Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

"Cursèd Necromancy": Marlowe's Faustus as Anti-Catholic Satire

Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

"Cursèd Necromancy": Marlowe's Faustus as Anti-Catholic Satire

Article excerpt

While the corpus of religious criticism on Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is among the most contradictory and most rabidly contentious in Elizabethan drama, it has focused overwhelmingly on one question: whether the play endorses or subverts religious orthodoxy. Earlier criticism tended to emphasize the work's Christian implications. Nicholas Brooke, for instance, reads the play as an inverted morality that glorifies the values of hell, Faustus's greatness mandating his rejection of a stifling God. James Smith, conversely, views it as an orthodox Christian allegory, and Leo Kirschbaum contends that its Christian premises are endorsed throughout. Later criticism has focused more extensively on the play's theology, often in relation to predestination and free will. Critics alleging predestination stress the Calvinist thrust of Reformation theology. Thus Paul Sellin suggests that Faustus embodies the plight of the reprobate, while Susan Snyder sees salvation hinging on repentance and the solicitation of mercy; Faustus, therefore, is not damned until he dies.1

Compared to the critical emphasis on Christian and Protestant exegesis, attention to the play's Catholic dimension has been small. Such attention has generally been limited to a consideration of the play's anti-Mass elements, such as the black mass tenor of Faustus's conjuration.2 Similarly, the papal banquet, conventionally seen as a concession to English anti-Catholic sentiment, fits this description.3 In addition, several studies have read the play as a saint's life. For Snyder, for instance, Faustus constitutes a parodie hagiography. Forjerzy Grotowski, in contrast, sainthood mandates rebellion against a conniving and hellish God, so that Faustus's fatal revolt renders him not only a saint but a martyr.4 Going beyond these perceptions of the Catholic dimension of Faustus, I shall argue that anti-Catholic satire is the play's governing concept, Faustus's demonic new religion being a parody of Roman Catholi- cism and virtually the entire play consisting of variations of the Mass. I shall further contend that Faustus repudiates both Catholi- cism and Protestantism.

Faustus's study of divinity at Wittenberg firmly identifies him with Martin Luther and Reformation theology.5 Both connections are invoked in the opening scene, which suggests a parody of Luther's conversion experience, especially his tortured quest for salvation. Luther records how he believed himself doomed to damnation by an implacable God, whom he "secretly, if not blasphemously" hated-a God who through the gospel threatens us "with his righteousness and wrath." One day, pondering the Bible in his study, Luther suddenly encountered the key he had been seeking: "He who through faith is righteous shall live" (Rom 1:17). Now he realized that God's justice was based not on vengeance but on mercy and that faith was God's gift by which the righteous were saved. "Here," writes Luther, "I felt that I was .. . born again.. . . Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise."6 The epiphany became the foundation of his theology as he converted from apostasy to spiritual regeneration and from a Catholic orientation to a Protestant one.

Faustus's conversion is the reverse parallel of Luther's. Also a renowned theologian residing in Wittenberg, Faustus similarly ponders the Bible in his study and his epiphany likewise springs from a passage in Romans concerning God's justice: "The reward of sin is death" (1.1.41).7 However, he ignores the remainder of the verse (Rom 6:23), which describes God's gift of eternal life through Christ, and the rest of another passage from 1 John 1:9 promising forgiveness of sin-the very concepts prompting Luther's conversion-and forthwith abjures God for a diabolical religion of magic. In a sequence the precise inversion of Luther's, Faustus thus moves from belief to apostasy and from a Protestant orientation to a Catholic one, his rebirth and conversion leading him not to the gate of paradise but the gate of hell. …

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