Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poetic play, Faust, remains one of the great masterpieces of German literature. Written in two parts, Part One was completed in 1808 and Part Two in 1832, shortly before Goethe's death. A lawyer by training, Goethe became principal advisor to Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar at Weimar. The Faust legend had fascinated him since his late teens and although 24 years separate the publication of Parts One and Two, it was a work that he returned to time and time again.
Part One of the verse play tells how Faust, a seeker of all knowledge, commits his soul to Mephistopheles (the Devil) in return for the knowledge he seeks and a life of whatever experiences take his fancy. However, under the terms of the pact, should Faust find an experience that he wants to keep he will die instantly and his soul be taken to Hell. In one adventure, Faust meets a girl, Margaret (the diminutive form of the name, Gretchen, is used later), with whom he falls in love. He seduces her and she becomes pregnant. Faust is confronted by Margaret's brother and in the course of a sword-fight, Faust (aided by Mephistopheles) kills her brother; Faust makes his escape. When he next sees Margaret, she is in prison, awaiting execution for killing her newborn child. She refuses to escape with him, preferring instead to pay the price for her crime. This act of repentance enables her soul to be redeemed.
Goethe's Faust: Part Two
Part Two of Goethe's Faust comprises 7,499 lines of verse in five Acts:
Act I: A pleasant landscape; The Emperor's castle: the throne room; A spacious hall with adjoining rooms; A pleasure garden in the morning sun; A gloomy gallery; Brightly-lit halls; Dimly-lit Hall of the Knights
Act II: Vaulted narrow Gothic Room; Laboratory; Classical Walpurgis Night; Upper Peneus River; Rocky Coves in the Aegean Sea; The Telchines1 of Rhodes
Act III: In front of the Palace of Menelaus in Sparta; The inner court of the castle
Act IV: High mountains; On a headland: the battle; The rival Emperor's tent
Act V: Open country; A little garden;The palace; Dead of night; Midnight; The forecourt of the palace; Mountain gorges, forest, rock and desert
Part II is more difficult for the modern reader to properly understand than Part I. It has five highly allegorical Acts, each being a relatively free-standing adventure. None of the characters involved, including Faust himself, seem to have solid form, frequently morphing into other characters. The influence of Greek Tragedy is self-evident; characters from Greek mythology abound: Aglaia and Euphrosyne; two of the three Charites or Graces; Hegemone, goddess of plants; Atropos, Lachesis and Clotho; the three Fates; Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone—the Erinyes. Also Ariel, a sprite from William Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Scene I of Act I finds Faust lying in a meadow at dusk. He is tired and restless, but unable to sleep. Ariel and other spirits hover and circle above his head, singing and chanting to the accompaniment of their harps. He falls asleep and awakes next day with renewed enthusiasm for his quest ...that strives, forever, towards highest Being.
The main action of Act I centres on the Court of an inept Emperor beset by financial difficulties, where Mephistopheles has abruptly usurped the position of the Emperor's Fool. A succession of Court officials complain about the state of affairs: the Chancellor that the Emperor's failure to administer justice on behalf of the people means that the state is effectively lawless; the Commander-in-Chief that the Empire is fragmented and that the mercenary soldiers employed to keep it together have not been paid; the Treasurer that the state coffers are empty; the Steward that the wine cellars are empty. The Emperor turns to his new Fool for comment. Mephistopheles points out that in times of uncertainty, people bury their gold in the earth, rather than risk losing it. Much of it remains there, and since the earth belongs to the Emperor, so does the buried gold; all he has to do is to go and dig it up, but it must be achieved by effort:
Wer Wein verlangt, der keltre reife Trauben;
Who longs for wine must first tread ripened grapes;
The Emperor however decides to pass the time in personal enjoyment. As Mephistopheles sarcastically observes, even if these people possessed a Philosopher's Stone, they'd still be short of a philosopher. Mephistopheles tricks the Emperor into signing an order to print paper money, backed by the gold not yet won from the ground. The next morning, the Steward reports to the Court that the financial crisis is at an end. The other officials who had earlier been complaining confirm that things are back to normal, not realising that they have triggered the collapse of the economy.
Later, after Mephistopheles has conjured up a magical masque for the Court's entertainment, Faust tells Mephistopheles that he has been harried into promising the Emperor he can make Helen of Troy and Paris - the epitome of perfection in Woman and Man - appear before him. Mephistopheles chastises him for making such a foolish promise, but gives Faust a magic key that will lead him across a Void to a glowing tripod where he can find the Mothers, goddesses with the power to fulfil his promise. Once there, he is to touch the tripod with the key, which will close and follow him back. In Faust's absence, Mephistopheles is surrounded by people at the Court who implore him to cure their sundry ailments. Faust returns with the tripod, the key and a dish. He touches the dish with the key and from the swirling mists emerge first Paris, followed by Helen of Troy. Once again Faust is captivated by the beauty of Helen, whom he grabs. As he touches Paris with the key, there is an explosion and Faust falls to the ground; the images all disappear.
For the first scene at the start of Act II, Faust is in a deep sleep or coma, lying on a couch back in his old rooms, which have been left untouched since his disappearance many years ago. In the course of a dialogue between Mephistopheles and a former student turned arrogant possessor of knowledge, Goethe essentially expounds the adage that youth is wasted on the young—what we learn, we learn by experience not by study, although by the time we have gained the necessary experience, so much time has passed that we tell ourselves that the knowledge came from study, rather than from experience.
The next scene takes place in a Gothic laboratory. Using alchemical methods, Wagner, Faust's former assistant and now a learned man, is creating a Homunculus, a tiny artificial man, glowing in a glass phial. By hovering above Faust, the Homunculus is able to see into Faust's dream of Helen of Troy. He advises Mephistopheles to take Faust to Greece, to the Pharsalian Plain2 to experience the Classical Walpurgisnacht, where gods and demi-gods gather in celebration. For his own part, he suggests that Mephistopheles allow himself to be entertained by the Thessalian witches. Leaving Wagner behind to his studies, the other three fly off into the night.
These scenes are awash with references to Greek mythology and Roman antiquity: the witch Erichtho and the Pharsalian Plain location invoke the epic poem Pharsalia by the Roman poet Lucan; gryphons and the Arimaspi invoke The Histories by Herodotus of Halicarnassus; there are sphinxes and sirens; the centaur Chiron; the Greek philosophers Thales of Miletus and Anaxagoras, and many others. The three adventurers separate and seek what they each desire: Faust for Helen, Mephistopheles for diversions, the Homunculus for a means to become a proper man and escape his glass phial.
Faust meets Chiron, who invites him to ride on his back. While he is carried to the scene of the battle, Faust learns, to his great joy, that that he is sitting in exactly the same place as Helen once sat when Chiron carried her. He also learns that her beauty is eternal. The Homunculus consults the philosophers Thales and Anaxagoras, who in turn attract the attention of Proteus3. Proteus tells the Homunculus that he can only become a true man by the process of evolution, starting from small sea-creatures then passing through higher and higher lifeforms. The Homunculus casts himself onto the wheels of the sea-shell chariot of the sea-goddess Galatea, breaking his glass phial, and is washed into the waters of the Aegean Sea.
Act III is set in Sparta, just as King Menelaus returns from the Trojan War with the rescued Helen of Troy4. Helen is uncertain of her position—is she returning as queen or as a prisoner? Menelaus gives her a disquieting instruction to visit their old palace, taking with her the captured Trojan women, to check that her treasure is still intact, then to make whatever sacrifice she feels is appropriate, but provides her with no living thing to sacrifice. The palace is deserted save for an old harridan Phorkyas (Mephistopheles in disguise). He taunts her about the events of her past life and urges her to make the sacrifice as she was instructed by her husband. But I have nothing to sacrifice she retorts; so it must be you and the women, replies Phorkyas. Helen is to be beheaded while the women will be hanged—Menelaus intends to kill them all. Helen denies that Menelaus would do such a thing to her, but Phorkyas reminds her of the reason for the disfigurement that Menelaus inflicted on Paris's brother:
Unteilbar ist die Schönheit; der sie ganz besaß,
Zerstört sie lieber, fluchend jedem Teilbesitz
Beauty is indivisible; those that possess it,
Would rather destroy it, than share any part of it
Phorkyas offers them all a way out if they will agree to be imprisoned in an impregnable castle to the north built by Faust. Helen is left no choice other than to accept.
In the inner courtyard of the palace, hasty preparations are being made to welcome Helen and her party—clearly unexpected. Faust, dressed as a Middle Age knight, appears accompanied by a man in chains. Faust explains that the man is the warden of the tower, with powers to see anything that moves in the vicinity, but has failed on this occasion to notify the Court of Helen's approach. He tells Helen that she is to decide whether the man is to be set free or put to death. Recognising that the man has been deceived by the evil magic of Phorkyas (Mephistopheles), whom she has brought to the Court, she pardons the man.
Mephistopheles warns Faust that Menelaus's army is approaching the castle. Leaving the two armies to fight, Helen and Faust slip off to Arcadia on the Greek peninsula of Peloponnese, where in due course Helen gives birth to a son, Euphorion. He grows into a wild, adventurous and stubborn boy, able to jump to great heights. One day, attracted by the sound of the thundering ocean waves, he climbs higher and higher up a rock face. At the top, he leaps into the air, believing he can fly, before falling to the ground at his parents' feet. The boy's voice is heard calling from the depths: 'Mutter, mich nicht allein!' - 'Mother, don't leave me alone!' Embracing Faust for the last time, she appeals to Persephone, the queen of Hades, the Underworld: 'Persephoneia, nimm den Knaben auf und mich!'—'Persephone, take the boy and me!' She vanishes, leaving in Faust's hands her dress and veil, which become a cloud of mist that lifts Faust into the air and drifts away with him.
At the start of Act IV, the cloud deposits Faust on the jagged rocks of the high mountains, where he is soon joined by Mephistopheles. Goethe demonstrates his knowledge of geology by having Mephistopheles explain to Faust that the mountains have been thrown up from the depths of the Earth by volcanic activity, breaking through its crust. Faust's view however inclines more to a slow, gentle rounding of jagged edges by Nature. He has observed the tides rolling in and out in endless cycles. He says he now wants to embark on a project to confine the sea water to the deep oceans and away from the shore, in other words, to reclaim land from the sea.
The sound of a distant battle is heard. It seems that the Emperor, whom Faust assisted in Part I, has been failing as a ruler. As a result, his empire has descended into anarchy, with castle fighting castle, city against city, trade guilds feuding with the nobility, bishops with their congregations. They cross over the hills and look down on the rival armies in the valley below. Mephistopheles observes that the Emperor's position is winnable with the aid of some strategy and urges Faust to be the commander-in-chief. I know nothing of strategy says Faust. Don't worry, leave that to the General Staff says Mephistopheles—commanders-in-chief are rarely of actual use, but if you believe in victory, victory shall be yours. The battle starts well enough and two scouts bring good news, but a rival Emperor appears, at which point a significant portion of the army rallies around him and retreats. Heralds are sent to challenge the rival Emperor to single combat, which is refused. The Emperor hands over control to his commander-in-chief.
Mephistopheles introduces three new characters—mighty warriors in allegorical representation of three aspects of tyranny—which Faust 'recommends' the commander-in-chief to make use of: a young bully (in German: Raufebold), a more mature 'grab-first-ask-questions-later' type (in German: Habebald), and an older 'hold-tight' (in German: Haltefest) character. At first things go well, but a reverse leads to the Emperor's forces looking vulnerable, at which point the commander-in-chief asks to be relieved of his command; the Emperor refuses, adding that he's not going to give command to Mephistopheles either. Mephistopheles now calls on the Undines—water-spirits in Greek mythology—to cast a spell, bringing an illusion of water cascading down the rivers and valleys onto the enemy, who run around as though drowning. Through this and other distractions, the advantage is turned back to the Emperor's army which is soon victorious. The last scene of this Act is set in the rival Emperor's deserted tent. In gratitude, the victorious Emperor appoints four princes as High-Marshal, -Chamberlain, -Steward and -Cupbearer to oversee the proper management of his House and Court. He grants them lands and the rights to raise taxes, rents and tolls—and establishes the rule of primogeniture. After the princes leave, the archbishop warns the Emperor that his present position has been secured by sinful means. He threatens to excommunicate Faust unless the Emperor assigns to the Church all future revenues from the land, just now given to Faust, that he proposes to recover from the sea.
At the start of the fifth and final Act, Goethe makes reference to the mythical story of Philemon and Baucis5. Many years have passed and Faust is now an old man; the land reclamation project has proceeded apace and the new areas are well-populated. The old couple (Philemon and Baucis) live in a hut, scratching an existence from their small plot of land, but Faust wants them to move so he can remove the hut, the trees and even the disused chapel that are impeding his all-encompassing view of what he has achieved. He offers them an alternative plot on the reclaimed land but they refuse, not trusting land built on water. Faust instructs Mephistopheles to have the old couple removed. At night, the three thugs, cohorts of Mephistopheles, dissatisfied with what Mephistopheles has paid them for their part in the Emperor's victory, burn down the trees and the hut, killing the old couple and a stranger who was staying there—a wanderer whom Philemon had rescued from a sea-storm many years earlier, together with all his treasured possessions. When he hears of their action, Faust is furious.
Out of the drifting smoke appear four grey women: Fault, Blame, Worry and Plight. Fault, Blame and Plight find the door to the palace barred to them. They warn Faust that he will soon die, but he is unable to make sense of their words, and hence their warning. Worry is able to slip through the keyhole of the door into the palace where Faust is found. He is now disillusioned with his search for all knowledge and with sorcery. Worry breathes in Faust's face, blinding him, and disappears. Undeterred, Faust, continues his reclamation project with renewed vigour.
In the penultimate scene of this drama, set in the forecourt of the palace, a team of Spirits of the Dead6, lead by Mephistopheles, are digging a grave for Faust. Hearing the digging, Faust assumes wrongly that they are working on his continuing project and bids Mephistopheles to bring him daily reports on progress. Now comes Faust's final statement. It is the key moment in the play when he utters the words that, misinterpreted by Mephistopheles, will enable Faust's soul to escape the clutches of the Evil Spirit:
Zum Augenblicke dürft' ich sagen:
Verweile doch, du bist so schön!
Es kann die Spur von meinen Erdetagen
Nicht in äonen untergehn.--
Im Vorgefühl von solchem hohen Glück
Genieß' ich jetzt den höchsten Augenblick.
To the Moment may I say:
But stay, you are so lovely!
The traces of my days on Earth
Cannot for aeons come to an end.--
In anticipation of such great luck
I now enjoy that greatest Moment7.
Faust's meaning is that his land reclamation project will benefit not himself, but generations to come and that is his great joy. Mephistopheles on the other hand believes that Faust is saying that he has found that Pleasure that he wants to preserve, in which case he must surrender his soul to Mephistopheles as the bargain they made dictates. Faust therefore dies, aged 100 and his body is buried. Mephistopheles bemoans his observation that souls don't seem to depart the body at the last breath as they used to, but try to linger on8. As the jaws of Hell open up to accept its latest recruit, a choir of angels appears from above, scattering roses. Mephistopheles and his band of devils are confused and distracted by their aroma; the choir of angels crowds between them and Faust's body, enabling them to rescue the immortal part of Faust and escape with it to Heaven. Though infuriated, Mephistopheles realises that he has no-one to blame but himself for his loss and failure.
Scene VII, the final scene, is set in mountain gorges, ravines and the regions around and above them, representing ascending planes of understanding and purity. At various levels live religious hermits—Anchorites—contemplating their way toward divine understanding. Three of these hermits—Pater Profundis (at a low level), Pater Seraphicus (at a middle level) and Pater Ecstaticus (who has mastered the ability to float up and down)—describe the peace and ecstasy to be gained from Eternal Love.
A choir of young boys, circling around the highest of the mountain peaks, is joined by angels carrying Faust's soul upwards. His soul is passed to ever more perfect angels, until Faust re-appears, transformed into Doctor Marianus. From his high hermit's cell he has a clear sight of no less a figure than the Virgin Mary (Mater Gloriosa) who soars into view. The three men (Paters Profundis, Seraphicus and Ecstaticus) are now balanced by three women: Magna Peccatrix—the sinful woman who, in the gospel of St Luke, chapter 7, anointed Christ's feet at the Pharisee's house; The Woman of Samaria—the woman who, in the gospel of St John, chapter 4, Jesus met at the well; and Maria Aegyptiaca—Mary of Egypt—the patron saint of penitent women, who lived the last 50 years of her life as a hermit in the desert by the river Jordan. They plead on behalf of Faust for his salvation. Having balanced the three men with the three women, Goethe now balances Faust with the reappearance of Gretchen, who asks to be allowed to escort him to the 'highest spheres'. The Mater Gloriosa accedes to their pleas and tells her to rise upward, Faust will follow her. As the Chorus Mysticus celebrate the 'eternal feminine', Faust's soul is finally saved and Mephistopheles is defeated.
Ist nur ein Gleichnis;
Hier wird's Ereignis;
Hier ist's getan;
Zieht uns hinan.
Is only a parable;
Here, is an event;
Here, is done;
The eternal feminine
Draws us on.