Introduction: Tragic Hero and Minor Characters
Marlowe’s tragic heroes are all titanic figures towering over all the minor characters so much so that they all fade into insignificance in his one-man plays. Hence in Marlowe’s hands, the minor characters have very little individuality or independent existence of their own. They seem to be so many sketches with very little delineation and their main purpose is to bring out the individuality of the towering heroes.
That is why Ronald M. Frye has justly remarked regarding Doctor Faustus; “Indeed, in Faustus there is no plot apart from character, no plot apart from what Faustus himself says, thinks, feels and does. Here character and plot are so completely integrated that neither is possible without the other, and the two so interconnected as to explain, justify, and complete each other.”
Mephistophilis: Original Treatment
Among the minor characters of Marlowe his Mephistophilis may, to a fairly good extent, be considered as an exception, as Marlowe is definitely original in its creation. Mephistophilis is no doubt a devil, but it is no longer a devil of the Moralities and Miracles with his funny and comic pictures just to cater to the taste of the groundlings of that age. In Doctor Faustus, Mephistophilis is rather a symbolic figure with considerable dramatic significance. From the very beginning of Faustus’s meteoric rise and anti-Christian career, till the terrible tragic end, Mephistophilis is his constant companion and he is the source of Faustus’s rise as well as his downfall.
Character: Symbolic Aspect
Mephistophilis has been introduced in the play as a deputy of Lucifer, the Prince of Hell. He is also a fallen angel who associated himself with Satan’s revolt against God. Unlike the Devils of Miracle and Moralities, Mephistophilis is not just a villain but is endowed with some redeeming features. In fact he confesses to Faustus that he is keenly and sadly conscious of his sufferings in hell and that the loss of Heaven and God’s blessings are a constant source of deep mental anguish for him. He is no doubt the evil genius of Faustus, but he has not been shown as the real cause of his degradation and downfall. It is Faustus who first abjured God and the Trinity of his own accord. And it is Faustus who first calls it the spirit of Mephistophilis from the underworld. Thus we find that when Faustus asks Mephistophilis if he has not been raised by his conjuring speeches, Mephistophilis replies:
“That was the cause, but yet per accidents:
For when we hear one rack the name of God,
Abjure the scripture and his Saviour Christ,
We fly in hope to get his glorious soul;
Nor will we come, unless he uses such means
Whereby he is in danger to be damn’d.”
And Faustus boldly confirms it:
“So Faustus hath
Already done; and holds this principle,
There is no chief but Belzebub;”
Hence it is obvious that the evil is really within Faustus himself and so we conclude that Mephistophilis is nothing but the symbolic representation of the evil in Faustus’s soul. According to an eminent critic: “Mephistophilis symbolises power without conscience, the danger of which is the motif of the play.”
Mephistophilis may also be treated as a symbol of dramatic irony. In the very same scene as above (Act I Sc. III) we find Mephistophilis warning Faustus about the inevitable doom awaiting one who deviates from the right path and denounces God and the Saviour. Even Lucifer, an angel ‘most dearly lov’d of God’, fell due to pride and insolence. But Faustus, the victim of his own pride and inordinate ambition ‘to gain unlimited knowledge and power turns a deaf ear to his timely warning and very audaciously asserts:
“Think’st thou that Faustus is so fond to imagine
That, after this life, there is any pain:
Tush, these are trifles and mere old wives’ tales.”
Faustus dreams that he will be as ‘great as Lucifer’ and fondly believes:
“A sound magician is a mighty god.”
and so he will tire his brains ‘to gain a deity.’ Thus, Mephistophilis has been made the symbol of a deep and touching dramatic irony.
Unlike most of the minor characters of Marlowe, Mephistophilis really plays a significant role in Doctor Faustus. It is a fact that it was not Mephistophilis who lured Faustus away from the path of virtue; that was his own decision. But undoubtedly it was Mephistophilis who paved the way for his tragic doom and eternal damnation. It is he who is the most important minor character in the drama, who makes the greatest contribution to the development of the character of Faustus. That is why, we find him to be the constant companion of Dr. Faustus till the tragic end.
Significance of Contract
Faustus has made up his mind to surrender his soul to the Devil to gain limitless power and knowledge, to live a life of luxury and voluptuousness for twenty-four years. And Mephistophilis is there to get the contract properly executed and informs him with all seriousness:
“But, Faustus, thou must bequeath it solemnly,
And write a deed of gift with thine own blood;
For that security craves great Lucifer.
If thou deny it I will back to hell.
And when the blood congeals, there is Mephistophilis ready with his ‘chafer of coals’ to make the blood flow and thus to smoothen the path to hell for Faustus. And from now, begins the very close relationship between Faustus and Mephistophilis.
Cunning and Artful Mephistophilis
We find the artful Mephistophilis playing rather a double role in his relationship with Faustus. When Faustus is normal and sticks to the conditions of his contract with the Devil, Mephistophilis is his most obliging slave. It is Mephistophilis who tries to satisfy his thirst for knowledge by answering all his questions to the best of his ability. But he refuses to reply like a stern guardian, when Faustus requests:
“Tell me who made the world.” And then again when Faustus expresses his keen desire
“……….to see the monuments
And situation of bright-splendent Rome,”
Mephistophilis helps him to make his journey through air—
“Being seated in a chariot burning bright,
Drawn by the strength of yoky dragon’s necks.”
Then again, when Faustus wants to marry the most beautiful maiden of Germany, he very cleverly dissuades him from marrying like a true Christian; but to satisfy his carnal desire and thirst for youth and beauty he conjures up Helen, “whose heavenly beauty passeth all compass.” But when Faustus’s soul is wavering between heaven and hell and he is thinking of prayer, and repentance to gain God’s mercy, Mephistophilis is there like a cruel master to threaten him thus:
“Thou traitor, Faustus, I arrest thy soul
For disobedience to my sovereign lord:
Revolt, or I’ll piece-meal tear thy flesh,”
Strangely and very ironically, Mephistophilis also appears along-with other devils in the final scene to snatch away Faustus’s soul to hell for eternal damnation and the last word wrung out from the depth of his terror-stricken soul is ‘Mephistophilis,’
We may interpret the character of Mephistophilis symbolically as the projection of Faustus’s own evil self or we may accept him, just as a powerful deputy of the Prince of Hell. It must have to be admitted “that it is Mephistophilis and only Mephistophilis who plays the most significant role as a minor character to develop as well as to bring out all the important traits in the character of the mighty hero; we may rather conclude by saying, that, had there been no Mephistophilis, there would have been no Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s magnificent tragic drama.
Of the subordinate characters, Mephistophilis alone has a certain individuality and importance. Mephistophilis is the right-hand spirit of Lucifer. He describes himself modestly as ‘a servant to Great Lucifer.’ Part of his work seems to be to ‘win souls for hell by the allurements of despair, playing with open cards and hiding no iota of the dreadfulness of damnation.’ At any rate, that is what he does with Faustus. He makes Faustus sign a bond with his own blood, and reminds him of it at the end; nay, makes Faustus keep his word and submit himself to the Devils finally. True to his promise, Mephistophilis remains loyal to Faustus, follows him in his aerial flight from place to place, and does his bidding obediently. It is he, again, that explains to Faustus the secrets of the elements, the spheres and other allied details. Thus, Marlowe’s Mephistophilis is a commonplace drudge of the internal powers. The first time when Mephistophilis appears in the play, (Scene three), he impresses us by his quiet dignity. ‘He speaks as one who has come not over-willingly and with no desire to inveigle. His replies to Faustus’s eager questioning are almost wearily abrupt.’ All the same, he cannot help to restrain his tragic passion and burst fort:
For 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;
Signs of Mephistophilis’s remorse and passion are also evident in the lines:
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 depriv’d of everlasting bliss?
O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.