Faust, Goethe's great dramatic poem in two parts, is his crowning work. Even though it is based on the medieval legend of a man who sold his soul to the devil, it actually treats modern man's sense of alienation and his need to come to terms with the world in which he lives.
This theme has always been an important one in western literature, but it has gained in urgency during our own century. Each generation must explore anew the problems of human estrangement and fulfillment — the best way to begin such a search is to see what the past has to offer. Goethe's vision may not provide the perfect or the only answer, but it has been a source of inspiration to many readers for more than a hundred years and reflects the thoughts and experiences of one of the 19th century's most active and gifted minds.
The Faust Legend in European Thought
The Faust legend first flourished in medieval Europe and is thought to have its earliest roots in the New Testament story of the magician Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24). During the superstitious Middle Ages, the story of the man who sold his soul to the devil to procure supernatural powers captured the popular imagination and spread rapidly. At some point the name of Faust was definitely attached to this figure. A cycle of legends, including some from ancient and medieval sources that were originally told about other magicians, began to collect around him. One of the most widely-read magic texts of the period was attributed to Faust and many others referred to him as an authority.
A famous German sage and adventurer born in 1480 was thought by many of his contemporaries to be a magician and probably did practice some sort of black magic. Few details of his life are certain, but it is known that he capitalized on the situation by calling himself "Faust the Younger," thus acquiring the occult reputation of the legendary character.
After a sensational career, this Faust died during a mysterious demonstration of flying which he put on for a royal audience in 1525. It was generally believed that he had been carried away by the devil. One of the scenes of Goethe's tragedy is set in Auerbach's Cellar in Leipzig, the city of this fatal exhibition, because the walls of the old tavern were decorated with representations of Faust's exploits, and the place was traditionally connected with him.
A biography of Faust, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, based upon the shadowy life of Faust the Younger, but including many of the fanciful legendary stories, was published in Frankfurt in 1587. That same year it was translated into English as The Historie of the damnable life and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus. In both these popular editions of the "Faust-Book," the famed magician's deeds and pact with the devil are recounted, along with much pious moralizing about his sinfulness and final damnation. It was in this version that the legend took on a permanent form.
When the Renaissance came to northern Europe, Faust was made into a symbol of free thought, anti-clericalism, and opposition to Church dogma. The first important literary treatment of the legend was that of the English dramatist, Christopher Marlowe.
Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1588, now usually referred to as Doctor Faustus) was the forerunner of all later English tragedies and had a revolutionary effect on the development of dramatic art. It is still renowned for its exciting theatricality, its beautiful blank verse, and its moving portrayal of a human soul in despair because he cannot accept God and so is condemned to damnation.
Marlowe used the English translation of the 1587 Faust-Book as his main source, but transformed the legendary magician into a figure of tragic stature and made his story a powerful expression of the main issues of Elizabethan thought. As in the earlier versions, Marlowe's Faustus signs a pact with the devil which consigns his soul to hell in return for 24 years of unlimited power and pleasure. Up to the moment of his death, however, this Faustus is free to resist his seduction by the forces of evil, despite having signed the pact. In the final scenes Faustus becomes terrified by the thought of his impending damnation and desperately wants to save himself, but his faith in God's merciful love is not strong enough and he cannot repent. After a painful struggle with himself, Faustus is carried off by the devil at the end of the play.
In addition to the difference in the fate of the protagonist, Marlowe's drama varies from Goethe's in other significant ways. At the outset Faustus does not invoke the devil because of moral or philosophical alienation, as does Faust, but only from a crass desire for power, and in his adventures afterward there is little effort made to explore the many kinds of human experience and ways to personal fulfillment that are examined in Goethe's poem. Both characters are torn by conflicts within their own souls, but Faustus is trying to believe in God, while Faust seeks a way to believe in himself. Finally, the theology and morality of Marlowe's play is that of traditional Christianity. In Faust Goethe tends to use orthodox religion only as a source of imagery. He tells his story in the context of an abstract pantheistic religious system and a fluid moral code that gives precedence to motives and circumstances rather than deeds as such.
Marlowe's rendition of the legend was popular in England and Germany until the mid-17th century, but eventually the Faust story lost much of its appeal. The legend was kept alive in the folk tradition of Germany, though, and was the subject of pantomimes and marionette shows for many years.
The close of the 18th century in Germany was a time very much like the Renaissance. Before long the old Faust story with its unique approach to the period's problems was remembered. The German dramatist Lessing (1729-1781) wrote a play based on the legend, but the manuscript was lost many generations ago and its contents are hardly known.
Goethe's great tragedy struck a responsive chord throughout Europe and reinforced the new interest in the Faust story. Since his time it has stimulated many creative thinkers and has been the central theme of notable works in all fields of expression. In art, for instance, the Faust legend has provided fruitful subjects for such painters as Ferdinand Delacroix (1798-1863). Musical works based on the Faust story include Hector Berlioz's cantata, The Damnation of Faust (1846), Charles Gounod's opera, Faust (1859), Arrigo Boito's opera, Mefistofele (1868), and the Faust Symphony (1857) of Franz Lizt. Even the newest of art forms, the motion picture, has made use of the ancient story, for a film version of Goethe's Faust was produced in Germany in 1925. But most important, the legend has continued to be the subject of many poems, novels, and dramatic works. Among the more recent of these are the novel, Doctor Faustus (1948) by Thomas Mann and the poetic morality play, An Irish Faustus (1964) by Lawrence Durrell.
Each succeeding artist has recast the rich Faust legend in terms of the intellectual and emotional climate of his own time, and over the past few centuries this tale has matured into an archetypal myth of man's aspirations and the dilemmas he faces in the effort to understand his place in the universe. Like all myths, the Faust story has much to teach the reader in all its forms, for the tale has retained its pertinence in the modern world. The history of the legend's development and its expansion into broader moral and philosophical spheres is also an intellectual history of mankind.
Students who are interested in a more detailed study of the Faust theme should begin by consulting E. M. Butler's Fortunes of Faust, available in any good library.