Illustration of Faustus and the Devil

Faces of Evil: Marlowe’s Faustus

Doctor Faustus book cover
Cover by Robb Kendrick/Aurira/Getty Images.

If Milton’s Satan depicts temptation itself, Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus depicts falling prey to temptation and becoming a villain. As the eponymous subject of the sixteenth-century play, Doctor Faustus, Faustus embodies what it means to succumb to evil and wallow in it. Drawn along by ambition and boredom, he gives in to his evil desires and suffers the ensuing consequences, offering a different perspective on villainy and serving as a reflection of our individual relationships with temptation.

In brief, Faustus is a renowned scholar at the university in Wittenberg, where he has mastered rhetoric, medicine, law, and theology. He is bored by his accomplishments and desires wealth and glory. To obtain them, he turns to black magic and conjuring, selling his soul to Lucifer in exchange for a demonic servant, Mephistophilis, and nearly unlimited power for a period of twenty-four years, after which he will be condemned to hell. He and Mephistophilis spend the next two decades gallivanting around Europe and the world, seeking fame, treasure, and power. In the end, however, Faustus’ time expires and he is dragged—literally kicking and screaming—into hell.

As an initially “good” person, Faustus’ reasons for taking up black magic reveal much about how temptation feeds on and perverts a person’s existing desires. Despite being a highly regarded scholar, Faustus is discontent and wants more power and influence: “O, what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence” (I.i.51–52). The first part doesn’t sound so bad (even though he uses it to rationalize black magic); he wants the things most people want—a profitable and fun life. But in the second part, temptation expands those desires into reckless and dangerous goals.

In a similar fashion, Faustus even tries to persuade himself that giving in to evil will allow him to accomplish benevolent tasks and protect his homeland: “I’ll have them wall all Germany with brass / And make swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg” (I.i.85–86). While his goals are loftier than ours tend to be, he perfectly captures our attempts to rationalize temptation and justify why it’s a “good idea” before succumbing.

Illustration of Faustus and the Devil
Faustus and the Devil (Wellcome Trust)

However, the subsequent consequences are what make Faustus an effective villain. Although some philosophers have argued that indulging a small temptation prevents larger ones in the future, Faustus’ character shows that entertaining one temptation only leads to greater ones. After taking up black magic, he begins with fairly innocuous actions, such as asking cosmic questions of cosmic beings (II.i and II.ii), conjuring the Seven Deadly Sins (II.ii; which sounds terrible but is essentially a cheap parlor trick), and exploring the heavens (III.i). However, his actions quickly escalate into more heinous acts. He attacks monks (III.ii), disrupts European politics (III.ii), and brutalizes a band of knights who attempt to end his sway over the Holy Roman Emperor (IV.iii). His character arc underscores the notion that temptation feeds on itself and tightens its grip on its subject with each indulgence.

For all of temptation’s promises of fulfillment, Faustus also proves that following it rarely ends as expected. Despite his claims that he will become the powerful ruler of the world (“I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore / And make that country continent to Spain, / And both contributory to my crown” [I.iii.106–108]), he does nothing of the sort. Instead, he spends much of his twenty-four-year contract squandering his power by brownnosing noblemen (IV.ii and IV.vii) and pranking people (III.i, IV.ii, and IV.vi). All the world regards him as an influential conjurer and a wise scholar, but that’s all he ever becomes; “Faustus the king” never exists. He becomes so caught up in reveling in his evil that he forgets why he wished to pursue it in the first place. That, in turn, is a perfect representation of our own relationship with temptation and evil—we pursue it because it seems like a good idea, and we just end up wasting our time.

Illustration of Faustus and Mephistophilis
Faustus conjuring Mephistophilis (from the title page of the 1619 printing)

Perhaps Faustus’ most effective trait is his illustration of the utterly crippling nature of pursing evil. His relationship with temptation begins with brazen acceptance: “Had I as many souls as there be stars, / I’d give them all for Mephistophilis” (I.iii.101–102). However, by the end of his journey, he is a shattered man sobbing over his mistakes and desperately trying to escape the consequences of his actions: “Cursed be the parents that engendered me! . . . Now body, turn to air, / Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!” (V.iii.187, 191–192). After being cast into hell, he is ripped apart by devils and his limbs are spewed back out, an encounter that represents temptation’s larger relationship with each of us. It gives pleasure for a time but steals much in the end, leaving us fragmented, empty versions of ourselves.

As a villain, Faustus shows us that even the bad guys can be victims: sometimes they’re normal people who indulge one evil and get pulled along to greater ones, only to be destroyed by the consequences of their pursuits. And as a decent-person-turned-villain, Faustus hits closer to home than many other literary malefactors. Like him, we can be enticed by temptation, succumb to it, and revel in it for a time. In the end, though, we’ll be devastated and hollowed out like he is. Faustus might be evil, but there’s more of him in us than we’d like to admit, and that’s what makes him an extraordinary villain.

The edition consulted for this post followed the B-text (1616 edition) of Doctor Faustus, with emendations from the A-text (1604 edition) occasionally added.

 

This is the second post in a miniseries on four great literary villains. The others can be found here.

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