Doctor Faustus

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Themes and Colors
Temptation, Sin, and Redemption Theme Icon
The Bargain Theme Icon
The Renaissance Individual Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Education, Knowledge, and Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Doctor Faustus, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon

In addition to the Renaissance more generally, the Protestant reformation and questions surrounding the changing nature of European Christianity in Marlowe's time have a profound influence on Doctor Faustus. One such question that the play tackles is the issue of predestination. According to Calvinism (a branch of protestant Christianity started by John Calvin), people are predestined to be either saved in heaven or damned in hell. In other words, they are born fated to go to one or the other and there's nothing they can do to change that.

One overarching question in Marlowe's play is whether Faustus' fall from grace is his own fault or whether he is fated to be damned. (The question can be extended also to Lucifer and his renegade angels-turned-devils: were they fated to fall from heaven to hell?) Faustus seems to choose his own path, voluntarily agreeing to his deal with Lucifer. And he appears to have the choice to repent at any moment in the play. But, according to a Calvinist interpretation, such free will is an illusion, as these “choices” are already predetermined by God. Even the two versions of the play can't seem to agree on an answer. In a crucial line, the A-text has the Good Angel tell Faustus it is “Never too late, if Faustus will repent,” (V, 253). The B-text reads, “Never too late, if Faustus can repent.” In one version, the only question is whether Faustus “will” or will not repent. In the other, it is questionable whether Faustus even has the option (“can” or can't he repent?). Regardless, that the play engages in this kind of questioning at all suggests that there may be limits to and constraints upon free will.

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Fate vs. Free Will ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fate vs. Free Will appears in each scene of Doctor Faustus. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fate vs. Free Will Quotes in Doctor Faustus

Below you will find the important quotes in Doctor Faustus related to the theme of Fate vs. Free Will.
Prologue Quotes

...Till, swollen with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.
For falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted more with learning's golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy. (20-25)

Related Characters: Chorus (speaker), Doctor Faustus
Page Number: Pro.20-25
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Prologue, Chorus gives a brief introduction to Doctor Faustus, telling his history before the start of the play. Faustus, like Marlowe himself, was of low birth, and his rise to power and scholarship are an echo of the playwright's own career. He says that the play will merely contain the subject of "Faustus's fortunes, good or bad." The Chorus then details how Faustus rose as an academic and became lifted up by his excellence in divinity, until, as the quote asserts, Faustus became prideful and obsessed with learning more and more. Compared to the Greek myth of Icarus (who flew too close to the sun, which melted his wings and caused him to fall to his death), Faustus flies too high, reaching above what is natural and normal, and then he falls, committing himself to the "devilish exercise" of necromancy (black magic dealing with death).

Already we are made aware of Faustus's sinfulness: he is prideful (self-conceit) and devotes himself to the cursed, sinful arts. We see another one of the seven deadly sins in his desire for knowledge, power, and learning: gluttony. His excessive search for knowledge and books is the source of his temptation, and when he falls prey to it he "surfeits" (overindulges) on the new, dark knowledge he achieves. The Chorus tells us that Faustus will turn to magic, which is sweeter to him than his "chiefest bliss," but the Prologue does not tell us what Faustus's fate will ultimately be (though the appearance of "Tragical" in the title is a good indicator that it will not be a good one).


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Scene 3 Quotes

I am a servant to great Lucifer,
And may not follow thee without his leave;
No more than he commands must we perform. (40-42)

Related Characters: Mephastophilis (speaker), Doctor Faustus, Lucifer
Page Number: 1.3.40-42
Explanation and Analysis:

Doctor Faustus has conjured devils by profanely writing God's name backwards and by uttering incantations. Such a scene would have been extremely shocking to Renaissance audiences, who in general believed wholly in Christianity and would have perceived the performance itself as blasphemous and even dangerous. There are stories of audience members fainting during the play, and even of extra, unaccounted-for devils appearing on the stage. Mephistophilis first entered as a hideous devil, but Faustus instructed him to leave and return dressed ironically as a Franciscan friar. When Mephastophilis asks what is desired of him, Faustus gives the instruction to obey all commands.

In the quote, Mephastophilis responds that he is a servant to Lucifer, and that he cannot obey Faustus unless he is given permission. In this way, Mephastophilis introduces Lucifer and initiates the tempting conversation that will even lead to Faustus signing away his soul.

Scene 13 Quotes

On God, whom Faustus hath blasphemed? Ah my God—I would weep, but the devil draws in my tears! gush forth blood, instead of tears—yea, life and soul! O, he stays my tongue! I would lift up my hands, but see, they hold them, they hold them! (27-31)

Related Characters: Doctor Faustus (speaker)
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 5.2.28-33
Explanation and Analysis:

Continuing to try and help Faustus, the Scholars tell him to call on God. This quote is in Faustus's response. He believes that since he has blasphemed God, he will not be saved. His sins are so great to him that he believes he cannot repent, and that the devils are literally holding him back from doing so. He can't weep, since the devil draws back his tears. He cries out about blood, presumably Christ's, along with regret for using his own blood to sign the bargain, but here he does not formally repent, since the devil "stays his tongue." Similarly, he cannot lift his hands to the heavens, since the devils (his sins and fears) hold them down.

Faustus continues to believe that his agency and free will are meaningless, or simply less powerful than the forces of fate and of the devil. He expresses the desire to repent, but his fear and his constant misunderstanding of God prevents him from doing so. In the end, Faustus is willing to do everything but the thing needed to save himself.

O I'll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah my Christ. (69-71)

Related Characters: Doctor Faustus (speaker)
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 5.2.73-75
Explanation and Analysis:

The Scholars have left the stage, and Faustus is alone soliloquizing; there is one hour left before the deal expires. After feeling his hands pulled down (in the quote above), here Faustus wants to leap up to God, but cries out "Who pulls me down?" He then sees visions of Christ's blood in the sky. The image overwhelms him, and he recognizes that "One drop" would save his soul, even "half a drop." Faustus recognizes God's saving power and what he needs to do to be saved, but he still does not do it. His cry to Christ is an acknowledgement of power, not of wrongdoing; he has not repented and begged for mercy. Recall also how much of Faustus's own blood was required to damn himself, while even half a drop of merciful Christ's blood will save him.