Faust and Mephistopheles enter a vaporous, grotesque witch’s kitchen where a female ape tends to a boiling cauldron on the fire. Gathered around her are a male ape and several young apes. On the walls are utensils of sorcery. The devil has brought his master here to provide him with a potion that will make him thirty years younger, but Faust does not like the lunacy and foulness of the place. The devil tells Faust that if he wants to stay young without such magic, he should just live a simple farmer’s life. Faust is unused to physical labor and too restless for it anyway, so he concedes that the witch will have to help him if he is to stay young.
In the wine-cellar, Faust meets men who behave like animals. In the witch’s kitchen, in contrast, he meets animals that eerily behave like humans. This inversion speaks to how magic corrupts the natural order. The violation of nature presented by the humanoid apes deeply disturbs Faust. Although Faust rejects the farmer’s life now, he later cultivates, not unlike a farmer, a kingdom and society. Often our quests bring us back to where we started, but with new knowledge.
Mephistopheles asks the apes where the witch is. They say that she is dining out and she will be for a while. Charmed by the apes’ conversation, the devil then asks what they are tending in the caldron. A watery soup for the needy, they say. The male ape asks to play dice with Mephistopheles, so long as he himself, the ape, be permitted to win. This ape would think it a privilege to play the lottery, Mephistopheles says, upon which the male ape sings a song about the tumult and fragility of the world.
The devil enjoys the language of the apes because it verges on gibberish, pure sound disconnected from any meaning. That the ape wants to play dice is a rather bitter joke on Goethe’s part. It seems that what separates humans from other animals is that we enjoy needlessly exposing ourselves to risk, and would like to profit without having to work.
While Mephistopheles inquires about various utensils on the walls, Faust is gazing into a magic mirror in which he sees the beautiful form of a woman. The devil, now seated in an armchair like a king, promises to find for him a woman just like that. The apes bring the devil a crown, but clumsily break it in two. They dance about with it, singing that they can listen and write, and, if they’re lucky enough to make a bit of sense, write profoundly at that. Meanwhile, Faust feels as though he’s going mad with desire for the woman in the mirror, and he asks to leave.
The woman in the mirror awakens in Faust the appetite which will lead him to seduce and corrupt Gretchen, and later to pursue Helen of Troy. In the witch’s kitchen, the devil is indeed king, but he rules over confusion and impotence, symbolized by the breaking of the crown. Based on Faust’s empty books, we may well believe the apes when they say that to write with a little sense is to write profoundly.
Just then, the caldron the female ape is tending boils over and the witch appears in a great flame, screaming horribly. She berates the ape for forgetting the kettle and scorching her mistress. Then the witch sees Faust and Mephistopheles and threatens to torment their bones with fire. In response, Mephistopheles joyfully shatters the witch’s glassware and pottery before revealing himself as the devil, the lord and master of witches. The witch apologizes and claims not to have recognized him because he is lacking his usual two ravens. She refers to the devil as Squire Satan, but he prefers to be called Baron, like a cavalier and noble gentleman.
The witch and Mephistopheles both are quick to assert their power and mastery over others. Throughout Faust, the master-servant relationship is associated with the demonic world, whereas Goethe’s ideal ruler is more a servant of his people.
Mephistopheles then asks the witch for a glass of her well-known elixir, the oldest batch she has, for every year doubles its potency. She happily obliges, but warns that Faust must prepare himself before drinking it, or else he will die within the hour. With the devil’s blessing, the witch draws a magic circle, places curious objects within it, gathers the apes together to serve as her reading-desk, and beckons to Faust, who is skeptical of all this hocus-pocus.
That Faust is skeptical of the witch’s ritual suggests that he has not yet forfeited his reason altogether. He knows magic has power, but he also knows that much of what passes for magic is merely theatrics and self-aggrandizement.
Mephistopheles shoves Faust into the circle, and the witch bombastically reads several numerological paradoxes from her book—saying that ten equals zero, for example. The devil explains that such self-contradictions, especially that one is three and that three is one, mystify the foolish and the wise alike and propagate confusion, because people hear such silly words and assume there’s some thought behind them. The witch continues reading, and Faust feels like his head is going to split. It’s like he’s listening to a hundred thousand fools in chorus.
The devil appreciates paradoxical nonsense because it can’t be rationally analyzed, and therefore it leads us into complacency. The paradoxical identity of the three and the one is an allusion to the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, which Goethe seems to be criticizing here. Faust is too reasonable for all this, of course, and consequently his head hurts to hear it.
Mephistopheles tells the witch that that’s enough, and to fill the goblet. She does so and gives it to Faust, who begins to drink until a slight flame rises from the cup. The devil urges Faust to down the goblet nonetheless, and Faust obeys. The devil then tells Faust to keep moving, explaining that he must sweat if the elixir is to rejuvenate him both inside and out. Mephistopheles also thanks the witch, and tells her to approach him on Walpurgis Night (a saint’s holiday, but also one honoring Satan) if she has a favor to ask. Faust begs to see the woman in the magic mirror once more, but Mephistopheles promises that he will see the very best of women in the flesh soon enough. The two exit.
This scene parodies the Catholic ritual of Communion, where the faithful drink wine, which is a metaphor for (or an incarnation of) the blood of Christ and salvation. Faust is gaining only thirty earthly years, however, not eternal life. Ironically he achieves this through demonic means that would like to see him damned for eternity. Now that he is younger, Faust is also able to act vigorously on his bodily passion, as he will soon do with Margarete.