Wagner takes the stage and describes how Faustus traveled through the heavens on a chariot pulled by dragons in order to learn the secrets of astronomy. Wagner tells us that Faustus is now traveling to measure the coasts and kingdoms of the world and that his travels will take him to Rome.
Faustus appears, recounting to Mephastophilis his travels throughout Europe—first from Germany to France and then on to Italy. He asks Mephastophilis if they have arrived in Rome, whose monuments he greatly desires to see, and Mephastophilis replies that they are in the pope’s privy chamber. It is a day of feasting in Rome, to celebrate the pope’s victories, and Faustus and Mephastophilis agree to use their powers to play tricks on the pope.
Note: The events described in the next two paragraphs occur only in the B text of Doctor Faustus, in Act III, scene i. The A text omits the events described in the next two paragraphs but resumes with the events described immediately after them.
As Faustus and Mephastophilis watch, the pope comes in with his attendants and a prisoner, Bruno, who had attempted to become pope with the backing of the German emperor. While the pope declares that he will depose the emperor and forces Bruno to swear allegiance to him, Faustus and Mephastophilis disguise themselves as cardinals and come before the pope. The pope gives Bruno to them, telling them to carry him off to prison; instead, they give him a fast horse and send him back to Germany.
Later, the pope confronts the two cardinals whom Faustus and Mephastophilis have impersonated. When the cardinals say that they never were given custody of Bruno, the pope sends them to the dungeon. Faustus and Mephastophilis, both invisible, watch the proceedings and chuckle. The pope and his attendants then sit down to dinner. During the meal, Faustus and Mephastophilis make themselves invisible and curse noisily and then snatch dishes and food as they are passed around the table. The churchmen suspect that there is some ghost in the room, and the pope begins to cross himself, much to the dismay of Faustus and Mephastophilis. Faustus boxes the pope’s ear, and the pope and all his attendants run away. A group of friars enters, and they sing a dirge damning the unknown spirit that has disrupted the meal. Mephastophilis and Faustus beat the friars, fling fireworks among them, and flee.
Robin the ostler, or stablehand, and his friend Rafe have stolen a cup from a tavern. They are pursued by a vintner (or wine-maker), who demands that they return the cup. They claim not to have it, and then Robin conjures up Mephastophilis, which makes the vintner flee. Mephastophilis is not pleased to have been summoned for a prank, and he threatens to turn the two into an ape and a dog. The two friends treat what they have done as a joke, and Mephastophilis leaves in a fury, saying that he will go to join Faustus in Turkey.
The scenes in Rome are preceded by Wagner’s account, in the second chorus, of how Faustus traveled through the heavens studying astronomy. This feat is easily the most impressive that Faustus performs in the entire play, since his magical abilities seem more and more like cheap conjured tricks as the play progresses. Meanwhile, his interests also diminish in importance from astronomy, the study of the heavens, to cosmography, the study of the earth. He even begins to meddle in political matters in the assistance he gives Bruno (in the B text only). By the end of the play, his chief interests are playing practical jokes and producing impressive illusions for nobles—a far cry from the ambitious pursuits that he outlines in scene 1.
Faustus’s interactions with the pope and his courtiers offer another send-up of the Catholic Church. The pope’s grasping ambition and desire for worldly power would have played into late-sixteenth-century English stereotypes. By having the invisible Faustus box the papal ears and disrupt the papal banquet, Marlowe makes a laughingstock out of the head of the Catholic Church. Yet the absurdity of the scene coexists with a suggestion that, ridiculous as they are, the pope and his attendants do possess some kind of divinely sanctioned power, which makes them symbols of Christianity and sets their piety in opposition to Faustus’s devil-inspired magic. When the pope and his monks begin to rain curses on their invisible tormentors, Faustus and Mephastophilis seem to fear the power that their words invoke. Mephastophilis says, “[W]e shall be cursed with bell, / book, and candle” (7.81–82). The fear-imposing power these religious symbols have over Mephastophilis suggests that God remains stronger than the devil and that perhaps Faustus could still be saved, if he repented in spite of everything. Faustus’s reply—“Bell, book and candle; candle, book, and bell / Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell”—is fraught with foreshadowing (7.83–84). Hell, of course, is exactly where Faustus is “curse[d]” to go, but through his own folly and not the curses of monks or the pope.
The absurd behavior of Robin and Rafe, meanwhile, once again contrasts with Faustus’s relationship to the diabolical. Robin and Rafe conjure up Mephastophilis in order to scare off a vintner, and even when he threatens to turn them into animals (or actually does so temporarily—the text is unclear on this matter), they treat it as a great joke. Yet the contrast between Faustus on the one hand and the ostlers and the clown on the other, the high and the low, is not so great as it is originally, since Faustus too has begun using magic in pursuit of practical jokes, like boxing the pope’s ear. Such foolishness is quite a step down for a man who earlier speaks of using his magic to become ruler of Germany. Although Faustus does step into the political realm when he frees Bruno and sends him back to Germany, this action seems to be carried out as part of the cruel practical joke on the pope, not as part of any real political pursuit. The degradation of Faustus’s initially heroic aims continues as the play proceeds, with Faustus coming to resemble a clown more and more.