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Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | Context

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The Faust Legend

Goethe based Faust on a classic German legend that had built up around a historical character—perhaps even around a combination of two men. Johann Faust was an astrologer who was born in the 1480s and died about 1540. About the same time, an alchemist named Georg (or Jörg) Faust was boasting of supernatural powers. He claimed to be a "demigod" (more power than a human but less than a god), calling himself "Faustus junior"; he also claimed he consorted with the devil. Johann heard of Georg and went to hear him speak, but reported that he "talked nonsense." But many took Georg seriously, including well-known clergymen such as German theologist Martin Luther and even the Bishop of Bamberg, whose bishopric paid Faustus to cast the bishop's horoscope. In contrast, the towns of Ingolstadt and Nuremberg refused to let Georg enter, calling him a "sodomite and necromancer." He was also forced to flee from a teaching position after he was accused of corrupting his students.

Somehow, these two Fausts merged into one popular legend, and in 1587, nearly half a century after his death, a biography called the Faustbuch (Faust Book) was published by German printer Johann Spies. It tells how Faust made a pact with the devil and paid with his soul. In addition to his own accomplishments, the Faustbuch claims Faust was responsible for acts of magic previously attributed to other famous conjurors, such as King Arthur's magical mentor Merlin, and the German Dominican friar and Catholic bishop Albertus Magnus. The book was sensational and a popular hit. The next two centuries saw the publication of a number of Faust books and instruction manuals on magic purporting to originate with Faust. One of these—Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis—was in the duke's library in Weimar, so it is likely Goethe read it. However, this was certainly not Goethe's first exposure to the Faust legend. As a child, he had doubtless seen at least one of the many traveling puppet shows about Faust. Most were based on a late 16th century play called The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus written by the English poet and dramatist Christopher Marlowe.

For centuries, numerous works by writers in Germany and throughout the world have found inspiration in the Faust legend. In addition to Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and Goethe's Faust, these include

  • an unfinished play (1780) by German dramatist, critic, and philosopher Gotthold Lessing
  • Hector Berlioz's opera The Damnation of Faust (c. 1846)
  • Charles Gounod's opera Faust (1859)
  • Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus (1947)
  • the novel The Master and Margarita (1967) by the Russian writer Mikhael Bulgakov

The idea of making a pact with the devil continues to pervade popular culture. Numerous movies (including the film noir drama Sweet Smell of Success, 1957, and the iconic horror film Rosemary's Baby, 1968), television programs (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 3), and even songs (such as Tom Waits's "The Black Rider," 1993, written for the Faustian film of the same name).

Critical Reception of Goethe's Faust and the Problem of Translation

Faust is written in verse. The play—especially Part 2—was probably not written to be performed, but as a so-called closet drama—a play intended to be read either aloud in a small group or as a novel. Because it encompasses so many styles and meters, Faust was not well received at the time. Critics found it inconsistent and unfocused. Some parts were actually considered scandalous. In fact, Goethe was aware that this might happen and insisted Part 2 not be published until after his death. Goethe himself said of Faust, "It is mad stuff, and goes quite beyond all ordinary feeling." However, 20th-century critics praised its exploration of all aspects of culture—from religion and philosophy to science and the arts to politics and economy. Its reputation has endured. As a result, Part 2 has been produced for the stage a number of times in recent history.

Because Goethe wrote Faust in many poetic forms, translating it has proved a challenge. Some translators chose not to tackle the issue and kept their translations in prose; others used verse, but didn't attempt to use Goethe's wide variety of poetic styles or preserve his humorous rhymes; still others attempted to remain as close as possible to the original in both content and style. One of his English-language translators, Bayard Taylor, decided to create a translation that kept Goethe's original metrics. Taylor points out that Goethe believed that some ideas could be expressed only in poetry and argues that trying "to represent Poetry in Prose, is very much like attempting to translate music into speech." As Faust translator Martin Greenberg also points out, to translate poetry the translator must be a poet.

The Urfaust and the Sturm und Drang Movement

The earliest version of Faust is known as the Urfaust. (The German prefix ur- indicates the original or archetypal version of something.) Goethe wrote this version in the early to mid-1770s. It is typical of his Sturm und Drang period. The Sturm und Drang ("Storm and Stress") movement in German literature was a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment—a period ranging from the 17th to 18th centuries that was characterized by the scientific revolution. Its proponents glorified feelings, sensual experience, individualism, and nature. In 1773 Goethe worked with a group of like-minded thinkers while at university in Strasbourg to create a pamphlet called "Von deutscher Art und Kunst" ("Of German Nature and Art"), which stated the movement's basic tenets. Goethe's 1774 novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) and Friedrich Schiller's 1781 play Die Räuber (The Robbers) were arguably the two best-known and most characteristic works of the movement, which favored tragic narratives and poetic responses to nature and history and also championed women against a repressive paternalistic society. Goethe's Urfaust is typical of the Sturm und Drang movement in its focus on emotion, tragedy, and the suffering of women in society. It contains 22 scenes, of which 20 are exclusively in verse, while one is in prose and another mostly in prose. It centers on Faust's seduction of Gretchen and her resulting tragic end—the narrative that makes up most of Part 1 of the later, complete Faust—without making clear exactly what arrangement Faust has made with Mephistopheles.

When Goethe joined the conservative establishment by accepting a government position in Weimar, it seemed to signal an end to the Sturm und Drang movement since not many literary works were produced afterward.

Weimar Classicism and German Romanticism

Just as they had been the best-known names of the Sturm und Drang period, later in life Goethe and Schiller would become the leading lights of what is known in Germany as Weimar Classicism. Weimar Classicism was a literary movement that began more or less on Goethe's trip to Italy and lasted until the death of his friend Friedrich Schiller in 1805. The movement drew its central tenets from romanticism and the Enlightenment, but was centered on the Weimar court. It was characterized by an absorption with classical Greece and Rome and by what literary scholar Simon Richter has called "an aspiration to the wholeness of life." It was during this period that Goethe created his mature version of Faust, Part 1. The influence of Goethe's lasting interest in classical Greece is clear in the subject matter of Part 2, when Faust falls in love with and marries the famous mythical Helen of Troy. In addition to Goethe and Schiller, the Weimar Classicists included the poet and novelist Friedrich Hölderlin and the poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist.

Outside Germany, however, Weimar Classicism is largely unrecognized as a distinct literary period. Instead, Goethe and Schiller are considered the stars of German romanticism, which stretched from the late 18th century throughout the 19th century and is sometimes seen as opposed to classicism. Romanticism was characterized by an interest in the individual (especially as a representative of all of humankind), the common person, and folk culture. This was the time, for instance, when the German Grimm brothers collected and published their folktales. Feelings and imagination were important, as was nature. The romantics explored how individuals responded to nature and to all manner of life experiences. They were fascinated by extremes such as love, death, and madness. Much of the poetry of Faust explores the feelings of its characters, and Faust's love of nature is an important motif.

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