On the face of it, Dr. Faustus is not an anti-Catholic play. Yet, once you have read into it certain aspects of the play – there are many anti-Catholic notions and views that Marlowe has placed within the text. If the reader has no prior knowledge of how the world was in the Sixteenth century, then they would probably not uncover Marlowe’s hidden messages. There are many issues dealt with in the play, yet, they all follow a route to anti-Catholicism. All of the ideas dealt with are reminiscent of the period that Marlowe is writing in, when people did have quite ‘humanist’ views and were hostile towards the Catholic Church because of the lies that they had been telling.The main theme of anti-Catholicism is Dr. Faustus’ rejection of God. For a sixteenth century audience to watch someone reject God and sell their soul to the devil is the most anti-religious thing that they could do. They most probably would have been petrified of what the consequences of his actions would be. Yet, at the same time, would most probably have admired his courage to stand against an establishment that had ruled their entire lives by preaching falsehoods and in effect stealing from them (through the sales of ‘indulgences’). Also, right from the beginning when we are introduced to Faustus, we find him in Wittenberg – the same place in which the monk Martin Luther lived – an anti-catholic statement in itself as Luther himself opposed the Catholic regime.
I believe Marlowe has intentionally set the play in Wittenberg to make a statement right from the beginning that this play is set out to make anti-Catholic notions.The play deals with sin and damnation at the heart of Christianity’s understanding of the world. The play shows us that Faustus’ pride, which causes him to strive for knowledge, may have seemed admirable at the turning point in the Renaissance period, but that this pride and insolence to go against God makes him despaired of God’s mercy. Christian teaching at the time was that if you did not follow Gods rules, you ended up eternally damned to a place called ‘Hell’ – a place that Faustus both believes in and disbelieves throughout the play. Hell is represented as a rather psychological torture in the play rather than a physical one (as Mephistophilis puts it to Faustus). We can get an idea of the attitudes of the people in Faustus’ time by looking at how Marlowe represents Faustus. We can guess that Marlowe has a negative view of what Faustus did because he compares him to ‘Icarus’ from Greek mythology when he says;
“His waxen wings did mount above his reach, and melting heavens conspired his overthrow. For falling to a devilish exercise”
By saying this, Marlowe is expressing that going against God and selling his soul was the ultimate sin that caused Faustus to be damned. The audience’s attitude towards Faustus may have been one of empathy rather than disdain for choosing to sin because at that time it was believed that it was our job to resist the temptations of the devil, like Christ did, but many people were tempted to go against God to find answers other than those written in the Bible, and would have understood his situation. It is not always certain if the play is a true representation of the attitude of a sixteenth century audience as Marlowe was a radical of his time and did have much more extreme views on Catholicism than his peers. Marlowe himself, spent time as a Cleric – even mocking religion and earning a reputation of being an atheist at a time when atheism was a state offence.
This maybe being one of the reasons why the play is so anti-catholic because of his anti-religious views and as the most religious of all denominations, Catholicism was probably the easiest target.The first time we see the play’s anti-Catholic view is when Christopher Marlowe gives a sense of something wrong happening at the beginning of Scene III, when Faustus begins to conjure. We get this feeling that something is not quite right when Faustus describes the “gloomy shadows” and the “pitchy breath”, the image of darkness and night gives the impression that what Faustus is doing is dangerous and evil. Faustus practises the ‘Black Mass’, which was an anti-Catholic comment as it was praised by Satan worshippers, which would have made this scene extremely horrific for Marlowe’s audience, and definitely seen as a sinful act.
Throughout the play, Faustus has doubts about what he is doing and thinks of repenting but it is his pride that keeps him from turning to God and asking for forgiveness. This happens throughout Scene V, where he doubts his actions, thinks of repenting and then because of his pride he becomes resolute again. The good angel tries to help him by saying “Faustus repent, yet God will pity thee” but he can’t face being humiliated and says, “My heart’s so hardened I cannot repent!” In the same scene, Faustus says that he believes Hell is a “fable”, displaying yet again the anti-Catholic views of the play, as it is a direct comment from the Bible that here are two after-lives “Heaven” and “Hell”. By saying that there is no Hell, is saying that he believes that The Bible is lying – a sin against not only the catholic doctrine, but also all Christian religion. He is also writing off everything that he has ever been taught and in an indirect way, preaching to the audience that their whole religious life has also been a ‘fable’ in itself.
Here, Dr. Faustus is taking empiricism to the extremes, as he honestly believes that he can sell his soul to the Devil and remain happily on Earth, this also shows Faustus’ extreme arrogance and the fact that he thinks he is superior to the rest of humanity. Scene V is an extremely anti-Catholic scene as it deals with the majority of subjects. One being the matter of the ‘Good Angel’ and ‘Bad Angel’; in this section of the scene, we ponder on the question ‘When is it too late to repent?’ – it is here that the divide in Christian denominations becomes apparent. Catholicism saying that after you have sold your soul, you are beyond the forgiveness of God. Then, the Protestant side, saying that in God’s eyes it is never too late to repent. The ‘Good Angel’ in the play is the one with the Protestant views – a blatant attack on Catholicism by labelling it ‘Bad’, then mocking it in the play.
It is very possible that Marlowe wrote Dr Faustus in order to spite those around him – ‘those’ being the Catholics. Marlowe was not a religious man, let alone a Catholic and did not tolerate their beliefs, as evidenced by how clearly the play demonstrates the downfall of a religious man and reinforced themes of anti-Catholicism. It could be said that Marlowe created a man who would be considered an “ideal” Catholic – after we see him wanting to repent and the way in which he conforms to the people around him very easily, and then Marlowe damned him to eternal suffering; suggesting that during Marlowe’s life, he believed if you were a Catholic you were also damned to eternal suffering and saw no problem with this.
Since reading between the lines and going into depth of some of the quotes that Christopher Marlowe so passionately wrote in 1550, it is acceptable to say that there are many aspects of the play that are either intentionally anti-Catholic or unintentionally anti-Catholic. Yet it is also fair to say that Marlowe has deliberately put some comments into his play that are an attack onto the Catholic Church, its beliefs, practises and its followers.