'To obtain his soul': Demonic Desire for the Soul in Marlowe and Others

John D. Cox

Abstract


Mephistopheles manifests a keen desire for Faustus's soul in Marlowe's play: 'O, what will I not do to obtain his soul?' This desire is consistent with attitudes expressed by stage devils from the beginning of English drama to the closing of the theatres in 1642. Devils speak and act in accordance with Mephistopheles' desire in pre-Reformation morality plays such as The Castle of Perseverance (1380-1425) and Wisdom (1400-1450), as well as in the Calvinist morality play The Conflict of Conscience (1570-1581). The tradition persisted even after the establishment of commercial theatres near London: it is alluded to in Othello and Macbeth, and it reappears in The Virgin Martyr (1620) virtually unchanged from its first appearance in the early fifteenth century. Despite brilliant conformity to the received tradition, Dr Faustus is anomalous in creating a skeptical and deconstructive context that effectively subverts the orthodox meaning of the tradition. Marlowe disguised his skepticism successfully beneath a veil of orthodox damnation, and assumptions were too deeply seated to recognize what he had done – much less to imitate it.

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