Death Scene in Doctor Faustus (Last Scene)

“It was a saying of Zoroaster,” in his Oration Pico Della Mirandola recalls, “that the soul is winged and that when the wings drop off she falls again into the body, and then after his wings have grown again sufficiently, she flies back to heaven.” Towards the end, after his headlong fall into the body, Faustus’s wings seem to grow again. But the body proves too heavy for the wings, with his pride and failure to repent, to lift him up to heaven. He has lived out his twenty four years of “prophit and delight/of power, of honour, of omnipotence” in exchange of his soul to Lucifer. Now, the circle in which he conjures has shrunk into the smallest circle in a series of gradual degradation—from astronomy through cosmography and statecraft to finally his private chamber. Yet he is provided with good counselling of the good Angel and the Old Man. But he is trapped by the metaphor of Lucifer as “sovereign Lord” with Mephistophilis as emissary empowered to punish a traitor. He can only conceive presumption as an offence against the tyranny of pride and it is his own pride that commits him to “proud Lucifer”. The same pride moves his address to Helen with its presumption of immortality and magnificence; it would be admirable were it not a last vain bid to escape from the human condition as the Old Man represents it. At this stage Faustus and the Old Man illustrate the paradoxical truth that St. Augustine speaks of in Confession, and thus dramatizing the spiritual loss in a world of knowledge and speculation:

“The unlearned start up and take heaven by force, and with our learning, and without heart, lo, where we wallow in flesh and blood”.

After the scholars left, the mockery of Mephistophilis administers a last turn of the screw:

“ ’Twas I that thou wert i’the way to heaven

Damned up thy passage; when lookst the book

To view the scriptures, then I turned the leaves

And led thine eye”.

Faustus weeps. Then begins the terrifying speech, recoiling upon our whole experience of the play. It consummates the play in both its aspects of—Morality and Heroic Tragedy, each in its own turn triumphing over the other. In the first lines we are much more moved by the magnificent futility of the human product against the inexorable movement of time as it enacts an inexorable moral law. Faustus earlier boasted that

“All things that move between the quiet poles

Shall be at my command……”

But they are – as they really are – at the command of the process which he would escape: the “ever-moving spheres’ cannot by definitions “stand still”. The cosmic rhythm evoked by the sense of the poetry seems to hold dominion over its movement. The Latin words from Ovid –lente curite noctes equi— in their English setting sound like a last attempt to cast a spell whose vanity is betrayed by the rhythm as the horses seem to quicken pace through the line and confessed in “the stars move still, time runs , the clock will strike”. In the next lines, however, his ordeal is confined to earth:

“Oh, I’ll leap up to my god

Who pulls me down”.

The image affirming the immensity of Christ’s Testament also declares its unreachable remoteness: “See see; where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament”.

As Faustus pleads that “one drop” then “half a drop” would save his soul, he confesses his barren littleness of life in the vastness of the moral universe.

As the vision of blood fades, Faustus meets the unappeased wrath of god and cries for the mountain and hells to fall on him. Burial in earth becomes a privilege refused to the last paroxysms of Faustus’s will. He is again re-enacting the fall of Lucifer, the figure in Isaiah, who is “brought down to hell to the sides of the pit” and “cast out of the grave like an abominable branch”. Faustus thus becomes the fittest witness of apocalyptic vision. No chorus could speak with such moving authority, for Faustus alone has enacted all the futilities of pride. Faustus’s plea for “some end to my incessant pain” sums up that side of Christian tradition which, as Augustine say “against those that include both men and devil from pain eternal.” Faustus moderates his struggle to escape the pain of responsibility as he curses his parents and then checks himself:

“No Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer

That hath deprived thee of the joy of heaven”

And Faustus’s closing words—“My God, my god/ Look not so fierce on me”—reminds of the Psalms:

“My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me,

Why art thou so far from helping me…?”

The chorus fittingly concludes the play by declaring that,

“Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight….”

In this way, the chorus marks the end of a great personality and makes way, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, for the normal life to resume its course. But more importantly Faustus’s final speech becomes a kind of confession which with its cathartic nemesis warns about damnation not only in the conventional sense, but also about the fatal consumption awaiting all Renaissance aspiration, about the spiritual loss in a modern world.

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