Marlowes FaustThe punishment of loss Essay

This essay has a total of 1701 words and 8 pages.

Marlowes FaustThe punishment of loss

Faustus: the Punishment of Loss
For a play that has retained much of its scholarly value over the four hundred and ten
years, there is surprisingly little known about Christopher Marlowe’s masterpiece, The
Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. The date of its first
performance is unknown, and is highly obscured by the added facts that there are two texts
of Doctor Faustus, one published in 1604; the other in 1616 (Ribner viii). Christopher
Marlowe, even in these early times, set a standard for tragic plays, which would not be
rivaled until Shakespeare unleashed his literary landmarks at around the same time
Marlowe’s career ended. Despite the lack of specifics on this seminal work, it is still
easy to feel the pain Christopher Marlowe wished to convey with this text. Within the rich
dialogue of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe attempts to
communicate a personal struggle; both emotional and spiritual, between what Marlowe views
as human nature and what the world views as God’s desires for man, and the overwhelming
feelings of loss which accompany this struggle.

Doctor Faustus is a play that thrives primarily on the discourses that abound throughout
its length. In the dialogue between the two main characters, Doctor Faustus himself, and
the demon Mephistophilis, one finds almost the entirety of the play. Doctor Faustus “…is a
man who of his own conscious willfulness brings tragedy and torment crashing down on his
head…”(Cole 191). Faustus finds himself melancholic with the pursuit of knowledge he has
thus far attained, commenting:

“Be a physician, Faustus; heap up gold,
And be eternized for some wonderous cure…
Why, Faustus, hast thou not attained that end?
Is it not thy common talk sound aphorisms?” (Ribner 5)
He has grown sick of the pursuit of knowledge as he sees it, and believing himself to have
become educated in all of the worlds major subjects, seeks the power of God himself
(Ellis-Fermor, 74). Through the art of conjuring spirits, commenting, “…A sound magician
is a mighty God…” (Ribner 7). The human lust for power has reached a new height in
Faustus, and to attain what he desires, the easiest means are demonic. On his way to
making the decision to enlist infernal forces in his quest for power, Faustus is prodded
by friends, Valdes and Cornelius, themselves skilled practitioners of the dark arts, and
Faustus fast finds himself in a regrettable position. Despite this peer pressure, a fact
that may not be neglected is the fact that Faustus makes the choice to conjure of his own
free will, and must deal with the results himself.

In his ignorance of conjuring, he conjures up the demon Mephistophilis, expecting to be
able to command the demon at his will. Mephistophilis, however, informs him that he is
only a servant to Lucifer, “…and may not follow thee without his leave”(Ribner 11). To be
served by Mephistophilis, Faustus is informed, he must give his soul for an eternity of
damnation to Lucifer. Faustus questions this, stating the fact that Lucifer had once been
an angel himself, and questioning how this came to be. Mephistophilis replies: “O, by
aspiring pride and insolence/For which God threw him from the face of heaven” (Ribner 12).
Faustus, however, does not heed this or any other of Mephistophilis’ warnings, and
continues on his path, even after the protest of his own blood gives, freezing in Faustus’
very veins while he attempts to sign a contract giving his soul to Lucifer (Brockbank

Faustus is not deterred, and commits his soul to Lucifer for all eternity, in exchange for
twenty-four years of service from Mephistophilis. He begins to have doubts shortly before
signing the pact, however, and asks that Mephistophilis to tell him of hell.

“Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it…/O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands.”
(Ribner 12). After the contract is in place, however, Mephistophilis begins to entertain
him, providing him with women and knowledge of the black arts, or magic. Interesting to
note, is that the first thing Faustus asks of Mephistophilis is knowledge, the very same
knowledge on which he turned his back by delving into conjuring. Faustus does not have
long before he realizes that magic will bring him no closer to the understanding he
desires than did the lengthy pursuit of knowledge (Ellis-Fermor 64). For the remainder of
the play, Faustus begins a cycle of repentance, followed by renewed blasphemy, which will
continue for the rest of the twenty-four years.

A key concept in understanding the spiritual tragedy with which Faustus has plagued
himself is the concept of poena damni, or the punishment of loss, a concept first advanced
by Thomas Aquinas, (Cole 191-193) who stated “…Man’s extreme unhappiness will consist in
the fact that his intellect is completely shut off from the divine light, and that his
affections are stubbornly turned against God’s goodness. And this is the chief suffering
of the damned…the punishment of loss” (Vollert 188).

Put more mildly by St. Augustine, “Every disordered spirit shall be a punishment to
itself” (Cole 190). The driving idea behind this concept states that the majority of
Faustus’ pain leapt from the fact that he had cut himself off from God’s light forever,
put simply by Mephistophilis “…Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God/ And tasted
the eternal joys of heaven/ Am not tormented with ten thousand hells…” (Ribner 12).

Faustus has traded his immortal soul for a chance to play God, but in the end, realizes
that “Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man!” (Ribner 24). He is confronted with the
ultimate feeling of loss, loss of an eternity of happiness and bliss, and loss the
ultimate goal he sought in achieving magic. He is no more a King than any common servant,
for he is but a servant to Lucifer, and will be for all eternity. Faustus’ mission has
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