But Now I Die Eternally: The Tragedy of Mephistophilis
Sometimes, the Devil—or, at least, one of his most trusted minions—really is in the details. In Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, the most compelling hero is not the eponymous main character. Doctor Faustus, with his puerile egotism and self-absorbed whining, is as guilty of overreach as any character Marlowe ever wrote. He not only dies, but also loses his chance for redemption and is taken to Hell for all eternity. Yet that alone does not make him a tragic hero, particularly since the text contains a far more compelling one: the demon Mephistophilis. This essay will show that, of the two characters, Mephistophilis is the more virtuous, noble, and sympathetic. He does not morally deteriorate over the course of the play like Faustus does, and he is completely loyal within the limits of his contract. Also, having been an angel and actually experienced the delights of Heaven, Mephistophilis is the one whose fall is greater and more tragic.
Christopher Marlowe’s play is based on the story of self-styled philosopher and fortune teller named Faust, who died suddenly in 1540 under very mysterious circumstances. A rumor soon spread that the supernatural being from whom Faust had obtained his magical powers had come for him under the terms of their contractual agreement. Stories of Faust began appearing as early as 1587, chiefly to serve as warnings to people who might otherwise delve too deeply into the new area of Renaissance study known as “science”. Marlowe published two versions of his play: one in 1604, and a heavily edited and censored version in 1616. This essay will focus on the 1604 version.
Marlowe’s play can only be understood in the context of a tale from Judeo-Christian mythology. According to ancient tradition, there was an omnipotent, omniscient God who created the universe and everything in it. Among God’s creations were angels and archangels, who occupied Heaven. One archangel, who goes by various names including Satan and Lucifer, led a rebellion against God. For this, he and his followers were cast out of Heaven. They therefore sought revenge by corrupting God’s most cherished and beloved creation: humanity. John Milton, in his epic poem Paradise Lost, tells the story more evocatively and descriptively than any narrator before or since. Indeed, Marlowe’s play contains multiple references and allusions to both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, which relates the story of the Gospel in which humanity is redeemed through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
According to Judeo-Christian tradition, God’s power and capacity for forgiveness are infinite. Human beings can sin—that is, to fall short of ideal behavior or to conduct themselves in a way contrary to the will of God—and be forgiven no matter what, provided they do in fact believe and trust in God, and repent by rejecting and expressing remorse for their earlier conduct. If they do so, then after they die they will be eventually be rewarded with a pleasant afterlife with God in Heaven. Otherwise, Hell awaits. According to the tradition, an afterlife of some sort is mandatory because each human being possesses a unique and immortal essence known as a soul that survives the death of the body. The plot of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus revolves around a German scholar’s decision to sell his soul to Lucifer in exchange for twenty years of service from the demon Mephistophilis, who shares with him knowledge and powers far beyond mortal capability. Faustus is doomed not because he renounced God to make a deal with the Devil, nor because of the various vices and sins in which he subsequently indulged for twenty-four years, but because he refuses to repent and ask for forgiveness. He is doomed because he believes, right up to the end, that God will not forgive him. Mercy is readily available, if he asks for it and repents sincerely. Indeed, he is told several times throughout the play that if he trusts in God neither Lucifer nor any of his minions can harm him.
The key idea, in this tragedy, is that God’s capacity for forgiveness is infinite. God is capable of pardoning Faustus, and does indeed have a preference for forgiveness. Yet Faustus’s belief that he has committed a crime that exceeds God’s capacity for mercy keeps him from asking for it. This vicious irony is the turning-point of the entire plot.
At the beginning of the play, John Faustus is an aging man of letters who has learned and mastered every form of knowledge the university has to offer. He has mastered logic and created great advances in medicine, yet he feels as though the profession is beneath him. He is bored even by law and divinity. He craves further intellectual challenges, along with profit, power, and fame. So he decides to dabble in black magic. He sends for two of his colleagues who are known for dabbling in the art, and they teach him how to conjure a demon. Faustus expresses a desire to use his power to do great things: improving the fortifications of his native Wertenberg (sic), chasing the foreign prince from the land, clothing all the students in fair raiment, and reigning as king over all Germany. Yet when Mephistophilis appears and begins to speak, Faustus for the first time can be compared with another character of substance.
As Milton’s Satan appears more excellent and noble than any other character in Paradise Lost including God, so likewise does Marlowe’s Mephistophilis upstage Faustus. Compared to the demon, who speaks honestly and candidly and whose heartfelt grief at having lost access to Heaven is obvious, Faustus comes across as arrogant, ignorant, greedy, and overconfident.
Mephistophilis readily answers Faustus’s initial questions and in fact provides him with more information than he asks for. It was not Faustus’s (nonexistent) conjuring prowess that summoned the demon, but the verbal diatribe against God. Not particularly limited by the laws of physics, demons apparently respond to people in the process of damning themselves like an addicted feline responds to catnip, only faster and with less intrinsic loss of dignity. Mephistophilis explains that he showed up only because he thought he had a chance of securing Faustus’s soul. He does: Faustus wants to make a deal. But first there is a discussion that reveals the extent of Faustus’s arrogance.
On the subject of Hell, and damnation, Mephistophilis speaks freely. He admits to having been a follower of Lucifer’s during the rebellion, and to sharing his exile afterwards. He explains that Hell is not limited to one specific location. Although he stands before Faustus, he is in fact in Hell simply because it isn’t Heaven:
“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 eternal bliss?” (1)
The first line of this quotation is a reference to Paradise Lost, where the character Satan says: “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.” (2) Having been banished from Heaven, Mephistophilis has lost the highest, best, and most beautiful thing in the universe. Nothing can replace it, so there is nothing that can console or comfort him. Mephistophilis’s grief is sincere, yet Faustus needles him and suggests that he learn “manly fortitude”. Scorning the joys of Heaven, Faustus offers Lucifer a deal: twenty-four years of Mephistophilis’s service in exchange for his soul. For this prize, the immortal Mephistophilis is willing to run any errand and suffer any indignity.
Damnation has taught Mephistophilis the meaning of both grief and humility. Although he is extremely powerful and can take on a variety of forms, move about the Earth instantly, change one thing into another and cause corporeal spirits to appear or disappear at will, he cannot reenter the Kingdom of Heaven. He remains loyal and obedient to Lucifer, whose permission he requires before committing himself to a contract with Faustus. With his boss’s approval, Mephistophilis commits himself to twenty-four years of service to Faustus. During this time, he complies with the human’s every wish and desire within the limitations set out by Lucifer. He runs errands to fetch and carry fruit, he creates spirits with the appearance of people long deceased, he helps Faustus play a prank on the Pope, and he assists Faustus in conning a horse-dealer out of money. Although Mephistophilis has no patience with fools—he sets firecrackers on Ralph and Robin and transforms them into animals—he tolerates Faustus because he has a contract with him and expects to collect his soul.
Despite having being told, explicitly, that Hell is real—and by someone who has direct personal experience—Faustus refuses to believe it even though Mephistophilis assures him that he suffers every bit as much as a mortal would. After the magician has signed away his soul, he disingenuously asks again about Hell. Mephistophilis gives the same answer: it’s wherever the damned souls are. Despite the manifest evidence that Hell is real, Faustus still asserts that he believes it to be a fable. Speaking of himself in the third person as though he were already royalty, Faustus says that “he confounds Hell in Elysium” (3) and expects to spend eternity in conversation with the ancient Greek philosophers.
Before the contract is signed, Mephistophilis is willing to talk to Faustus about God. Yet after the contract is signed, he will not. He refuses to answer Faustus’s question as to who made the world, although he readily furnishes the scholar with books about the movement of the planets and other science. This is not because Mephistophilis doesn’t know the answer. He is simply making sure Faustus does not think so much about God that he convinces himself to repent. He comes very close to doing so, blaming Mephistophilis for having tempted him to sign away his soul. The fact Faustus rewrites the past that way is telling: whereas the demon accepts responsibility for his actions, decisions, and subsequent damnation, the human does not. Mephistophilis leaves briefly to return with Lucifer, during which time the Evil Angel and the Good Angel give Faustus conflicting advice.
It turns out that the Good Angel is right: if Faustus repents and calls on God for mercy the contract is off since Lucifer and Mephistophilis will be unable to touch Faustus’s soul. So they reappear to rebuke Faustus and to distract him from anything that might remind him of sanctity. When Faustus demands a wife, Mephistophilis—well aware that marriage is a sacrament and a sacred vow made before God—insists on finding him concubines instead. When he wants to go to Rome, Mephistophilis discourages him until he expresses a desire to play pranks on him. The demon is patient with Faustus, who gradually begins to deteriorate.
Unlike Faustus, Mephistophilis does not deteriorate morally through the course of the play. Faustus begins with noble ideas—discovering hidden scientific facts, providing the university students with comfortable clothing, and driving out a foreign ruler to establish a peaceful and unified kingdom in Germany with himself as a benevolent ruler. He is soon sated with knowledge, but instead of embarking on his original plans to make the world a better place, he begins to be self-indulgent. Perhaps it is the sight of the Seven Deadly Sins personified, or perhaps it is simply a flaw in his character, but Faustus loses sight of his lofty goals. Later in the book, he is not shown as a king but as a traveling conjurer visiting the courts of various rulers and members of the nobility to amuse and entertain them. Though he has Mephistophilis punish a knight who publicly calls him a swindler, Faustus turns out to be exactly that: by the end of the play, he is conning a horse-dealer out of money by selling him a bale of hay enchanted to look and act like a horse. This moral degradation does not apply to Mephistophilis. He submits willingly to Faustus’s increasingly puerile demands and errands, but he has no actual tolerance for stupid or short-sighted behavior. He obeys Faustus solely to uphold his end of the contract and to distract him and prevent him from repenting and being pardoned by God.
Indeed, every time Faustus finds himself thinking about the heavens, or about what he wants, Mephistophilis’s job is to keep Faustus from repenting so that God might reclaim his soul. He does this through distraction, threats, and other means. Yet his distractions are only successful because Faustus believes he has damned himself past the point of redemption, even though there is no such thing since—as the Second Scholar says—“God’s mercies are infinite.” (4) So long as Faustus believes he is trapped… he is. Yet Mephistophilis makes the same mistake. If God’s mercy is infinite, then God should be able to forgive any sin or offense, even one as great as Mephistophilis’s. But even after thousands of years, it does not occur to the demon to ask for forgiveness.
Mephistophilis, unlike Faustus, knows what he has lost. Faustus makes his decision to sell his soul and to give up any hope of Heaven without having any personal experience of it. Nor can Faustus, who is an aging man of letters but who begins the play having lived only one lifetime, truly appreciate what eternity looks like. Not so with Mephistophilis, who has had farther to fall. Whereas Faustus had the opportunity to repent during his lifetime, Mephistophilis—who is immortal—has had at least thousands of years to do the same. No unusual harm could come to him if he were to repent, since his greatest agony is due to his separation from God. Even his boss, Lucifer, cannot come up with anything more devastating. The fact Mephistophilis does not likewise try to repent and save himself is the greatest tragedy in the story. Faustus dies and goes to Hell without having experienced Paradise, and so although his fate is horrible he at least is not tormented by the magnitude of what he has lost. Not so with the noble Mephistophilis, who vividly remembers what is now denied to him. Because he believes he is damned and beyond redemption, he is. The demon, despite his vast knowledge and awareness, still has not figured out what infinite mercy really means. Believing that he can compass and predict the will of God, and believing he has exceeded God’s (infinite) capacity for mercy, Mephistophilis is just as much a prisoner of his own fallacies and misconceptions as Faustus is.
Faustus, unlike Mephistophilis, is not a particularly sympathetic character but people try to save him anyway. The Good Angel and the Old Man speak to him of divinity, as do the scholars. They try desperately to save him and to turn him away from his unreason before it is too late. Nobody makes the slightest effort to save Mephistophilis by talking sense into him: he is completely without support or assistance during the course of the play despite his merits as a sentient being. After the failed rebellion Mephistophilis fell from grace and died spiritually in the company of legions of others. This is customary in ancient tragedy, where the hero dies along with others. Faustus, by his own decision, sends the Scholars away and meets his fate alone.
Mephistophilis is without question the most compelling tragic hero of the play. He, and not Faustus, displays virtues such as humility, patience, and honesty. He serves uncomplainingly and tirelessly. Whereas Faustus deteriorates over the course of the play until he is nothing more than a lecherous con artist, Mephistophilis’s character does not change. Whereas Faustus’s loyalty to his supposed master vacillates to the point where he requires constant supervision, Mephistophilis’s loyalty is unwavering. Finally, although both Faustus and Mephistophilis make the same mistake, it is Mephistophilis who experiences the greater punishment and the more severe consequences.
(1) Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Act I scene iii.
(2) Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Canto iv, line 75
(3) Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Act I scene iii.
(4) Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Act V scene ii.
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