The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

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The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

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....
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