115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sympathy for the Devil: Mephistopheles from the Chapbooks to Goethe

Dustin Lovett, "University of California, Santa Barbara"

This paper explores the peculiarities of religious anxieties from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment by examining their representations in the figure of Mephistopheles in the various adaptations of the Faust legend.


From its chapbook origins to its literary apotheosis under Goethe’s pen, the various adaptations of the Faust legend in Early Modern literature, whether popular or high, always depended on the evocation of religion, both folk belief and theology, to achieve their affect. Whether in the titillating proto-colportage of the chapbooks, the farcical proto-scientific skepticism of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, or Goethe’s recasting of the Renaissance morality tale in terms of Enlightenment values in Faust, post-Reformation religious anxiety always undergirds the bad doctor’s quest for knowledge and power, and in all of these early adaptations of the legend, the figure of Mephistopheles comes to embody the peculiar qualities of each work’s particular anxieties. While Mephistopheles always figures as Faust’s diabolical servant, his characterization and even his role varies considerably between the early works. Sometimes he plays the evil knave, sometimes the mischievous trickster and tempter, and sometimes the honest counselor. This paper argues that each depiction of Mephistopheles tells us something about the development and peculiarities religious questions in Early Modern literature as the Faust legend crossed borders from Germany to England and France and back, and epochs from the Renaissance to the end of the Enlightenment. By examining the figure of Mephistopheles in the original German chapbook, as well its French and English translations, and in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Goethe’s Faust, I hope to explore how the capacity of Mephistopheles to embody and dramatize changing religious questions made him one of the most potent and memorable characters in Early Modern literature.