Note: Before we jump into discussing those pesky sins, we want to tell you that there are two other allegories in this play—the Good and Bad Angels, and the Old Man. You can find out more about them in our section on "Characters."
The Seven Deadly Sins that Mephistopheles's devil friends conjure to amuse Faustus are an allegory in the purest sense of the term.
An allegory is an abstract concept that appears in a material, concrete form. And in this case, the seven deadly sins (which separate a person from God forever if they're not repented) appear as actual people.
In front of Faustus, Pride, Covetousness (Greed), Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lechery (Lust) march in the weirdest parade that ever paraded. They describe their parentage—that is, where and whom they came from—and defining characteristics.
Sometimes, their parentage is a metaphor for the way the sin takes root in the soul. Covetousness, for example, says he is "begotten of an old churl in a leather bag" (2.3.120-121), which probably refers to a miser and the sack of gold that's more important to him than anything else. Pride, on the other hand, "disdain[s] to have any parents," just as people who have too much pride refuse to recognize any authority other than their own.
But before you go giving Marlowe props for being so clever, you should know that he was not the first person to personify the Seven Deadly Sins. In fact, a boatload of people did so long before he was even born.
Medieval drama had a long tradition of representing the Seven Deadly Sins as people, so when Doctor Faustus was first performed, the Sins would probably have come onstage in immediately recognizable costumes. The audience would have known exactly what was going on.
And even we modern folks are in on the joke. The things the Sins tell Faustus about themselves are exactly what we'd expect: Gluttony, the sin of overindulgence in food and drink, complains that his parents left him "only" enough money for thirty meals and ten snacks a day, while Sloth, the sin of laziness, doesn't even have enough energy to describe himself (okay, that's pretty funny, Marlowe).
In the medieval tradition of allegory, a character's relationship with the Sins tells us which side he's on—God's, or the devil's. Three guesses where Faustus falls. He just laughs about them, which tells us not only that he's on the side of the devil, but also that he's there because he doesn't take sin as seriously as he should. Not cool, dude.
Last class we discussed the seven deadly sins and the concept of coveting and sinning etc etc… all that fun stuff. I was doing a bit of research on Dr. Faustus and his sinning extravaganza and came across the Westminster Cathedral Choir School website, which provides a run-down of Faustus’s sins and covets. I found them very insightful and wanted to include them in my commonplace book as I agreed with many of them.
My comments on their points/observations are italicized.
This list goes over Faustus’s failures to repent and errs he makes that banish him to Hell.
1. He chooses Necromancy over Theology
Faustus loves magic (Necromancy) more than Theology, Medicine, Law and Philosophy. This is because no form of knowledge is satisfactory to him – he craves the knowledge and power of a demi-god.
My thoughts exactly, Faustus is so full of himself throughout the entire play. He is incredibly selfish, and conceited. I really detested his character and had no sympathy for him -I was actually quite glad at his outcome.
“O, what a world of profit and delight,/Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,/Is promis’d to the studious artisan!” (I.I. lines 54-56) Really? Who says and believes that?!!!!
2. He prizes knowledge over wisdom
His dissatisfaction comes from pride. He does not wish to be constrained by human limits. The downside of this is that he values knowledge over wisdom.
Mephastophilis alludes to Faustus’s plight in the mentioning of how Lucifer became the Prince of Devils, “O, by aspiring pride and insolence,/For which God threw him from the face of Heaven.” (I.III. lines 68-69) Faustus definitely follows in his footsteps… the footsteps to damnation that is.
3. He makes empty promises to achieve goodness and greatness
Faustus initially pretends in Act One to have an interest in greatness. ‘I will build a brass wall around Germany to protect her; dress every student in silk; no one in all Wittenberg will go hungry’.
Twenty four years later, his accomplishments do not reflect honourable deeds but the actions of a lustful and impetuous man. He has asked Mephistopheles to help him ‘kill my enemies, help my friends – make me Emperor of the World.’
Faustus is full of empty promises and presents falsities for his hopes of goodness -this is his decoy for his true motives. Perhaps Marlowe is inferring that when one does things out of goodness that it should be for the right reasons?
4. Indulges in the Seven Deadly Sins
He does nothing to protect Germany or the poor. Instead he commits many mortal and venal sins:
Pride (the mother of all sins: believing too much in our own abilities interferes with us recognising the grace of God).
Faustus casts aside the doctrines available to him, scorning them for being too easy or simplistic for him. He therefore is unsatisfied with being mortal, i.e., subject to the laws of nature and God. He believes God will not give him the answers he deserves while he is on earth, so turns to Lucifer instead.
Covetousness (the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual).
Faustus requests that Mephistopheles brings him ‘money, possessions and sensual delights’ every day, temporal satisfactions that are nothing in comparison to what is promised by God in Heaven.
Envy (the desire for others’ traits, status, abilities, or situation)
Faustus envies the Emperor, the Pope, Lucifer and even God for having power and status beyond him. He summons Mephistopheles so that he can use him to have a power he hopes will exceed the power of them all.
Anger (when love is overcome by fury)
Faustus is so furious at Benvolio’s mockery of him that he indulges in a petty act of spite by conjuring a pair of antlers to appear on the man’s head.
When he cannot face the truth the Old Man offers him – that forgiveness is his if he asks God for it – he becomes angry and asks Mephistopheles to call demons to torture the Old Man to his death.
Gluttony (an excessive desire to consume more than that which one requires)
At the end of his twenty-fourth year, with death close, Faustus is ‘swilling and revelling with his students’ in a feast with ‘food and wine enough for an army’.
Lust (an excessive craving for the pleasures of the body)
The Old Man pleads with Faustus with love to repent and call on God’s mercy. Faustus, prizing flesh over spirit, wastes his remaining time on lechery rather than heed his advice. He instructs Mephistopheles instead to summon Helen of Troy for his lover. She is simply a likeness conjured by the demon but Faustus tells her ‘rivals for your love can burn down Wittenberg in their longing to have you home’. Where is his promise to protect Germany now?
Sloth (the avoidance of physical or spiritual work)
The slothful person, like Faustus, is unwilling to do what God wants because of the effort it takes to do it. He summons Mephistopheles and signs the contract with Lucifer so he can have knowledge, possessions and experiences on-tap without any effort on his part.
5. He performs pranks, not blessings
-He uses his incredible gifts for what is essentially trifling entertainment eg antlers, cherries, summoning visions of past heroes and heroines.
‘This genius who can conjure wonders on request’ becomes a conjuror not a do-gooder who performs ‘pranks and jokes, making monkeys of his enemies.’
-He ridicules the Pope and the clergy with jests and wicked tricks.
6. He succumbs to despair and presumption
By despair, Faustus ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is a sin because causes a person to lose faith in the promise of God’s goodness, justice and mercy.
Faustus presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), and presumes upon God’s almighty power and mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit) – ‘What can God do to me anyway, with Mephistopheles at my shoulder? I’m safe.’
7. He fails to repent
-pride and continuing ambition prevents him;
-he sometimes fears that God will not hear his plea
-Mephistopheles simply bullies or distracts or tempts him away from repenting;
-he is consumed by a base earthly mortality rather than the salvation achieved for him by Christ’s sacrifice.
- “The Seven Deadly Sins” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.