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
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?
Well-educated scholar in every subject: "I have pursued,
alas, philosophy, / Jurisprudence, and medicine, / And help me
God, theology, / With fervent zeal through thick and thin. /
And here, poor fool, I stand once more, / No wiser than I was
before. / They call me Magister, Doctor, no less, / And for
some ten years, I would guess, / Through ups and downs and tos
and fros / I have led my pupils by the nose-- / And see there
is nothing we can know!" (355-65/12)
Son of a doctor who helped to "cure" people during the
plague (995 - 1005/28)
What does he want?
magic to give him love and power:
"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).
To strive toward a higher form of existence. Evidence of
Faust's restless striving: "Man's active only when he's never
at ease" (1755/47).
Faust’s economy of self-development: He transforms most
shattering pain into experience (see ll.1768-75/47). He will
use $ to get there, but that’s not his aim, which is psychic
gain and growth.
Why does he make a pact with
He was ready to lose it all anyways (suicide, 735/21).
He only loses his soul if Mephistopheles can make him
stop yearning to be like a god:
"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 Earth Spirit told him he wasn't a god, he wants
pleasure, and knowledge means nothing to him anymore:
"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
Marthe's Garden: Gretchen
suspects a lack of morality in Faust and his friend.
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
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
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
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
Will Faust suffer for his crimes in the first part of the tragedy?
3 PARTS OF FAUST’S DEVELOPMENT
Developer (Part II): Connects
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:
Prologue in Heaven
Faust's seduction of Gretchen
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.
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
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:
war, and the need for money to pay soldiers (4815/141;
a skeptical, possibly rebellious public (4795/140)
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).
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).
(5987/171): Mephisto's plan for paper money comes into
(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
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.
(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).
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
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
(9572/271): What follows is the EuphorionOpera, 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
Summary: In exchange
for the promise of land, Faust aids the Emperor defeat a group of
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
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.
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
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.
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
(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).
(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).
(11384/323): Four gray crones enter the palace and
blind the hundred-year-old Faust.
Precinct of the Palace (11511/327): Mephisto summons
lemurs to dig Faust's grave. Faust's final lines before he dies
"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).
(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.
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;
Here is effected;
Here is passed by;
Draws us on high" (12105-12110/344).
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."
Trans. W. Arndt. NY: W. W. Norton, 2001.
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.