Goethe’s Faust

[From Wikipedia ~2009]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust is a tragic play and the best known version of the Faust story. It was published in two parts: Faust Part One (Faust: der Tragödie erster Teil) and Faust Part Two (Faust: der Tragödie zweiter Teil). 4612 lines long, the play is a closet drama, meaning that it is meant to be read rather than performed. It is Goethe’s most famous work and considered by many to be the greatest work of German literature, and by some of Modern literature.

Part One was preliminarily completed by Goethe in 1806. The 1808 publication was followed by the revised 1828–1829 edition, which was the last to be edited by Goethe himself. Prior to these appeared a partial printing in 1790 of Faust, a Fragment. The earliest forms of the work, known as the Urfaust, were developed between 1772 and 1775; however, the details of that development are no longer entirely clear.

Goethe finished writing Faust Part Two in 1832, the year of his death. In contrast to Faust Part One, the focus here is no longer on the soul of Faust, which has been sold to the devil, but rather on social phenomena such as psychology, history and politics. The second part formed the principal occupation of Goethe’s last years and appeared only posthumously in 1832.


Part One

Main article: Faust Part One

Principal characters

The principle characters of Faust Part One include:

  • Heinrich Faust, a scholar, sometimes said to be based on the real life of Johann Georg Faust, or on Jakob Bidermann’s dramatized account of the Legend of the Doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus
  • Mephistopheles, a Devil
  • Gretchen, Faust’s love (short for Margaret; Goethe uses both forms)
  • Marthe, Gretchen’s neighbour
  • Valentin, Gretchen’s brother
  • Wagner, Faust’s famulus

Faust Part One is a complex story. It takes place in multiple settings, the first of which is heaven. Mephistopheles makes a bet with God. He says that he can deflect God’s favorite human being (Faust), who is striving to learn everything that can be known, away from righteous pursuits. The next scene takes place in Faust’s study where Faust, despairing at the vanity of scientific, humanitarian and religious learning, turns to magic for the revelation of ultimate knowledge. He suspects, however, that his attempts are failing. Frustrated, he ponders suicide, but rejects it as he hears the echo of nearby Easter celebrations begin. He goes for a walk with his assistant Wagner and is followed home by a stray poodle.

In Faust’s study, the poodle transforms into the devil. Faust makes a deal with the devil: the devil will do everything that Faust wants while he is here on earth. If during that time, Faust is so pleased with anything the devil gives him that he wants to stay in that moment forever, he will do the devil’s bidding in hell.

After Faust has signed in blood, Faust has a few excursions and then runs on to Margarete (also referred to as Gretchen). He is attracted to her and with jewelry and help from a neighbor, the devil draws Gretchen into Faust’s arms. Faust seduces Gretchen and they sleep together. Gretchen’s mother dies from a sleeping potion, administered by Gretchen to obtain privacy so that Faust may visit her. Gretchen discovers she is pregnant. Gretchen’s brother condemns Faust, challenges him and falls dead at the hands of Faust and the devil. Gretchen drowns her illegitimate child. Faust tries to save Gretchen from death by attempting to free her from prison, after she has been convicted of murdering her child. Finding that they cannot free her, Faust and the devil flee the dungeon but at that time, voices from heaven announce that Gretchen shall be saved.

Part Two

Main article: Faust Part Two

Rich in classical allusion, in Faust Part Two, the romantic story of the first Faust is forgotten, and Faust wakes in a field of fairies to initiate a new cycle of adventures and purpose. (The piece consists of five acts – relatively isolated episodes – each representing a different theme).

Act I

The first sees Mephistopheles saving the imperial finances of German emperor Charles V – and so the German empire – by introducing the use of paper money. Amidst the ensuing celebrations, Faust enters the “realm of the mothers” – variously described as the depths of the psyche or the womb – in order to bring back the “ideal form” of beauty for the Emperor’s delight. In this case, that ideal form is Helen of Troy. Faust falls in love with Helen.

Act II

An artificial person made by an alchemical process, the Homunculus, leads Faust and Mephistopheles to the “Classical Walpurgisnacht“, where they encounter Gods from Greek antiquity.


The third act describes Faust’s relationship with Helen, with whom he has a son, Euphorion. His son falls to his death at the end of the act, whereupon Helen also disappears.

Act IV

In the fourth act, Faust returns to the emperor, who is at war with the Gegenkaiser. With the help of Mephistopheles’ ordered ranks of Daemons they achieve victory.

Act V

Faust has nothing left but to tame nature itself. Upon disclosing his plans, Faust recognises the moment of sheer bliss which he would seek to prolong and drops dead. As a result, he loses his wager with Mephistopheles, who tries to claim his soul.

However, as Goethe expresses in the final scene, Mephistopheles’ handling of Faust permitted the latter to strive for something essentially positive and thus his soul could be saved. “Whoever strives in ceaseless toil, Him we may grant redemption”. Thus as Mephistopheles gloats, angels descend and retrieve the immortal part of Faust’s soul, providing redemption and ascension to the higher realm.

Analysis and influence

The story of Faust inspired a great deal of literature, music and illustration and countless interpretations have been made of Faust, Part Two. (Jungian, Freudian, sociological, alchemical, literary and classical to name but a few).

Although today many of the classical and Central European themes may be hard for the modern reader to grasp, the work can still be considered as pertinent in the field of science and scientific understanding. In heavily poetic terms, Goethe offers an involved, holistic approach to these areas of study quite different from our own view of science as a wholly analytic field but, nevertheless, very much in tune with some modern thinking.

Relationship between the parts

Throughout Part One, Faust remains unsatisfied; the ultimate conclusion of the tragedy and the outcome of the wagers are only revealed in Faust Part Two. The first part represents the “small world” and takes place in the commoners’ milieu, and presents a criticism of society. In contrast, Part Two takes place in the “wide world” or macrocosmos of politics and industrialism, and criticizes politics and the greed of the early industrialists. This play is composed of fragments, written by Goethe over a long period of time.

Historic productions

Part One

  • May 24, 1819 – Premiere of selected scenes. Castle Monbijou, Berlin.
  • January 29, 1829 – Premiere of the complete Part One. Braunschweig.
  • 1938 – World premiere of both parts, unabridged, at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland.
  • 1960 The Hamburg performance – Directed by Peter Gorski, and produced by Gustaf Gründgens (who also played Mephistopheles), with Will Quadflieg (Faust), Ella Büchi (Gretchen), Elisabeth Flickenschildt (Martha), Max Eckard (Valentin), Eduard Marks (Wagner), Uwe Friedrichsen (Student). The film of this performance was very successful.

Part Two

  • 2005 Michael Thalheimer at Deutsches Theater with a.o. Ingo Hülsmann, Sven Lehmann, Nina Hoss and Inge Keller
  • 2003 of Ingmar Thilo; with Antonios Safralis (fist), Raphaela Zick (Mephisto), Ulrike DOS valley (Helena), max of Friedmann (Lynceus) among other things.


Much of the content of this article is translated from the equivalent German-language wikipedia article (retrieved November 6, 2005). The German articles Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gustaf Gründgens, and Knittelvers were also referred to. The following references are cited by the German-language Faust I:

  • H. Arens Kommentar zu Goethes Faust I. Heidelberg 1982, Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, ISBN 3-533-03184-5
  • A. Schöne Faust. Kommentare. Enthalten in: Goethe Faust. Frankfurt am Main 1994, Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, ISBN 3-618-60270-7
  • U. Gaier Faust-Dichtungen. Kommentar I. Enthalten in: Johann Wolfgang Goethe Faust-Dichtungen. Stuttgart 1999, Philipp Reclam jun. Verlag, ISBN 3-15-030019-3
  • Gero von Wilpert: Goethe encyclopedia, Stuttgart, Kroener 1998, ISBN 3-520-40701-9
  • Gerhard Kaiser, Ist der Mensch zu retten? Vision und Kritik der Moderne in Goethes Faust, Rombach Wissenschaft, ISBN 3-7930-9113-9 (German)

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article “Goethe’s Faust.