The Struggle for Power in Doctor Faustus as a Reflection of Elizabethan Politics of Religion
By Vanessa Lauber
Elizabeth I came to the throne of England during a time of intense religious turmoil and political uncertainty. By the end of her reign, England stood as the first officially Protestant nation in Europe; however, tensions between Protestants and the repressed Catholic minority continued to plague the nation. Much of the literature produced during the time of her reign reflected sensitivities to religion and resulting political intrigues. In his play Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe places the title character in a power struggle similar in form to those conflicts dominating Elizabethan life. Yet rather than a battle among courtiers for royal favor, the battle in Doctor Faustus pits god against the devil in a struggle for the possession of a man’s soul. Reflecting the cultural and religious context of the sixteenth century, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus comments on prideful ambition, which leads to a loss of salvation for human pawns in the cosmic power-struggle for souls.
In a conflict similar to that existing between English Protestants and Catholics, Faustus must choose between God and the Devil, risking his eternal life in anticipating which will be the winning side. When Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and established the monarch as the head of a new English Protestant Church, he made religion largely dependent on politics. In reference to Marlowe’s treatment of religion in Dr. Faustus, John Cox writes, “Marlowe’s implicit reduction of the Reformation to a struggle for power is an acute response to the secularization introduced by the Tudors. . . . Protestants made religion a matter of crown policy, and thus comparatively a matter of mere power” (114). When Mary ruled the nation following Edward’s death, Catholicism stood as the accepted religion, with government persecution and executions for rebellious Protestants. In the same respect, Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne created royal pressure on Catholics. Some Catholics fled the country, while others plotted from within to overthrow her Protestant reign and reinstate Catholicism. Religion had become an issue of royal decree and the source of political intrigue, linked inexorably to the power struggles and political threats of Elizabeth’s reign. Political success rested not necessarily with religious devotion but with choosing the right side under the label of religious conviction. Just as religion became a matter of superior political power, so does the battle between God and the devil for Doctor Faustus’ soul become an issue of power.
Faustus’ ambitious desire for power drives him to turn away from God in his pursuit of necromantic arts. In choosing between the righteous course that God presents and the damning course offered by the devil, he most carefully considers which will offer him the most power. In the opening scene, Faustus examines the merits of logic, medicine, law, and divinity, studies acceptable in service to God. He dismisses each in turn, declaring that he has “attained the end” of logic and medicine (1.1.10). He believes that “a greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit” (1.1.11). For Faustus, law is nothing but “mercenary drudge” and “external trash,” far beneath his ambitious purposes (1.1.34, 35). While each of these dismissals demonstrates a prideful and superficial understanding of the disciplines, Faustus’ rejection of divinity—the study most closely linked to the question of salvation that he faces—shows a willful self-deception for the purpose of fulfilling his ambition. Ignoring the message of hope in the latter half of Romans 6:23 and linking the message of death to the declaration of inevitable sin found in 1 John 1:8, Faustus bids divinity adieu. Having convinced himself of the inferiority of religiously accepted studies, Faustus must turn elsewhere to satisfy his desire for power. He declares that “necromantic books are heavenly,” leading to “a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence” (1.1.50, 53, 54). Faustus aspires to the heavenly omnipotence achieved through necromancy, believing that “a sound magician is a mighty god” (1.1.62). In his prideful arrogance, he believes that in his pursuit of knowledge he will “gain a deity” (1.1.63). That Faustus chooses to blaspheme God and practice necromancy links his pursuit of power to the religious question of salvation, suggesting a connection to the choices that many would have had to make concerning their religious convictions in the secularized atmosphere of Elizabethan England. Ultimately, which religious power would reign in England? For Faustus, would God or the devil ultimately offer the most power?
For those living under Elizabeth, the choice facing Faustus could have seemed startlingly familiar. While Elizabeth’s religious policy generally favored a moderate course, her government trained a great deal of suspicion on its Catholic subjects, especially in regards to treasonous plots against her majesty. Regarding the royal treatment of Catholics under Elizabeth, Glen Bowman writes, “the 1581 Act to Retain the Queen's Majesty's Subjects in their Due Obedience increased fines for non-attendance and, more importantly, extended the treason law to cover anyone who encouraged the queen's subjects to disobey the queen or to withdraw from the state church” (539). In classifying acts of opposition to the church as treasonous, the law further cemented the bond between religion and the realm of secular affairs. If one were to exclude the option of armed resistance, Catholics desiring power under Elizabeth’s monarchy would be forced to choose between a loyalty to their faith and a conversion to a faith not their own that offered the prospect of power and honor at court. Nationalism became a matter of religious devotion, a choice between the distant pope and the immediate power of the dual leader of church and state. While the conflict between nationalistic and religious loyalties do not provide an all-encompassing parallel to Faustus’ choice between God and the devil, there certainly exists a degree of reflective commentary on the secularization of the church in England.
Faced with his own decision about loyalties, Faustus chooses the devil’s offer of knowledge and power, largely influenced by his mistaken understanding of his prospects for eternity. Indeed, the immediate rewards of his contract with the devil deceptively suggest that he has made the correct choice (Cox 115). Mephastophilis must fulfill all of Faustus’ commands, from a guided tour of the heavens to producing a plate of grapes. Faustus delights in his power to command a devil devoted to his service. And in achieving this power, he has followed what he believes the most logical choice. Arranging his contract with Lucifer, Faustus reasons that “Faustus hath incurred eternal death / By desperate thoughts against Jove’s deity” (1.3.88-89). Because of his self-deceptive reasoning on scripture, Faustus believes that in thinking blasphemous thoughts about God, he is irrevocably damned, past hope of redemption through God’s grace. Tapped by his own false reasoning, Faustus’ blind lust for power leads him to abandon God in thought for the sake of achieving the greatest level of necromantic arts. Believing that his thoughts have already damned him, Faustus confidently views a deal with the devil as his only option to achieving the power which he desires, and which he eventually seems to obtain.
The crux of his self-assurance rests in the belief that he is past salvation. He must repeatedly urge himself to be “resolute” (1.3.14; 1.5.6). When on several occasions he questions the certainty of his damnation, his resolution wavers. The devils quickly buttress his conviction with persuasive threats and gifts. As Faustus considers turning to God again, the Good Angel and Evil Angel appear. While the Good Angel urges Faustus to “think of heaven, and heavenly things,” the Evil Angel instructs Faustus to “think of honor and of wealth” (1.5.20, 21). Faustus’ shady understanding of God and what he offers do not stand against the offer of honor and wealth the devil holds before him. Cox asserts that “the defining characteristic of God in Dr. Faustus is not love but overwhelming power” (112). And indeed, God does not appear in the play, and few of his representatives appear either. Debating whether to return to God, Faustus assures himself that “[God] loves you not” (1.5.10). For Faustus, God leaves an impression of imposing power rather than loving mercy. In another of his moments of uncertainty, Faustus comments directly on the presence of a power struggle between God and Lucifer, exclaiming “I do repent, and yet I do despair: / Hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast” (1.12.54-55). The use of the word conquest here suggests the true nature of Faustus’ condition. He exists as the lowly object of triumphant possession, a testimony to ultimate power. In his quest for power, Faustus questions the authority of God in a way that echoes the challenge that Satan issued to God’s sovereignty. Taking sides in the ultimate question, Faustus makes his own decision, despite the deceptive information on which he bases it. And because God’s all mighty power interferes with Faustus’ own ambition, he chooses the power that Lucifer’s deal seems to offer.
Yet Faustus’ power operates merely as a pacifying deception. Lucifer and Mephastophilis will stop at nothing to gain Faustus’ soul and readily offer him necromantic power as means to achieving this end. Faustus merely possesses the illusion of power, which operates as a means to draw him away from God, granting Lucifer a victory in the larger struggle for power between God and his rebellious angel. Faustus manages to deceive himself, particularly about the nature of hell, with a bravado that accompanies his prideful ambition. In discussing hell with Mephastophilis, he arrogantly claims, “I think hell’s a fable” (1.5.126). If hell does not really exist, then his decision to turn away from God seems far less condemnable. He goes further in his proud assertions to Mephastophilis, stating that “This word damnation terrifies not him, / for he confounds hell in Elysium” (1.3.58-59). His understanding of hell allows him to face eternal damnation with confidence, which only further bolsters his belief in his inescapable damnation. The deceitful Mephastophilis helps to reinforce Faustus’ macho approach to the idea of hell and his own damnation. He does not deny its existence but rather appeals to Faustus’ prideful unwillingness to admit the possibility for salvation. When Faustus inquires about the nature of hell, perhaps suggesting his actual uncertainty about his future, Mephastophilis responds evasively: “All places shall be hell that is not heaven” (1.5.125). Mephastophilis uses his own existence in hell as a reference: “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 / In being deprived of everlasting bliss” (1.3.77-80). According to Mephastophilis’ explanation, those outside of God’s presence are in hell. In this case, Faustus, in believing that he has fallen from God’s favor irreversibly, already exists in hell. Making a pact with the devil will not change his fate, but will grant him the power he seeks and which God seems to deny. In making this choice, Faustus takes Lucifer’s on the question of God’s sovereignty, the ultimate cosmic struggle for power.
Faustus continues to deceive himself to the very last moments of his life, refusing to show humility even to cry out in repentance to God. Following in the foot steps of Lucifer, Faustus will suffer eternal damnation for following his presumptuous ambition for knowledge. The struggle for power between God and Lucifer reflects the religiously-based political struggles under the reign of Elizabeth I. The horrors of the struggle for a man’s soul in which the need for power outweigh the gifts of God’s grace reflect on the consequences of a secularized state in which religious devotion is largely reduced to a matter of political supremacy.
Bowman, Glen. “Elizabethan Catholics and Romans 13: A Chapter in the History of Political Polemic.” Journal of Church and State 47.3 (2005): 531-44.
Cox, John D. “The devils of ‘Doctor Faustus.’” The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350-1642. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 107-126.
Marlowe, Christopher. “Doctor Faustus.” Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1B. Edited by M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton and Co. 2000. 991-1023.
© Vanessa Lauber