Despite the overall heavy-handed moral message that comes at the end of Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus”, the text is clearly promoting an atheist agenda. In other words, even though by the end of “Doctor Faustus”, Faustus is condemned and evil is punished, the importance of the text lies not in this ending, but rather, within the body’s subtext. This essay will argue that the moral messages contained in the conclusion of “Doctor Faustus” are secondary to the dominant critique, or more correctly, the outright rejection of Christian ideology in general. While proving all of this would be a tall order, more narrowly, this essay will support this theory by claiming that the rituals surrounding religion are, to Marlowe, meaninglessness and equated with magic and superstition, rather than divine grace or something “higher".
The character of Dr. Faustus can perhaps be seen as a mouthpiece for Marlowe’s atheism. Faustus rejects just about all forms of institutionalized belief structures and close to our first meeting with him, he announces in one of the important quotations from “Doctor Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe, “Philosophy is odious and obscure, / Both law and physic are for petty wits, / Divinity is the basest of the three." (Scene 1, lines 107-109) Faustus is looking for something more substantial than academia, much as Marlowe himself was engaged with looking beyond academic religious pursuits. This, which is one of the important quotes from “Doctor Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe can be seen as Marlowe “speaking" through Faustus, describing his denial of taking the religious life and instead, seeking something more (in his case, writing plays, in Faustus’ case, summoning the devil). Seeing as how Marlowe never achieved great success after his decision to reject a monastic existence, this can, in some ways, be seen as a strange precognition on his part. By that, this essay is suggesting that, Faustus was condemned by his choice to take on hell as a “lifestyle", this “hell" can be connected with Marlowe’s decision to leave academia for what was considered to be a much less rewarding and secular life, which ended in an unfortunate early death and a rough-and-tumble existence. Thus, Marlowe’s frustrations with the near impossibility of living a creative life outside of the academic system are expressed through the above quote by the character of Faustus.
While it may be a bit of stretch as well as perhaps a misguided attempt at reconstructing Marlowe from scant biographical data and conjecture alone, if we continue functioning on the this possible “mouthpiece" theory, we find several more allusions to Marlow/Faustus’ rejection of Christianity and God, and in particular, the rituals connected to these ideas. In Scene 3, lines 8-10 of Doctor Faustus, Faustus is summoning a devil for the first time and before he begins his incantation, states “Within this circle is Jehovah’s name/ Forward and backward anagrammatized;/ The abbreviated names of holy saints." What, if anything, is this but a direct assault on the rituals of religion? Also, as this thesis statement for “Doctor Faustus” suggests, the connections to magic are an affront to all that is “holy" as in this statement; symbolism (the magic circle), idols (the holy saints), and language (the anagrammed name of Christ)—all of these are of high importance to religion and here they are not only being subjected to use for evil, but it shows they are not protection from evil nor do they offer any help from God.
Continuing with Marlowe’s atheistic theme of rejecting ritual and equating it with base magic, in this same section (Scene 7), there is a long Latin incantation, lasting through for an exhaustive seven lines (16-23). This recitation of Latin to invoke a spirit is directly connected to Catholic ideas that deal with the same thing (saying prayers in Latin to call upon the Holy Spirit for instance). Marlowe subverts the Catholic use of the Latin incantation and replaces God with the Devil. This brings me to an interesting question that presents a counter to my argument that Marlowe is a complete atheist. If he doesn’t believe that rituals to summon divine or hellish creatures, then why are incantations successful in his play? Is there some belief that Marlowe holds that would ground my argument to dust? My answer to this refutation would be that while Faustus is able to use Catholic-styled “magic" to summon his supernatural creature, why can’t the Pope and all his men do this? Marlowe is equating Catholic and religious ritual to harmful black magic, necromancy, but the power to invoke the divine is impossible. One could argue at length why this would be, but for now, we’ll work with the assumption that Marlowe believes religious ritual and the idea of God’s existence are more closely aligned with the fantastical or “silly" practices of dark magic rather than anything substantial or real. If there is something silly about his summoning of a devil, then isn’t there something silly about summoning anything else—God included?
As a side note, Marlowe’s use of the long Latin summoning spell tells us two things. First, Latin is the language that has been used for centuries to conduct church ceremony even though it was a language of high learning and most common people couldn’t understand a word of it. The fact that this “nonsense" was being repeated to this devout peoples in a foreign tongue that they couldn’t make head nor tails of, is important since it reveals the superstitious nature of belief and again, how these superstitions are equated to magic and the fantastic—believing something that is quite, literally, nonsense and gibberish. Second of all, there may be an underlying joke contained in the very length of the spell. While it doesn’t say much of any real importance, it is a jab at the long drawn-out nonsense that is repeated to an uncomprehending mass that nonetheless, believes what the nonsense anyway and even sits through long periods of it.
Scene 7 from Doctor Faustus also has another example of the “mouthpiece theory". When Faustus goes before the Pope, he makes a statement (lines 83-86) “How! Bell, book, and candle, book and bell, / Anon you shall hear a hog grunt, a calf bleat, and an ass bray, / Because it is St. Peter’s holy day." Imagining Faustus is speaking for Marlowe, we can intuit yet again how he considers ritual and God. Instead of using the candles, bells, and Holy Book to summon God, all that would (or could according to his desire) appear would be common animals making comical noises, all of these comical noises converging to sound like animal laughter (grunting, braying, and bleating). Could this animal laughter be suggesting that even the basest of creatures are aware of the trick humanity has played on itself by creating all these drawn-out rituals to summon a God that even they know doesn’t exist? This is a rather disturbing image when you envision it; a pope in a giant hat surrounded by a gaggle of uniformly dressed comrades, wielding candles and waggling bells at a group of laughing animals. If any image in this text solidifies Marlowe’s atheism, this is certainly it—the very picture of pomp and silliness.
The Pope’s men as presented in Doctor Faustus, in retaliation for Faustus’ behavior begin chanting a curse, asking the Lord to condemn Faustus (Scene 7 lines 89-90) “Cursed be he that stole away his holiness’ meat from the table. Maledictat Dominus." Not only do they ask the Lord for intervention for something minor (i.e. pertaining to their own pride), they “seal the deal" with this incantation by again, invoking the Latin. However, the use of the curse and the subsequent Latin only goes to show how silly the whole process of ritual is and of course, there is no God that intervenes. It’s difficult to get around the question of how (and if) Marlowe can believe in the Devil and not God. The only answer to this is that the Devil isn’t something Marlowe believes in, but he uses him as a narrative device—he’s an otherworldly character meant to represent an idea rather than an actual being. In some senses then, Mephistopheles in “Doctor Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe, could also be seen as a mouthpiece for Marlowe since he argues against all that the system of Marlowe’s society believes in (strong faith despite lack of evidence, the academic world which seems servile to the Church, etc.). Still, Faustus himself remains the closest opportunity to know Christopher Marlowe that the modern world has and viewing the character of Faustus as his mouthpiece lends credence to the idea that Marlowe was, in fact, an atheist and worked hard to integrate these themes into his play.