Death Note and Dr. Faustus: Transgression, Fate, and Religion’s Influences
Before plunging into my analysis/comparison of Dr. Faustus and Death Note, the following is to briefly establish the premises and general plot-lines for each of them should anyone be unfamiliar with either work.
Dr. Faustus is a play that was written in the late 16th century (written in the 1590s and the first edition published in 1604), telling the story of a man who is interested in mastering “magic” but in order to do so, must make a deal with Mephastophilis (a demonic figure) in exchange for the eternal damnation of his soul. Faustus takes the deal, grapples with the idea of whether or not he ought to repent and accept God’s forgiveness, and after finally deciding that he is incapable of repenting, Satan comes for his soul and drags him into Hell.
Death Note, the anime being from within the last 10 years (first aired in 2006 and ended in 2007), follows a very similar premise in that Yagami Light accepts the fact that he cannot go to Heaven or Hell in exchange for ownership of Ryuk’s (the demonic figure he makes the deal with) Death Note–a notebook which, by writing a person’s name in it, causes the person to die. Light attempts to impose his own sense of “righteous judgment” on his society in order to create a better world, but ultimately falls prey to investigators of the law.
For those of you who are interested in checking out either work, here is an online link to the entire text of Dr. Faustus (Note: this version of the text does not have page numbers).
And here is a link to an English dubbed trailer of Death Note (personally, I cannot stand English dubbed trailers but unfortunately I could not find one that was subbed; this is just to give you an idea though):
Thus, with that out of the way, let’s get into the interesting part.
Main Characters and Motivations
While written at different times, various parallels can be drawn between Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and the anime Death Note. Faustus is presented as a brilliant student with a heightened sense of superiority in that he feels he is too good to settle for professions which countless others have followed before him: “A greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit” (1129). It is also mentioned in the prologue that Faustus comes from humble beginnings, “Now is he born, his parents base of stock” (1128), and achieved his doctorate based on merit shown through his studies, “That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name,/ Excelling all whose sweet delight disputes” (1128-29).
The character Yagami Light from Death Note mirrors Faustus in that he is a student who is “top of his class” and also comes from humble origins as is indicated by the fact that he is part of an average hard-working family—his father rose through the ranks in the police force to become chief deputy; he also later states that he believes “hard-working” people deserve to live while the rest are rotting: “… a world filled with those I’ve judged to be kind and hard-working.”
While Faustus becomes involved in dark magic out of a desire for knowledge and power, “O what a world of profit and delight,/ Of power, of honor, of omnipotence/ Is promised to the studious artisan!” (1130), Light’s encounter with the supernatural arises by sheer chance—yet his sense of superiority leads him to firmly believe in the idea that he was specifically chosen out of everyone else: “If someone else had picked up this notebook, someone else could erase all the unnecessary people from this world … But is there someone who could do that. No, there isn’t. But I can. In fact, I’m the only one who can do that.”
Thus, while driven to the supernatural by different circumstances, the similarities between these two characters indicate that the idea of becoming “god-like” is a timeless subject that is often revisited by writers and society. The role of religion and society’s perception of morality actively shape both Faustus’ and Light’s thoughts—the notion of predestination urging the former to deal with the Devil while for the latter, the idea of what he considers is best for the greater good. Yet perhaps the most striking difference between the two is how Marlowe’s play focuses on religion and morality in terms of the individual’s relationship to God, while Death Note focuses on religion and morality in terms of the individual’s relationship to society.
A Shift in the Framework for Morality
When Faustus agrees to exchange his soul for supernatural powers, Mephastophilis tells him of the consequences which one suffers as a result of rejecting God: “Think’st thou that I … Am not tormented with ten thousand hells/ In being deprived of everlasting bliss?” (1136). In this exchange, the notion of “consequences” is framed in the relationship between God and the individual. The significance being that Marlowe may be saying no matter how a person may deal with another, the ultimate authority which they will have to answer to is God—as opposed to the authoritative figure of an emperor.
Thus, by making light of Faustus’ exchanges between himself and other humans—as observed in the various pranks he pulls—and by focusing throughout on Faustus’ internal struggle with reconciling his desires with what society deems is moral—as manifested in the good and evil angel characters—Marlowe conveys society’s emphasis on how the consequences of a person’s actions are of far more importance with regards to that individual’s relationship to God rather than to the rest of society; for it is only for his transgression against God that he is punished rather than for the pranks he pulls.
This contrasts heavily with our present-day society’s placing of the individual in relation to the people around him. Light’s questioning of whether executing certain people is within his authority is posed with regards to present-day society’s perception of morality—which lies within the framework of the legal system: “I began to think of it as ‘tidying up the world’ and continued to write down the names of the most monstrous criminals. Eventually no-one will be able to commit a crime.” This passage is important to consider because it indicates Light’s focus on those who commit “crimes;” the vast majority of people who Light executes are those who have already been arrested or who society deems to be a threat. Instead of pondering on whether or not people’s actions go against what religious figures in society might think is moral, Light constantly reinforces the notion that he acts out of a sense of “justice.”
Thus, the significance is that unlike Marlowe’s culture, where morality is placed within the framework of religion, morality in the present-day is placed within society’s legal framework. However, this is not to say that certain elements of religion are absent or that they don’t play a role in shaping people’s sense of morality. When Light encounters the demonic figure, Ryuk, the notion of morality is implicated in the consequences of using the death notebook: “… there is the fear and suffering that is faced only by those humans who use Death Notes … Don’t assume that a human who’s used the Death Note can go to Heaven or Hell.”
In this instance, the demon’s referral to the “fear and suffering” implies that all human beings have some sense of what is moral; the fear and suffering arising out of the guilt of ending lives when society and religion has taught us that no one has the right to murder. The emphasis on not being able to enter Heaven or Hell also has a strong religious connotation. This TV show may be implying that systematically murdering people dehumanizes the perpetrator to the extent that they are cast out from God’s society because the perpetrator is incapable of salvaging whatever remnant remains of their former humanity.
Thus, the decision of both Faustus and Light in choosing the power of the supernatural over the salvation of their souls, and the dire consequences which they suffer as a result, reveals a kind of continuity between the beliefs of Marlowe’s society and the present-day: the notion of morality, whether a part of a legal or religious framework, is pertinently connected with overstepping “human” or societal boundaries and will inevitably lead to the condemnation of the transgressor.
The Inevitable Consequences
Instances within the play and the show that evoke the perceptions of the supernatural and humans’ involvement can be observed in the portrayal of Faustus’ and Light’s motivations. For example, when Faustus is speaking with Valdes and Cornelius, he asserts how much he detests the subjects which members of his society propagate: “Philosophy is odious and obscure,/ Both law and physic are for petty wits;/ Divinity is basest of the three,/ Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile” (1132). In this passage, Faustus discusses how his society is made up of philosophers, lawyers and doctors, or religious persons—all of whom he wants no part of as he refers to them as practicing “unpleasant” and “vile” professions.
Instead of conforming to society, Faustus wishes to break away from traditional norms by having the power to do as he pleases: “Letting him live in voluptuousness … To give me whatsoever I shall ask,/ To tell me whatsoever I demand … And always be obedient to my will” (1136). Faustus’ decision to become involved with the Devil however is influenced by his uncertainty as to whether or not he is a reprobate or among the elect. There are moments in Marlowe’s play when Faustus firmly believes he is inevitably bound towards hell, “The reward of sin is death? That’s hard … If we say that we have no sin,/ We deceive ourselves” (1130), and at the same time there are times when he very nearly repents for his actions because society has taught Faustus to believe that if one repents, God will always forgive.
Yet because Faustus is incapable of following through with repenting, he is ultimately condemned to Hell; the significance of this being that it reflects the beliefs of certain members of Marlowe’s society regarding Calvinism and the notion of predestination—that there is no way to fight against one’s fate as it is already predetermined from the beginning. Another instance where the notion of predestination is evoked is when Faustus exclaims, “My heart’s so hardened I cannot repent!” (1143). The significance of this line is that the notion of having a “hardened heart” is a feature which was believed to be common among reprobates; thus, even though Faustus expresses at various times a need to repent, he feels as though he is spiritually prevented from doing so.
However, while Marlowe’s play does not provide the reader with the perception that predestination is something which Faustus definitively believes in, Marlowe’s allusions to Calvinism nonetheless indicate that there were people of his time who did believe in it. Marlowe’s play can thus be a representation of one man’s struggle, representative of all humanity, to reconcile the inability of escaping one’s fate with the belief in one’s free will. The notion of struggling with one’s fate can be observed in Death Note as well.
Light expresses at various times that he is unhappy with the state of his society: “This world is rotting. Those who are rotting deserve to die. Someone … someone has to do it. Sacrificing their own life and soul, because the world just can’t continue like this.” Thus, like Faustus, Light indicates in this passage that he wishes to break away from the “rotting” society he is a part of—a thing which can be accomplished by using the death notebook and thereby sacrificing his soul in exchange of becoming more god-like.
Despite the fact that Light clearly does not believe that he cannot escape his demise, the message of the show strongly invests itself in the idea that escaping one’s fate is impossible. In addition to a few moments of foreshadow—Light stating “the consequences can’t be light” and “No matter how much time I have, it’ll never be enough”—Ryuk indicates that every human being has a set lifespan that runs out at the designated time. Thus, the notion of not being able to escape one’s fate can be observed as a belief that has continued to be a part of society’s beliefs since Marlowe’s time, continuing into the present-day; of course, this is not to say that every person in present-day society believes in predestination or fate, or even believes in God for that matter, but the TV show, like Marlowe’s play, is interested in portraying how the subject of religion is an inherent part of human society for it is the thing which helps to maintain some form of order and stability.
Decline of Religion’s Influence
The perception of what becomes of people who acquire supernatural powers also seems to be consistent since Marlowe’s time to the present-day; the fact that Faustus focuses more on pulling pranks on people instead of world domination as he fantasized is mirrored by how Light spends the majority of his time asserting his superiority through rivalry with brilliant police investigators rather than changing the world as he originally intended. Regardless of the fact that Light manages to follow through, in brief moments, with his original intentions, the fact that Faustus and Light use their powers to assert their superiority is a common theme between the two. An instance of this can be seen in Death Note when a brilliant police investigator named “L” comments on Light’s actions: “Instead of backing down from my provocations, they’ve been aggressively returning them.”
The same can be observed in Marlowe’s play when Faustus gives the Emperor’s knight horns on his head: “Are you/ remembered how you crossed me in my conference with the/ emperor?” (1154). This is important to consider because it reflects how society perceives an individual’s egotism as potentially harmful for their relationships to the people around them, or perhaps it explains how the notion of self-entitlement is intertwined with overstepping societal boundaries. Such a notion seems to be even further exaggerated in Death Note in terms of how society comes to view Light when he gains his power as compared to how Faustus’ society reacts towards him: Light is perceived as a powerful threat to the status quo whereas Faustus is simply viewed as a kind of “traveling magician.”
Such a jarring difference between society’s perception in Marlowe’s time compared to the present-day may be the result of a decline in the pertinence of religion in most people’s lives. After all, Dr. Faustus was written during a time when England was a police-state that enforced the following of Protestantism under Queen Elizabeth’s reign—any deviance could lead a person into grave trouble with the law and so it was perhaps believed that fewer people would be willing to commit serious crimes.
However, Death Note, created four centuries later, takes place in a society where the existence of religion has little or no effect on people’s actions and crime is often rampant without going unchecked. An instance of this is shown at the beginning of the show when Light translates a few lines from English into Japanese as part of a class exercise, “Follow the voice of God and he shall calm the waves and protect us from storms”—these lines are immediately juxtaposed with news anchors reporting in the background a few murders which had occurred over the past couple of days as if it were simply a part of ordinary daily life.
It is important to consider this drastic change in the decline of religion’s influence in people’s lives in the context of how Faustus is not perceived as a threat whereas Light is, because it implies that in a society where morals are as loose as they are portrayed in Death Note, it is believed that people who acquire great power will automatically succumb to their darkest desires and wreak havoc against society.
Therefore, the similarities and differences between Death Note and Dr. Faustus offer an audience the ability to see how society has shifted emphasis from religious codes of morality to legal ones. Of course, there are religious overtones in Death Note but they are not as integral to the story as they are in Dr. Faustus where the story revolves around an individual transgressing against God rather than society. Regardless of the change from a religious framework to a legal one, the notion of the inherent dangers in becoming more “god-like” has persisted since Marlowe’s time to the present-day—the subsequent demise of the main characters furthers society’s long-held belief that the transgressor will not escape the fate of those who attempt to transcend societal norms.
What do you think? Leave a comment.