Christopher Marlowe - Doctor Faustus Act 5

This final Act leaves comedy behind and returns to the dire business of the damnation of Faustus. Its two Scenes are short and densely packed,  compressing and rearranging quite a bit of the English Faust Book into a more production-worthy form. While getting rid of most of the boring moralizing of the source, there are in places a jumble of words and images. If we are to believe that the A-Text is substantially what appeared on stage, then there is overall the feeling that Marlowe was rushing things along. In the climax of the story, the English Faust Book, even in its not very artisticly well-wrought contents, pays more attention to sequence and development than does Marlowe. It was the converse back in Act 1.  We will try to identify what Marlowe may have been rushing towards. It probably played a lot better on stage than it reads, but then it wasn't intended to be read, anyway.

Act 5 Scene 1

Parts of this Scene are taken almost literally from the English Faust Book. It feels hurried, patched together without the care that appears in Acts 1 and 2. Did Marlowe sweep parts and pieces of the English Faust Book, taking liberties with their order, into a setting for his unforgettable poetry about Helen of Troy? Is that what the A-Text presents to us? As a help, the related EFB chapters are indicated in [ ].

Wagner opens the Scene [56], wondering if the end is near for Faustus. However, we really don't know just how many years have passed; somewhat awkwardly, this will be clarified in 5.2 (it's about 23 years into his alloted 24). With no delay, the beautiful Helen is briefly displayed, Faustus' companions, thoroughly taken by her beauty, leave the stage and [48] an old man appears. He is the voice of righteousness, depositing a jumble of warnings and castigation on Faustus, telling him to repent. Faustus immediately crumbles (developed at more length in the EFB), issuing his capitulation:

Where art thou, Faustus? Wretch, what hast thou done?
Damned art thou, Faustus, damned; despair and die!
Hell calls for right and with a roaring voice
Says: "Faustus, come; thine hour is come."
And, Faustus, will come to do thee right.

The old man and Mephistopheles enter into a contest for Faustus' attention. When Faustus says that he will repent, Mephistopheles has had quite enough and will tolerate no more. Faustus volunteers to write another deed in his blood (the EFB has Mephistopheles demanding this) [48, 49]. Faustus asks Mephistopheles to torment "that base and crooked age," but Mephistopheles answers,

His faith is great: I cannot touch his soul;
But what I may afflict his body with
I will attempt, which is of little worth.

Here we should pause and look closer. The time in England from 1553, the beginning of Mary I's short rule, and into Elizabeth I's reign saw hundreds of burnings of, first, Protestants, and then, Catholics. Every Anglican church had its copy of Foxe's "Actes and Monuments," a highly charged accounting of the persecution of those Protestant martyrs, and Elizabeth's persecution of Catholics was part of current events. The central theme that unites all of these judicial murders (the church authorities identified the stubborn adherents to the church, then turned them over to the state for execution) was the refusal of the "criminals" to give up their faith. They were obdurate, a word that Shakespeare uses in "The Merchant of Venice." Indeed, it is in Act III Scene II of that play that Shakespeare takes a rare swipe at the state. Portia and her boy friend, Bassanio, are bantering, and he says that he is being torn apart (he "lives upon the rack") by his as yet unfulfilled love for her. She replies, "Aye, but I fear you speak upon the rack,/ Where men enforced do speak anything."

So - perhaps - we have Marlowe in a kind of theological debate with his audience (the moralistic German author of the Faust Book would not have gone anywhere near a departure from Lutheran orthodoxy). The question that Marlowe may be presenting is how is the burning of obdurate Catholics was any different from what Mary had done to Protestants? While some two hundred Catholics were burned at the stake, and Catholics in general were seen as potential enemies of the state, there were a substantial number who kept their faith a private matter and were tolerated by the authorities. Seeing the play in its original setting, that is, in the light of the time's current events, might give some additional insight into it. Marlowe was never very far away from irony. In "Tamburlaine" and even in his dark comedy, "The Jew of Malta," he was concerned with the self-righteousness of Christians. Perhaps this is another excursion into that subtle use of language.

Back in Act 2 Scene 3 Faustus told us that "sweet pleasure conquer'd despair." It should be no surprise then that, without delay, Faustus asks Mephistopheles that he may have "unto my paramour that heavenly Helen which I saw of late" [55]. Of course Mephistopheles agrees and when Faustus sees Helen, Marlowe the poet records these words that have lived on:

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
[They kiss]
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
[They kiss again]
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.

Marlowe had visited Helen before in "Tamburlaine Part 2." He had as well used the phrase "make me ..." in a not particularly memorable play written while he was at Cambridge, "Dido and Aeneas." The word "thousand" was a stand-in for a large number of objects, and had been used in association with Helen by Ovid and Chaucer among others. What makes this memorable is not the originality of the word store, but the poet's manipulation of those words. Some critics consider this passage to be corny; the decision is yours. I like it.

Faustus has flipped easily, much as he did in the EFB. He has a year or two left and he is satisfied with Helen as a consort [ 55]. Closing out this Scene, the stage is occupied only by the old man and a few furious devils, no doubt to the delight of the audience [49]. He adamantly sticks to his faith, deriding his tormentors, the perfect image of one of John Foxe's martyrs.

Act 5 Scene 2

We see Faustus and three scholars. He bewails his situation and the scholars seek to console him. Protestant dogma is at the center of Faustus' despair. The scholars remind him that "God's mercies are infinite." Faustus replies in prose (we have already mentioned Marlowe's repeated references to books and here is another one):

But Faustus' offence can ne'er be pardoned. The serpent that tempted Eve may be saved, but not Faustus ... O, would I had never seen Wurttenberg, never read a book! And what wonders I have done all Germany can witness, yea, all the world - for which faustus hath lost both Germany and world, yea, heaven itself ...

Third Scholar: Yet Faustus, call on God

Faustus replies: On God whom Faustus hath abjured? On God whom Faustus hath blasphemed? ...

There is then an impassioned theology lesson, much as would have been seen in an old fashioned (that is, from earlier in the century) morality play put on in some town sqaure or market place. This has prepared the way for a long monologue, the longest in the play, putting Faustus squarely at the center of attention. We seem to be back to Marlowe of the heroic poem, a Tamburlaine-like Faustus declaiming not triumph but tragedy. This part would have been  fought over by the actors! 

Faustus' speech is worth looking at a bit closer [I rely here on Bevington and Rasmussen]. Near the beginning, we find the Latin, "O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!" - "Run slowly, slowly, ye horses of the night!" This is based on something Marlowe had encountered years before in his translation of Ovid's Amores. I.xiii.40. It is at once an appeal for the delay of punishment and a voluptuous expression that lovers would share. Marlowe had to stay in comtrol of his play whether through irony or a subtle rhetorical trope. Further on in the speech, Faustus calls out, "Mountains and hills, come, come and fall on me,/ And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!" Marlowe's Bible-aware audience would have been reminded of Revelations VI and Hosea X, both bleakly prophesying punishment for the sin of not whole-heartedly worshipping God. Faustus and Marlowe, both scholars, move from the Bible to classical Greece, specifically Pythagoras' theory of metempsychosis, the trans-migration of souls. This is not so out of place as it may seem, since Pythagoras was a favorite of Elizabethans. The dissolution of the souls of animals appears in Epicurean philosophy also, and we have already seen the charge by the author of the Faust Book that Faustus was an epicurean. Returning to the Bible, Faustus cries, "My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!" It is hardly possible to avoid thinking of Psalms XXII:1-2 and Mark XV:34, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

At the last, a chorus declaims the Epilogue. The tension is released. An audible sigh fills the theater.

Act 5 Questions to Consider

Books are mentioned about twenty times in this play. Most of the contexts are dire - better to avoid books entirely. How might Marlowe's audience have responded to this? What might Marlowe, ironist that he was, have been getting at?

The old man has a lot to say and is very insistent on Faustus listening to his advice. But according to Protestant dogma, it is too late for Faustus to achieve anything by repenting. Did Marlowe just pick up the old man from the EFB and stuff him into the play, or is the playwright trying to make some point?

From early in the play, Faustus is self-aware to the extent that he knows he will counter despair with some transient pleasures. If that's the case, then what makes this play interesting?


Update 2014-03-20