The Complexities of Mephostophilis In Medieval cycle plays, devils were portrayed as comic characters that triumphed over their adversaries in spite of their crudeness and ineptitude. With the advent of Renaissance drama, came new ideas and characters, as playwrights took a new stance in their portrayals of evil and devils. The devils and Mephostophilis in particular, in Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus are much more complex than those in preceding medieval drama are. Mephostophilis’s only goal in the play is to acquire Faustus’s damned soul for Lucifer. As straightforward a goal as this might appear, its execution becomes fascinating for the audience because of Marlowe’s characterization. Mephostophilis is both friend and archenemy of Faustus.
He is the teller of truths and the manipulator of lies; he is a reflection of Faustus’s own character and an instrument of Lucifer’s diabolical quest. Mephostophilis’s diversity of characteristics makes him a most interesting Renaissance character because h! e is not flat, all good or all bad, but rather a multifaceted character, which wins over Faustus and draws the audience in with his intrigue. The play opens in Faustus’s study, where Faustus is contemplating his many scholastic accomplishments. Having succeeded in his studies in both the academic and theological fields, Faustus has become bored and wishes to pursue further knowledge in necromancy. He conjures up the image of a devil and so begins the relationship between Dr. Faustus and Mephostophilis.
Dissatisfied with Mephostophilis’s demonic appearance, Faustus commands him, “I charge thee to return and change thy shape, /Thou art too ugly to attend on me”(I.iii.25-6). Faustus is uncomfortable with the devil’s original appearance; he foolishly believes that, “by fiddling with surface matters,”(ix) the basic morality of the character can be changed. “Go and return an old Franciscan friar,”(I.iii. 27) says Faustus; this form not only makes Faustus more comfortable with the devil, but a Renaissance audience would have found this transformation more attractive and palatable as well. Without a word, Mephostophi! lis leaves to obey Faustus, and Faustus takes this as a sign of the devil’s submissiveness. Faustus is falsely convinced that he is in control of the situation and that Mephostophilis has appeared only to fulfill his whims and to serve as his servant. He muses to himself, “How pliant is this Mephostophilis, /Full of obedience and humility, /Such is the force of magic and my spells”(I.iii.31-3).
When Mephostophilis enters as a friar, Faustus is seeing what he wishes to see. The character of Mephostophilis remains as amoral as ever, but in the guise of a harmless friar, he appears more amiable. Our initial glimpse of Mephostophilis shows the audience and Faustus his true, horrifying nature. Along with this horrifying appearance early in the play, we see his only purpose is the capture of Faustus’s soul. Despite Mephostophilis’s transformed outward appearance, his purpose remains as malevolent as ever.
As Mephostophilis quickly gains Faustus’s confidence, the audience is able to peer further into his character. Virtually elated with his magical success, Faustus is oblivious to the ominous reason Mephostophilis gives for appearing. Contrary to what Faustus believes, the incantations he performed did not conjure up a devil; Mephostophilis explains, “when we hear one rack the name of God, /Abjure the Scriptures and his saviour Christ, /We fly in hope to get his glorious soul”(I.iii.46-8). Faustus scoffs at Mephostophilis and explains that he is not afraid of the ideas of hell and damnation, for he does not believe that they exist. The notion of hell is not so meaningless to Mephostophilis, who knows the torment of hell only too well. “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 depr! ived of everlasting bliss?”(I.iii.76-9) he demands of Faustus.
Though he desperately seeks Faustus’s soul, Mephostophilis cannot hold himself back from expressing the absolute truth of hell and its agonies. Faustus has already convinced himself that he wants what Mephostophilis can offer him and he refuses to listen to this important and solitary warning. He sends him off to tell Lucifer of his proposition to give his soul in exchange for twenty-four years of power and Mephostophilis’s services. As Faustus sits waiting for the devil’s return, he becomes impatient in anticipation of the temporary rewards he looks to reap, paying no heed to the eternal torture he will have to endure in payment. Mephostophilis returns and tells Faustus that Lucifer has chosen to accept his offer.
As Faustus signs his soul away in a contract with Lucifer, Mephostophilis gives the audience another glimpse at his evil nature when Faustus isn’t listening and he exclaims, “What will not I do to ! obtain his soul!”(II.ii. 74). In fact, Mephostophilis obtained Faustus’s soul at their first meeting. The rest of the play is spent trying to distract Faustus, and indeed the audience from the truth. Mephostophilis achieves this distraction by giving Faustus a feeling of renown and power. In his disguises, both physical and not, Mephostophilis is able to captivate Faustus and the audience because of his apparent honesty and benevolent nature. The two travel to many lands, producing visions of famous heroes for royalty.
Faustus is so pleased with Mephostophilis and his power that he almost forgets the pact he originally made and that will, in the end, cost him his soul. Even before Lucifer has agreed to Faustus’s proposition, Faustus is busy anticipating the greatness he will achieve, “Wealth! /Why, the signory of Emden shall be mine! /When Mephostophilis shall stand by me /What power can hurt me? Faustus, thou art safe.” Faustus puts his trust in Mephostophilis from the very beginning, and all Mephostophilis must do to ensure Faustus’s damnation is to please and satisfy him. Mephostophilis takes Faustus to Rome to the pope’s chambers. While in Rome, Faustus, first! disguised as a cardinal and then made invisible by Mephostophilis, wreaks havoc at the pope’s dinner. Mephostophilis playfully reprimands Faustus, “Now Faustus, what will you do now? /For I can tell you, you’ll be cursed with bell, book, and candle”(III.ii.91-3). Mephostophilis knows that Faustus will be cursed for what he has done, and this is precisely the reason he brought him to Rome. Faustus, though, is so amused and mollified with his antics that he is heedless to the consequences he must suffer.
“Bell, book and candle. Candle, book and bell. /forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell,” is Faustus’s retort to Mephostophilis’s cautioning. Mephostophilis reveals wonders and truths to Faustus and because Faustus is given this kind of knowledge, he believes everything he hears. Although the visions produced by Mephostophilis are demons in disguise, they appear to be true. When Mephostophilis brings in the vision of the Great Alexander, the hosting Emperor, Char! les, is so overwhelmed by the powerfully real vision that he tries to embrace it. He must be reminded, “My gracious lord, you do forget yourself. /These are but shadows, not substantial”(IV.ii.57-8). Just as the emperor is moved, so is Faustus and even the audience is captivated by the vision.
All of these adventures contribute to the creation of a seeming friendship between Mephostophilis and Faustus. After all of these events, Faustus is shocked back into the reality of his situation and the true character of Mephostophilis is exposed once again. As the hour approaches ending Faustus’s twenty-four years of magical power, he recognizes Mephostophilis to be a “bewitching fiend, ’twas thy temptation /Hath robbed me of eternal happiness”(V.ii. 97-8). Faustus’s realization may be horrible, but it is nothing compared to the chilling confession of Mephostophilis: I do confess it Faustus, and rejoice.
‘Twas I, that when thou wert i’ the way to heaven Dammed up thy passage. When thou took’st the book To view the Scriptures, then I turned the leaves And led thine eye. What, weep’st thou! ‘Tis too late, despair, farewell! Fools that will laugh on earth, most weep in hell. (V.ii.99-105) Faustus and Mephostophilis have now come full circle and the physical demon that horrified Faustus when it revealed itself has now displayed a far worse intellectual fiend. Had Faustus remained with the monster image, he would not have been so easily fooled for the twenty-four years, but with Mephostophilis’s civilized manner and appearance, the deception takes over Faustus’s life until his final moments.
The many sides of Mephostophilis’s character from demon at the beginning, to companion for twenty-four years, to treacherous friend in the end, lead both Faustus and the audience on an enticing journey into the world of magic and sin. Only the combination of the manipulative powers of Mephostophilis and the self-destructive weaknesses of Faustus allows the final catastrophe to occur. It is the interaction of the two characters and the symbiotic relationship that they establish captivates the reader as it unfolds. The final moment of Faustus’s life has the potential of leaving the audience appalled at the gravity of Faustus’s self-deception. Marlowe ends Faustus’s life on an ambiguous line when Faustus cries out, “O Mephostophilis!”(V.iii.197).
The line could certainly be interpreted to still show a relationship between the two where Faustus looks on Mephostophilis as a friend, though a friend who has betrayed him. Mephostophilis would have served as a warning to Marlowe! ‘s audience against such desires as money and power, just as an audience today learns it must be aware of the fiendish enticements of such vices. WORKS CITED Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus. Ed.
Sylvan Barnet. New York: Signet Classic, 1969.