In a great hall, a Masquerade begins as part of the Lenten festival. A herald (royal messenger) says that, unlike traditional German festivals—which are full of morbidity, dancing fools, and demons—the Emperor’s will be a more cheerful entertainment, in the Italian fashion. He concludes that Mankind always has been and always will be the great embodiment of Folly.
The Masquerade is a sensual celebration not unlike Walpurgis Night. It is also Mephistopheles’s opportunity to introduce Faust to the court. The herald, whose job it is to keep order, recognizes the party to be a foolish distraction keeping the Emperor from political duties.
Flower girls enter, singing, and present baskets full of fruits to the masqueraders. The olive branches, grains, flowers, and rosebuds in the baskets discuss their own virtues before the flower girls arrange them in the hall. A mother enters and advises her single daughter that fools are on the loose today and that, if she spreads her lap, surely she can catch one.
The flower girls represent sensual womanhood, the springtime rebirth of humankind through sexual activity. They are one of the many archetypes on display during the Masquerade, which is something like a microcosm for human culture.
Fisherman, birdcatchers, and boorish woodcutters enter and mingle with the girls. Flatterers praise the powerful at the Masquerade, and a drunkard, insulted by the girls, drinks to produce his own high spirits. Indeed, everyone drinks and toasts. Poets enter, some of them satirizing the proceedings and others becoming involved in a poetic discussion with a Vampire, who is visibly fresh from his grave.
The fisherman, birdcatchers, and woodcutters represent the ordinary men of the kingdom, laborers who are interested in sensual pleasure, especially sex. The drunk and the poets are those on the fringes of society, who live in illusion. The Vampire represents a kind of false rebirth, not from death to life but to a living death. This is the kind of rebirth Faust brings about in the kingdom with his paper money.
Characters from Greek mythology also enter, like the Graces (three beautiful sister goddesses, givers of beauty and charm) and the Fates (three goddesses who determine the course of human life), who sing amusingly, as do Fear, Hope, and Prudence. Mephistopheles enters disguised as a two-headed dwarf, but the herald strikes him with his staff. The devil turns into a horrible shapeless substance, which then transforms into an egg, from which hatch an adder and a bat. The adder and bat hurry into the night to reunite.
The characters from Greek mythology are debased here. They are treated like mere amusements and stripped of their deeper cultural value that Goethe so admired. Mephistopheles enters to create confusion so that Faust can enter afterward without a problem. The herald tries to keep order by striking Mephistopheles, but the negative, conflict-creating devil succeeds in his purpose.
The herald sees in the sky a charioteer (here, the personification of Poetry) carried by winged horses, who lands in the great hall and introduces the splendid figure seated on his chariot’s throne. It is Plutus, the god of wealth, but actually it is Faust disguised as Plutus. He orders that a great chest of treasure be unloaded from the chariot, after which the charioteer flies away. With the herald’s staff, Plutus smites the lock from the chest to open it. Magically, gold and jewelry surge up from its mouth and overflow. The crowd goes wild, attempting to make off with as much treasure as possible. Again, however, Plutus takes the herald’s staff, sets it on fire, and he uses it both to drive back the crowd and also to draw an invisible magic circle.
Plutus, the god of wealth, is just who is needed to set things right in the bankrupt empire, so it’s no wonder Faust disguises himself as such. But Faust is not providing wealth to all and creating a Utopia— instead he is providing only the illusion of wealth, and this to the Emperor alone, so that Faust becomes indispensable to the operations of the imperial court. The charioteer who accompanies Faust foreshadows the appearance of Euphorion, who is Poetry incarnate, later in the play.
There suddenly arrives a herd of satyrs—part human, part animal woodland gods—and their leader Pan, a horned and goat-legged Greek god of flocks and herds—but this actually the Emperor in disguise as Pan. Dance-loving fauns and materialistic, earth-mining gnomes enter also, along with hearty giants and nymphs who worship Pan as representing the cosmic All.
The satyrs and gnomes represent the Emperor’s court. The satyrs are drunken pleasure-lovers, while the gnomes are exploiters of the earth, greedy for gold, just as the court is full of people seeking pleasure and personal gain. Only narrow-minded humans could think the political court encompasses all the world.
Plutus’s magic circle opens, revealing a fountain of fire that surges up from an abyss. The gnomes conduct Pan toward it. He stands fearlessly before the fire and enjoys the spectacle—that is, until it burns his beard off and he himself catches fire. Joy turns to agony, and people panic. The herald sees that it is really the Emperor burning. We learn later that it is here that the Emperor signs the note of paper money that Faust gives to him, probably while he’s surrounded by fire, copies of which are later circulated throughout the empire, thereby eliminating, for now, the financial crisis.
This scene represents the Emperor giving into the temptation of Faust’s easy gold. Here it leads him into the illusion of fire, but later it will bring about the very real fires of war and, presumably, damnation. Just as Faust seduced Gretchen by giving her gold, so too does he insinuate himself into the imperial court by printing the paper money which alleviates the financial crisis. The Emperor does not really burn here—it is only an illusion.
Plutus thinks that there has been sufficient panic. With the herald’s staff he summons fragrant coolness into the great hall, and water to put out the fires. When demonic forces threaten, he says, we must bring magic to our aid.
As Plutus starts and then puts out his own fire, so Faust solves the problems he himself causes in the empire, like the rebellion later caused by the printing of the paper money.