Shortly before Christopher Marlowe’s untimely death during a bar brawl, he was arrested and charged with atheism, a high crime at the time. Much of the basis for this claim may have stemmed from his controversial play, “Doctor Faustus,” which deals heavily with necromancy and the devil. Using only this play as a basis to decide his guilt or innocence under the charge of atheism, I have found him innocent, with the understanding that if I was a judge presiding over the proceedings of a mock Marlowe trial, I might well have found him guilty.
Let me explain. In deciding Marlowe’s guilt or innocence, one must take into account the time period during which he was charged. To be “guilty” of atheism today is not a crime; therefore it is easy to be an outspoken non-believer in God. During Marlowe’s time, this would have led to a swift end, if not by court than by crook.
Today’s society is also for more intuitive than Marlowe’s, and the existence of God is questioned on a daily basis by a large percentage of the population, whereas during Marlowe’s time, God was accepted as a truth by such a vast majority of the population, that even those who doubted at all might be swept over by overwhelming beliefs of the public. Therefore I would find it hard to convict Marlowe of being an atheist on the level of such a person today. He could not have been extremely outspoken about his belief in God, otherwise he would have been killed for just that, and not arrested.
If he were an “atheist” as described by his time period, it is in fact far more likely that he was an agnostic, especially given his interest in religion in “Doctor Faustus. ” Marlowe’s play “Doctor Faustus” is in some ways very helpful, and in other ways very difficult, in providing information as to Christopher’s views on religion. It seems hard at the beginning and end of the play to label him as an atheist, due to the morality and meaning of the play (pride will lead to ruin, do not forsake God for worldly pleasures, etc. ).
The chorus opens the play by describing how Faustus’s downfall will occur, with excessive pride and scorn for God, which hardly seems blasphemous. In Faustus’s opening soliloquy he quotes uncompleted lines of scripture, causing him to misinterpret their intended meaning, and turning him to the devil. If someone did not read the entire play, it might be conceivable that in their religious fervor they might have missed the meaning of these lines and merely seen Marlowe as twisting the Scripture for his own needs, but in any complete reading of the play that idea seems ludicrous.
Furthermore, throughout the play it seems apparent that Marlowe makes it very clear that Hell is a horrible thing, and that Faustus is clearly deluding himself as to repercussions of 24 years of near omnipotent power on earth for an eternity in torment in Hell. At the end of the play, Faustus too late recognizes his error, and we are led to believe that his erroneous ways have led to his demise. All of these reasons seem to make it fairly clear that even if Marlowe himself was not convinced of God and Satan, that perhaps he wasn’t quite willing to risk their nonexistence by scorning God.
So where then, does one find evidence of atheism in Doctor Faustus? In two places, the scene where Faustus and Mephistopheles torment the pope, and in one of the play’s themes: the location and existence of Hell. The first of these examples is also highly questionable, because it is the pope who is tormented, and Marlowe was living in England after the separation from Rome, and had in fact been previously charged with the crime of converting to Roman Catholicism.
Still, the actions of Faustus towards the pope, if construed to imply that Marlowe would like to do likewise, would show scorn for more than the pope, but to God as well. Once again, I find that trying to pull evidence of atheism from this scene to be almost ludicrous under careful examination. The only idea, in my opinion, that might have caused quite a stir, and angered the church, would be Marlowe’s ideas on Hell. In “Doctor Faustus,” the good doctor asks Mephistopheles how the devil is out of Hell to which Mephistopheles replies, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God and tasted the eternal joys of heaven am not tormented with ten thousand hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss? ” (Faustus lines 75 – 79) The idea that anything that is not heaven is at least in part Hell could have certainly caused an uproar amongst religious leaders. Despite the importance on living for the afterlife, and not for the world today (as is stressed as well in the play), the idea that earth was itself a hellish place was hardly what the church was preaching.
However, once again if interpreted carefully, Marlowe is not saying that everything that isn’t heaven is Hell, so much as he is saying that when the time comes for one to enter heaven, being rejected, or choosing to reject it, will result in a comparatively Hellish existence. Every “reason” that I can think of for anyone accusing Christopher of atheism seems like it would be pretty easily dismissed under careful examination, and yet I hesitate to say that Marlowe would have been found innocent of the crime.
Given the time period, and the overall paranoia about such things as atheism, the simple fact that Marlowe was raising ANY concerns would be enough concern for plenty of people that he was an atheist, and that all of the things that appear to discredited any claim of atheism were merely disguises used by Marlowe to hide his true feelings on the matter. Basically, people always find a way to believe what they want to, and given Christopher’s disreputable character, getting him in a room full of people who disliked him might very well have resulted in a guilty verdict.