For me, the key to Faustus is his interaction in Act V, Scene I with the "old man". The old man gives us Marlowe's theology:
“Yet, yet, thou hast an amiable soul,”
—even after Faustus has made his deal with the devil and used the power he got for the previous 23 'years' and 364 'days', Faustus's soul is lovable. Just repent! Faustus replies:
“Where art thou, Faustus? Wretch, what hast thou done?
Damned art thou, Faustus, damned: despair and die.”
Echoing the stories of Cain after his fratricide and Jesus on the cross, Faustus insists on his damnation. The old man contradicts him:
“Oh stay, good Faustus, stay thy desperate steps.
[. . .
…] call for mercy and avoid despair.”
The old man leaves, and Faustus speaks out his dilemma:
“I do repent, and yet I do despair.”
Mephistophilis calls Faustus a "traitor", and "arrest[s his] soul / For disobedience" — don't doubt the keenness of Marlowe's irony, or sarcasm —, and Faustus repents of his repentance —irony! sarcasm! —, and gets his final wish, to see "the face that launched a thousand ships". While he's going on about how he'll "be Paris" and get Helen—does Faustus not remember how that turned out??—, during his poetry the old man returns to the stage. When Faustus leaves, intoxicated with sexual love for Helen, the old man, before defying the devils who've come to take his body to fire (but not his soul), says of Faustus:
“Accursed Faustus, miserable man,
That from thy soul exclud'st the grace of heaven,
And fliest the throne of his tribunal seat.”
Faustus doesn't crave knowledge: he goes through the catalogue of human expertise at the beginning of the play and finds, study by study, their futility, and turns to "necromantic books": "A sound magician is a demi-god."
It seems he might want a short-cut to immortality—but he never doubts he has a soul.
He says he wants power: "Oh, what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence, / Is promised to the studious artizan!"
What Faustus wants is love, and what he convicts himself of is unlovability, and in Marlowe's brilliant, radiant perspective, the great sin within Christianity is not pride, but despair. And feel the sharpness at the end of the play: how can it ever be too late? How can a merciful god ever turn away from true repentance? And should not a merciful god save the souls that need mercy most? Almost Mephistophilis's last words are "'Tis too late, despair."—because Faustus has condemned himself. That's Marlowe's insight, the devil doesn't come to you and tempt you: "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it." Devils are there—in the despair of amiable souls.
As I said, the Old Man is crucial. The key thing about the Old Man in my view is that he is Faustus' "good angel" that has grown old and tired of waiting for him to repent. In ordering Mephistophilis to torture/kill him Faustus is essentially killing his last chance of redemption. Interesting the fabulous Helen speeches take place as the Old Man is being murdered. Helen is, arguably a succubus who is taking away the last of his soul, "see how it flies".
It raises a fascinating theological question as to which part of us is condemned to Hell. The Old Man aside, Faustus does not actually do anything particularly wicked in this play. He serves as an entertainer, teaches the Pope and horse-courser a lesson or two, and serves up a pregnant woman some grapes. The flabby middle is actually essential in showing how very little Faustus actually gains for his soul... it is the residual Morality Play.
It is interesting and often overlooked, that Faustus signs a second contract before the Old Man is killed and he is "rewarded" with Helen. The London merchants, students and lawyers who made up much of his audience would have been acutely aware of how important a second contract was. Isn't there a symmetry between the beginning and end of the play, so that the impaired theological reasoning is reflected back in Faust's refusal to repent? His pride is emphasized at the outset. He reviews not just his achievements in various fields, but the merits of those fields and dismisses them. In wanting to raise the dead he wants to play god. He is repeatedly confronted by the Good & Bad Angels and later by the Old Man, whose goodness and that of the 3 Scholars is a counterweight to the Devils. It is his decision to give up on God, not God's. (Not a theological axe to grind, just an observation). You don't hear a voice telling him to get lost, just a reference to an angry face in the final hour.
Yes, Faustus, apparently after signing the second contract in "blood", commands—he still has the 'power' to order Mephistophilis—Mephistophilis to "[t]orment […] that base and crooked age" — he seems to think temporarily that he's been lied to by the old man. But does he? While Faustus is, I think, front-stage, and Mephistophilis out of his sight (but on stage), he says, upon the old man exiting, that he “repents and yet despairs”:
“Hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast.
What shall I do to shun the snares of death?”
He still wants immortality — as I argue, not spiritually (he never doubts that he has a "soul"), but bodily — even as he wants "grace" (that is, to repent and deserve grace). It's then that Mephistophilis steps forward (as I enact the scene) and snarls that he'll "in piecemeal tear thy flesh". It's the cold ferocity of this threat — that vibe is repeated later in the play; it's really important that the actor get this fearsomeness right —, but I think it's also the physical nature of the threat, that tips Faustus back to repenting his repentance. (—unless you think this double-back and giving up of the old man to be emptily rhetorical tactics?)
Then Helen is wished for, then she appears, then they lock lips, then the old man enters again for Faustus's boasts of being a victorious Paris (?), then Faustus and Helen exeunt, then the old man says Lucifer gets his body (for, I think, as long as it takes to torture and burn it) but not his soul. The old man talks Faustus into despairing less, then Mephistophilis counters with a threat of torture and Faustus panics and goes back to the side of the devil. Sure, Faustus wimped out: the prospect of irreversible disaggregation will do that.
It'll even get one to believe in an immortal soul!
But pettifoggery aside, how can it ever be too late to repent? Or, pettifoggery all in, how can repentance ever make things okay??
The Faust Book is a far more leisurely, episodic folk tale depicting a more serious, almost likable character. At the beginning, Faust's questions (from an orderly checklist) are more determinedly pursued, more searching and finally Mephistophilis lies to him. Faust is further tricked into believing that he visits hell. He is more embedded in society, more helpful to acquaintances, such as the forlorn lover, has the capacity to love Helen of Troy and their son and virtually adopts his servant, Wagner, bequeathing his magic books to him and making him spiritual heir (to Perdition).
The sin of hubris was a theme Marlowe introduced in Tamburlaine, Part One,
"Nature, that fram'd us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure after every wandering planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Ills us to wear ourselves and never rest,"
(Act II sc 7)
Marlowe's play shows the compressed rise and fall of a flawed character. His Faustus has a more exclusive and intense relationship with Mephistophilis. Despite his ambitions, he is quickly fobbed off, less in control, his sorcery is trivialized, he becomes more hardened to evil and orders Mephistophilis to torment and kill the Old Man. Although there is a certain realism in the Faust Book's depiction of Faust lying depressed on his bed, his final speeches are boringly anticlimactic. There is no dramatic tension: he is going to hell, a two dimensional character in a fairy tale that cannot touch the psychological complexity of Marlowe's final soliloquy.
Despite some shortcomings, this is the mother lode as far as I am concerned. I have not a doubt that Shakespeare heard this and it has influenced many of his plays; not least "Macbeth" and its final scenes of anagnorisis when Mephistophilis knows he has been made a fool of by the Witches/Devil, call it what you will, but shows heroic resolution to see it through right to the bitter end. It's as good as anything in Shakespeare:
“You stars that reign’d at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist.
Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud[s],
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!”
This is why contemporary poets should leave "stars" well alone. How can you compete with that?
The entire scene is just stunning poetry. Sheer, cold terror is communicated in those opening lines, partly through a shortness/constriction of breath. Richard Burton, in an otherwise ropey film version of this, reads and sweats through this speech wonderfully. The chilling note when Faustus unconsciously names "Lucifer" as his Christ; quite, quite brilliant. The moment when he sees an angry God, worse than any devil... the willingness to be atomised and yet at the same time still thinking in an enquiring, philosophical way about whether beasts have souls - or not. Flipping and flopping between windy bombast and acute sensitivity; the ultimate flawed/broken Renaissance man. It was of course Burton's own story too - and he knew it.
I also love how, structurally, the way time speeds up, the second half of the speech takes half the time of the first speech and neither is anywhere close to half an hour. Time itself has spiralled out of control. I saw an excellent amateur production a few years back, I forget where, that was full of conjuring tricks where time was compressed to 24 hours rather than 24 years and it all made perfect sense.
One of the greatest achievements in world Art.
Nb: This edition has the two texts (A and B, being the latter the longest).