Free-Will and Repentance in Dr. Faustus
In Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, the theme of free-will is manifested throughout the play but the necessity of repentance is not actually demonstrated. Dr. Faustus was a scholar like no other in his time, but he felt that the knowledge of Human scholarship – whether Philosophy (Aristotle), Medicine (Galen), Law (Justinian), or Theology (Jerome /Hieronymus) was not enough to satisfy the thirst of knowledge of the great figure of learning. Only Necromancy – black magic – offers new knowledge, the attraction of the unknown. His free-willed actions led him to live a life that many envied, but to die a death without repentance that none desired.
Even though Marlowe is more concerned with theology, the question of determinism, than that of free will, he still puts Dr. Faustus in a situation where he makes his own rules. The problem that this play confronts is this: If you believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing God, how can you accept the existence of evil in the world, which this God has created? Does this mean that God is responsible for Faustus’ damnation? God does not appear in Dr. Faustus. Instead, Marlowe clearly sets out the steps – following the theology of his age by which Faustus’ fate is determined by his own actions and words. Henceforth Dr. Faustus’ life was filled with comfort and luxury, but marked by excess and perversion. Everything was within his grasp: elegant clothing, fine wines, sumptuous food, beautiful women–even Helen of Troy and the concubines from the Turkish sultan’s harem. He became the most famous astrologer in the land, for his horoscopes never failed. No longer limited by earthly constraints, he traveled from the depths of hell to the most distant stars. He amazed his students and fellow scholars with his knowledge of heaven and earth.
Incidentally, at the beginning Faustus’ intentions were to gain more knowledge of the world and even teach others about it. However, after his pact he expresses the intention to spend the agreed 24 years of devilish freedom in Mephastophilis’ company not in winning knowledge but rather in pleasure and enjoyment of his powers. Marlowe was aware of the different views held at the time concerning repentance. Traditionally, this can happen only through God’s grace – in other words, man alone can not save himself without the help of God. Faustus showed no remorse for his actions and even after his pact with Lucifer he still had many chances to repent and ask for forgiveness, but he refused. Even though Lucifer threatened to tear Faustus’ body in pieces if he ever called for God’s help, if he wanted to honestly repent he had many chances to do so. Nevertheless, Faustus did make the pact with Lucifer, in which he demanded to be a spirit in form and substance and so is cut off from God’s grace, since a spirit is by definition unable to repent; however, God’s forgiveness is still available. Is Faustus unable to repent at this point because God has removed His grace from him, or is it impossible for Faustus to have grace because of the refusal to repent? By despairing, Faustus is effectively making it impossible for God to grant grace; “I do repent, and yet I do despair “(l.53). After Faustus leaves with Helen, the Old Man gives up his efforts to save the Doctor, his words making it clear that Faustus is guilty of conscious, deliberate self-damnation: “Accursed Faustus, miserable man, that from thy soul shut’st out the grace of heaven”(ll.100-101).
In conclusion, Faustus obtained all the free-will any man could want he enjoyed it for 24 years, but when the time came for Mephastophilis to claim his soul, he wanted to repent. Unable to put enough effort into his plead for forgiveness, Faustus decides to top his sins by asking for Helen to be his lover before he dies. The Doctor was unable to repent because it was easier for him to be afraid of the devil then of God. Faustus began the play, the pride of Wittenberg, longing to be more than human; at the end, finally aware of and accepting responsibility for self-damnation, the Doctor begs to be chanced into something sub-human, into a beast, into air, into drops of water.