Faustus, Case Study of a Depressive

Rembrandt, “Doctor Faustus”

I wrote yesterday about a psychologist discovering that literature may be more effective than psychology in providing deep knowledge of human behavior—knowledge that is both conceptual and experiential.  Today I share the story of a student making this point in an essay I just received on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.  Kathy (not her real name) finds the 1590 play to be a case study of a depressive.  She has given me permission to quote her.

Kathy turns conventional readings of the play upside down by arguing that Faustus’s crime is not desiring to be all powerful.  Rather, his crime is surrendering to his depression.  For her, selling his soul is a metaphorical expression of the way that depressives give up on themselves and come to see themselves as unworthy and unloved.

When Kathy says that Faustus’s real sin is despair, she speaks from experience.  Here’s what she writes:

Every day people hurt each other or themselves because of despair; they believe there is no way out of their situation or that their lives aren’t worth living. While people like this may not be exactly “selling their souls,” by not accepting love they put themselves in grave danger. The path from isolation to despair to death or tragedy is unfortunately a short one and must be avoided at all costs.


This can happen to anyone. For instance, I have suffered from depression since I was nine years old. In the almost ten years that I have wrestled with depression, I have known that the worst possible thing I could ever do is despair. Even if life seems completely abysmal, giving up, abandoning hope, and not trying to fight one’s way out of depression can only lead to worse depression. In my experience, I have seen that depressed people sometimes do not try because they think they are unworthy of help or unable to do anything. This is a Faustus kind of mistake and can only lead a person to live a life of self-induced Hell.

Kathy says that Faustus doesn’t have to die to go to hell.  He’s already there.  Or as Mephistophilis puts it,

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.

Kathy’s interpretation makes a lot of sense.  First of all, it allows her to see Faustus’s vaulting ambition from a new vantage point.  Rather than desiring to be “on earth as Jove is in the sky, lord and commander of these elements,” he really desires to be loved.  His problem is that he thinks he is unworthy of being loved and will earn that love only if he accomplishes great things.  It doesn’t matter that his good angel—God or his higher self—assures him that he is loved.  Repeatedly his bad angel, the voice of his depression, overrules the good angel voice and sends him into manic activity alternating with suicidal despair.

Kathy’s interpretation answers a number of questions about the play. For instance, why does Faustus only decide to sell his soul when he’s at the height of his career? Well, perhaps he thought that his internal doubts would be silenced once he reached the pinnacle.  Therefore, he undergoes an existential crisis when he gets there and finds that the doubts are still present.  He’s at the right age for a midlife meltdown.

The notion that we have to accomplish great things to prove that we are worthy (or, as the play puts it, loved by God) is one that has been explored by such thinkers as Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and R. H. Tawney in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Weber says that the terrifying Calvinist notion that only the elect are saved while everyone else is damned prompted people to strive for worldly achievement to persuade themselves that they were amongst the elect.  Success, as they saw it, was an outward sign that God was smiling on them. I think this idea made its way to the United States through our Puritan ancestors (among other avenues), and even today many Americans believe that they are worthless if they are not successful.  Or to put it another way, to be poor or unemployed is regarded as a kind of spiritual failure, even by people who are not overtly religious.

In Faustus’s case, he initially dreams of big things to keep the depression at bay.  Then he experience doubts that are so severe that he contemplates suicide.  He manages to anesthetize himself for the rest of his life (and the rest of the play) through indulging in the seven deadly sins and parlaying his considerable skills into parlor tricks that win the admiration of the rich and powerful.

Applause may chase away his sense of unworthiness for a while.  But at the end of his life, the issues of love resurface.  He dreams of being kissed by Helen of Troy, just as he once dreamed of having a wife (or soul mate), but he has never opened himself to such love.  Even though an old man assures him that he can experience God’s love if he repents, Faustus insists that he is so bad that God cannot forgive him.  As Kathy would put it, he refuses to fight his way out of his depression.  In the final scene he imagines that God is looking “fierce” upon him, and he dies in agony.  The devils that he has carried within him his entire life tear him apart.

Kathy finds the play powerful because it enacts her own struggle.  Seeing Faustus as the face of failure, she ia able to acknowledge how difficult her own struggles have been and how vital it is that she keep fighting the good fight.

And I, looking in, am awed by her heroism.  She is proving herself much bigger than Faustus.

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  1. Posted May 12, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    this is another great post, and a great tool for anyone, but a powerful tool-post for Poets/Writers. I am writing a book about my life, and these last two posts are very helpful for me, because I as well walk in this world with the Sword of Love, and forces play against me or those folk that seek better living. Wisdom is there for one to find, and there is only one Teacher of Love, beyond ones faith, and that is the Great Truth. If one faces their Fears, and Weaknesses, they can see, or feel better in a day to day struggle. Smiling, and being kind is helpful, and a simple saying Good Day, and a hand wave, as a gesture of hello, makes the world a better place. Things are available for one to improve ones life, and your teachings are a great place for one to start. Kahlil Gibran is amazing also, I believe from the top of my head these are his words. (It is the elders job to remove the stumbling stones out of the path of the youth) without this all follow the same thing, repeating sadness, or anger-depression. I am framing out my book, and have a long way to go, but once finished, I’ll send you a copy before I decide to publish it, because your opinion, and light is needed. The book is about truth, and the quest of love, and poetry in todays modern world. when I found your blog, I knew right away I was in good hands, you have removed many stones out of my path, thank you.. John E

  2. philosophotarian
    Posted May 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    there’s one big difference between despair and depression: despair is a spiritual condition and depression is a psychological condition. Despair is a choice (to varying degrees) and depression is not. Despair is a rejection of hope. Depression might then be the inability to believe in hope.

    Those who despair are responsible for their despair. The antidote to despair is faith. It would be uncharitable (and, I think, untrue) to hold people who are depressed responsible for their depression. The antidote to depression is medication and/or therapy.

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Thank you for making this distinction, Philosophotarian, which strikes me as very useful. Yes, clinical depression is an awful disease that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to free will decisions. Thus the imaginative title of a philosophy book for everyday life–Plato, Not Prozac–has always struck me as a bit glib. Uncharitable, untrue and also, I would add, insensitive.

    Pursuing Doctor Faustus further in this vein strikes me as very profitable. Although Aristotle’s definition of tragedy would demand that Faustus have an element of choice in his damnation, what if Marlowe is describing a full depressive state where his hero is literally incapable of stepping into the love of God. There is a debate in Marlowe criticism over this issue–can Faustus in fact repent?–that I’ve never been able to get my head around because it deals with abstruse 16th century theology. But your distinction adds an interesting new tension into the play–the question of whether Faustus is suffering from despair or depression. We’re not sure whether Faustus could choose joy or whether the play is a desperate cry from a man living in a world that can provide him no cure.

    I am properly chastised for my triumphalism Wednesday when I asked who needs psychology when we have the arts. I find myself scrambling to remember the psychological literature I’ve read on depression. I became aware of the crippling nature of depression from Kate Redfield Jamison’s book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Jamison sees artistic expression as ameliorating, but not curing, bi-polar disease, at least in its milder manifestations.

    John, Good luck with your book. I love the fact that you see literature as deepening your exploration. I’d very much like to see it when it’s completed. I suspect that Philosophotarian would caution about seeing God as the entire answer–praise the Lord but pass the anti-depressants.

  4. philosophotarian
    Posted May 16, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    it’s true–I get all bristly about the idea of God as the entire answer. I’m working on a secular exploration of silence as a fundamental element of ethics (when ethics is understood as the continual search for a response to “How shall I live” and is therefore risky, not when understood as the hope for rules that make the search unnecessary), and of literary art as necessary for holding but not breaking silence. There is so little work on secular silence, on silence and ethics, or on silence, ethics, and literature that I have to figure it out myself. darn.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Doctor Faustus and Depression, Ctd. on May 18, 2011 at 6:54 am

    […] Last week’s post on Doctor Faustus and depression drew a couple of interesting responses that have got me thinking further about the issue.  Furthermore, the student who started the conversation has elaborated on her condition in a revised version of the essay. […]

  2. By Classic Lit and Transformative Epiphanies on June 2, 2011 at 1:02 am

    […] is the one who wrote the essay about her depression and Doctor Faustus, which you can read about here and here.  I have been calling her […]

  3. By Classic Lit and Transformative Epiphanies on November 28, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    […] is the one who wrote the essay about her depression and Doctor Faustus, which you can read about here and here.  I have been calling her […]


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