Marlowe: Faustus and the Puritans

In this essay undergraduate Kirsten Nyborg describes the religious and intellectual atmosphere of Cambridge University when Marlowe himself was a student. Some of the controversies and practices of radical students of that time find their way into Dr Faustus, and Kirsten argues that this is a 'student play' in several key ways.

The Reformation

Christopher Marlowe attended Cambridge near the end of the sixteenth century, in the wake of the English Reformation. Fifty years earlier the Church of England had declared its independence from the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope in Rome. The conflicting beliefs which led to this division continued to be debated for the rest of the century (and after), and have clearly left their mark on Doctor Faustus. Some of the most important issues to bear in mind when reading the play are:

Salvation: During the Reformation Martin Luther argued that God's forgiveness could not be 'earned' by good behaviour or by observing the rites of the church, but instead could only be given by God as a gift - 'grace' - to true believers.

Predestination: The question of whether good works are important in man's salvation continued to be debated among Protestants throughout the sixteenth century. John Calvin influentially argued for the concept of 'predestination', that good works are meaningless because God has pre-destined everyone to either salvation or damnation. This theory led to debate among Protestants about whether man has free will, the ability to choose and act autonomously.

The Word: Calvin had also emphasised the importance of individual study of the Bible, the Word of God. At the time Doctor Faustus was written, there was a debate in the Church of England about the relative benefits of individual study and prayer (generally, this was the preference of the ) versus collective, ritualised worship.

Thomas Cartwright's first attack on Whitgift appeared in 1573, from a clandestine puritan press probably based in Hemel Hempsead, near London.


Marlowe attended Cambridge in the decade after the famous Cartwright/Whitgift controversy. In the spring of 1570, Thomas Cartwright, a staunch Puritan, delivered a series of lectures claiming that the early church, as modelled in the book of Acts in the Bible, provided no basis for the hierarchy of authority figures (such as bishops) in the contemporary Church of England. Instead Cartwright argued that the Church should be modelled like a 'presbytery', a more democratic structure with fewer hierarchical distinctions, and also more like the way in which Cambridge University itself was governed. (At the time, the voting power within the University lay in the hands of a large number of recent graduates, the 'Regent Masters'; see A History of the University of Cambridge (under Further Reading below), p.69.)

Cartwright's lectures also dug up recent controversy over the use of the , and other , which were increasingly seen by Puritans as unacceptable remnants of Catholicism. The Puritan viewpoint was mostly held by the younger generation at Cambridge, the Regent Masters and students. The older generation, who tended to be more conservative Protestants, eventually ousted Cartwright, and successfully petitioned the crown for a change in the statutes of the University. They shifted voting power away from the younger Puritans and placing it in the hands of the older, more conservative 'heads of houses.' These heads then elected John Whitgift as 'vice-chancellor,' a kind of executive-in-chief of the University. This was a sore point for Cambridge Puritans: as recently as 1565, Whitgift had defended a Puritan doctoral thesis, claiming that the Pope was the Antichrist, and had supported Puritan students who resisted the use of the surplice in chapel services. On achieving power, Whitgift abandoned his early Puritan beliefs and aligned himself with the conservatives. During Marlowe's time at Cambridge, the Puritan students saw themselves as rebels fighting for more radical Protestantism against a powerful conservative establishment

Cartwright's second reply to Whitgift was published in 1575, as the controversy boiled on.

Faustus and the Cambridge Puritans

Given this atmosphere among the students during Marlowe's time at Cambridge, it is significant that the student Faustus is led astray by his own intellectual pursuits: 'To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess'. Young Faustus takes part in the same kind of group discussion for which Cambridge Puritans were famous:

Come, German Valdes and Cornelius,
And make me blest with your sage conference;
Their conference will be a greater help to me
Than all my labours, plod I ne'er so fast         (Act1, Scene 1, lines 100-1, 70-1).

was a common activity for Puritan students at Cambridge and here Faustus studies magic as if it were the Bible, in company. 'Disputation', group debate about religious questions, was also popular with the young Puritans and Marlowe links 'disputes / In heavenly matters of theology' with Faustus' fall:

... swoll'n 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.... (Prologue, 20-5)

Could there be a connection between this warning against intellectual pride in Doctor Faustus and Marlowe's experience of Puritan students at Cambridge?

Mocking the Puritans

There are passages in Doctor Faustus which seem to mock the Puritans openly. Wagner's attack on Puritans seems historically located: 'I will set my countenance like a and begin to speak thus... And so the Lord bless you, preserve you, and keep you, my dear brethren, my dear brethren' (2. 26-32). The Puritan students are shown living as gluttons, 'at supper with such belly-cheer / As Wagner ne'er beheld in all his life,' and gossiping about women (13. 6-7). This suggestion of hypocrisy is one of the ideas behind Faustus' fall. The study of divinity is no match for the sins of the flesh, and Faustus abandons theology for the demonic vision of Helen of Troy. Another comment on the Cambridge Puritans?

Individual Study in Doctor Faustus

Part of Faustus' downfall is his desire for knowledge: 'I gave them my soul for my cunning' (392). In part Faustus' fall replays the basic Christian story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but it also seems to be rooted more specifically in the Protestant habit of discovering truth through Bible study. Faustus' reliance on the books of magic could then parody Protestant dependence on the Bible. As Faustus laments his studies:

O, would I had never seen , never read book! (391)

Doctor Faustus and Predestination

Faustus illustrates the worst-case scenario of the doctrine of predestination. He originally decides to pursue magic after convincing himself that he is doomed be damned:

Why then belike we must sin,
And so consequently die ...
What will be, shall be...
Divinity, adieu!

In choosing to sin, he then guarantees that his prediction will come true: the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. The play raises the problems inherent in the Calvinist theory of predestination:

(i) When is Faustus damned?

(ii) Was it predestined, or the result of his free choice?

(iii) Is he denied grace by a harsh Calvinist God, or does he deny himself the possibility of forgiveness by refusing to ask for it?

Marlowe ends the play with a reference to a Biblical quotation that was often used in debates about the role of good works in salvation: 'Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire' (Matthew 7:19):

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burned is Apollo's laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learned man.
Faustus is gone; regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits.        (Epilogue)

The ultimate cause of Faustus' fall, the question at the heart of the play, is rooted in the 'forward wits' of Marlowe's Cambridge.

Further Reading

Lots of the key facts about Cambridge in this essay come from A History of the University of Cambridge, Vol II, by Victor Morgan and Christopher Brooke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Patrick Collinson, formerly Professor of History at Cambridge, has written several books on the Elizabethan Puritans, one of which - the classic The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971) - was useful in preparing this essay.

Further Thinking

Kirsten Nyborg connects Faustus' desires and mistakes with things done by radical students in his own time. Do you think that we might end up thinking of Dr Faustus as a conservative play, exposing those who sought to question the establishment? Or is it actually sympathetic to the outlook represented on both sides, that doesn't want to be limited by convention?

As Kirsten shows, the doctrine of predestination does not combine easily with tragedy. If it is all predestined, how can we appreciate the hero's moment of choice, or the climactic recognition? This is an issue in Dr Faustus and in lots of other tragedies of the period. Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth are good examples, as is Marlowe's Tamburlaine (both parts). Do you think the two things seem to be reconciled? Or do you think they end up co-existing awkwardly?

Puritan was a name given to several sorts of religious radicals in the 16th and 17th centuries. Typically they were protestants of strong conviction who were opposed to the established church hierarchy, and often attacked the licentiousness of society. One thing they strongly criticised was the theatre - in return, they are often satirized in plays.
A white tunic worn in the Roman Catholic tradition that symbolized the white garment received at baptism.
I.e., clothing associated with the Catholic Church, of which the Pope is the leader.
This was the name for the method of biblical study first perfected by Protestant humanists in Zurich, Switzerland. It was a method of searching out the true meaning of the Bible by discussing it at length together.
Someone who observes rules precisely, i.e. strictly. This term was used of Puritans.
The town in Germany where Martin Luther nailed his '95 Theses' to the door of All Saints' Church, sparking off the Protestant Reformation across Europe. It is surely no coincidence that Marlowe's character, like Shakespeare's Hamlet, studies there.

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