“Doctor Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe, Act V, Scene 2 – A Close Analysis

Faustus’s Last Monologue

This passage deals with the last hour of Faustus’s life when he is caught alone in his study waiting for the devils to come and take his soul to Hell. Such a loneliness may be a cross reference used by Marlowe to underline that Man is alone in front of Death; a reference reminding of Everyman with the difference that its main character is accompanied by his Good Deeds whereas Faustus, having nothing else but his absolute knowledge gained through his sinful deal with the devil, is desperately alone. Its beginning is marked by a sound device – something seldom used according to the Elizabethan Drama conventions – which is rendered for the reader through the stage direction:

[The clock strikes eleven.]

and has a double function, one regarding the character itself and the other concerned with a wider religious issue, since, on the one hand, it makes Faustus realize how little time he is left to live before his eternal damnation, something which will soon be stated by Faustus himself when pronouncing:

Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually!

thus creating the contrast between the shortness of his present and the unlimited unimaginable length of what his future will be after his Death – while, on the other, it may be seen as an additional reference to the parable told by Jesus in chapter 20 of the Gospel of Matthew whose moral is that those who accept him in the eleventh hour can still be saved, while Faustus at this point seems to be irrevocably damned, so that Marlowe is indeed contradicting the standardized Christian morality substituting it with one of his own where repentance at the last moment is not possible or is unacceptable. Something quite possible when considering Marlowe’s attitude towards the Church and the traditionally accepted orthodox beliefs. In addition to this sound device, the beginning is also marked by the opening line that consists in the self addressed exclamation:

Ah, Faustus

which is both obscure and multilayered, since at a first sight it may be an expression of pity for himself, a cry of pain, an accusation for his crime, a self acknowledgement of his sins, but it will become even more complicated when it will be repeated as the closing line of the whole tragedy with the meaningful difference that it will be addressed to the devil whom he had signed the deal with:

Ah, Mephistopheles!

thus, achieving the double result of giving a perfect circularity to the whole passage and, at the same time, of making an ominous identification between Faustus and Mephistopheles, between Man and Devil, between the corrupted and the corrupter so as to point out that he who is marked by sin is a sinner forever and there will be no possible salvation. Anyway, nothing is certain – or to say better, no explanation seems to be more valid than another – when analyzing the meaning of both the exclamations apart from their perfect structural identification even in the use of the third person indifferently applied to himself – as if he looked at himself from the outside, thus suggesting a separation between soul and body, intellect and matter – or to the Devil.
After his realization of how little time he is left with, Faustus tries to find possible solutions to delay the end of his earthly time, his final moment before the coming of the devils. First, he asks the time to stop so that midnight will never come:

Stand still, you ever moving spheres of heaven
That time may cease, and midnight never come

Then, in the contrastive use of darkness and light, since he is substituting the eternal darkness of the eleventh hour in the night with the eternal light of a perpetual day, he asks the sun to rise and shine forever:

Fair nature’s eye, rise, rise again and make
Perpetual day;

In his invocation, from a linguistic and stylistic point of view, it is particularly noticeable that he refers to the sun using a device that, more than a metaphor, is to be considered as a kenning, thus echoing the old – and pagan – Anglo-Saxon versification.
Both the solutions, even in their total opposition, share the same effect to cancel the twelfth hour, the moment when his debt with the Devil is to be honoured with a payment that is the loss of his own soul. Silently understanding that none of the two requests can ever be fulfilled, he even asks Time to alter the length of the hour itself in a painful process of reductio, always lowering his request as if he were willing to accept even the smallest variation, which, even if it has no sense under common circumstances, it seems to have one when applied to a man who’s going to die within a single hour and tries to have a final occasion to gain an impossible salvation:

or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!

even quoting a line from Ovid’s Amores:

O lente, lente, currite noctis equi!

another contrasting reference when one thinks that in Ovid’s poem the speaker wants the night to stretch out so he can spend more time with his mistress – so something connected to pleasure – whereas here is pronounced by a man who is awaiting the appearance of the Devil, who is expected to collect his soul when the clock strikes midnight – so something connected with the end of every pleasure and the beginning of eternal pain and torture.
The impossibility of the three solutions he has worked out and asked for is finally made explicit when he says that there’s no way to stop the time and alter his future:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus will be damned.

and his desire of salvation is soon annihilated by the Devil in the following line:

Oh I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?

Picture of Jude Law as Doctor Faustus in the Young Vic’s 2002 production

Jude Law as Doctor Faustus in the Young Vic’s 2002 production

where, once again, there’s Marlowe’s perfect use of contrast in the opposition between elevation, meant as a symbol of salvation, and descent, meant not as a symbol but seen as the pressing reality of his present condition which is the one of a man with no possible escape, with no conceivable way out. In addition to all the possible considerations about the content of the lines so far examined, it is important, from a linguistic point of view, to notice that Faustus has addressed to or talked about himself using all the possible singular pronouns from the initial third person – Ah, Faustus – to the intermediate second person – Now hast thou… – to the final first person – I’ll leap up – thus inverting the common grammatical order but underlining his growing self awareness and self knowledge since he is getting closer and closer to the very core of himself. This is not only a revolutionary way to describe a character’s process of exploration, but an astounding anticipation of the cinematic technique of the close up so largely used by many writers from the end of XIX century on. Something amazing when found in a play written just before the end of XVI century.

This attempted elevation, ignited by the realization of the impossibility of the solutions so far thought by Faustus and soon denied by the Devil or by the very sin of Faustus, leads him to try and obtain a possible salvation through the intercession of Christ. Something really explainable for a Renaissance man who doesn’t see himself directly opposed to God – as it happens in Everyman, a work still linked to the Middle Ages – but identifies himself with the common humanity that he shares with Christ seen as a mediator of some sort between Man and God:

See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul–half a drop. Ah, my Christ!

But even this one is an impossible solution since he doesn’t belong anymore to the reign of Heaven being by now a property of the Devil, so that he soon shifts from praying God to asking Lucifer for an impossible act of pity, until he finds himself once more alone in front of an ireful God who will never forgive him:

Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
Yet will I call on him: Oh spare me, Lucifer!–
Where is it now? ‘Tis gone;
And see where God stretcheth out his arm,
And bends his ireful brows!

The impossible solution of finding a salvation in God, is followed by a double appeal to Nature itself to hide him from the Devil. And, once more, Marlowe makes use of the contrastive technique through the opposition of elevation and descent, but this time he even reverses it since he first introduces the descent into Earth, not seen as the descent into Hell as before, but simply as a place where to hide:

Mountains and hills, come, come and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!
No! No! Then will I headlong run into the earth;
Earth gape! Oh, no, it will not harbor me!

and then the elevation to the sky – here expressed with the word heaven written without capital letter to point out that he does not mean Paradise – under the form of vapor:

You stars that reigned at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist
Into the entrails of yon laboring clouds,
That when you vomit forth into the air,
My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,
So that my soul may but ascend to heaven.

It takes Faustus half an hour to work out those impossible solutions, since:

[The clock strikes.]

and he not only understands it, but he also realizes that everything is going to end very soon:

Ah, half the hour is past! ‘Twill all be past anon!

A line, this one, deeply marked by the inexorable passing of the time here represented in its three forms of past, present and future since in the fictitious stage present a man is thinking about his past and his future and Time is so compressed in two units of half an hour each – one past and the other still to pass – that the present itself turns out to be crushed and almost inexistent, thus underlining Faustus’s lack of time. Pressed as he is, Faustus still tries to find other solutions with the difference that, now, he considers even the possible solution of a limited damnation using a process opposed to the previously used reductio but similarly painful:

O God! If thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,
Yet for Christ’s sake whose blood hath ransomed me,
Impose some end to my incessant pain;
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,
A hundred thousand, and at last be saved!

in his self imposed increase of the length of his pain that, even if through the device of the hyperbole, is hundredfold so as to underline that time has no importance when compared to salvation. Another astounding contrast, this one, for a man who has just asked for more time. And Time seems to be the leit motiv of the whole passage; misspent earthly time, denied time for salvation, eternal time of damnation, too short a time, too long a time, no more time to live for pleasure, infinite time to live under torture and pain, but all those time possibilities and possible times are now reduced for Faustus to the endless time of torment when he admits that:

Oh, no end is limited to damned souls!

When such a solution is judged as impossible, Faustus tries for more. Another one might be the absence of a soul:

Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?

but it is impossible. Another one might be the absence of an immortal soul:

Or why is this immortal that thou hast?

but it is impossible too. Another one might be the transmigration of the soul, according to Pythagoras’ metempsychosis, into the body of an animal so that it would simply disappear:

Ah, Pythagoras’ metempsychosis! Were that true,
This soul should fly from me, and I be changed
Into some brutish beast!
All beasts are happy, for, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolved in elements;

but its impossibility is terribly rendered by the words Were that true, since, as a man of science, he can’t believe in such a theory – or it might also be read as if Faustus, instead of being a Christian, would have rather preferred to be a pagan and believe in metempsychosis – so that his sad conclusion is:

But mine must live still to be plagued in hell.

Being left with no solution, Faustus curses his own parents for having given him life, that very life that brings with it that soul from which he can’t set himself free in any way, that weight which – just as it happens for his sin – he can’t get rid of:

Cursed be the parents that engendered me!

but it is only a desperate thought of a desperate man, since he soon curses himself and the Devil, the two parties of the deal:

No, Faustus: curse thyself; curse Lucifer
That hath deprived thee of the joys of Heaven.

Faustus’s earthly time is over because:

[The clock strikes twelve]

even if he tries to find more desperate and impossible solutions:

Oh, it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell.
[Thunder and lightning] Oh soul, be changed into little water drops,
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found.

Until he is caught between the wrath of God and the torments of the devils come to take him to Hell:

My God! my God! look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile!

The contrast between God and the devils, is reinforced by the contrast between his invocation to the Hell not to gape and his previous invocation to Earth to gape. Past and present get mingled so as to symbolically mean that time has lost all its values and coordinates in front of the eternity which Faustus’s is being taking in. The last requests of Faustus are left unsatisfied. What remains is his useless decision to burn his books – his true desperate rejection of his knowledge since books stand for knowledge, that knowledge which he has lost his soul for – and that last desperate complex appeal for the devil whom he had signed the deal with.

Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books!–Ah, Mephistopheles!
[Exeunt with him.]


“Faustus’s Last Monologue” (from 0:50) from Doctor Faustus – Director: Matthew Dunster. Actors: Charlotte Broom, Michael Camp, Richard Clews, Nigel Cooke, Jonathan Cullen, Arthur Darvill, Robert Goodale, Paul Hilton, Sarita Piotrowski, Will Mannering, Pearce Quigley, Iris Roberts, Beatriz Romilly, Felix Scott, Jade Williams, Chinna Wodu. Production: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London, 2011.

Further Readings

Doctor Faustus at The British Library
Marlowe: The Sources of Doctor Faustus at Cambridge University, Cambridge 2015
Faustus — Medieval or Renaissance Hero at www.cliffnotes.com

Film Version of Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus – Director(s): Richard Burton – Nevill Coghill. Actors: Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Andreas Teuber. British, 1967.