmation, matrimony, holy orders and the anointing of the sick. One claims, that the more sacraments a Christian has, the more grace he receives from god. The most important sacrament is baptism, as the other sacraments are based on it. To get married or to receive communion one must first be baptized in the name of God, Christ and the Holy Ghost. Baptism in the Middle Ages was even more important, during a time in which the infant mortality-rate increased because of the plague and bad medical conditions, very few babies survived the first weeks. To ensure entry to heaven, the new-born were baptized soon, as also babies carried the original sin in them. Another Christian sign is the forming of a cross with your fingers, in the name of God, Christ and the Holy Ghost, also called the trinity. The trinity leads back to the New Testament, it is no characteristic trait in the Old Testament, as Jesus does not appear there. Trinity does not mean that there are three different gods. It means that there is one God, which appears in three shapes. First the shape of the Holy Father, second the shape of God as an incarnation on earth in Jesus Christ and third the shape of the Holy Spirit which surrounds us everywhere but cannot be seen.

Christopher Marlowe used a lot of this attributes of Christianity in the play Doctor Faustus. Hence, some examples shall be defined and explained on the following pages.

2.1 Negative allusions to Christianity in Doctor Faustus

“ [Faustus sprinkles holy water and makes a sign of the cross.] Enter a DEVIL [Mephistopheles]. ” (3.24 - 25)

It is interesting to observe that with sprinkling holy water and making a sign of the cross, a devil appears in the next minute. One could assume that such holy elements have nothing to do with unholy spirits, so why did Marlowe use this allusion in the first place? The answer can be found in the next example.

“ MEPHISTOPHELES For when we hear one rack the name of God, abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,

we fly in hope to get his glorious soul,

[ … ] Therefore, the shortest cut for conjuring is stoutly to abjure the Trinity. ” (3.47 - 55)

As Mephistopheles points out, “the shortest cut for conjuring is stoutly to abjure the Trinity”. In this case Faustus associates the trinity with something evil, by making a sign of the cross to bless his conjuration. An act, which is absolutely blasphemous, as also holy water was used. Later in the play the signing of a cross is mentioned again.

“ The pope crosseth himself.

FAUSTUS What, are you crossing of yourself?

Well, use that trick no more, I would advise you. [The POPE] cross[es himself] again. Well, there ’ s a second time. Aware the third, I give you fair warning.

[The POPE] cross[es himself] again, and FAUSTUS

hits him a box of the ear, and they all [except FAUSTUS and MEPHISTOPHELES] run away. ” (8.76 - 83)

This time it is Faustus himself who cannot stand the blessing with the finger anymore; the number of crossings is probably a double allusion to the trinity. Faustus sees it as a trick the Pope tries to use and waits for the third crossing until he reacts. One can think in this scene, that the scholar developed an aversion to this ritual and religious act.

The next quote which shall be commented on shows the negative attitude of Mephistopheles towards the sacrament of matrimony.

“ MEPHISTOPHELES Tut, Faustus, marriage is but a ceremonial toy.

If thou lovest me, think no more of it. ” (5.152 - 153)

The act of marriage is in many cultures a religious act. It is a sacrament in the Roman-Catholic church, but not in the Protestant one. The reason for that is that marriages are bonded on specific regulations, i.e. impediment to marriages.10 In addition Mephistopheles does not really pay much deference to the act of marriage. He regards it as a ceremonial toy, which is not really worth being thought about. This example shows us also the negative connotations Mephistopheles has on religious signs and doctrines. Like in the next case:

“ FAUSTUS Well, I am answered. Tell me who made the world.


FAUSTUS Sweet Mephistopheles, tell me.

MEPHISTOPHELES Move me not, for I will not tell thee. ” (7.66 - 69)

He always tries to avoid talking about religious beliefs and matters. It is certain, that Christopher Marlowe and people in his time believed that God was the creator of the world. The creationism was taught all around the world and doubts about the spuriousness were not tolerated. Faustus therefore wants to hear the same from Mephistopheles, a creature which should know it for real. Mephistopheles’ unwillingness to answer shows us again his unwillingness to response to topics with holy allusions. He and his companion try everything to distract Faustus from thinking about God as every question about him is scotched.

FAUSTUS Ah, Christ, my Saviour,

Seek to save distressed Faustus soul!


LUCIFER Christ cannot save thy soul, for he is just.

There ’ s none but I have int ’ rest in the same. (7.82 - 4)

LUCIFER We come to tell thee thou dost injure us.

Thou talk ’ st of Christ, contrary to thy promise.


1 Stevie Simkin, Marlowe: A preface to Marlowe (Harlow: Longman, 2000) 20.

2 Simkin 11.

3 Simkin 14.

4 Cf. Simkin 2.

5 Cf. Simkin 14.

6 Simkin 14.

7 Richard M. Cornelius, Christopher Marlowe ’ s Use of the Bible (New York: Lang, 1984) 1.

8 Cornelius 1.

9 Cornelius 1.

10 Cf. Franz-Josef Nocke, “Spezielle Sakramentenlehre”, Handbuch der Dogmatik 2, ed. Theodor Schneider (Düsseldorf: Patmos, 2006) 226 - 376, at 370.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Christianity in Doctor Faustus
University of Augsburg  (Lehrstuhl für Englische Literaturgeschichte)
The Other Shakespeare - The Works and Plays of Christopher Marlowe
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Christianity, Doctor, Faustus
Quote paper
Alexander Häuser (Author), 2009, Christianity in Doctor Faustus, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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