At Auerbach’s wine-cellar, a lively drinking-party is underway. One of the revelers, Frosch, urges his companions to drink and be merry, but his fellow Brander says it’s Frosch’s fault everyone is boring like wet straw, because he hasn’t contributed anything silly or bawdy to the conversation. Frosch empties a glass of wine onto Brander’s head. Brander insults him and a third reveler, Siebel, says that anyone who quarrels should be kicked out. Siebel breaks out into song, and a fourth and final reveler, Altmayer, complains that the singing is splitting his ears.
The scene in the wine-cellar presents ordinary people indulging in bodily pleasures. The revelers, it is implied, repeat the same conversations and jokes every time they get together to drink, which suggests their self-destructive complacency. When they are bored, as now, they antagonize one another like animals. These are people in the devil’s clutches already.
Frosch begins to sing a political song about the Roman Empire, which Brander dismisses as nasty; he is grateful not to be an emperor or chancellor. Frosch then begins singing a love song, apparently addressed to a woman Siebel loved once, for Siebel demands that Frosch stop singing. He says that the woman in question made a fool of him and will do likewise with Frosch. He concludes that for being such a slut she deserves a goblin, not a man of flesh and blood. Brander then leads a chorus in singing a song about a gluttonous rat whom a cook poisoned. The poison made the rat run about, feeling as though it had fallen in love, and then die.
These revelers turn to idle leisure in order to distract themselves from responsibility. It is no wonder that Brander, for one, shrinks away from political life, which might require discipline and inner resources. His song about the rat can be read as a metaphor for the revelers themselves—they are the rats, poisoning themselves with drink, lustful but incapable of real human love, living undesirable and brutishly short lives.
Faust and Mephistopheles enter the wine-cellar. The devil intends to first introduce his master to partying and merriment. Frosch suspects the newcomers to be aristocrats because they look haughty and dissatisfied, and he decides to try and trick the two. Mephistopheles tells Faust that simple folk never sense the devil’s presence, not even when his hand is on their throats. Siebel welcomes the newcomers, but notices to himself that Mephistopheles limps on one foot. Frosch attempts to fluster Mephistopheles by randomly asking if he had supper with one Mr. Jack, but Mephistopheles slyly plays along, thereby getting the better of him.
An aristocrat, because of his privilege, could acquire an education and cultivate skills that distinguished him or her as an individual. Frosch, who is not an individual but merely a part of a group—basically indistinguishable from his fellows—seems to resent the aristocrat’s privilege and so tries to make the aristocratic Faust and devil feel like outsiders. He plays at being sarcastic and negative, but Mephistopheles, the spirit of negation, is too much for him.
Mephistopheles, claiming to have just come from Spain, the land of wine and song, begins singing upon Altmayer’s request. His song is about a king who has a flea that he loves like a son, dressing it in a fine suit of clothes and making him a minister in the court. The flea bites the ladies and knights of the court, but these people dare not scratch their itches, much less kill the flea. However, the chorus of the song concludes, we who are not in the king’s court are free to kill fleas whenever we feel a twitch. The revelers all cheer.
The devil’s song plays to the revelers’ populist prejudices. It is about the freedom common people experience as a result of not living in the sphere of political power. Of course, the revelers themselves don’t seem all that free, in reality, as they are stuck in a rut of drinking and telling the same old jokes, day in, day out. Only someone who transcends the structure of earthly power can truly be free, Goethe suggests.
Mephistopheles then says he’d drink with the revelers if only their wine were better. The revelers take offense at this notion, that is, until the devil offers to bring up some bottles from his and Faust’s private cellar, a plan all heartily approve of. Mephistopheles requests an auger, a drill-like tool, which is duly provided, and he says each man can have whatever he pleases. Frosch asks for a good Rhine wine, and Mephistopheles bores a hole in the table with the auger. He also asks for wax to serve as stoppers. It’s only a magician’s trick, Altmayer says.
After playing to their anti-aristocratic prejudices, Mephistopheles slaps the revelers in the face, so to speak, by criticizing their wine as inferior. He is asserting his more refined taste over theirs. While they take offense at first, the prospect of drinking fine wine excites the men. The devil’s implicit point seems to be that our prejudices come about out of resentment: we hate what we can’t have.
Mephistopheles continues taking wine orders—champagne for Brander, and something good and sweet for Siebel—but Altmayer fears that the stranger is just making fools of the revelers and he won’t make a specific request. At last, Mephistopheles stops boring holes in the table and stopping them with the wax. He chants a spell makes fantastical gestures. He orders the men to draw the wax stoppers out of the holes and drink their fill. And indeed, when the men draw the stoppers, various wines flow out of the bored holes into their cups. The men are ecstatic and drink cup after cup. The devil warns them, however, not to spill a single drop.
This passage is a demonic parody of the Biblical episode in which Moses strikes life-giving water out of a rock for the parched Israelites in the desert. The revelers here, in contrast, have probably had too much to drink already, and the devil is only inviting them to further excess. Moreover, the wine does not give life, but rather lulls the revelers into illusion and stupor. This is a false miracle, and the men behave like animals in response to it.
Faust tells Mephistopheles that he wishes to go, but the devil says they must wait to see a demonstration of marvelous animal spirits. Soon enough, Siebel spills a drop of wine, which turns to flame as it hits the floor. Siebel cries out that it is hellfire. Mephistopheles conjures the flame to be peaceful, and says that it was only a spark from purgatory. The revelers are now angry with the stranger’s trick, and his impudence. It’s time for him to make himself scarce, they say.
Faust is not at all impressed by the devil’s sadistic trick, nor is he pleased by the bestial folly of the revelers. Rather nobly, he wants to leave, for there is nothing to learn here. The devil, however, is pettily cruel and upholds the law that no one spill wine very strictly. Rather than recognize the moral danger they’re in, though, the revelers stupidly threaten the devil.
In response, Mephistopheles calls Siebel a “wine-tun” (a barrel). The devil seems to be just asking for a beating. When Altmayer pulls a stopper from the table, fire shoots out at him, setting him on fire. Siebel identifies this as a work of black magic. He and the other men draw their knives and rush at Mephistopheles. With a seriously-intoned charm, however, the devil bewitches the men into thinking that they are transported to a new, pretty country, complete with a vineyard. The men grab at what they think are grapes, but which are really one another’s noses. Mephistopheles chants a counter-charm, removing the spell, then immediately disappears with Faust.
The wine’s transformation into fire foreshadows the revelers’ damnation to fiery hell if they persist in their pleasure-seeking and idle ways. Far from recognizing this, the men become violent, even though their magical enemy is clearly too strong for them. The devil, in turn, transports the men to a false paradise, where their bodies make up the vegetation. This transformation reveals just how plant-like the men are in life: merely absorbing nutrients, they are inactive and uncreative, not wholly human.
The revelers are confused by Mephistopheles’ joke, especially when they realize they’re all holding one another’s noses. They wonder where Mephistopheles went, and Siebel swears that if he finds him he’ll kill him. Altmayer claims to have seen the stranger ride out of the tavern on a keg. The men wonder if any wine is left in the table, but Siebel says that it was all a deception and an illusion. Altmayer closes the scene. Some people, he exclaims, claim there are no miracles.
The fact that the revelers wonder if any wine remains suggests that they have learned nothing from their encounter with the devil. Rather than being spurred to change their lives, they persist in their self-destructive idleness, contrasting strongly with Faust on this point. Altmayer’s identification of the trick as a miracle is sadly misguided. The devil’s cruel deception is the opposite of a miracle.