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Goethe's 'Faust: Part One'

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Goethe's Faust: Part One | Goethe's Faust: Part Two
The Goethehaus in Frankfurt, Germany, where Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born in 1749.

For 200 years Goethe has remained the giant of German literature, analogous to England's William Shakespeare. Unlike Shakespeare, however, Goethe's skills were not confined just to literature - they extended to the arts and sciences. He studied the natural sciences, including botany - he wrote several works on plant morphology - and meteorology, popularising the Goethe barometer in Germany. In 1784 he discovered the vestiges of the intermaxillary bone in the upper jaw of humans, and in 1810 he published a treatise on The Theory of Colours. Such is the stature of the man that between April and September 2006 a sculpted stack of books entitled The Walk of Ideas stood in a square near the Unter den Linden boulevard in Berlin. Goethe's name was on the spine of the book at the base of the stack, symbolically underpinning German literature.

Goethe the Man

Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born on 28 August, 1749 into an affluent family at Frankfurt am Main, now in the modern state of Germany, but then a free city within the declining phase of the Holy Roman Empire. After a private education at home, Goethe studied law at the universities of Leipzig (1765-68) and, following a period of illness, Strasbourg (1770-71). It was as a teenager that he first encountered the story of Faust, possibly from puppet theatres. In 1771 he began to practise law at Frankfurt but he only lasted a few months in his post due to his over-zealous liberal approach to a compassionate application of law. In 1772 he began to practise at Wetzlar, in the modern-day Hesse region of Germany. It was at about this time that his first thoughts on the Faust legend were written down.

By invitation from Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he moved in 1775 to Weimar, which was his home for the remainder of his life. As a privy councillor at Weimar he fulfilled many roles: fire-prevention, maintaining diplomatic relations with the neighbouring Courts - subsequently becoming Commissioner of War - as well as taking on responsibility for road construction and dealing with floods and drainage. He became the Duke's chief advisor and was ennobled by him in 1782, becoming von Goethe.

The years 1786-88 were spent living in Rome, also travelling in the south of the country and in Sicily, in which places he assimilated the arts, and Greek and Roman architecture, as well as studying geology and botany.

In 1790 a first fragment of Faust was given a public performance. Between 1791 and 1817 Goethe was director of the Ducal Theatre at Weimar; from 1794 onwards he concentrated almost exclusively on literature.

During 1792-93, as commissioner of war, he took a non-combatant part in the Battle of Valmy against France and in the Siege of Mainz. A couple of months after the abolition of the Holy Roman Empire, Goethe's house was occupied in 1806 by Napoleon's French troops after the Battle of Jena, an experience which led directly to him marrying Christiane Vulpius, his mistress with whom he had lived since 1788-89 and had already had several children.

Although brought up in the tradition of the Lutheran Church, Goethe rejected dogmatic religions and lived his life essentially as a humanist. His belief/non-belief system of philosophy is central to his writing in Faust.

Among Goethe's contemporaries were the writers Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) and ETA Hoffmann (1776-1822), and the composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

He died on 22 March, 1832 at Weimar.

The Faust Legend

The 'Faustian' legend of a man who sells his soul to the Devil goes back long before the late Middle Ages in which Goethe sets his play. The oldest known tale is that of Theophilus of Adana, a 6th-Century archdeacon of Adana, in modern-day Turkey. Theophilus is elected as bishop but turns the post down. The man subsequently appointed removes Theophilus from his position. Theophilus turns to the Devil to help him regain the bishopric, later regretting his action and seeking forgiveness from God.

The first printed version of the Faust story is Historia von D Johann Fausten, probably written sometime between 1568 and 1581, and published in Frankfurt in 1587. It may have been based on a real-life figure, Dr Johann (or Georg) Faust, who died in mysterious circumstances around 1540. He had toured Germany, performing magic tricks, telling fortunes, practising alchemy and selling cures-for-all-ills - in fact a sideshow medicine man. The story grew up that his 'powers' were a gift from the Devil, and his sudden disappearance was explained by the Devil reclaiming him.

Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is based on an English translation of this booklet. It was probably written in 1589, revised in 1592 and first published in 1604. Before long English touring companies of players performed the play in Germany, where it was soon translated back into German and picked up by local players. Versions for puppet theatre were devised, in which form Goethe most probably had his first contact with Faust as a child.

Goethe's Version

Goethe's version of Faust differs from Marlowe's in a number of details, but most significantly in its ending. In Marlowe's version Faust's pact with Mephistopheles is for 24 years, at the end of which Faust is dragged down into Hell. In Goethe's work Faust is allowed to experience whatever pleasures he wishes, but if he finds one he wants to preserve, he is condemned to die instantly. Faust however achieves Redemption, and by distracting Mephistopheles, the Angels manage to carry off Faust's immortal soul to a philosophical heaven.

Goethe's Faust is in two parts, together totalling over 12,000 lines of verse. Apart from one small section in prose, both parts are in rhyming verse, heavily influenced by Greek tragedy, although the rhythm and metre vary considerably. The work occupied him on and off from when he was a teenager almost up until his death. Part One was completed in 1806, published in 1808 and revised in 1828-29. Part Two was completed early in 1832, the year of his death, and published shortly after it. It is no surprise that the work is distinctly non-homogeneous; Goethe's viewpoint over the 60 years of its gestation was bound to change. Part One is essentially a narrative in the German Romantic style, while Part Two is a philosophical treatise, in fact a thinly-veiled heavy criticism of the 'civilised' world's social, political and financial structures.

If Goethe is Germany's William Shakespeare, then is Faust perhaps Goethe's Hamlet?

Faust in Music

The Faust legend has been the inspiration for many writers, both literary and musical. Two operas take Part One of Goethe's Faust directly as their model: Charles Gounod's Faust (first performed in 1859), and Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele (first performed in 1868). The story still inspires composers today; the first printed version, Historia von D Johann Fausten, gives its name to an opera by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (first performed in 1994).

Hector Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust (first performed in 1846) is a cantata for four voices, chorus and orchestra. The second part of Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony (first performed in 1910) is a setting of the final scene of Part Two of Goethe's masterpiece. Also from the concert platform are Richard Wagner's Faust Overture (1840), Robert Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust (1844-53) and Franz Liszt's A Faust Symphony (1854-57).

'Faust: Part One'

Part One of Goethe's Faust comprises 4,612 lines of verse in 25 scenes: Night; At the city gate; Faust's study; Faust's study again; Auerbach's cellar; The witch's kitchen; A street; Evening; Promenade; A neighbour's house; The street; The garden; An arbour in the garden; Forest and cavern; Gretchen's room; Martha's garden; At the fountain; A tower; Night; The cathedral; Walpurgis Night; Oberon and Titania's wedding; A gloomy day; Night; A dungeon.

Goethe's starting point for Part One of Faust is taken from the Old Testament of the Bible. In the Book of Job, Chapter 1, Satan challenges God that he can make Job - God's favourite ('There is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man') - curse Him. God accepts the challenge, stipulating only that Satan should not harm the body of Job himself. Despite the loss of his family, his possessions and everything except himself, Job still blesses the name of the Lord. Satan loses the wager.

In the Prologue that follows the Dedication and the Prelude, Goethe's 'Job' is Faust, Satan is Mephistopheles and 'the wager' is that Faust can be diverted from his quest to learn all knowledge and that his faith can be subverted.

Scenes I to VI

At the start of Scene I Faust is in his study, lamenting the fact that despite all his learning he is no nearer to understanding the mysteries of the universe. Depressed, he goes for a walk with his assistant Wagner. They are followed home by a black poodle dog which enters the house with them. Faust starts reading from the start of the Gospel according to St John  - 'In the Beginning was the Word' - at which the dog yaps and howls, confirming an earlier suspicion of Faust that the dog is possessed. Following magical incantations from Faust, the dog transforms in a cloud of mist into Mephistopheles, dressed as a wandering scholar. Realising he is trapped in Faust's study by a pentagram inscribed on Faust's doorstep1   - on entering as a dog, he had failed to notice this - Mephistopheles puts Faust to sleep, while a rat gnaws away the sign that prevents him from leaving.

The next day Mephistopheles returns and tempts Faust by offering him the knowledge he seeks and the chance to experience all the pleasures the world has to offer. However, if Faust finds a pleasure he wants to keep, he will at that instant die. In return Faust must sign a pledge in blood that when he dies his immortal soul belongs to Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles bids Faust to leave his old life there and then and start on his adventures.

In the first adventure Faust is taken to Auerbach's Cellar, a tavern in Leipzig with which Goethe was familiar. There, four friends are drinking. Mephistopheles bores holes in the table at which they are seated, the holes providing endless supplies of each friend's favourite wine. Getting more drunk, some wine is spilled on the floor where it bursts into flame. Suspecting sorcery, the friends attack Mephistopheles who charms them into thinking there are in a vineyard, but Faust finds no pleasure in the adventure; Mephistopheles must find something more appealing.

The next scene takes place in a witch's kitchen (an allusion to Shakespeare's Macbeth). The witch prepares a magic potion that can remove 30 years from Faust's personal appearance. He catches sight of a mirror and sees reflected a beautiful woman, with whom he falls in love. Faust drinks the potion and is transformed into a handsome nobleman; Mephistopheles tells him that from now on, all the women he meets will seem to him to be Helen [of Troy].

Scenes VII to XXV

We now come to the essential core of Part One, the seduction and tragic downfall of the innocent girl called Margaret. Although she is referred to in the play initially as Margaret, Goethe increasingly uses the diminutive form of the name, Gretchen. Faust first sees Margaret as she passes by on the street having just come from Confession, is captivated by her and insists that Mephistopheles get the girl for him. Mephistopheles tells him that his influence with such a virtuous girl is limited and that Faust will need to be patient. That evening he leads Faust into Margaret's bedroom while she is out, so that Faust can leave her a casket of jewels - given to him by Mephistopheles - in her clothes chest. But Margaret shows the jewel chest to her mother who, highly suspicious of it, donates it to the Church.

Here Goethe is pointing out the Catholic Church's ready willingness to gather money and riches. This is not the first attack on the Church; earlier in the witch's kitchen, Goethe challenges the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, having Mephistopheles say:

Durch Drei und Eins, und Eins und Drei
Irrtum statt Wahrheit zu verbreiten

Through Three and [in] One and One and [in] Three
To spread Error instead of Truth

Faust orders the frustrated Mephistopheles to get him another box of jewels. This time, when Margaret discovers the new box, she doesn't inform her mother, but confides in her friend and neighbour, Martha. Martha suggests she keep the box hidden at her house and only wear them briefly in secret, with perhaps an odd piece of jewellery in public on special occasions. Margaret wonders who her admirer could be. Suddenly Mephistopheles calls and tells Martha that her husband, a sailor and a comrade of his, has died in Padua leaving her nothing, but hints that he may have hidden his share of some treasure, a reward for his bravery. Mephistopheles arranges to meet the two ladies later that evening in Martha's garden, so that Faust can testify to the truth of Mephistopheles's statement.

Faust at first baulks at the idea of telling a lie, but is persuaded by the opportunity to proclaim his love for Margaret (Gretchen). In the garden, Faust and Gretchen declare their mutual love. Some time later, they meet again in Martha's garden. Bent on satisfying his desire for her, Faust gives Gretchen a phial containing a sleeping potion to give to her mother so that they can sleep together without waking her. In the two scenes that follow, we learn that Gretchen has become pregnant and that Faust has disappeared. Some time later, Faust, drawn again by his desire for Gretchen, returns at night to her house with Mephistopheles. They are met by Gretchen's brother Valentin - a soldier - who is naturally angry with the man who has deflowered his sister. A sword-fight ensues, during the course of which Faust, defended by Mephistopheles, mortally wounds Valentin. Faust and Mephistopheles quickly make good their escape. Dying, Valentin acidly chastises his sister about (as he sees it) her new life as a whore, and curses her.

There follows the Walpurgis Night2 scene, set in the Harz Mountains of central modern-day Germany. More than a year has passed. In a confused dream sequence, Faust sees the figure of Gretchen in the distance, wandering as though with her legs shackled and carrying her head under her arm. Goethe's text here is:

Wie sonderbar muß diesen schönen Hals
Ein einzig rotes Schnürchen schmücken,
Nicht breiter als ein Messerrücken!

How strange that her beautiful neck
Is adorned with a single red cord,
No wider than a knife blade!

This is an allusion to beheading by the sword, the penalty for mothers guilty of killing their own children. In Goethe's only prose section of the work, Faust learns that Gretchen has drowned the baby he fathered, has been imprisoned and is now awaiting execution for her crime. Angry and guilt-ridden, he demands that Mephistopheles help him free her. This is a guilt-trip for Goethe. During his time as a privy councillor to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Goethe sat on a panel of three legal advisers. In 1783 one of the cases they considered was that of a young girl who had killed her new-born baby. She was found guilty and could have been sentenced to beheading. The liberal-minded Duke wished to save her and referred her case to his advisory panel. One member voted for execution, one against, leaving Goethe with the deciding vote. He voted for execution, which was carried out within the month.

Mephistopheles reminds Faust that despite his claim of indignation at having had Gretchen's dilemma hidden from him, he himself is wanted by the townspeople for killing her brother. Mephistopheles somewhat reluctantly agrees to confuse the jailer, allowing Faust to take his keys, free Gretchen and bring her out of prison, where Mephistopheles will be waiting with magical horses to make their escape.

In the final scene of Part One, Faust enters Gretchen's prison cell. She, thinking him to be her executioner, pleads for her life. As he utters her name, she recognises his voice, jumps up and her chains magically fall away. Despite Faust's urging to leave quickly, she refuses, insisting she must pay for her crime. Mephistopheles appears, urging them both to hurry as dawn is approaching. Gretchen sees him as the truly evil spirit he is and calls on God to save her. As Mephistopheles drags Faust away, a voice from above is heard to say 'Ist gerettet' ('She is saved').

Linguistic Legacy

It is not given to many works of literature to actually add to the language, but Faust has done just that. When, in Scene III in Faust's study, Mephistopheles transforms in a cloud of mist from the black poodle dog into the wandering scholar, Faust says: 'Das also war des Pudels Kern!' - 'So that was the core of the poodle!' In modern colloquial German, the expression 'des Pudels Kern' is understood to mean the truth - the solution of the riddle - that which once revealed, makes it all make sense.

Another addition to the German dictionary is the term 'Gretchenfrage' - literally, the Gretchen question. Almost at the very start of Scene XVI in Martha's garden, Gretchen demands of Faust: 'Glaubst du an Gott?' - 'Do you believe in God?' Faust's evasive answers to this key question reflect the ambiguity of his own philosophical framework. In modern-day German, the 'Gretchenfrage' now means any crucial question that's unpleasant for the person being asked - usually because it forces them to commit themselves when they'd been trying to avoid an issue.

1Spirits must leave a room by the same route they entered it.2A European pagan spring festival held on the night of 30 April/1 May, when in German folklore witches meet on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains of central Germany.

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