Lucifer's servant and collector of souls

Mephistopheles by Mark Antokolsky available through Creative CommonsFor all the power that he appears to exert in the play, Mephastophilis himself is at the service of Lucifer or Satan, the prince of Hell. It is at Lucifer's command that he responds to Faustus' summons and he acts as his master's agent in the signing of the pact. At the moment when he seems most in danger of losing Faustus (Scene 7), he summons Lucifer and Beelzebub to frighten Faustus into submission, like a military commander using heavy artillery at a crucial moment in a battle.

Mephastophilis' business is to collect souls for Lucifer. He is alert to signs of wavering faith and responsive to any who speak against God. He works hard at his task and seems to devote a lot of time and attention to Faustus. This was perhaps because Faustus' standing as a learned scholar made him an especially valuable and prestigious conquest for the devil.

Handling Faustus

A meeting of minds

Mephastophilis is expert at tempting and manipulating his target. His exchanges with Faustus constitute the most important sections of the play, for, in Faustus, Mephastophilis finds a mind that is in some ways equal to his own. He only seems to waver at those moments when Faustus appears to show genuine repentance, but even then he has means at his disposal to bring Faustus into line.

Mephastophilis understands and exploits Faustus' weaknesses, failings and deepest desires:

  • He plays upon his vanity and intellectual arrogance
  • He subtly misleads Faustus as to the extent of the knowledge and power that he will be granted
  • He exploits Faustus' more sensual sexual appetites – his taste for luxury and his sexual longings
  • He even becomes his partner in playing practical jokes at the courts of the Pope and the Emperor.

An empty bargain

Despite Faustus' aspirations, Mephistophilis diverts his path to baser goals. With the demon's help, therefore, Faustus acquires worldly fame, riches and sensual pleasures, and, as the play goes on, more emphasis is placed on these than on Faustus' intellectual aspirations. After their earliest exchanges, Faustus' search for knowledge and understanding is barely mentioned and the pointlessness and emptiness of what Mephastophilis is prepared to offer become increasingly apparent.

Mephastophilis the manipulator

Mephastophilis knows how and when to respond to Faustus' moods and demands:

  • Sometimes, Faustus needs to be reminded of the nature of the moral realm he now inhabits, as with the appearance of the devil-wife in Scene 5
  • The appearance of the Seven Deadly Sins in Scene 7 provides Faustus with a necessary amusement at a moment of crisis
  • The appearance of Helen of Troy in Scene 12 offers him an experience of transcendence at a moment of deep despair.

Honesty, loss and suffering

It may seem strange to think of Mephastophilis, celebrated as a tempter and deceiver, as an honest character, yet, in some respects this is how he appears in Doctor Faustus. Certainly, he ultimately delivers less in return for his victim's soul than Faustus hopes for. However, Faustus' disappointment arises less from any specific deception on the part of Mephastophilis than from Faustus' own mistaken expectations. The demon is never less than honest about the inevitable outcome of Faustus' bargain.

An unexpected dimension of Mephastophilis' character, which throws into relief Faustus' periods of self-deception, is his capacity for suffering. Perhaps his own experience of a sense of loss and rejection is essential to his ability to understand, manipulate and capture souls. Certainly, his ejection from Heaven with the rebellious Satan has not robbed him of the ability to feel exclusion or to regret the loss of Heaven's joys. Marlowe uses this to make clear to the audience, if not always to Faustus, that to defy God is to inherit an eternity of suffering.

Hell within: Mephastophilis as a modern character

One of the ways in which Doctor Faustus can be seen as an early modern rather than a medieval play is the element of complexity that Marlowe gives to the character of Mephastophilis, particularly in the way he describes Hell.

The medieval depiction of hell

Last JudgmentIn church sermons and in the wall paintings of the Last Judgement to be found in many medieval churches and other religious buildings, Hell was a visual reality. It is represented as a place of eternal bodily sufferings, a region of fire, foul smells and torturing demons who are seen inflicting appalling pain on damned souls.

Hell was also to be seen in Miracle and Morality plays, often represented as the open black mouth of the devil, surrounded by flames and paintings of devils, serpents and other creatures. In these plays, the evil characters disappeared into this hole at the moment of damnation. In the later fixed theatres, they would probably be dragged down through a trapdoor in the stage.

Faustus' despairing cry of ‘Ugly hell gape not!' (Scene 13, 120) alludes to these devices. Marlowe is conscious of this aspect of Hell and, as Faustus disappears at the end of the play, it is clear that his physical sufferings have already begun.

Psychological ‘hell'

However, Marlowe is concerned to make it clear that ‘Hell' is also an inner, psychological state that delivers its keenest pain mentally, in the lost soul's sense of exclusion:

  • Mephastophilis is in rather a special situation, since he is among those who have experienced both Heaven and Hell
  • His heart is certainly not hardened and he is not reconciled to the loss of Heaven's joys because he is eternally conscious of them:

    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 by ten thousand hells
    In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
    O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
    Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.
    Scene 3, 75-81

    Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
    In one self place; for where we are is hell,
    And where hell is, must we ever be.
    And to conclude, when all the world dissolves,
    And every creature shall be purified,
    All places shall be hell that is not heaven.
    Scene 5, 120-125

Faustus' blindness

On the first of these occasions, Faustus responds to Mephastophilis' evident pain with a kind of mocking arrogance:

What, is great Mephastophilis so passionate
For being deprived of the joys of heaven?
Learn then of Faustus manly fortitude,
And scorn those joys thou never shalt possess
Scene 3, 82-85

On the second occasion, after telling Mephastophilis, ‘Come, I think hell's a fable' (Scene 5, 126) he goes on to say, ‘Nay, and this be hell, I'll willingly be damned here! What, walking, disputing, etc'. In both cases, Faustus is so excited by the power and knowledge he expects to receive that he refuses to believe Mephastophilis' clear warnings. For all his intelligence, there are some important lessons that Faustus does not learn until it is too late. However, by the final scenes of the play, Faustus' strong feelings of regret suggest that he is suffering in a similar manner to his tormentor.

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