Mephistopheles is a striking central character in the play ‘Doctor Faustus’, written by Christopher Marlowe in the late sixteenth century. His role in this tragic play is ultimately to aid Faustus’ downfall from a renowned scholar to foolhardy prey of Lucifer. However, Mephistopheles’ motives are perceptibly ambiguous throughout ‘Doctor Faustus’; he seemingly alternates between a typically gleeful medieval devil, and a romantically suffering fallen angel. Mephistopheles first appears in ‘Doctor Faustus’ in the third scene, when he is summoned by Faustus’ experimental necromancy, as taught to him by Valdes and Cornelius.
Faustus becomes intrigued by the notion of employing dark magic to supply him with what he most craves: knowledge. Mephistopheles first appears to Faustus in his true, terrifying form. This terrifying image is in keeping with the medieval concept of the devil as a hellish supernatural being that encapsulated horror. Mephistopheles’ appearance shocks Faustus to the extent that he implores him to return in a different form, this time as an “old Franciscan friar”.
This embodiment epitomizes much of the confusion concerning the devil’s character: although the costume of a friar is seems reassuring. It is this contradictory of qualities that make Mephistopheles such an ambiguous character throughout the play. In his first scene, Mephistopheles adopts the deflating and belittling tone with Faustus that he often employs to him when he becomes overly arrogant or excitable. As the critic Philip Brockbank writes: “Mephistopheles promptly replaces Faustus as the intellectual centre of the play. This is evident, for example, when Faustus proclaims: “I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live, To do whatever Faustus shall command, Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere Or the ocean to overwhelm the world. ” And Mephistopheles dryly rebuffs him: “I am a servant to great Lucifer and may not follow thee without his leave; No more than he commands must we perform. ” This rebuking disparagement, although suggesting the depth and intellect of the fallen angel, aligns with the typical medieval mystery play representation of a devil that scorns human beings.
Faustus thinks he is in charge of the devil he believes he summoned; yet Mephistopheles carries all the intellectual weight and corrects Faustus with powerful lines that suggest his position with clarity. It is also clear that at times Marlowe does intend for Mephistopheles to be perceived as a typical gleeful medieval devil, who aims to seize human souls at any cost and entice them into hell. This is evident when Faustus is signing the pact to sell his soul, and Mephistopheles says aside: “What will not I do to obtain his soul! This wicked devil, constantly plotting to entrap humanity, is a common character throughout medieval literature. Throughout the middle of the play Faustus experiments with his supernatural powers. He has made exotic, extravagant promises as to what he will do with this faculty: “I’ll have them fly to India for gold, Ransack the ocean for orient pearl, and search all corners of the new-found world for pleasant fruits and princely delicates…” However, Faustus never does fulfill these vivid ambitions.
Faustus largely uses his powers for simple jokes, with Mephistopheles acting as a gleeful sidekick. Together they dress as cardinals and fool the Pope by snatching his food at a banquet, even boxing him on the ear. This highlights the wickedly jovial aspects of Mephistopheles perfectly, as he gleefully wreaks havoc on the Catholic figurehead alongside Faustus. Other examples of Mephistopheles’ gleeful disposition are when together with Faustus he plants horns on Benvolio, and when they trick the horse-courser by selling him a horse that dissolves into hay when it comes into contact with water.
This idea of the devil as comic relief is very much in keeping with the medieval tradition. Doctor Faustus’ is of course, in one basic sense, a morality fable, and it is a characteristic of such plays to feature characters that are personified abstractions (such as the seven deadly Sins or the Good and Bad Angels) to clarify the morals to be conveyed. Therefore, it would be natural for Marlowe simply to present Mephistopheles as the typical ‘medieval mystery play’ devil, yet he does not adhere to this simple characterization.
It seems to me that Marlowe wanted to create a glittering character memorable for his multi-dimensional complexity and intricacy. The character of Mephistopheles is not at all one-dimensional; there is a peculiar ambiguity and inconsistency in Marlowe’s creation. The critic Harry Levin wrote in his book ‘Marlowe the Overreached’: “Mephistopheles does nothing to lure Faustus on: he suffers for him. He sympathizes with him. Above all he understands him, and through this understanding we participate in the dramatic irony.
Faustus persists in regarding his fiendish assistant as a sort of oriental slave of the lamp. ” This presents an entirely different opinion of Mephistopheles’ character. Levin suggests that instead of gleefully and fiendishly attempting to entice Faustus into selling his soul, he in fact appreciates Faustus’ dilemma but cannot do anything to save him because Mephistopheles himself is condemned to hell and bringing damnation to others.
To Levin, Marlowe’s Mephistopheles is indeed a romantically suffering fallen angel. A clear suggestion of an angel fallen from grace is in Mephistopheles’ response to Faustus’ “How comes it then that thou art out of hell? ” / “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? This mournful sentiment that suggests Mephistopheles is indeed an alien angel who sinned in Heaven and cannot return, and is desperately regretful to the extent that here he seems to be forewarning Faustus, perhaps even suggesting repentance before he too is eternally damned. This, in fact, is another inconsistency in Marlowe’s presentation of Mephistopheles and the concept of hell, for in the final scene of the play, Faustus is physically dragged, not to this metaphysical hell, but to a vast “torture-house” where there are “tossing damned souls on burning forks” and “ever-burning chairs”.
This striking difference is supplemented by Mephistopheles’ reversion in the final scenes of the play to the simply and utterly terrifying devil Faustus first encountered in his initial necromantic experiments. This contrasts with the gleeful and mischievous Mephistopheles seen throughout the middle comic scenes of ‘Doctor Faustus’, and adds to the ambiguity of the character. In conclusion, I feel that Mephistopheles is a wonderfully multi-dimensional character, developed in an intriguing manner that makes the devil intensely unpredictable and thrilling.
The sharp contrast between his gleeful qualities and the aspects that suggest a romantically suffering angel fallen from grace, in my opinion, make the character much more absorbing. Perhaps Marlowe realized that the most captivating characters could never remain one-dimensional. Although many critics are unhappy with the apparent inconsistencies, I think it is the combination of the gleeful and tormented aspects of the character that make him the central masterpiece of ‘Doctor Faustus’.