In the Underworld, Faust and Manto were granted their request that Helen be released from her ghostly afterlife to live again in a timeless moment, though Goethe only implies this. Act III opens in this timeless moment, just after the Trojan War. Helen and captive Trojan women have just returned to the palace of Helen’s husband, Menelaus. Helen does not know why he has summoned her: is it to reign as queen alongside him, or to atone for her having been kidnapped by his enemy Paris? She is the prize of war, but is she also a captive? She ascends to the palace. The Trojan women mourn their captivity.
By becoming intimately familiar with the culture of Classical Greece, Faust makes it possible to bring the ideal beauty of Helen back into his world—as no longer a vision but a reality. To live, however, Helen must live in her own historical period, so Faust goes back in time to join her. Act III of Faust opens on a scene set where Homer’s Iliad—Goethe’s source for Helen, Paris, and Menelaus—leaves off. The Greeks have just defeated the Trojans and recovered Helen.
Inside the palace, Helen encounters empty passageways at first, and then a monstrously strange form: it is Phorkyas-Mephistopheles, the incarnation of the Ugly. The chorus of captive Trojan women sings about being held in terror’s grip at the sight of this hideousness. After maliciously reminding Helen of all the lovers she’s had in her life, Phorkyas-Mephistopheles insinuates that Menelaus intends to evilly murder his wife with an axe and hang all of the captive Trojan women from a palace rafter. All are terrified by this possibility.
Faust, as a modern man, doesn’t realize that that he cannot possess the ideally beautiful Helen until she has been corrupted by evil—for Helen would never submit to Faust otherwise. It is to this end that Mephistopheles disguises himself as Phorkyas. Disguised thus, the devil speaks of good and evil, the language of Christianity. This confuses and frightens Helen, as such distinctions are culturally foreign to her.
Phorkyas-Mephistopheles sees only one way for Helen and her fellow captives to save themselves: in the hills north of Sparta a great, powerful, and magnanimous lord (Faust) has led a horde of Germanic barbarians in building an invincible fortress. The monster promises to instantly transport the women there if Helen gives the word to do so.
Having made Helen spiritually insecure, Phorkyas-Mephistopheles convinces her to flee her murderous husband and escape to Faust’s medieval fortress. The devil might be lying about Menelaus’s murderous intentions, of course.
Although Helen senses that Phorkyas-Mephistopheles is a hostile spirit who will change good to bad, she gives the word, and the monster transports all of the women to Faust’s fortress. After mists spread and obscure their vision, Helen and the Trojan women find themselves suddenly in a prison-like pit or courtyard. They fear they’re as much captive now as they were before.
Like Gretchen, Helen recognizes Mephistopheles’s hostility, and the devil does change good to bad by poisoning Greek culture with ideas of good and evil. Nonetheless, Helen chooses survival, even knowing that this choice will limit her power and freedom.