The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

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  • Topic: Hell, Mystery play, Lucifer
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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...
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