Tragical Evolutions of the Legendary Faust
Like the ever-expanding ages amassed decade after decade and century after consecutive century upon each other—displaying the progressive impact of time over the course of recorded history—Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s Faust further expands upon playwright Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which, in turn, had evolved from and built upon the rather depthless origins from the chapbook, The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. Goethe quite elaborately advances the legend of Faust from its original 16th century text about a necromantic alchemist hell-bent on signing away his soul to eternal damnation as well as from Marlowe’s 17th century adaptation of a scholar so blinded by his desires of attaining apotheosis that he is willing to relinquish his mortal coil for it. Interweaving the two together, Goethe fashions a complex man at the mercy of externalized forces—namely, that of good and evil--and internalized battles between reason and discord, tradition and the unconventional, and, more basely, between monumental love and momentary lust.
To observe the Faust legend’s evolution, one needs to look no further than the main character himself. Here, Goethe appropriates the character of Faust from one whose original motivations colored him more as an unequivocal caricature than a multifaceted individual capable of feeling myriad emotions. Faust’s origins in The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus paint him as a man desirous of indulging in the arcane arts of black magic and unholy conjurations. Here, Faust can be seen as an oversimplified character with a penchant for “worldly pleasure [more so] than the joys to come” (p. 183) and with a nebulous yearning “to know the secrets of heaven and earth” (p.184). While in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe developed this rather guileless alchemist by activating and further elaborating upon Faust’s overarching motives. In his adaptation of the chapbook, Marlowe refashions Faust’s desire for worldly pleasures and otherworldly secrets into one that includes “a world of profit and delight, of power, of honor, of omnipotence” (1.1.53-54). Additionally, Marlowe hyperbolizes Faust’s motives a step even further to include the alchemist’s desire for deification: “A sound magician is a mighty god” (1.1.62).
Goethe, on the other hand, drops Marlowe’s interpretations of Faust down a notch, adds just a touch of humility, and has the character’s motives more closely aligned with those originally mentioned in the chapbook. In the high-vaulted vestiges of his laboratory, the reader is introduced to a Faust imbued with a complexity that does battle with previous literary interpretations of his character. Here, Goethe portrays Faust as a frustrated man seeking those same secrets of heaven and earth—as he had sought in previous literary incarnations—but, this time, to no avail: “How hard I’ve slaved away, with what result? Poor fool that I am, I’m no whit wiser than when I began! I’ve got a Master of Arts degree, On top of that a Ph.D.…to what conclusion? That nobody knows or ever can know, the tiniest crumb!” (1.366-370). Goethe displays Faust as a figure transfixed by and grappling with a despair that he may never know those secrets he so desires.
Furthermore, Goethe expounds upon the chapbook’s “worldly pleasures” with an interesting twist; Faust is portrayed as a truly human individual. Like every other human being that has ever traversed the face of this planet, Faust is torn between his own personal desires and those of a greater purpose: “Two souls live in me, alas, forever warring with each other. One amorous of the world, with all its might grapples it close, greedy of all its pleasures; the other fights to rise out of the dust up, up into the heaven of our great forebears” (1.1136-1140). Unlike his previous incarnations, Faust is a man endowed with all the fractious foibles of humanity. Goethe depicts the alchemist not as a parochial villain overcome with thoughts of enlisting in Hell’s legions of doom (as in Marlowe’s play and the German chapbook), but rather as a man longing for more knowledge than his mind can comprehend to eradicate his mistakes of the past.
Again, Goethe has masterfully augmented the character of Faust by overwhelming him with previous faults and misgivings of the past. Outside the city gate’s on Easter Sunday, Faust confesses to his servant, Wagner, that he made grave errors in his youth, “If you could only see into my heart, you’d understand how little worthy father and son were really” (1.1054-1057). The reader goes on to discover that Faust is considered a great hero in the village of Wittenberg but that, under the direction of and alongside his father, he had poisoned patients suffering from the plague with an alchemical concoction that his father had brewed: “The patients died; none stopped to inquire how many there were who had got better. So with our infernal electuary we killed our way across the country. I poisoned, myself, by prescription, thousands; they sickened and faded; yet I must live to see on every side the murderer’s fame emblazoned” (1.1075-1079).
Here, the reader observes that not only has Goethe embedded a horrible secret into Faust’s past but that he’s also created an incentive for the character’s urgency to gather as much knowledge as he possibly can in order to rectify his past misdeeds; this is a far cry from either Marlowe’s play or the chapbook. In the latter of the two, Faust is given the scholarly title of “Doctor of Divinity” who ambiguously performed “great cures, namely with herbs, roots, waters, drinks, receipts, and clysters” (Kastan, p.183). Marlowe further elaborated upon this: “Be a physician, Faustus; heap up gold, and be eternized for some wondrous cure…Are not thy bills hung up as monuments, whereby whole cities have escaped the plague and thousand desperate maladies been eased?” (pp.7-8). Again, Goethe has artfully added a twist to his incarnation of Faust; one that helps to better explain the doctor’s motives to acquire all the knowledge of both heaven and earth.
Elsewhere in the novel, Goethe additionally enhances his interpretation of Faust with the introduction of his (first) romantic interest, Margarete, who does not appear in either Marlowe’s play or the chapbook. While courting Margarete, Faust utters, “I’m more pleased by one word of yours, one look, than all the wisdom in the great world’s book” (1.3125-3126). Whether it’s due to the pangs of puppy love or romantic distraction (or a little of both), Margarete signifies and activates yet another side of Faust that was previously unseen in his other literary incarnations—another side of him that displays his complexity and his humanity—that of compassion and love. In Marlowe’s play as in the chapbook, this level of empathy and emotion is seemingly nonexistent in Faust. For example, Marlowe’s Faust would never utter, “I cherish you [Margarete] very dearly, for those I love I’d give my life up gladly” (1.3481-3482).
In The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, one is met with a Faust that cursorily longs only to quench his carnal lust: “I am wanton and lascivious, and cannot live without a wife” (2.1.137). Later in his play and almost as if in afterthought, Marlowe rather half-heartedly introduces Helen of Troy into the story. She is treated as nothing more than a mistress to and a diversion for Faust: “Let me crave of thee to glut the longing of my heart’s desire: that I may have unto my paramour that heavenly Helen…whose sweet embrace may extinguish clear those thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow” (5.1.84-89). Here, Helen is clearly objectified as nothing more than sexual chattel for Faust’s vulgar forays into distraction.
This portrayal of Helen of Troy strays little from the chapbook’s version of her where she fills “the lust of his [Faust’s] flesh” (Kastan, p.204), having “a great desire to lie with fair Helena of Greece” (p.204). Although, unlike Marlowe’s play, the chapbook does note that the character of Faust falls “in love with her and made her his common concubine and bedfellow” (p.204). Goethe would later expand upon this love that Faust has for the character of Helen of Troy: “Let me be at once your guardian, your admirer, and your slave” (2.3.9363-9364); furthermore, Goethe’s incarnation of Helen is equally fleshed out. During Act III of Faust: the Second Part of the Tragedy, Helen and Faust have the child, Euphorion, together. Though a name is not given to him, Helen does bear a child to Faust in the chapbook as well—an incident that is notably missing from Marlowe’s play. After a brief courtship, Helen speaks of her love for both Faust and Euphorion, which evolves her from a one-dimensional character in the Faust legend’s other incarnations: “When two hearts in love are plighted, mortals feel what bliss can be; but three hearts in love united know divine felicity” (2.3.9699-9702). Goethe has not only evolved both Faust and Helen as characters but he has also managed to infuse the Faust legend with yet another romance.
In both instances, the romances of Helen and Margarete are methods that Goethe has employed to elevate the character of Faust from his more lackluster, cursory origins and previous adaptations, portraying the scholarly alchemist as not simply a licentious sort on the hunt to satiate his corrupt lusts but as a man capable of love…and, in the process, the author has added depth to yet another figure associated with the legend (Helen of Troy), while introducing a new character altogether to the mythos of Faust (Margarete). Likewise, not only has Goethe expanded upon previous incarnations of characters appearing in the Faustian legend but he has hyper-intensified the tragedy and given it myriad meanings as well.
No longer is the tragedy of Faust one solely focused on the protagonist’s endangered soul as is the case with Marlowe’s play and the chapbook. With Goethe’s adaptation, the story receives two romances that both end in tragedy—the death of Margarete and the dematerialization of Helen—as well as the tragic loss of Faust’s progeny. Both Margarete and Helen give birth to Faust’s children, and in both cases, the children, like their mothers, meet their tragic fates (his child to Margarete is drowned to death and Euphorion, his child to Helen, falls to his death). Perhaps, the most real of tragedies in Goethe’s Faust that appears nowhere in any previous adaptation is that Faust’s original desire to know the worldly and otherworldly secrets—the microcosm and macrocosm—are seemingly abandoned for the alchemist’s chances at love and happiness.
However, since both romances end tragically, Goethe’s Faust is forced back into his role as tormented scholar; although, this time around, the torment is derived from life experiences rather than from those elusive secrets he originally was after. It’s a role that no longer appears to suit him and seems ironically laughable for someone who has experienced such great losses in his life. Perhaps, this is the reason that, by the end of Faust: the Second Part of the Tragedy, Goethe has his incarnation of Faust desirous of only one thing: to stare off into the sunset and lose himself in its infinity. Life can never truly be the same when you have loved and then lost it to the ticking of time’s wayward clock. No omnipotent spell from a necronomicon gathering dust on some bookshelf in a recondite corner of the world can ever take its place. Regardless, from Faust’s tragic past to his tragic present, Goethe has quite masterfully captured the essence of such great losses that the hands of fate are notorious for dealing out; thereby, transforming the character from a nefarious alchemist in league with the devil into a complex human being who cannot help but find empathy within the reader.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, and Martin Greenberg. Faust, a tragedy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. Print.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, and John R. Williams. Faust: the first part of the tragedy ; with the unpublished scenarios for the Walpurgis night and the Urfaust. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1999. Print.
Marlowe, Christopher, and David Scott Kastan. Doctor Faustus: a two-text edition (A-text, 1604; B-text, 1616) contexts and sources criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.