Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | Study Guide

Goethe

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Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | Part 1, Scenes 21–22 | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Scene 21: Walpurgis Night

In another change of setting, Faust and Mephistopheles are walking in the Harz Mountains, heading for Mount Brocken, the tallest mountain in southern Germany. Soon, witches and warlocks are arriving on the wind, singing and shouting. When Mephistopheles and Faust reach the campfires of the various groups in attendance, Mephistopheles chats to various people, including a general, a government minister, and an author. They meet various witches and spirits. Faust pronounces it "a fair to beat all fairs."

Suddenly he sees a "lovely child" who looks afraid and in pain. She looks like Gretchen but with "a corpse's eyes" and a "scarlet string" around her neck "no thicker than a knife blade's back." Faust is worried, but Mephistopheles says it's Medusa, and the string is where Perseus cut her head off. He says whoever sees her "thinks she's his own sweetheart." Mephistopheles insists Faust ignore what he has seen, and they go off to the theater instead to see an amateur production.

Part 1, Scene 22: Walpurgis Night's Dream

The play they see is Walpurgis Night's Dream, also called Oberon and Titania's Golden Wedding. The Stage Manager says nature has set the scene for them. The fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, have stopped quarreling and playing tricks on each other. They are happily reunited and celebrating their 50th anniversary. Oberon's mischievous faun, Puck, sings; the air spirit Ariel dances. Members of the orchestra, the cast, and the audience comment—sometimes quite caustically—on the play, the Walpurgis Night festival, and other topics. The celebrations wind down as morning nears.

Analysis

For the most part, the two Walpurgis Night scenes are divorced from the rest of the story. This has been a source of lasting criticism. Neither Faust nor Mephistopheles appears in Scene 22, and the scene is frequently left out of stage productions of Part 1, as are sections of Scene 21.

However, these scenes do serve the purpose of allowing time to pass. Walpurgis Night—the witches' annual celebration on Mt. Brocken—is only one night long. However, since it involves witchcraft and devilry and takes place so far from Gretchen's village, it gives the audience a sense of the passage of time. And a lot of time certainly passes after Faust flees the scene of Valentine's murder. After all, Gretchen's pregnancy advances, she gives birth, she kills her child, her trial takes place, and she spends enough time in prison to go mad. It may have been six months or more for Gretchen. The only reference in the Walpurgis Night scenes that relates to the main plot line of Part 1 occurs when Faust sees the girl who looks like Gretchen. With her corpselike eyes and the red string around her throat, the vision foreshadows Gretchen's fate. Mephistopheles's response is dismissive, which is also the one time he seems completely in character.

The title of the amateur production, of course, alludes to Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream, and some of the character names, including Oberon, Titania, and Puck, are borrowed from that play. Ariel, oddly enough, is borrowed from The Tempest. But, aside from the title and a few quatrains at the start of the scene, there is no relationship between Goethe's supposed play-within-a-play and Shakespeare's famous comedy. Actually, in Goethe's time neither The Tempest nor A Midsummer Night's Dream was staged. People, however, were familiar with the operas based on the two plays. Moreover, Goethe himself staged a contemporary operetta in his Weimar theater about Oberon and Titania reconciling. It would appear, given the presence of an orchestra leader in Scene 22, that—despite Goethe's admiration for Shakespeare—these musical productions were more on Goethe's mind than Shakespeare's original dramas as he wrote this scene. What's more, the format of the so-called amateur production is not actually a play but more a lineup of characters and individuals, each of whom speaks a quatrain as Mephistopheles and Faust pass.

Scenes 21 and 22 seem to contain mostly snide remarks about various groups and individuals. The best example of this is Goethe's several digs at the author and publisher Friedrich Nicolai (1733–1811), one of Germany's foremost Enlightenment thinkers and an adamant critic of Goethe and other early representatives of romanticism. Among Nicolai's many writings was a satire on Goethe's 1774 novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Nicolai's book, Die Freuden des Jungen Werthers (The Joys of Young Werther) appeared the following year. This was the start of a lifelong literary feud between the two men. In addition to satires and negative reviews of Goethe's work, Nicolai also refused to publish a number his manuscripts. Before completing and publishing Part 1 of Faust, Goethe had written a series of satirical quatrains on the contemporary literary scene meant for publication in Schiller's journal, but he decided not to include them. Goethe found a home for them in the "amateur" production Faust and Mephistopheles attend on Walpurgis Night. Nicolai is the target of the two quatrains attributed to the Inquiring Traveler. These verses describe Nicolai, who was in his 70s when Part 1 was published, as "a fairground fraud" who's "still alive and kicking" and as a "stiff" fellow who "marches so majestical" and "sniffs away for all he's worth/'Pursuing things Jesuitical.'" But Nicolai takes an even more personal blow in the preceding scene, where he appears as one of the Walpurgis Night revelers: the Proctophantasmist. The name, which Goethe invented, refers to Nicolai's belief that he had cured himself of a medical condition that caused him to see ghosts—including the ghost of his dead son—by applying leeches to his anus. Ironically, in the play the character expresses Nicolai's disapproval of superstitious beliefs in a pun: "Spirits are all footless, they lack standing."

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