The Emperor meets with his military officers in the imperial tent on a foothill. They discuss the strength of their army. Two scouts, however, enter with bad news: many loyal to the Emperor are too afraid to act on his behalf, and an Anti-Emperor has organized the many rebels under his banner. The Emperor resolves to reassert his identity as a noble leader by challenging the Anti-Emperor to single combat.
The Anti-Emperor is probably no better than the Emperor, or so we might assume based on Goethe’s harsh treatment of politicians in general. Human government passes from one fool’s hands to another’s. The Emperor, though, with rare nobility, offers to fight the Anti-Emperor one-on-one.
Just then, an armored Faust enters with his Three Mighty Men. He offers the Emperor the help and strength of magic in his war, but, as grateful as the Emperor is, he asserts that he must rely on his own hand to put down the Anti-Emperor. However, when messengers return informing the Emperor that his challenge has been received by the rebels with scorn and ridicule, he orders his army to advance and permits the Three Mighty Men to march among his troops.
Perhaps the Emperor offers to fight the Anti-Emperor because he knows that he himself is personally responsible for throwing his realm into chaos. It would be unjust to make others die on his behalf. This is a noble perception on the Emperor’s part, but it comes much too late, and might even be seen as mere posturing, an attempt to save his reputation.
Assisted by the Three Mighty Men and empty suits of armor that Mephistopheles animated, the Emperor’s army fights the rebels. However, after two ravens conference with the devil, he informs the Emperor that his army is losing—and so the Emperor reluctantly grants Mephistopheles command in his stead. Mephistopheles orders water spirits to create the illusion of a flood, which causes the enemy to flee, and he also blinds enemy soldiers with alternating dense shrouds of blackness and blinding flashes of light. The suits of armor regain their vigor and fight as though living once more. Soon the Emperor’s army achieves victory.
The devil deceives the Emperor about the state of the war, which was always securely in the Emperor’s favor, so that he himself can wield absolute power in determining the course of battle. Mephistopheles has not enjoyed such pure destructive power yet in the play, and he savors it. The ensuing carnage is hideous to behold, a vision of what the world would be like if the devil were in charge. Of course, the play suggests that the devil often does come to be in charge of politicians.