Religious Themes of the Sixteenth Century: The Seven Deadly Sins, Death, and Damnation
Religion in the Sixteenth Century was a major point of contention, especially for Elizabethans. In the midst of the Reformation, England was home to supporters of two major religious doctrines, including the Catholics and the Puritans. Three dominant themes that came out of this debate were sin, death and damnation. Important elements of Christian religions, these themes were often explored in the form of the seven deadly sins and the consequential damnation. The elements of sin pervasive in Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, William Shakespeare’s Othello, and Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen allow for an investigation into the relationship of death and damnation in the sixteenth century.
To begin our investigation, we must consider the definition of ‘sin’ in a sixteenth century context, which would be in the form of the seven deadly sins. These seven sins were called the ‘deadly’ or ‘capital’ sins because they ‘merited damnation and had a fatal effect on an individual’s spiritual health.’ Listed, the seven deadly sins are pride, covetousness, wrath, envy, gluttony, sloth (idleness), and lechery (lust), and they were described and personified in masque scenes in both The Faerie Queene and Doctor Faustus, as well as being embraced by various characters in The Unfortunate Traveller, Othello, and Doctor Faustus.
Following the order described in The Faerie Queene, the first sin is idleness, or sloth. Idleness is described as ‘the nourse of sin,’ the founder and beginning of all sin. Personified as individuals in a procession, Spenser also says ‘May seeme the wayne was very evill ledd, / When such an one had guiding of the way, / That knew not whether right he went, or else astray.’ In this second quote the idea of idleness leading to sin is re-emphasized, and the word ‘right’ referring to both a correct path to lead a group on as well as a righteous choice or decision. We see idleness being the root of evil in Doctor Faustus, when he says of his studies ‘a greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit,’ implying that he has already learned everything in the books surrounding him and is ready for something more. It is immediately after this soliloquy that Faustus summons Valdes and Cornelius and begins his journey towards the necromancy and the devil. In Doctor Faustus, Sloth, as he describes himself, was ‘begotten on a sunny bank, where I have lain ever since,’ and in The Faerie Queene he is described as being ‘still drownd in sleepe, and most of his daies / scarse could he once uphold his heavie hedd, / to looken whether it was night or day.’ The similarities between these two descriptions show that Spenser and Marlowe were using a cultural prescription of the personification of the sins when they wrote them into their work.
The second sin described in The Faerie Queene is gluttony, or...