Faust and Mephistopheles enter the lair of a witch. Two apes watch over a brimming and brewing cauldron. Faust is “repelled” by everything he sees and does not understand why he is coming to “seek counsel from an ancient hag.” He wonders why an easier answer to regaining his youth has not come to him yet. Mephistopheles tells him that an easier way exists: “Start to dig and cultivate; / keep your body and your spirit / in a humble and restricted sphere, / . . . live with your herd and spread your own / manure / on land from which you reap your nourishment.” Faust tells him that he has no wish for such a simple life, so Mephistopheles tells him that if that is the case, “I suppose the witch is worth a try.”
Faust wants to know why the Devil cannot himself brew a magic potion to help cure all Faust’s ills. Mephistopheles tells him that such a potion takes the care and time that only a devoted servant of the Devil might give. He asks the two apes where their “mistress” is, and they say that she has slipped away into the night to “carouse.” Mephistopheles asks the animals what they are brewing in the cauldron, and they tell him it is a “watery beggar soup.” The apes challenge the visitors to a game of chance and dance around the room with a large sphere. They sing rhymes and taunt Mephistopheles for coming to steal their potion. Mephistopheles sits down and fans himself with a feather duster.
Faust looks into a magical mirror and sees the shapely form of a beautiful woman appear in the glass. He longs to be with the woman and asks if she can be found somewhere on Earth. Mephistopheles tells him to “sate” himself with her image for now and that soon he will introduce Faust to such beauty. The Devil, enjoying himself now, tells the animals that he needs a crown and then he will be like a king. They bring a crown to him but, in playing with it, break it in two. Faust is still lost in the mirror, and Mephistopheles agrees that he will also lose his mind if the noise from the animals continues.
The cauldron, left unattended by the apes, begins to boil and overflow, and through the flames that rise up from it, the witch appears. She is angry at the apes for letting the cauldron overflow, and she begins to toss hot flames at her visitors, not realizing who they are. Mephistopheles becomes angry at this inhospitality and begins to retaliate at the witch and her belongings. She realizes then with whom she is dealing and recoils, apologizing, because she failed to see his “equine hoof.” Mephistopheles admits that they have not seen each other for a long time and that his appearance has changed: “The world is now a cultured place, / where the devil has evolved accordingly.” He has shed his “Nordic” form of horns and tails and crooked fingers for a more refined look, though he has kept his hoof foot. The witch dances, crying, “My Squire Satan has come back again!” but Mephistopheles tells her not to use that name because “It’s now a name for fairy tales and fables... / the Evil One is gone, the evil ones remain.”
Mephistopheles tells the witch to give him and Faust a glassful of her “famous juice.” The witch tells him that she will be glad to give some to Faust, but that if he drinks it when not prepared, he’ll died within an hour. Mephistopheles believes he will be fine and tells the witch to prepare it for him. She makes “fantastic gestures” and draws a great circle on the floor, placing glassware and other strange objects into it. Faust enters the circle, wary of all the “nonsense,” and the witch reads a spell from a book, a rhyme of number-games. Mephistopheles tells Faust to go along with the farce because such nonsense is what is expected of a witch. The witch continues her spell: “When science lies buried, / The ‘why is’ or ‘what is’ / Need never be sought. / No one is worried; / All science is gratis, / Need never be thought.”
Annoyed by the witch’s nonsense, the devil tells her to give Faust her drink. She obliges, and Faust drinks down the fiery potion. Mephistopheles tells Faust that they must immediately go so that he will “perspire thoroughly” and feel the strength of the potion. Soon, he tells Faust, “You’ll sense with thorough satisfaction / how Cupid stirs and prances to and fro.” Faust remembers the woman in the mirror and asks to see her one more time, but Mephistopheles tells him no. “With that potion in your belly / you’ll soon see Helena in every wench.”
Faust stands on the street alone and sees a young woman, Margaret, pass by. Faust, loopy and lustful after the witch’s potion, begs her to let him accompany her. She tells him that she is “neither lady, neither fair, / and need no escort to go home.” Faust becomes lovesick over the girl, and when Mephistopheles appears, he orders the Devil to get the girl for him. Mephistopheles tells Faust that he just overheard her in confession. The priest absolved her, but there was really nothing for her to confess. He admits that he has no power over that woman.
Faust complains, “She’s past fourteen already,” and Mephistopheles scolds him for talking “like Jack the Libertine.” Faust warns his companion not to lecture him and demands that the girl be his, or “by midnight you and I part company.” Mephistopheles reiterates that he needs at least two weeks to tempt the girl and “ferret out an opportunity.” Faust is still unsatisfied, and Mephistopheles tells him now that he is “talking almost like a Frenchman.” He tells Faust that he will take him to the girl’s room, and though she is not there, Faust “may indulge yourself alone / in your hopes of future ecstasies.” They turn to go, and Faust asks Mephistopheles to procure him a gift to give her. Mephistopheles thinks this gesture is “nice” and tells Faust of the existence of several places with hidden treasure.
The scene in the witch’s cellar is the final of the scenes of transition in the play. The first part of the play depicted Faust as a lonely scholar, miserable and depressed by his own lack of understanding and inability to join in the spirit of the world. By contrast, these scenes, starting with Mephistopheles and the students and now ending in the witch’s cellar, provide a transition in which Faust, now under contract with the Devil, moves from his previous state into a new kind of man. The Don Juan legend may have played a part in Goethe’s modeling of the Faust character, for now Faust will transform into a young lover and indulge in the sexual and moral liberties of the new age.
The opening dialogue between Faust and Mephistopheles offers an insight into Faust’s own motivations for his wager with the Devil. As Faust continues to complain about his spiritual and intellectual depression, Mephistopheles suggests that perhaps he should till his own earth and put such academic and spiritual pursuits behind him, reminding the reader of the townspeople that Faust met while at the city gates earlier in the play. Faust rejects this idea, however, because he has no tolerance for manual labor. Thus, the source of Faust’s condition might be as much from his pretensions as from his wager with the Devil.
The apes and the witch serve as comic relief and spectacle in the play. Scholars of Goethe’s play generally agree that there is little significance in the apes’ language or the witch’s incantations other than to provide a dose of nonsense and entertainment into the play. Both the apes and the witch perform a ritual of perversion, first crowning Mephistopheles as a ruler or king of their underworld and secondly providing Faust with a potion that symbolizes a dark Eucharist. The witch even calls Mephistopheles “Satan,” though he corrects her, saying that just as humanity has evolved past all of their superstitions, so too have the spirits of evil evolved into forms less noticeable.
Faust, while disgusted at the animalistic rituals and the evil chemistry in the room, finds himself nonetheless enthralled by a figure he sees in a mirror. The figure is of the female body, and Faust cannot avert his eyes even when Mephistopheles tells him to pay attention to the witch and her apes. While the witch and the apes brew a potion that will make Faust vital, young, and lustful, Faust undergoes his own transformation from the inside by looking at this mirror. Goethe suggests here that perhaps magic is not necessary for his transformation. Perhaps Faust has the innate ability to change without the need of a wager with the Devil.
The scene on the street, which occurs soon after Faust has taken the witch’s magic potion, shows that Faust has transformed from the lonely, depressed scholar into the modern libertine, free from inhibition or morality. He makes an immediate advance upon a young girl named Gretchen (or Margaret, both names being interchangeable in the German). Although she rejects him, Mephistopheles quickly notes the danger that this young girl holds for both of them. She is dangerous, on the one hand, because she represents the morality of the church. On the other hand, she offers a temptation more tempting than what Mephistopheles can offer. Only through persuasion can Mephistopheles get Faust to wait until Mephistopheles has had ample time to tempt the girl away from the church and the morality. Through trickery and deceit, the Devil retains his control of Faust.