The scene opens at a “lively and lusty drinking party” with a group of young men all sharing in some wine and revelry. The party has not really started on the right foot. One of the men, Frosch, complains that no one is drinking or laughing, and another, Brander, complains that there is “no horseplay, no dirty joke.” Frosch pours a glass of wine on his head to get the party started, but this only infuriates Brander and sours the mood of the room even more as they begin to fight.
Frosch sings a drinking song about the “dear old Holy Roman Empire,” but Brander calls it a “nasty. . .political song.” Brander says that he considers advantageous to be neither “emperor nor chancellor,” yet he concedes that Germany must have a leader, so they should choose a “pope.” Frosch sings another drinking song, this one about lost love, but this upsets Siebel who has recently had some heartbreak. He hopes that his former girlfriend will get nothing but a “hobgoblin for a lover / Some old goat returning from Block Mountain.”
Brander interrupts all of this sadness by telling them that he knows a song that will please everyone. He sings a song about a rat that lived in a kitchen who “liked her lard and butter. . .and looked like Martin Luther.” One day the cook of the kitchen slipped some poison into the rat’s food, and it “got in an awful state, / As if it had love in her belly.” The rat scurried everywhere in “mortal fear” and finally ran into the kitchen, where it turned and died on the kitchen hearth “As if it had love in her belly.” Siebel admits that, with such a cruel song, now the “numbskulls” are enjoying their time together.
Faust and Mephistopheles enter the Cellar, and the Devil tells Faust that he will introduce him to “some jolly company, / so that you can see how smooth your life can be.” These men, Mephistopheles says, live their lives with little thought towards the future. As long as their hangovers are not too bad, and the bar owner continues to keep a generous tab for them, they are happy with their daily lives. The drinking friends see the two enter and peg them as travelers. They toast their hometown of Leipzig, “a little Paris.”
Frosch tells the others that once they take some wine, he will be able to ascertain everything about the travelers. They look “proud and dissatisfied.” Mephistopheles tells Faust that they will never even suspect that the Devil is in their midst, though the men are all a little skeptical of Mephistopheles who drags his foot. They offer to join them at their table, and since their wine is no good, they want at least to enjoy the company. They ask if the travelers left Rippach and had supper with Master Hans, a figure from German folklore. Mephistopheles said they did and that Master Hans asked about each of them. The drinking friends realize they are dealing with a “huckster” who is “no fool.”
Mephistopheles tells them that they came to the Cellar just to enjoy in the singing that they heard from outside. The men goad him on to give them a song, so Mephistopheles begins to sing. His song is about a king who owned a “large-sized flea” on which he lavished all the riches of his kingdom. This farcical story entertains the men. The flea, the Devil continues, was fitted in fine clothing and was made a head of State. The other members of the King’s court could do nothing about the flea’s power and so only squealed “as they were nicked. / We slither and we quiver / As soon as we are pricked.” by the flea’s bite. The song delights the men, and they toast good songs and wine.
Mephistopheles tells the men that he would like to toast their good times if only there was wine of good quality. He offers to treat the men to “something rare from our cellar.” The men tell him not to worry about the landlord and that if he produces the liquid, “we’ll sing your praises / to the sky.” Mephistopheles begins to ask each of them about their favorite wine. One says Rhenish wine, local fare, another says champagne, and one says a sweet wine. Mephistopheles tells them that he will provide it all. He begins to drill holes in the side of their table and tells them to stop the holes up with wax. They all think he is playing a trick on them.
After he has drilled the last hole, he says a spell, telling them that “a miracle is here,” and he pulls the wax from the holes, and the wine begins to pour forth. They all begin to fill their glasses with the wine, and Mephistopheles warns them not to let any of it drop on the floor. Faust tells the devil that he is “inclined to leave immediately,” but Mephistopheles tells him to “Take notice first how their bestiality / will stand revealed in glowing color.” Siebel accidentally lets a little of the wine spill to the ground and it explodes in fire. This shocks the men and they begin to murmur about kicking the travelers out of the tavern. They accuse him of playing tricks on them.
The men start to come at Mephistopheles to fight him. More wine spills on the floor, and fire leaps into Altmayer’s face. They pull their knives in preparation to kill Mephistopheles, but he says a quick spell and they suddenly believe that they are standing in a beautiful vineyard. They gape at the large grapes and try to grab them without realizing they are really seeing the noses of the other men. They prepare to cut down the “grapes,” and Mephistopheles lifts the spell just before they take off each others’ noses. Mephistopheles and Faust disappear, and all the men realize they have been tricked. However, Altmayer realizes that something extraordinary has happened. He proclaims, “Who says there are no miracles!”
The scene at Auerbach’s Tavern is a nod to the long line of Faust myths and folklore that came before Goethe’s epic. Auerbach’s Tavern is a real and well-known drinking establishment in the city of Leipzig. It opened its doors in 1438, and Goethe himself was a patron while a student at the University of Leipzig. The intentions of the scene, in folklore, are to show Faust making his transition from doctor, chemist, and magician to a more drunken or debauched state as he is slowly tempted by the Devil. In the legend, Faust performs tricks of magic and flies away from the tavern on a barrel of wine, just as a witch would fly away on her broom. In Goethe’s version of this scene, Faust rarely speaks. Instead, the scene is used as a powerful example of comic relief in the play, a moment of spectacle and levity that must be understood in the context of the theater in which it was first performed.
The four bar characters represent stereotypes of the academic crowd that would have congregated at Auerbach’s. “Frosch” is a nickname for first year students, or freshmen. “Brander” is a term used for second year students, sophomores. “Altmayer” represents an alumnus of the university and “Siebel” is the bartender, suggesting that perhaps university education does not get one as far as they hoped.
The men, along with Mephistopheles, sing two stories involving animals, the story of a rat who is poisoned and the story of the flea at a king’s court. Such songs would have been popular entertainment at drinking taverns during this time, but in Goethe’s play they serve as allusions to events both past and present. The story of the rat is on one level an amusing parable of the dangers of love. The men tell it in order to soothe the heartbreak that Siebel seems to have over a lost lover. On a literary level, however, this story foreshadows Faust’s future love, Gretchen, whom the play introduces a few scenes later. The reader is also reminded of the poison that Faust almost drank at the beginning of the play. Faust will soon drink another kind of poison, a poison of love, that will cause him just as much misery.
The story of the flea is more of a political satire. The song satirizes the ancien regime, the mode of government and aristocracy that ruled over much of Europe in the centuries between the Middle Ages and the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. It was common for animals to represent certain characters or ideals in such songs and plays. In this particular song, a flea represents a member of the aristocracy that holds court with the king. Even though, in the song, the other members of the aristocracy find it appalling that a flea would join their ranks, the song really pokes fun at those people. Like the aristocracy, fleas simply latch onto and feed from those things that are bigger and more powerful. They have no real power or means of existence apart from that which supports them.
The scene ends with Mephistopheles performing great tricks of magic and sorcery. He brings wine forth from a table in which he has drilled several holes, and the wine, when spilled on the floor, bursts into flames. The magic is both fun and entertaining, yet it is also dangerous and cruel. Such tricks reinforce Mephistopheles’ characteristics to the audience or the reader. He is on the one hand playing the role of the court jester, but he is also the Devil, and his cruelty and malice are not separate from his humor and entertainment.