Faust I

is often described as a tragedy centered on character. The basic plot is that the doctor and scientist Heinrich Faust faces a crisis (the Earth Spirit telling him he can never be a god despite his knowledge of EVERYTHING), nearly commits suicide, and then makes a pact with Mephistopheles, who promises to be his magical servant in exchange for Faust's soul, should Faust ever lie in "smug complacency" (1690-95/45). Faust seduces Gretchen, abandons her to party with the witches on Walpurgis Night, and returns to find her awaiting execution for killing their child. Meanwhile, Gretchen's mother dies from a drug overdose given to her to facilitate their trysts, Mephistopheles leads Faust to slay Gretchen's brother, and Gretchen herself dies, pronounced "redeemed" by a voice assumed to be the creator. In this way, Faust I resembles many of the themes running through Storm and Stress texts, and bourgeois tragedy: suicide, infanticide, and love that leads to ruin. Although it appeared in its entirety in 1808, Goethe began Faust I as early as 1772, two years before Werther appeared.)

Some scenes, such as Walpurgis Night's Dream (4251-4395/120-25) do not belong to the main plot above, but instead remark on political and social issues particular to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, they are meaningful to us because they demonstrate recurring themes of the tragedy:

Who is Goethe's Faust?

What does he want?

"Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast,
And either would be severed from its brother;
The one holds fast with joyous earthy lust
Onto the world of man with organs clinging;
The other soars impassioned from the dust,
To realms of lofty forebears swinging.
Oh, be there spirits in the air
Who 'twixt the earth and heaven reigning hover,
Descend ye from the golden fragrance there,
To new and changeful living lead me over!
Why, if a magic cape were only mine
And were to bear me over alien borders,
I'd trade it not for choicest robes and orders,
Not for the royal cloak incarnadine!" (1100-25/31).

Why does he make a pact with Mephistopheles?

"Should ever I take ease upon a bed of leisure,
May that same moment mark my end!
When first by flattery you lull me
Into a smug complacency,
When with indulgence you can gull me,
Let that day be the last for me!" (1690-95/45).

"The lofty Spirit spurned me, and I pry
At Nature's bolted doors in vain.
The web of thought is all in slashes,
All knowledge long turned dust and ashes.
Let in the depths of sensual life
The blaze of passions be abated!" (1750-55/47).

The Tragedy of Gretchen

Evening: Faust: "I wonder--should I?"(2735/74).

Forest and Cave: Faust feels guilty about seducing an innocent:

"And I, the God-forsaken,
Was not content
With cliffsides shaken
And granite crushed and rent,
No, she, her sweet composure, must be shattered too!" (Goethe 3355 - 3360/93)

Marthe's Garden: Gretchen suspects a lack of morality in Faust and his friend.

Margarete: "What is your way about religion, pray?" (3415/96)

Margarete: That man from whom you never part / Is hateful to me in my inmost heart; / Nothing in all my life / Has stabbed me to my soul as with a knife, / Like that man's horrid leer" (3470 - 75/97).

Then Faust gives Gretchen a potion to put her mother to sleep while they have sex (3510-20/98).

Night/Street in Front of Gretchen's Door: Faust kills Gretchen's brother Valentine with the help of Mephistopheles (3705/105).

Cathedral: Funeral for Gretchen's mother, dead from the sleeping potion (3785/108)

Walpurgis Night: Faust parties with Mephistopheles and his witches on Walpurgis Night (April 30; see p. 382). Faust has an image of Gretchen, naked and with a red line across her throat (4185 - 4205/119).

Will o’ the wisps = spirits (actually phosphorescent swamp gas) that were believed to lead the unwary traveler deeper and deeper into the wilderness until he or she was lost and destroyed

Dreary Day and Night: Faust finds out that authorities have imprisoned Gretchen for killing their child (infanticide) (no line #s/126).

Mephistopheles reminds him that "she is not the first" (Goethe, Faust 126), alluding to scores of women like Susanna Margaretha Brandt who died for trying to save their lives and reputations the only way they knew how (Hamlin 389). It is significant that this scene is written in prose, since it is the only scene in the entire drama written unrhymed verse.

Dungeon: Faust encounters Gretchen in the dungeon where she is being held for the death of her child and mother. While she appears to not grasp reality, she senses Faust's guilt:

Margarete: "My mother I killed,
my child I drowned.
Was it not given us both, and bound
Thee too? Thee! No--I can't believe it yet.
Give me that hand! No, it's no dream!
My dearest hand! But it feels wet!
Oh! Wipe it off! It would seem
There's blood on it" (4505-15/130).

"Margarete: "Heinrich! I shrink from thee!

Mephistopheles: She is condemned!

Voice (from above) Redeemed!" (4610/133).

Plot Outline, Part II

Faust II

comes from the last part of Goethe's career, and much of the work on it occurred after 1820; it did not appear until after he died in 1832. Whereas in Faust I the protagonist falls in love and crushes it, in Faust II, he takes over the world and creates new life. The reader should be trying to examine a question left at the end of Faust I: Will Faust suffer for his crimes in the first part of the tragedy?


  1. Dreamer
  2. Lover
  3. Developer (Part II): Connects his personal drives with the economic, political, and social forces that drive the world, and LEARNS TO BUILD AND DESTROY

Mephisto's message: You no longer need to be inhibited by moral questions: Not SHOULD I do it? But HOW do I do it?

Part of Faust’s journey: He has to participate in society in a way that gives his spirit room to soar and grow. It takes the powers of the underworld to pull polarities together; he has to embrace new paradoxes.

Faust I and II have some corollaries:

Faust I

Faust II

Prologue in Heaven

Faust's seduction of Gretchen

Walpurgis Night


Charming Landscape

Faust's pursuit of Helena of Troy

Classical Walpurgis Night

sirens, griffins, lamiae (vampires) (7680/218)


Summary: Goethe mimics Classical style in dividing Part Two into five acts. In the first act, the elves revive Faust, and he and Mephistopheles travel to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, where Mephistopheles helps create paper money, and Faust obtains a key to produce an illusion of Helena of Troy on stage that he falls in love with. 

Charming Landscape (4615-4725/135-38):
This scene compares to the Prologue in Heaven in Part One. Consider the significance of having a Christian heaven, and a secular one, in the same work.

Goethe outlines his plans for the content of Part II, which Hamlin appends to our critical edition: "Faust is discovered sleeping. He is surrounded by choruses of spirits who conjure up for him in visible symbols and charming songs the joys of honor, fame, power and sovereignty. In flattering words and melodies they disguise what are actually derisive propositions. He awakens feeling strengthened, all previous dependence upon sensuality and passion cast off, his mind, purified and fresh, striving towards the highest" (Goethe 521).

With their spirit power, the elves heal Faust in this scene. The nature-spirit Ariel, "familiar from Shakespeare's last play The Tempest," also "appeared earlier at the end of 'Walpurgis Night's Dream' (4391-4)" (Hamlin 392).

Imperial Residence (4730-5060/139-46): Takes place in the throne room of the palace of the Holy Roman Emperor in Augsburg. Goethe means this emperor to be Maximilian I, "who reigned from 1493 to 1519 and was indeed on the throne during the lifetime of the historical Faustus" (Hamlin 397).

Hamlin suggests that the Emperor acts as an "analogue to Faust," and that he represents "inept" leadership and rule (398). In this scene, we see the problems faced by the Emperor:

Mephistopheles promises to help with his money problems by basing a new currency on the promise of riches underneath the earth (Pleasance, 6055-80/172-73). The Astrologer voices the promise of Faust and Mephistopheles--that science may solve humankind's problems: "All this provides the deeply learned man, / Who may accomplish what no other can" (4970/144).

Carnival Masque (5065/147): One of many plays within this play, this scene is a masque, a form of dramatic entertainment popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which actors (often amateurs and members of court) played masked roles, usually allegorical in nature. Here it is being staged by the Emperor's court. Hamlin suggests that this scene "becomes an ironic commentary on the theatrical technique of Faust, Part Two, in general" (400). At the end of the scene, Faust, dressed as Plutus, creates a spectacle of fire probably with Mephisto's help. Some of the themes of the masque include "wealth, treasure, and exchange" (Hamlin 408).

Pleasance (5987/171): Mephisto's plan for paper money comes into practice.

Dark Gallery (6175/176): This scene reintroduces the theme of Faust's search for Helen of Troy, or Helena. Mephistopheles gives Faust a key to go to the Mothers; Faust reacts profoundly to this word (6265/178).

Hall of Chivalry (6455/184): This scene includes yet another play within a play, which the Astrologer calls The Rape of Helena (6548). However, no rape seems to occur. Rather, Faust has conjured up Paris and Helena with the help of the Mothers. In this dream vision, she approaches a sleeping Paris. As Hamlin points out, this version of the Helen-Paris myth contrasts with the legend told in Homer (in which Paris seduces Helen, leading to the Trojan War; Hamlin 414).


Summary: While Faust searches for a way to retrieve Helena from the underworld, his former assistant Wagner produces Homunculus, a small man encapsulated in a glass vial. Homunculus searches for life and sacrifices himself for love.

Laboratory (3820/194): With the help of Mephistopheles, Faust's assistant Wagner creates Homunculus ("little man" in Latin, Hamlin 418) who sees Faust's dream of Helena's conception--when Zeus, disguised as a swan, seduced Queen Leda (6905/196). In this way, Faust is--as in "Charming Landscape," the opening scene of Act I--again unconscious (Hamlin 415).

Classical Walpurgis Night (7005/199) is another symbolic interlude. Hamlin suggests that events in this scene represent "processes in nature" (422). This scene takes place in Classical Greece, first

On the Upper Peneios (7080/202) [a river in northern Greece], where Mephistopheles encounters the Sphinx, a creature with the head and upper body of a woman, and a body of a lion. Faust appears in order to ask M. for advice on how to find Helena of Troy, and the Sphinxes tell him to try the centaur (half man, half horse) Chiron, who was her tutor (7200/205). Then the action changes to

The Lower Peneios (7250/207), where Faust finds himself surrounded by goddesses of the sea, nymphs. He again has a vision of Helena's conception (7295/208), perhaps because she is queen of the nymphs (Hamlin fn. 3). The centaur Chiron lets Faust ride on him so that he might search for Helen, and he introduces F. to Manto, a soothsayer who tells F. to look for Helen in the underworld (7470/212). The the action returns to

The Upper Peneios, as before (7495/214), where an earthquake occurs. Hamlin notes that the earthquake and role of Seismos here indicate “Goethe’s scientific views and the contexts of natural science during his lifetime” (Hamlin 429), namely that subterranean volcanic explosions are responsible for the Earth’s topography. Hamlin attributes the fight between the pygmies, cranes, emmets, and dactyls (7606/217) as "an allegory for the violence and warfare in Europe during the era of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic campaigns" (430). Mephistopheles encounters the Lamiae (7695/219), which resemble vampires in their need for human blood, and then Homunculus, whom he addresses as "Sparkleface" (7830/222). Homunculus is searching, like Faust, for "the finest manner of becoming" (7830/222). In the conclusion of this scene, Mephistopheles meets some hags, and in lending them one of his eyes and a tooth, becomes ugly like them.

Rocky Inlets of the Aegean Sea (8035/228) includes the festival of the Aegean Sea, which culminates in the triumph of Galatea. Nereus, old man of the sea and father of Galatea, refuses to help Homunculus but introduces him to Proteus, who transforms into a dolphin that H. rides (8325/235). According to Hamlin, in Classical mythology, Galatea was a sea nymph in love with Acis; the Cyclops Polyphemus fell in love with her, killed Acis by smashing him with a boulder, but a stream of water came out, joining the lovers (438). Here Galatea arrives riding the shell of Aphrodite, and like Acis, Homunculus joins her in death. In order to be with her, his glass shell breaks, and he dies (8470/239).
Brown identifies Galatea as "the historicized goddess of beauty and therefore the spiritual equivalent of Helen and embodiment of perfect form" (181).


Summary: Mephistopheles transports Faust and the ghost of Helena to an illusory Medieval castle, and their union produces a son, Euphorion, who expires after chasing after life and love.

Before the Palace (8490/241): Goethe published Act III separately in 1827 as The Helena, a Classic-Romantic Phantasmagoria," a Classical play within the play (Goethe, "Second," 523, Stalwell and Dickinson 193). Hamlin reminds us that the audience needs to be wary of falling into this phantasmagoria or illusion (442). According to the OED, the word phantasmagoria comes from early nineteenth-century entertainments using a lantern and a screen; it also means "(A vision of) a rapidly transforming collection or series of imaginary (and usually fantastic) forms, such as may be experienced in a dream or fevered state, or evoked by literary description" (OED).

Mephistopheles, disguised as the female hag Phorcyas (8730/247), plays the role of "stage manager or master of ceremonies" (Hamlin 442). Offstage between Act II and now, the reader can assume that Faust went to Hades and asked for Helena to be released (Hamlin 441). Apparently, Helena must ask to leave herself (Hamlin 254 fn. 8), and Phorcyas-Mephisto convinces her to make this request by creating an illusion of the army of Menelaus (9062/257).

Inner Courtyard of a Castle (9130/259): Phorcyas-Mephisto transforms the scene to a Medieval castle, where Faust is knight, and he and Helena act out the roles of courtly love (9370-9415/265-66). Faust comes close to fulfilling the state of mind Mephisto needs him to be in to earn his side of the pact (9415/266), but Phorcyas-Mephisto interrupts. Faust wants to return with Helena to her birthplace (2570/270), and a pastoral vision unfolds.

Shady Grove (9572/271): What follows is the Euphorion
Opera, which Goethe intended to have accompanied by music (Stalwell and Dickinson 193). Euphorion is born from the union of Helena and Faust (9695/275). Euphorion seeks out love (9795/277) and war (9850/279), but then dies when he tries to fly (9900/280). His body briefly resembles that of the English poet Byron, because Euphorion represents the spirit of poetry to Goethe (Hamlin 280 fn. 8). Helena disappears from the vision (9940/281), and Mephistopheles transforms himself back into himself at the end of the act. 


Summary: In exchange for the promise of land, Faust aids the Emperor defeat a group of revolutionaries.

High Mountains (10040/287): Faust travels to Germany via a cloud and the remnants of Helena's costume, landing atop a high mountain. In this way, this scene resembles "Charming Landscape," the beginning of Act I, in which Faust begins life anew. Mephistopheles arrives with the help of a seven-mile boot (10070/288). For Brown, this suggests a return "to a world of instruments and machines" (220).

Goethe provides Biblical citation #s for Mephistopheles, which allude to Christ's temptation in the desert (10130/293) and later II Samuel. Faust will play the role of "Generalissimo" (10310/293) in a war (against the Rival Emperor) brought about by Mephistopheles' creation paper money and credit. Faust can petition for his own piece of land if the Emperor wins (10305/293). At the end of the scene, Mephistopheles introduces the Three Mighty Men--Pugnacious, Rapacious, and Tenacious--to the battle scene.

In the Foothills (10345/295): Faust appears in armor with Mephistopheles (10425/297), and they suggest that an Italian sorcerer is helping the Emperor fight in order to explain Mephistopheles' magical manipulation of the battle. The audience and reader are dependent on Faust, Mephistopheles, and the Emperor to understand what happens during the battle, reminding us of the importance of perspective and interpretation in this play.

The Rival Emperor's Tent (10785/306): The sutler-woman Grab-Swag and the Mighty Man Rapacious attempt to loot the defeated Rival Emperor's Tent. However, Grab-Swag's apron has holes in it, and the Emperor's soldiers chase them off. Hamlin and Brown note that Act IV may well be inspired by Goethe's experience of constant war, first in the siege of Mainz in 1792, and the defeat of the Prussians at Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, both of which Goethe witnessed first-hand.


Summary: Faust conquers his new land by the sea when Mephisto drives off an old couple. Faust dies, and angels claim his soul, cheating Mephisto of his claim. Faust and Gretchen are presumably reunited in the afterlife.

Open Country (11045/313): The scene opens on an unnamed traveler (Wayfarer), who receives hospitality at the bucolic home (dark linden 11044/313) of an aged couple, Philemon and his wife, Baucis. They complain to the Wayfarer about the work on the dikes to reclaim the land, which appears as if by magic (11125/315).  Baucis and Philemon are characters from Ovid's Metamorphoses; in that text, they offer hospitality to Jupiter and Mercury while they are in disguise, and in return for thier kindness, the gods save them when a flood destroys the land. Goethe gives the old couple Christian virtues like innocence, generosity, and humility. They also represent harmony with nature and "the last remnants of the classical world" according to Brown (232), and in Goethe's text antiquity signifies beauty (233).

The Wayfarer could well represent man living in harmony with nature and the people. In this way, the Wayfarer embodies the ideal of universal experience in the European Romantic Movement. 

Palace (11145/316): Faust has gained his empire but regrets how he has attained it (11235/318). Nonetheless, he wants the old couple off of his land so that he can build a "masterpiece of sapient man" (11250/318).

Deep Night (11290/323): Mephistopheles reports that he and the Mighty Men killed Baucis, Philemon, and the Wayfarer in their attempt to clear them from the land (11360/321). Faust claims he "meant exchange, not robbery" (11371/322).

Midnight (11384/323): Four gray crones enter the palace and blind the hundred-year-old Faust.

Great Outer Precinct of the Palace (11511/327): Mephisto summons lemurs to dig Faust's grave. Faust's final lines before he dies are:

"Such teeming would I see upon this land,
On acres free among free people stand.
I might entreat the fleeting minute:
Oh tarry yet, thou art so fair!
My path on earth, the trace I leave within it
Eons untold cannot impair.
Foretasting such high happiness to come,
I savor now my striving's crown and sum" (11575-11585/329).

Entombment (11605/330): Mephisto summons the denizens of Hell to help him catch Faust's soul as it leaves his body. A chorus of angels arrives, strews rose petals (11700/332), and distracts Mephisto with attractive cherubs (11800/335) so that they can steal Faust's soul.

Mountain Gorges (11845/337): Pater Seraphicus, one of the four holy anchorites (hermit men living in union with nature and spirituality, Hamlin 337 fn 3) gives a group of unbaptized children his eyes to see nature (11910/339). The angels return with Faust's essence, proclaiming:

"The More Perfected Angels: No angel could sever the union
Of two fused in one,
Of twin natures blended,
Eternal love alone
Has strength to end it" (11960/340).

The Mater Gloriosa (Glorious Mother), an icon of the Virgin Mary, arrives and so does Gretchen, who lives on as "One Penitent," transcends with Faust's essence. The last lines have evoked much debate on their meaning:

"Chorus Mysticus: All that is changeable
Is but reflected;
The unattainable
Here is effected;
Human discernment
Here is passed by;
The Eternal-Feminine
Draws us on high" (12105-12110/344).


Works Cited:

Brown, Jane K. Goethe's Faust: The German Tragedy. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1986. Print.

Goethe, J. W. v. Faust. Trans. W. Arndt. NY: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Goethe, J. W. v. "Outline of the Contents for Part Two." Faust. Trans. W. Arndt. NY: W. W. Norton, 2001. 521-23.

Goethe, J. W. v. "Second Sketch for the Announcement of the Helena." Faust. Trans. Cyrus Hamlin and Dolores Signori. NY: W. W. Norton, 2001. 523-30.

Hamlin, Cyrus. "Interpretive Notes." Faust. Trans. W. Arnold. NY: W. W. Norton, 2001. 345-491.

"Phantasmagoria." Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Web.

Stalwell, F. M. and G. L. Dickinson. Goethe and Faust: an Interpretation. NY: Haskell, 1972.

W. Nielsen March 2010