Does access to unlimited knowledge and pleasure make you strong in character and faith? Christopher Marlow answers this question in his morality play Dr. Faustus. Faustus is a scholar who is consumed by the desire to experience life to the fullest and know more than his 16th century society can teach him. He turns to Lucifer to fulfill his needs, trading his soul for the ability to work magic and for access to worldly knowledge. The play features many characters who attempt to influence Faustus, for better or worse. The characters are divided into camps of good and evil–a good angel and a bad angel are two voices in Faustus’s ears. Another contrast of characters is Mephistopheles and the Old Man. Mephistopheles is the ambassador of evil, working directly under Satan himself. His character is second in significance only to the role of Faustus, while the Old Man makes few appearances. It is the Christian spirit of the Old Man that makes him a worthy foil to Mephistopheles, not the number of lines written into the play. The Old Man functions to remind the audience that faith in God is more valuable than worldly knowledge by withstanding the torments that Faustus succumbs to.
Without fear for himself, the Old Man enters a room where Lucifer’s right hand demon, Mephistopheles is and encourages Faustus to break his contract with Lucifer. After twenty-four years of exercising his evil powers for personal gain, Faustus is hosting a farewell feast for his friends. The end is near and Faustus will soon have to fulfill his bargain by giving up his soul. Faustus has refused to repent many times in the play, but the Old Man offers to guide Faustus along the “sweet path” of “celestial rest” (5.1.36-37). Mephistopheles hands a dagger to Faustus to encourage him to use it on himself, but the Old Man prevents this by giving Faustus hope:
Ah stay, good Faustus, stay thy desperate steps:
I see an angel hovers o’er thy head,
And with a vial full of precious grace,
Offers to pour the same into thy soul. (5.1.52-55)
The Old Man is in a battle with Mephistopheles in attempting to convince Faustus to repent. Even though he recognizes that Faustus has committed “flagitious crimes of heinous sins” and that the devils can punish him for trying, he still offers Faustus the mercy of the “Saviour” (22.214.171.124). Faustus, for all his twenty-four years of access to the pleasures of the world, is weak in his faith and his character and still cannot choose between good and evil. Yet, the Old Man shows incredible fortitude of character in standing off against Mephistopheles in a battle of persuasion and does not abandon Faustus.
The Old Man’s faith in God is backed by knowledge of the scriptures, which he uses to strengthen his persuasive power over Faustus. The Old Man’s words mirror Joel’s speech to the people of Judah in the Old Testament. Joel explains that the people can still avoid calamity through repentance. “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart …” (Joel 2:12-13). The Old Man claims that Faustus can still avoid eternal torture through repentance. He also mentions weeping and heartbreak when he encourages Faustus to “break heart, drop blood, and mingle it with tears, tears falling from repentant heaviness” (Marlow 5.1.38-39). Faustus, with the knowledge of the world at his beck and call for twenty-four years is not able to think his way out of the situation he has created. But the Old Man’s use of scriptural terms in his speech adds weight to his claim that Faustus can still save himself, and with words he is able to encourage the Doctor to consider repenting.
Faustus’s tragic lack of spiritual strength is emphasized by the strength of faith that the Old Man displays. Even at the point of facing the terrifying conclusion of his bargain with Lucifer, Faustus is unable to turn to God for forgiveness. Faustus begins to repent, but begs Lucifer’s pardon when Mephistopheles threatens to tear his flesh into pieces. “Thou traitor, Faustus, I arrest thy soul, for disobedience to my sovereign lord. Revolt, or I‘ll in piece-meal tear thy flesh!”(5.1.66-68). Faustus immediately recants and offers to “confirm” the “former vow” with his blood (5.1.72-73). He is too spiritually weak to grasp at his last chance for salvation, yet the Old Man’s faith is strong as he faces the same physical threat that defeats Faustus. Faustus sets the devils upon the Old Man when he orders Mephistopheles to torment “that base and crooked age, that durst dissuade” him from Lucifer (5.1.76-77). Unlike Faustus, who sees the threat of the devils as a reason to turn from God, the Old Man sees the approach of the devils as a test of his faith by God and this gives him strength to endure.
My faith, vile hell, shall triumph over thee!
Ambitious fiends, see how the heavens smiles
At your repulse, and laughs your state to scorn:
Hence hell, for hence I fly unto my God.
The Old Man’s strength in the face of the same threat of physical violence that was made to Faustus, shows the audience how weak Faustus is. He is a figure to be pitied.
Faustus is revealed as a tragic figure when the audience realizes that the Old Man, without the worldly knowledge that Faustus has traded his soul for, is stronger in character and in spirit than the Doctor. Marlow’s play reminds the audience that moral strength and spiritual faith, as displayed in the Old Man, are more valuable than worldly knowledge and experience. The Old Man is able to use his knowledge of the scriptures and his strength of character to attempt to rescue Faustus. He uses his faith to withstand the torture of the devils, believing his reward will be eternal bliss. Faustus reveals the depth of his weakness when he cannot repent, even with the Old Man’s help. The decision should be easy–Faustus has nothing left to gain by his pact and everything to lose. Tragically, Faustus’s weak faith leaves him a pawn for the devils who will have his body and his soul to torture. With the rending of Faustus’s limbs, the play delivers the moral lesson. The audience is left respecting the Old Man and his faith, and pitying Faustus and his desires.
New International Version Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/
Marlowe, Christopher. “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Volume One. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Addison-Wesley, 2003. (1143-1191).