Rorate Caeli

Christopher Marlowe and the impossible desires of Faustus

In the coming weeks Rorate will offer a series of short essays by Italian writer Elizabetta Sala, commenting on some of the greatest English literary works of all time, from the perspective of Traditional Catholicism.  These include the works of  C. Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, Joyce and Tolkien as well as others.

Mrs. Sala, a traditional Catholic, wife and mother of 7 children, is a Professor of English History and Literature.

As a scholar of the History and Literature at the time of the English Reformation and expert on the works of William Shakespeare in particular, she  is the author of several books*  and is considered to be the foremost Italian authority on these subjects. As Antonio Socci says in a review (published by Rorate  in September, 2019)**about her novel “The Execution :Of Justice” which treats of Shakespeare’s Catholicism: “[...]The writer, Elisabetta Sala, professor of English History and Literature reveals absolutely extraordinary narrative skills. In our present somewhat mediocre literary panorama, it is to be hoped that her talent is tested soon with other novels and that she becomes further and further known and recognized.  Until now, Sala has been known  [in Italy] as a most valiant scholar of the tragic age of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, at the time of “the rape” of the English people. [...]

*“The Wrath Of The King Is Dead” [“L’ira del re è morte”(Ares)]  “Bloody Elizabeth”[“Elisabetta la sanguinaria”(Ares)].”The Enigma of Shakespeare”  and her first novel “The Execution of Justice”.

**RORATE CÆLI: Socci: Shakespeare, the Great Voice of Catholic Resistance Against the Tyranny of Elizabeth and Co. (


Here is the first short essay on Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.

Elizabetta Sala

Il Sussidiaro

January 2016

In 1589, the Elizabethan Parliament enacted a law against theatre performances depicting religious issues. It is very likely that the cause of this draconian decree was the play Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) who had written it some months previously.

The audience of the popular theaters was the most diverse imaginable and the task of every good playwright was that of pleasing everyone. The story-line of Faustus was certainly a great choice in this respect. But if the theme of the pact with the devil, on the one hand, fascinated the audiences and ‘made a killing at the box-office’, on the other, it stirred up issues that the authorities would have preferred lay dormant. 

We find, of course, as in every patriotic (i.e. Protestant) writing  of the time, that popes, cardinals and monks were mercilessly held up to ridicule. But when it came to the eternal destiny of the soul, Marlowe becomes serious and equally serious questions arise: at the end of his life, can Faustus still be saved?  Does free-will exist?

Any worthy proponent of predestination promoted by the State Church would have said that the blood-signing contract with Mephistopheles automatically cancelled the protagonist from the list of the saved. Except for the fact, that, from the very beginning, an angel appears intermittently, telling Faustus nothing is lost forever; the only thing he has to do is repent, renounce that pact and save himself. In the last act, when Faustus, who has not repented, says he must “despair and die” (a phrase picked up verbatim by Shakespeare, directed at his arch-villain Richard III) and is about to commit suicide, a virtuous old man saves him from the worst of all sins - desperation, and once again, reminds him that nothing is irrevocably lost. Nonetheless, perhaps because his heart has hardened, perhaps because Mephistopheles won’t leave him alone, perhaps because of the effect of the contract, Faustus cannot repent and this becomes his personal tragedy.  

In this state he arrives at the last hour of his life, described in one of the most powerful and fascinating soliloquies in the world of literature. Desperate, Faustus still seeks a way out that will save him from hell, and, delirious, invokes the natural elements to come to his aid. He says the stars had predestined him to damnation; but then he contradicts himself and says the choice was his and his alone;  only to return to predestination at the end of the passage, blaming Lucifer for having deprived him of the joys of heaven.

At a certain point, mad with terror, Faustus expresses a desire - given the fact that Jesus Christ had suffered for all men who want to be saved (an anathema for the Protestants): if only the tortures of hell might have an end! They’d last a thousand years, a hundred thousand years, and then the soul would be set free to enter heaven! Impossible – unfortunately.  And also not politically correct.  Since this - possibly even on the part of the writer - is a thinly disguised lament for something that had been forever banned by the government and the State Church: Purgatory. The inestimable  consolation for those -  even though sinners -  who hope to be saved despite everything. 

All this, naturally, triggered heated debate:  would Faustus have repented and been saved if he had had [more] time? Is he being dragged down to hell as a predestined result of his pact with the devil or because he persisted in evil? Did Christ sacrifice Himself for the multitude or only for the chosen? The audiences at the people’s theatre being a patchwork of all sorts of people, each would have been able to interpret the work whichever way they chose, while the author would have congratulated himself for having created such a stir.   

But perhaps the heartfelt appeal for Faustus’s salvation conceals a more personal implication, albeit more immanent. After all, Marlowe also had sworn loyalty to someone who had by then irrevocably taken possession of him and would have never let him go.  A government agent – he was killed at the age of twenty-nine in what appeared to be a brawl and which was in all likelihood a summary execution. At the time of Faustus, had he already repented of signing a pact with the Mephistophelian Sir Francis Walsingham, Head of the Secret Services?  A free choice, which, if not of his eternal salvation,  certainly deprived him of a great literary future.   



Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana