I have spent more time outlining the syllabus in terms of what I want to do with it, and decided that after Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Faust would be a natural choice.
I think I will once again teach it over a two week period (Parts I and II) since there is too much to cover in a single week especially with the ever changing venues in the first part of the plot. Part I is a single act comprised of a multitude of locations as Faust moves throughout the story, and I found my students had an easier time with it when I didn’t just talk about the story as a whole, but rather began focusing on each location, which is probably why the play hardly ever gets performed in its entirety.
Goethe’s version is a retelling of a well known story about a man who sells his soul to the devil, but where Goethe differs is in his adaptation of Faust himself. This is not to argue that his conduct is not deplorable, which it is, but rather his reasoning for it becomes of interest. One of the first concepts introduced is that of knowledge, and immediately it is cast within the good/bad dichotomy.
Before the play begins there are two preludes. In the first the Poet, Director and Clown discuss the makings of a good play. Aside from setting up the plot, there is an emphasis on Aristotle’s notion of instructing through various forms of entertainment, indicating that there is in fact some knowledge to be gained from the following play that will, in the Dantean sense, contain everything on earth, from Heaven to Hell as the Director instructs the Poet to brew a story out of the amalgamation of elements the three actors have been volleying back and forth, creating something with “sufficient plot.”
The concept of knowledge again becomes important in the second prelude taking place in Heaven, where Mephistopheles and God dispute where knowledge will lead. To believe it will lead to good is to accept that what is created by God/divinity/nature (and I use all three because I don’t believe Goethe uses religion in any real sense and God/Mephistopheles/Angels are more or less stand ins for the larger concepts of truth and morality, outside strict Christianity) is good. This acceptance leads to the implication that man, having been created by a good force, is therefore essentially good, and by extension, everything he does is good, meaning sinning is impossible. Thus the restrictions placed upon him on earth are contrived and unnatural, which means his having free will is unquestionably good.
However, on the other side, you can argue that if man is inherently good then that precludes him from being able to sin; he is incapable of making bad decisions since all of his decisions are deemed good. If this is the case, then the notion of consequences versus intentions would mean that regardless of a person’s intentions, the consequences of his actions will always be positive – man is here not allowed to sin, and thus has no free will.
This appears to be the crux of the problem, as a corrupt person may be prohibited from sinning through a mere technicality of definition. God refers to Faust as “his serf,” to which Mephistopheles replies “he serves you in a curious fashion,” implying that Faust is perhaps operating along a forced trajectory where he cannot sin not because he is not corrupt, but simply because he is not allowed.
Mephistopheles is not going to corrupt Faust, but simply allow him to do that which is already in him. Returning to the previous argument, if said corruptions already exists within Faust, and keeping in mind that man is essentially good, then this caveat is what will save Faust in the end. So how is “good” defined? Certainly not in a prescribed sense comprised of a seemingly endless list of rules, all of which Faust does his best to completely trample over. Good must then have an alternate definition that is not conscripted to the good/bad dichotomy but rather relies on a natural interpretation in that man is not good or bad, but simply is, and that in itself is a good thing.
“In Part I of Faust it is interesting to consider what Mephistopheles actually does for Faust. I would like to say not much. Every time he performs some supernatural act, it is mostly showy and only serves to enhance what is already there. But what about when he has Faust’s youth restored? I will get to that in a minute.
He changes his own appearance to appeal to Faust, but his main tools are speech. And considering Faust is already of the mindset necessary for conversion, it is an easy enough task. He offers Faust unlimited pleasures, but what he is really offering is permission to do that which he is already capable and willing, and only slightly reluctant.
The entire time Faust *thinks* he needs Mephistopheles to fulfill his wishes because he lacks the confidence to make the necessary changes in his life that would lead to the sort of happiness he seeks. He is a weak character unwilling to put forth the work needed, and Mephistopheles is his placebo, urging him forward, towards apparent fulfillment, presumably equipping him with strength. He argues he saved Faust from suicide. Suicide is the easy way out. What is Mephistopheles offering?
For their first adventure Mephistopheles takes Faust to a tavern. Do you need divine intervention to go to a bar? Yes, Faust comes to the realization of the differences, and even more poignantly the similarities between himself and the men he encounters there, but it is highly unlikely he would not have come to that conclusion himself had he simply walked to any tavern in the city.
Faust wants Gretchen and Mephistopheles tells him he has no control over her. He does not procure her for him, but rather lets him do all the work, simply acting as a facilitator. Sure, the jewels he obtains to give Gretchen are fantastic, but somehow I think a new pair of pearl earrings and a pretty gold bracelet would have had the same effect. Faust could probably afford those himself.
As for charming Marthe and acquiring her as an accomplice, again, Mephistopheles uses his charms, but that too is no extraordinary feat. Think of Angela and Madeline in Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes.”
Mephistopheles has no actual control over the other characters. When Faust wants to extract Gretchen from the prison, again Mephistopheles can only get him there, but then acts as nothing more than a look-out. All of this is plainly stated in just the previous scene as Faust begins to blame Mephistopheles for Gretchen’s downfall, and Mephistopheles asks who got her there, “I or you?”
Even as Mephistopheles follows Faust around his only purpose is to slowly elucidate to Faust his own inner desires – he creates nothing in Faust, but works with what is already there.
Which brings me to the earlier scene where Faust’s youth is restored. While that is an actual physical alteration that Faust could not have done on his own, the actual act does not add anything to Faust. He is not imbued with virility by virtue of youth. Keep in mind, before he drinks the elixir that transforms him he is already enamored with Gretchen, seeing her image in the mirror. His perceived unattractive form is only an excuse he makes for why he could not have her, never denying he wants her. His lust for her was already in place, he just lacked the confidence to go after her, and restoring his youth is simply the catalyst for pursuit. But there is no reason to believe his natural appearance would have hindered him otherwise.
Mephistopheles does not lead Faust, or corrupt him either. Not in the true sense of it. In fact, on several occasions he tries to lead Faust towards decisions and activities that will seal his corruption and complete degradation, but without success (Walpurgis). In the last scene, attempting to rescue Gretchen from prison was probably not on Mephistopheles’ list of things to do. It is one of the few times Faust actually shows compassion, even if only briefly.
But, again, Mephistopheles can’t alter Faust. He cannot make decisions for him. He is simply the placebo that gives Faust impetus to act on those desires that are strongest when faced with a decision.
Yet once this is discovered, in Part II, as Mephistopheles actually does create different scenarios, it will become even more apparent that Faust’s strongest desires are also the weakest. Yet, if you trace his motivation, you will find something rather interesting there.”
As mentioned, while we go over all of this (and more), I will be moving from venue to venue, in a kind of guided tour of Faust, and a large portion will be dedicated to simply uncomplicating and explaining some of the more convoluted imagery and concepts.
By the time Mephistopheles and Faust meet Faust’s displeasure with life has already been introduced, thus when Mephistopheles tempts him into the pact his hesitancy is questionable. Moments before he was on the verge of suicide, meaning he regarded his soul as little other than already damned, so why the stalling? What Mephistopheles is offering, as far as Faust is concerned, is not damnation but rather prolonged life. Arguably it takes him a second to decide if this is really what he wants, especially considering his current state of mind. Mephistopheles offers a chance at experience. Action, agency, and will, are what keeps a person alive. To be satisfied, to not want more, is to stop living. Faust, who equates experience with knowledge (outside of traditional scholarship), does not believe he will ever be satisfied, so a pact that will cease to exist only once Faust *is* satisfied, is in essence a pact for eternal life.
This brings me to Gretchen, who is Faust’s opposite. Faust will tempt her much like Mephistopheles tempted him, but if Mephistopheles does not create anything within a person and only works with what is there, Gretchen cannot be corrupted internally and Mephistopheles has no power over her in that sense. She may, as the play progresses, commit some atrocities, but returning to the idea of consequences versus intentions, her intentions were never fully corrupted. She makes a series of bad decisions, but never maliciously. Even as she kills her baby she is tortured with her actions, and as a consequence ultimately goes mad. Despite her strong religious beliefs she does not believe in the strict regulations that would forbid her joy (Faust’s pretty trinkets, Faust himself, her fancy), however, an act such as infanticide is wrong by anyone’s definition, and she is fully prepared to pay for that. She does not allow Faust to take her from the prison – her actions have been corrupted to the core, but she maintains a conscience, for which she will be saved.
There are numerous other small plot points to discuss as we progress through the first part, such as looking at Martha in terms of Angela in Keats’ “St. Agnes,” or the point that Mephistopheles makes when Faust questions why he had to lie to Martha about her husband, and further, why such a horrid lie? Faust’s argument is that it is enough they tell her her husband is dead, which may not actually be true, but to tell her he died of syphilis is perhaps too much – why not something better? To which Mephistopheles blatantly answers that man is not only prone to vice (for which Faust is a prime example), but people also want to believe the worst of other people, and are most willing to believe the lowest lies.
Mephistopheles’ most lucid remarks lead to another aspect of his character that doesn’t receive very much attention.
“Faust is a serious play, but how seriously can you take Mephistopheles? At face value he is a devil, but everything about his comport, speech, and role that he plays is more reminiscent of a court jester than a vicious entity.
Yes, he tempts, and attempts to corrupt, but only because he sees the “curious fashion” in which humanity behaves.
He mocks to clarify, and his are some of the most truthful speeches in the play. He lies, but unapologetically. Basically his witty banter is the driving force of the play.
In the event that anyone missed this comparison early on, which is quite possible, in Act I of Part II he is actually disguised as a Fool in the Emperor’s court.
The set up for this begins before Mephistopheles ever appears on stage, in the Prelude to Part I where the audience meets the Director, Dramatic Poet, and Clown, with a premature indication of which one Mephistopheles will resemble. While there is no overt expression of this during this scene, and it doesn’t become apparent until much further on, with only hints occasionally dropped, in retrospect, it is there. This is one of those assumptions and/or connections that your brain makes subtly and does not come to the forefront until Mephistopheles is literally portrayed as a jester in the second part. One of those “Oh!” moments.
So Mephistopheles is a literal fool in the first part of Part II where, as just mentioned, he is acting as such in the Emperor’s court, but what is he doing in the first part of Part I? Is he not in God’s court, similarly surrounded by subjects while he offers his advice, or better yet, his opinions regarding the current state of affairs?
In both arguably parallel scenes his speech is candid, as “fine speeches are, beg pardon, not [his] forte.” Well, as it turns out, fine speeches, rhetoric, and flattery are exactly his forte. However, what he means is that fine speeches serving no purpose are of no use to him. He blatantly informs the Lord of the human state, just as he informs the Emperor of his economy, all the while putting on quite the spectacle.
As the play continues, he questions, and in the process gets those around him to question as well. He does not always have the answers (Classical Walpurgis Night), but knows where to look, and most importantly, knows how to instruct.
There are several scenes where the direct parallel is abandoned, especially in the middle of Part II. Yet I am not arguing for an exact comparison, but rather that Mephistopheles, overall, fits within the jester pattern, and even in his most wicked moments (of which he has quite a few), he can still be learned from in his candid dialogue. He not only comments on his own deeds, but helps elucidate those of others.
His commentary entertains and instructs.”
Each one of the following vignette type scenes will build further upon the plot, while adding bits of commentary Goethe wishes to make such as the introduction of Valentine, Gretchen’s brother, serving as a reminder of Gretchen’s society where she will be cruelly judged and persecuted for her pregnancy as indicated by his dying lines to her.
As Faust witnesses this scene and decides to leave her there, he becomes practically intolerable, and his pursuit of worldly knowledge, initially undefined as either good or bad begins losing any positive connotations. Walpurgis Night further solidifies the negativity felt towards Faust, as any nobler purposes towards reaching a higher end are diluted at this event. Arguably Walpurgis Night is one of the most sensory laden scenes within the play, with its progression gaining momentum towards the critical point where Faust momentarily expresses horror at Gretchen’s fate, yet unknowing of the events that lead her there (Walpurgis, generally celebrated on April 30, would make it about a year since he had last seen Gretchen).
There should be a brief mention of the short play within the play where it appears random Shakespeare characters are strewn on stage with little reason (Midsummer’s Night Dream and Tempest, along with generic characters that could come from anywhere). I would like to think Goethe’s reasoning for this has to do with the particular characters he chose, and the event as it unfolds on stage within the play, but aside from the fact that that is entirely too far fetched, it would detour the lecture too much. However, I think most will agree that it serves as a point of relief from an escalating plot.
The very next scene, albeit short, is quite striking. As Faust all of a sudden finds guilt he enters into a frenzy to save Gretchen. What he doesn’t understand, and will be made clear in the last scene, is that she is not looking for the kind of salvation he is offering. She loves him to the end, and regains lucidity only after recognizing him, but unlike him, she accepts her end – she has had enough. Yet before we even get to this point, we see Faust condemning Mephistopheles for everything (not moving fast enough, bringing him to Walpurgis, Gretchen’s fall, etc), to which Mephistopheles, in what I believe to be one of the most telling lines of the play, responds “Who was it that plunged her to her ruin? I or you?” Basically, who is responsible for everything including, but not limited to, Gretchen’s outcome?
It is interesting to note that this is the first time that Faust comes to Gretchen without wanting something from her. While it can be argued that what he wants is not tangible, but rather to relieve his own guilt in the matter, it also marks the first time he has compulsions towards non physical fulfillment, in the ever slightest way realizing there is more to life, and love, than physical pleasure.
After Part I, we will return briefly to the first prelude to the play, to the last stanza of the Director’s dialogue that plays on the medieval concept of the macrocosm/microcosm in which the small well orchestrated life on stage is a stand in for the larger world. As Part I of the Faust ends, so does the microcosm aspect of the play end, and as Part II begins he exits the rather limited world he has been living in and enters a realm of infinite possibilities where he can truly experience knowledge to its fullest potential. Again, the outcome will be interesting, if not surprising.
The opening scene is within a field similar to the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology, paralleling the earlier opening in Heaven. This is followed directly by Mephistopheles appearance in the Emperor’s court and to take the comparison further between these openings, the second is complete with the difference between the orderly angels in the first part and the chaotic spirits found in the here (which was for the most part discussed above).
As Mephistopheles attempts to “solve” the emperor’s problems by suggesting the creation of paper money, what he suggests is similar to his initial suggestion to Faust. Paper money is a physical commodity with innocuous uses, but once created en masse and released into society all at once, inflation occurs – excess is destructive to the economy much as it corrupts the individual when introduced in various forms.
Several more plot points should be untangled here, including the scene with the Mothers along with the reasoning for why Mephistopheles cannot help Faust in this undertaking. However, one of Faust’s first real turns within himself begins happening when he discovers Helen, the ideal feminine form, which only he can discern above the others in the room. Unfortunately, just like his moment of morality with Gretchen, here too his spiritual progress is short lived. And here morality does not refer to any one fundamental sense of the word, but rather a basic human goodness outside of any pedagogy on the matter. However, instead of appreciating Helen’s beauty and observing it, obtaining joy from that, he immediately attempts to possess her, practically turning her into a trinket. He has not yet learned his lesson.
Nor is he going to learn his lesson any time soon. He and Mephistopheles then return to Faust’s study from the beginning of the play – Faust has not really learned anything, and they are in a sense starting all over. Throughout this bizarre episode Goethe makes several comments against pure, blind, scholarly knowledge, and its limitations on the human mind, beginning with the encounter with the student who comes for a visit, and followed by the introduction (reintroduction?) of Wagner and his creation, Homunculus. In context, it is interesting to note that this part of the play and Shelley’s Frankenstein were written around the same time. Even though Homunculus is essentially a test tube baby and not necessarily constructed from body parts, during this period there was a fascination with finding the meaning of life (although arguably that has always been a human fascination), and what better way of doing so than to create life? This too points to the limitations of science – you may be able to create a creature that lives/exists, but this tell you little about living. In a sense this is what Faust is attempting to do, find the meaning of life through knowledge, but beyond only scholarship that will produce creatures like Homunculus without ever understanding the implications of what they have done, or better yet, of what they haven’t done. Ironically, it will be Homunculus who will show Faust what it means to live, in a “how not to do this” example sort of way.
As the three of them depart the laboratory, there is, needless to say, another parallel between the Classical Walpurgis where they go, and Walpurgis Night in Part I. The obvious distinction is between the sort of activity that can be found. While the first one was an orgy heading towards some sort of satanic festival, here there are free ranging spirits simply enjoying the revelry in a more organic/natural state. The next comparisons can be drawn between Gretchen and Helen, as Faust has visions of each during Walpurgis, ensuing in a quest to find them the next day, and as he descends into the underworld it is similar to his descent towards the Mothers. In fact this entire scene is nothing but a series of parallels: destruction, the fire from the seismic earthquake breeds creation as opposed to that brought about by water later on; Galatea, the embodiment of love and beauty is directly comparable to Gretchen and even more so Helen; Faust and Homunculus both resolve to pursue two women or parish trying. However, the main parallel is solely between Faust as presented in the first part, to the Faust we see here, and I will argue that very little if anything has changed. As he leaves Classical Walpurgis in pursuit of Helen, he is still of the mindset to conquer her, as evident by the rather ridiculous plan that he and Mephistopheles enact to get Helen to come to him.
At this point I will briefly outline the plan and stop and explain one of my favorite parts of this scene where Helen learns how to rhyme. There appears to be a change in both of them, or the at the very least, the beginning of a change. Faust starts to look at Helen as more than just a possession, like Gretchen, to be visited once in a while, and rather as someone he wants to build a life with, including the child he never got to enjoy with Gretchen. In this sense, as Faust moves from his study the second time, he does start over, and while he is hardly to be considered honest, his attempts to recreate all that he had previously lost can be seen in an almost redemptive manner.
Yet even here he does not find spiritual harmony because his happiness is too intrinsically tied to Helen and their son Euphorion, ephemeral creatures at best where “beauty and good fortune are but fleeting joined,” as is demonstrated through Euphorion’s death and Helen’s departure into the underworld to accompany him. Had there been a different, perhaps stronger bond, Faust would here follow, but he is not in fact satisfied enough to relinquish his life for another, not even his own child (and yes, he lost his first child as well, but here he actually got to know Euphorion and spent years with him, unlike Gretchen’s baby that he had only heard of and conceivably had no bond with).
After a short chorus (in Part II Goethe tries to maintain the epic form as much as possible), Act IV begins, and is an act that many critics believe just doesn’t fit into the rest of the story. Yes, it is oddly out of place, but I think also serves as a set up for the ending (Act V) in which, as we shall see, Faust displays the beginnings of repentance (again not in the traditional ways, but you don’t necessarily need religion to point out that for the most part Faust has been a rather terrible human).
In this relatively short Act there is a definite sense of rebirth and regeneration from within chaos, first exampled by Faust’s idea to reclaim lands from under the sea, and then within Faust himself. Ultimately he wants agency. As discussed earlier, action, agency, and will are all equated to living, and until now that was a large part of what Mephistopheles provided, the impetus for Faust to act. However, now Faust wants to act of his own accord, separate from Mephistopheles. Unfortunately he cannot operate in the supernatural realm in which he lives, and requires Mephistopheles to help acquire the land, much like he needed Mephistopheles to help acquire the jewels for Gretchen. Yet, just like he probably didn’t need the jewels, he doesn’t now need the land – what he needs is the lesson that will come with having the land.
The altogether superfluous battle scene will be explained, with a side note on what takes place in the end. As the goods are distributed, the church, which had no part in the war, gets a large part of the goods, much like the church collected Gretchen’s jewels earlier via Gretchen’s mother. While this doesn’t add much to the story, it serves as a side comment, much like the ones Goethe made earlier in regards to scholarship.
Again we watch Faust regress from his original course. While his idea, to build a sort of utopia on the land, seemed genuinely well intentioned, once the land is within his possession he behaves akin to a dictator. How can he be creating a place of freedom and peace for humanity as he throws everyone off his land?
I will then explain the overt reference to Ovid’s Metamorpheses that encompasses the Baucis and Philemon thread of the story, and for the purposes of Faust, provides a contrast with the original story, making it the more painful to watch as here, unlike in Ovid’s rendering, they are not spared for their kindness and good will, vilifying Faust even more. In the event anyone misses that reference, Goethe makes another one to I Kings 21 and I will explain how the story of King Ahab parallels that of “king” Faust. However, Faust does not covet the couple’s vineyard, but rather their lifestyle, in which they have found meaning and happiness with what little they have, unconcerned with Faust’s musing of grandeur and utopias from lands brought up from under the sea. Most importantly, they have found peace, and for all of these things Faust envies them and will lead to their destruction. He has now spent a lengthy life seeking that which he can never have, and each time he comes closer to finding greater meaning through his experiences and knowledge, at the end of each he regresses, unable to overcome his barrier of self centered, malformed and debased desire.
As the couple is murdered, Faust, despite not having ordered their murder, per se, but rather their removal, blames himself for the deed, unlike his previous harangues against Mephistopheles for actions which he committed himself. He is actually acknowledging his complacency in someone else’s destruction. Then I will explain the four horsemen of the apocalypse and relate them to the four crones who visit him (death, war, famine, plague), describing how Faust begins to accept his fate – a life eternally filled with further experiences, but devoid of satisfying meaning.
Faust at this point, much like Gretchen at the end of Part I, has for the most part, had enough, and is toying with the idea of giving up despite the initial contract with Mephistopheles. This is most evident in the scene where Care blinds him. It is midnight, and pitch dark, meaning there is a different reason for his blinding other than the obvious; the physical aspect of his existence no longer concerns him – one form of pleasure is visual stimulation, viewing beautiful objects (such as the land of paradise he is supposedly having others build for him), and he no longer harbors a desire for seeing it, but rather in an almost transcend sense, finally wanting it built for the selfless purposes he first outlines, the betterment of humanity.
Thus Faust’s (albeit slow) progress can be traced. He went from carrying only for himself, to demonstrating slight care for others in a superficial sense (Gretchen and then Helen), to further concern for others (Baucis and Philemon), to great anguish for all humanity in his determination to continue the construction project knowing he will never enjoy it himself.
Then there will be brief plot explanation with the Lemures, and their meaning, along with what Faust believes is happening, which instead of building his grave at Mephistopheles’ bidding, he thinks they are workmen completing his project. In his euphoria, practically envisioning the finished project, he speaks the terms of the contract “oh tarry yet, thou art so fair.” Mephistopheles misunderstands the terms under which these words are spoke, namely Faust’s state of mind, and assumes he has won, eagerly proceeding to conduct Faust to Hell.
The caveat that will essentially save Faust is the point to which he has come prior to speaking the words. It is important to remember that Faust is currently blind, thus the beauty he perceives in the land is not one that creates physical pleasure through sight, but rather the higher awareness of what the land means, an Eden for mankind. For all of his misconduct, in this moment Faust has reached a type of spiritual awareness and has in fact used knowledge/experience to transcend the physical realm and find satisfaction in something deeper, outside the self. This was arguably his very reason for signing the contract with Mephistopheles in the first place.
As Mephistopheles escorts Faust’s body to the mouth of Hell, the entire scene is extremely stylized. It follows the tradition of religious dramas as done in medieval and renaissance theater, over theatrical, and perhaps one of the most visually stimulating scenes (some even argue more so than Walpurgis Night), in the entire play. The whole thing is nearly a farce, comical, simultaneously grotesque, and deals with spiritual matters on a very physical level.
As the play comes to an end the last scene serves as a commentary on the overarching themes throughout. One of the more prominent being that despite anything else, the most important thing a human can do is to strive for betterment, regardless of the means of achieving it; desire for experience is not in and of itself bad, as long as it is not stagnant. Faust would only be damned to Hell should he cease striving, and experiencing. It can be argued that such continuous forward motion will eventually lead anyone to a transcendent state, thus one must never “tarry a while.”
Of course this is a tie in to Nietzsche’s idea that experience posits the person in the realm of the new philosopher who is not sedentary, and can only function as long as he observes, where observation is equated to experience, all of which are beneficial to society and the individual.
I plan on ending the lecture with a brief overview of the Sturm and Drang movement, explaining how Goethe’s ideas formed into this adaptation of Faust (although I am currently debating on whether I should do this in the beginning instead), and then will quickly discuss Marlowe’s version, only spending a few minutes on the major differences and implications, basically using it to highlight Goethe’s unique approach to the story. This is not to discredit Marlowe’s play, but I can’t imagine having time to fully go into two versions of Faust, so Marlowe unfortunately is going to get the short shrift of this.
I am pretty sure I am leaving some things out, but as we go over everything in class I will be able to improvise on any such things.
In this post I was originally planning on outlining another five weeks of my syllabus, but two seem to be involving enough, so I will break here (week 7) for now. The Chaucer section is next.