Faust, A Tragedy: Interpretive Notes, Contexts, Modern Criticism (Critical Editions)Faust, A Tragedy: Interpretive Notes, Contexts, Modern Criticism by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is universally revered as one of the great immortal geniuses of World Literature, and his great classic “Faust,” the epic drama of the scholar’s pact with the devil that has come to embody the spirit of the West and its fated love affair with limitless knowledge and technology, is often held to be his greatest masterpiece. “Faust,” which he finished with Part II in 1831, shortly before his death, can indeed be seen as the crowning achievement of his long and polymath career, but was by no means his only major contribution to World Literature. He wrote the most popular world novel of the 18th Century, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” a masterpiece of European Romanticism which catapulted him to European fame at the age of twenty-six, followed by one of the most influential novels of the 19th Century, the Bildungsroman “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” then topped off those acheivements with a profoundly modern novel of sexuality and adultery, “Elective Affinities,” which has been widely influential in the 20th Century.


In addition, Goethe is credited with the creation of the concept and institution of World Literature, or “Weltliteratur,” as he termed it in his “Conversations with Eckermann,” and thus continues as a living and seminal presence in Western and World Culture and Civilization two centuries after his death. He was a pioneer of Comparative Literature and vigorously advocated the study and appreciation of works from outside the Western tradition, reading Chinese novels and Persian poets such as Hafiz, and publishing his “East-West Divan” as a bridge between Western and non-Western cultures and literary traditions.

Speaking of World Literature to his young disciple Eckermann in January 1827, the seventy-seven-year-old Goethe first used his newly minted term “Weltliteratur,” which upon publication of the Conversations passed into common international currency:

“I am more and more convinced,” Goethe remarked,”that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men . . . I therefore like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise everyone to do the same. National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of World Literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.”

In his internationalist view of literature and culture Goethe was joined by other of the great founding fathers of World Literature such as Matthew Arnold of the English-speaking world, who in his “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” urged national literatures and literary criticism to internationally incorporate “the best that has been known and thought in the world:”

“One may say, indeed, of current English literature, that they may at all events endeavour, in dealing with this, to try it, so far as they can, by the standard of the best that is known and thought in the world; one may say, that to get anywhere near this standard, every critic should try and possess one great literature, at least, besides his own; and the more unlike his own, the better. But, after all, the criticism I am really concerned with,–the criticism which alone can much help us for the future, the criticism which, throughout Europe, is at the present day meant, when so much stress is laid on the importance of criticism and the critical spirit,–is a criticism which regards Europe as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation. That modern nation will in the intellectual and spiritual sphere make most progress, which most thoroughly carries out this programme. And what is that but saying that we too, all of us, as individuals, the more thoroughly we carry it out, shall make the more progress?”

Such figures as Marx and Engels also saw the globalization, internationalization and social transformation of literature and culture to be a necessary consequence of the globalization and transformation of the world economy and of the relationships between social classes in the modern age.

In addition to his literary creations and leadership, Goethe as a true “Renaissance Man” or “Universal Mind” made lasting contributions to many fields, including one of the most important works on theoretical optics, chemistry and meteorology, as well as studies in geology, comparative anatomy and botany that anticipated and laid a foundation for Darwin’s theory of evolution. He was also a government official responsible for establishing and developing museums, libraries and universities.

As the example of “Faust” reminds us, he was also deeply involved in the theater as a playwright, actor, director and manager of theatrical companies and institutions. He was a close friend of the great poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller and the center of a global network of writers, artists, scholars and statesmen. Though enobled as amember of the aristocracy and often regarded as of “Olympian” stature, he married a woman from a lower-class background and insisted on the principle of equality, while living through the great transmormation of Europe through the French Revolution and its aftermath in which the “ancien regime” of feudal heirarchy was eventually swept away in the birth of the bourgeious age of mass democracy.


The Faust legend was not invented by Goethe, but was a folk saga based on the life of a historical person, Georg Faust (1480-1540) who was a wandering charlatan, magician and showman, and whose life was subsequently embellished by gossip, folk tales, puppet shows and subsequent literary adaptations, most notably through the legend of his pact with the devil to gain occult knowledge and power in exchange for his soul, until it bacame the source material for Goethe’s several works from the 1770’s until his death in 1832. In England, Christopher Marlowe had used the folk legend as a basis of his play, “Dr. Faustus” in 1590, though Goethe probably did not know of it until around 1818, or ten years after he had published Part I of Faust. He probably first was exposed to the Faust material in local puppet plays at fairs and similar venues, including his early participation in the Romantic movement to record “folk songs” and “folklore” of the common people, led by such intellectuals as Herder and the Grimm Brothers. Later authors such as Gounod in opera and Thomas Mann in “Doktor Faustus” would rework the legend in ways additional to Goethe’s treatment.

Goethe’s Faust consists of two parts, Part I & Part II, the first of which was, after an extended period of reworking, finally published in 1808, though not performed until 1829, Part II was the major work of Goethe’s final years, and he put the final touches to it only shortly before his death in 1832. Thus the composition of the whole of the Faust epic occupied Goethe off and on for over fifty years.

Goethe’s Faust constitutes a complete reworking and reshaping of the Faust material under the influence of the Enlightenment and the Romantic Age’s love affair with infinite striving of the free individual and communion with Nature. Thus Marlowe’s play and the popular folk versions of Faust cast the legend as an admonitory morality play in which Faust’s hubris and impiety seduce him into a sinful quest for occult knowledge and magic powers by sale of his soul to the devil, with his eternal damnation as a result of his errors. Goethe’ Faust is completely different. Goethe as a “Renaissance Man” and “Romantic” is fully in sympathy with Faust’s endless striving after infinite knowledge, and the secrets of nature and the spirit as the proper cultivation of the “Spark of the Divine Soul” which dwells in man and seeks to join with and commune in the powers of God as one’s human birthright. Seeing Man as umbilically linked in spirit with God and Nature, Faust’s thirst for ever greater knowledge and experience is seen not as a sinful presumption and defiance of God’s order as in Marlowe, but rather as evidence of the living spiritual bond between God and Man that draws him ever closer to union with God and Heaven. Accordingly, Goethe’s Faust never “sells his soul” to the devil, or Mephistopholes, but rather makes a friendly wager with him, echoing a wager God himself has made, betting his soul that no mere gratification or power the devil could confer on him would quench his thirst for even greater and infinite life and experience, a yearning for the infinite which is in itself a yearning for the embrace of the infinite goodness of God.

Romanticism, in essence, is the apotheosis of the Individual. And the Romantic Movement in all its ramifications, with all its cornucopia of creation, with its vast range of artistic expression, constitutes identifiable movement precisely because it rests on and returns to a single unifying theme: The Individual Mind, the freedom and supremacy of that Mind, in particular its powers of Imagination and Creation, and the conflicts between the passions and aspirations of that Mind and the reality in which it must live. Romanticism as a way of being in the world, and as an ethos for communiion with nature and creative art, changed the balance of thought, and the focus of perception of its culture. It ultimately completed a cultural revolution, from a world centred on society and the divine, to a world centred on humanity and the individual. Where the Classical world of Greek and Roman antiquity saw human beings in society, where the Medieval world conceived of them in their respective positions on the ladder of God, and as parts of the Divine plan, Romanticism, fuelled by the Enlightenment, starts from the Individual, who shares in the creative powers of both Nature and God, and goes on from there to question the meaning of being. It’s premise is therefore Existentialist, and its outcome is Modernity.

That is not to say, however, that Goethe in Faust and elsewhere is merely the stock figure of “a Romantic.” While he was one of the earliest embodiments of “Romanticism,” his Werther predating Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Byron, we could say that for Goethe, his Romanticism was one stage on an evolutionary path of further development, which, while preserving the essence of Romanticism, sought to bring it into a greater maturity,harmony and synthesis with Classicism, the Enlightenment, Rationalism, and a reformulated spirituality. This is often described as his “Classicism” or a grand humanist harmonzation of those complementary and at times contradictory cultural movements.

Part I was completed between 1797 and 1806 and published in Goethe’s late fifties, in 1808. Part II was created in his seventies and published after Goethe’s death in 1832. Part I can thus be understood as a mature man’s revision of his youthful Romantic ideas. Part II is an older man’s development of and resolution of that work and its contradictions. Goethe put into Faust not only his early Romantic emotion, in all its depth, but also his later more mature understanding of that state, and his attempt to resolve the problems for the Individual that it represented, through creative activity, intense subjective emotion informed and restrained by reason, and the acceptance of some fundamental limitations in the human condition.

Faust, the dramatic character, was ready-made for Goethe as a vehicle through which to express the new situation of the Individual attempting to penetrate single-handedly master the hidden fabric of the Universe. Part I presents the essential personal tragedy of Faust, in Microcosm as he wields the enhanced powers of his own genius aided by Mephistopholes’ arts. Like the archetypal Romantic hero he is restless and dissatisfied with the limits of his own life and human life. Despite his genius he feels the emptiness of common goals in life—pleasure, wealth, women, wine, power, social status, even academic knowledge. He contemplates suicide as he is approached by Mephistopholes, who is following up on a wager in Heaven with God that he can corrupt God’s darling Faust into sin and damnation.

Faust first regains lost youth from a potion from the Witch’s Kitchen. After that the plot focuses on his love for Gretchen, a common innocent girl who sees him in his new youth and falls in love with him. Faust himself, seized with more lust than love, asks Mephistopholes aid in getting Gretchen for him, which he does through various arts such as bribing her and her mother with jewels and wealth, providing a sleeping potion to help the girl evade her mother to make a tryst with Faust and decoying her chaperone. But this overwhelming passion follows a tragic trajectory as the sleeping potion inadventantly kills the mother, and the sexual affair causes Gretchen’s brother to challenge Faust to a duel of honor in which the brother is killed. Faust is cast in a conflicted character. His heart is well meaning, and even God in the Prologue has admired his idealism and aspirational ardour, but his selfishness and lack of foresight and wisdom leads to unintended evil consequences. This reflects his impulsive Romantic character, perhaps the consequence of an immaturity arising from his regained youth.

Moreover, Gretchen, though pure and innocent of heart, becomes pregnant. She asks Faust if he is religious and they should be married, but he, in the romantic spirit is hostile to the church and marriage and prefers “free love” which Gretchen out of love acceeds to. Meanwhile Mephistopholes takes Faust on additiobal adventures including a visit to the Earth Spirit and a visit to the “Walpurgisnacht” or witches’ fair. When they return Faust learns that Gretchen has unintentionally distracted by her despair caused the death of her baby and is being prosecuted for murder. Faust chastizes himself for having caused such harm and vows to save her through Mephisto’s magic. But when they attempt to break her out of jail she refuses to leave, in the purity of her heart prefering judgment and repentence to flight. As Part I ends, Mephistopholes claims Gretchen for damnation for her sin, but merciful Heaven takes her upwards to God as the purity of her heart and her repentence saves her.

In Part II, which is much longer and more complex than Part I, we switch from the Microcosm of Faust and Gretchen’s small fate to the Macrocosm through which Faust’s enhanced powers lead him. That is to say his forays with Mephisto lead him to adventures within several wider dimensiobs of human experience: the world of power represented by the Imperial Court, the realm of art and beauty represented by his pursuit of Helen of Troy, the epitome of beauty, and the ideal worlds of “The Mothers” and of the “Classical Walpurgisnacht,” back to the Emperor in time of war, and finally to new land where he attempts to create a Utopia by reclaiming land from the sea and leading society.


Goethe’s Faust heavily influenced the composition of my own contemporary and futurist epic novel, Spiritus Mundi. First of all, Goethe himself plays a significant role appearing as a key character in Spiritus Mundi in Book II as the mentor and guide for Sartorius, the protagonist, on the Quest to save humanity from World War III, visiting Middle Earth, the Great Central Sea at the center of the globe and transiting the Cosmic Wormhole to plead with the Council of the Immortals at the Black Hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. In this regard Goethe takes on the role of Dante’s Vergil as the guide of the Divine Comedy. Goethe is the mentoring sage of Modernity, as Vergil was the sage bridging the Classical and Christian worlds in Dante’s epic. Goethe appears mysteriously in the underground caves of Qom, Iran where Sartorius and the questers are escaping from the captiviity as ‘human shields” of the Supreme Leader, accompanied by both the “Homunculus” the half-born, spiritual Frankenstein created by Wagner in Faust, who is on a parallel quest to seek completion in a natural and spiritual rebirth in Part II, and by the “Trickster” figue of the Monkey-King, Sun Wu Kong from the Chinese Journey to the West. Similarly, in Spiritus Mundi, there is a double quest, not only to save humanity from extinction in WWIII but also to acheive spiritual rebirth of the modern world.

In terms of structure, Spiritus Mundi is also divided into two parts, as is Goethe’s Faust, with the first part focused on the Microcosm, or the level of realistic individual life, and the second part, Spiritus Mundi Book II: The Romance, dialating its action to the Macrocosm, the symbolic, mythic and spiritual realm. Both Goethe’s Part II and Spiritus Mundi’s Book II thus offer symbolic, archetypal and mythic journeys and explorations. Part II of Faust involves a trip to “The Mothers” which is a sort of idealized witches cauldron of protean Platonic forms arising and falling into and out of existence. Sartorius in Spiritus Mundi, like Faust, also pays a visit to “The Mothers” on the Island of Omphalos at the center of the Central Sea at the hollow center of the globe, where he is to transit a cosmic wormhole to visit the Council of the Immortals at the Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy. In Spiritus Mundi “The Mothers” are conflated with the Three Fates, the ugly hags of Necessity. Just as Faust visits the Court of the Emperor in Part II, in Book II of Spiritus Mundi Sartorius and the band of social idealists on their Campaign to create a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly visit the “court” of the Supreme Leader of Iran. Additional archetypes from Faust are echoed in Spiritus Mundi, such as the role of Eva Strong, who is Sartorius’s anima and soulmate, who inspires him and leads him onwards in development as an embodiment of the “Ewige Weibliche”
or the “Eternal Feminine” anima-spirit which guides man to greater spirituality.

Just as Faust’s line of development is from egocentric and isolated genius in Part I to relationship and belonging in both his love of Gretchen and of Helen of Troy, as well as his joining and leading a Utopian project reclaiming land from the sea, so similarly Sartorius goes from a divorced and loveless existence contemplating suicide only mitigated by his social and intellectual idealism, to a marriage with Eva, an organic and spiritual union, in which he fathers a child, as does Faust with Helen, which Sartorius also names Euphorion, and their both working organically related within society—-a creative individual within a free and creative people—- to bring about their Utopian project, the United Nations Parliamentary Assembly.

In conclusion, I invite you to read both the immortal Clasic of human aspirationm, Faust, and Spiritus Mundi, which derives spiritual inspiration from it.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:http://www.goodreads.com/bo…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

View all my reviews

About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: rsheppard99_2000@yahoo.com Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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  1. metal says:

    Sweet post conversely I have someone challenge : dark metal is certainly not properly speaking heavy metal and rock when you look at groups like Immortal, Sewer plus Darkthrone it can be a lot more like rock and roll bless you

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