Margarete’s neighbor, Dame Martha Schwerdtlein, is alone in her house, thinking about her husband. He has left her though she did him no wrong, she says. She always loved him and fears he may be dead. She wishes she had a death certificate to know for sure.
In contrast to Gretchen, who loves ideally, Martha had what seems to be an unloving and combative marriage, founded not on love but on pragmatism.
Margarete enters and tells Martha that she has found yet another casket of treasures more splendid than the first. Martha advises Margarete not to tell her mother about this and suggests that, since the girl can’t wear the jewels in public, she come over to her, Martha’s, house to dress up in them privately. Margarete again wonders who on earth could have brought these two caskets. Something, she says, is not quite right.
Martha, a morally imperfect woman, promotes secrecy and deception in inviting Margate to dress up in her jewels privately. In this way, she is the perfect tool for the devil to use in helping Faust seduce Gretchen. But Gretchen is now realizing that something bad lies behind her treasures.
There is a knock at the door and a gentleman enters. It is Mephistopheles, claiming to have a message for Dame Martha Schwerdtlein. He excuses himself for interrupting, and addresses Margarete as though she were a lady of high social standing (even though she is just a poor girl), induced to do so not only by the girl’s jewels, he says, but also by her noble demeanor and piercing eyes. He then gives his news: Martha’s husband is dead. Martha despairs. Mephistopheles says that the man’s corpse has been buried in Padua, and he instructs her to have three hundred masses sung for him.
The devil flatters Margarete’s self-esteem by addressing her as a lady of high social standing. He is trying to stir her ambitions to transcend the littleness of provincial life and to make her feel above common morality. This will make her more susceptible to Faust’s charms. He also lies to Martha in order to gain admission into her home and win her trust so that Faust can later seduce Gretchen under the privacy of Martha’s roof.
Martha is troubled: her husband left her no money? No jewelry? Mephistopheles offers his sympathies, and Margarete promises to pray requiems (masses sung for the dead) for the departed. The devil turns to Margarete and says she deserves a husband right away, or at least a lover. She responds that taking a lover is not the custom in these parts. It’s still a practice, however, the devil replies.
Martha is less interested in her husband’s death than in the fact that she isn’t profiting from it. This is indicative of her moral corruption, particularly when compared to Margarete’s innocence. The devil continues to prime Margarete to take Faust as her lover.
Martha requests that Mephistopheles tell her more of her husband’s death. The devil says he was beside him on his straw deathbed. Her husband, he says, died a Christian, requesting his wife’s forgiveness for going into debt and forsaking her. Martha says that she has long since forgiven her husband. But the devil continues: he claims that the husband blamed his wife more than himself, and he insinuates that the husband acquired a huge treasure only to spend it on his mistress. Martha curses her dead husband as a thief and villain. When the devil advises her to mourn, however, she praises her husband as most lovable, even though he had vicious habits.
Sadistically, Mephistopheles tortures Martha by lying to her about her husband’s last words. He says that the husband was cruel and neglected his wife in favor of his mistress. This is all just a vicious prank, designed to relieve the devil’s boredom. Martha, for her part, sincerely curses her husband, only to hypocritically conform to the social convention that she should at least appear to be aggrieved by his death.
Mephistopheles gets in a final dig, by saying that things would have been all right if Martha’s husband had been as tolerant of his wife as she claims to have been of him. He then resolves to leave. Martha requests proof of her husband’s death and burial. Mephistopheles says he’ll bring a friend to her house as a second witness to establish the truth of what he’s said. He then asks Margarete if she’ll be here too, and praises his friend (the one coming to verify the death) as worldly and polite. Margarete says that she will only be able to blush in front of him, but the devil replies that there’s no need to blush before a king. Martha says she’ll expect Mephistopheles and his friend to return this evening.
Martha satisfies the devil’s plan perfectly by asking for a death certificate, which gives Faust an occasion to come to her house and meet Margarete again. The devil’s digs about Martha’s husband, however, have nothing to do with this plan and are just wanton acts of nastiness. Having flattered Margarete and stirred her social ambitions by calling her a lady, the devil then sets Faust up as a king, that is, one able to satisfy any social ambitions she might have. So he lays his snares for the poor innocent girl.