Faust (German for "fist") or Faustus (Latin for "auspicious" or "lucky") is the protagonist of a classic German legend who makes a pact with the Devil. The archetypical tale is the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical works produced over several hundred years throughout the twentieth century, including those by the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, Thomas Mann, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Oscar Wilde and Charles Gounod. Each retelling of the Faust legend builds, in some way, off of the previous versions.
The historical origin of Faust's name and persona remains unclear, though it is widely assumed to be based on the figure of German Dr. Johann Georg Faust (approximately 1480–1540), a dubious magician and alchemist probably from Knittlingen, Württemberg, who obtained a degree in divinity from Heidelberg University in 1509.
Most versions of the story concern the fate of Faust in his quest for something, often, as in Goethe's Faust, the true essence of life. Frustrated with the limits to his knowledge and power, Faust attracts the attention of the Devil (represented by Mephistopheles), with whom Faust makes a deal for his soul. The deal ends either in Faust's damnation or redemption.
The name "Faust" has come to stand for a charlatan alchemist (some claim "astrologer and necromancer") whose pride and vanity lead to his doom. Similarly, the adjective "Faustian" has come to denote acts or constellations involving human hubris which lead eventually to doom. Faust and Faustian both denote a ruinous bargain with the devil.
Dr. Johann Georg Faust (1466? – c. 1540) was an itinerant alchemist, astrologer and magician of the German Renaissance.
Because of his early treatment as a figure in legend and literature, it is very difficult to establish historical facts about his life with any certainty. In the seventeenth century, it was even doubted that there ever had been a historical Faust, and the legendary character was identified with a printer of Mainz called Fust. Johann Georg Neumann in 1683 addressed the question in his Disquisitio historica de Fausto praestigiatore, establishing Faust's historical existence based on contemporary references.
Faust's possible places of origin of the historical Johann Faust are Knittlingen (Manlius 1562), Helmstadt near Heidelberg, or Roda. Faust's year of birth is given either as 1480/1 or as 1466. The city archive of Ingolstadt has a letter dated June 27, 1528, which mentions a Doctor Jörg Faustus von Haidlberg. Other sources have Georgius Faustus Helmstet(ensis).
For the year 1506, there is a record of Faust appearing as performer of magical tricks and horoscopes in Gelnhausen. Over the following 30 years, there are numerous similar records spread over southern Germany. Faust appeared as physician, doctor of philosophy, alchemist, magician and astrologer, and was often accused as a fraud. The church denounced him as a blasphemer in league with the devil.
Johannes Trithemius in a letter to Johann Birdung dated August 20, 1507, warns the latter of a certain Georgius Sabellicus, a trickster and fraud styling himself Georgius Sabellicus, Faustus junior, fons necromanticorum, astrologus, magus secundus etc. Trithemius further relates how this Sabellicus indulged in blasphemous brags in Selnhausen and Würzburg, in Würzburg even claiming that he could easily reproduce all the miracles of Christ. In 1507, Trithemius alleges, he received a teaching position in Sickingen, which he abused by indulging in sodomy with his boy students, evading punishment by a timely escape.
Conrad Mutianus Rufus in 1513 recounts a meeting with a chiromanticus called Georgius Faustus, Helmitheus Heidelbergensis (likely for hemitheus, "demigod of Heidelberg"), overhearing his vain and foolish boasts in an Erfurt inn.
On February 23, 1520, Faust was in Bamberg, doing a horoscope for the bishop and the town, for which he received the sum of 10 gulden (Baron p. 42).
In 1528, Faust visited Ingolstadt, from where he was banished shortly after. In 1532 he seems to have tried to enter Nürnberg, according to a unflattering note made by the junior mayor of the city to "deny free passage to the great nigromancer and sodomite Doctor Faustus" (Doctor Faustus, dem großen Sodomiten und Nigromantico in furt glait ablainen). Later records give a more positive verdict, thus the Tübingen professor Joachim Camerarius in 1536 recognizes Faust as a respectable astrologer, and physician Philipp Begardi of Worms in 1539 praises his medical knowledge. The last direct attestation of Faust dates to June 25, 1535, when his presence was recorded in Münster during the Anabaptist rebellion.
According to one account, Faust's infamy became legendary while he was in prison, where in exchange for wine he "offered to show a chaplain how to remove hair from his face without a razor; the chaplain provided the wine and Faustus provided the chaplain with a salve of arsenic, which removed not only the hair but the flesh" (Barnett).
Faust's death is dated to 1540 or 1541. He allegedly died in an explosion of an alchemical experiment in the "Hotel zum Löwen" in Staufen im Breisgau. His body is reported to have been found in a "grievously mutilated" state which was interpreted to the effect that the devil had come to collect him in person by his clerical and scholarly enemies. While the exact year of his death is uncertain, we can assume he died before 1548, in which year the theologian Johann Gast in his sermones conviviales states that Faust had suffered a dreadful death, and would keep turning his face to the earth in spite of the body being turned on its back several times.
In his 1548 account, Gast mentions a personal meeting with Faust in Basel during which Faust provided the cook with poultry of a strange kind. According to Gast, Faust traveled with a dog and a horse, and there were rumors that the dog would sometimes transform into a servant.
Another posthumous account is that of Johannes Manlius, drawing on notes by Melanchthon, in his Locorum communium collectanea dating to 1562. According to Manlius, Johannes Faustus was a personal acquaintance of Melanchthon's and had studied in Krakow. Manlius' account is already suffused with legendary elements, and cannot be taken at face value as a historical source. Manlius recounts that Faust had boasted that the victories of the German emperor in Italy were due to his magical intervention. In Venice, he allegedly attempted to fly, but was thrown to the ground by the devil. Johannes Wier in de prestigiis daemonum (1568) recounts that Faustus had been arrested in Batenburg because he had recommended that the local chaplain called Dorstenius should use arsenic to get rid of his stubble. Dorstenius smeared his face with the poison, upon which he lost not only his beard but also much of his skin, an anecdote Wier says he heard from the victim himself. Philipp Camerarius in 1602 still claims to have heard tales of Faust directly from people who had met him in person, but from the publication of the 1587 Faustbuch, it becomes impossible to separate historical anecdotes from rumor and legend.
In the light of records of an activity spanning more than 30 years, it has been suggested that there were two itinerant magicians calling themselves Faustus, one Georg, active ca. 1505 to 1515, and another Johann, active in the 1530s. This is difficult to disprove, but neither is there a compelling reason to accept it. Even assuming the earlier date of birth, Faust would have died at the above-average but not impossibly high age of 74 or 75.
In Polish folklore there is a tale with a Pan Twardowski in a role similar to Faust's, and seems to have originated at roughly the same time. It is unclear if and to what extent the two tales have a common origin or influenced each other. The figure of Pan Twardowski is supposedly based on a sixteenth-century German emigrant to Kraków, then the Polish capital, possibly John Dee or Edward Kelley. According to Melanchthon, the historic Johann Faust had studied in Kraków, as well.
There are several grimoires or alchemical treatises ascribed to Faust, some of which appeared during his lifetime and may be considered his work, or plagiarisms thereof:
The first recorded Faust committed to print is a little chapbook bearing the title Historia von D. Johann Fausten published in 1587. This Faustbuch ("Faust book") is a collection of tales about ancient practitioners of occult sciences. Among others, it features Merlin, Albertus Magnus, and Roger Bacon. The book was first published in 1587 by an anonymous author and attributes the narrated stories to Johann Georg Faust. The work was the basis for many literary works about Faust, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust Part One and Faust Part Two.
The Faust Book seems to have been written during the latter half of the sixteenth century (1568-81) or shortly thereafter. It was passed on in manuscript from a professional scribe in Nuremberg and also as a 1587 imprint from the prominent Frankfurt publishing house of Johann Spies.
The better known version is the Spies imprint of 1587. It came out in September, was reprinted again in the same year and very frequently thereafter, each time with additional tales about Faust, usually old, known folktales with the superimposition of Faust's name. In accord with the theological reputation and clientele of the Spies printing house, their 1587 imprint is also heavily larded with religious commentary. Such "admonitions to the Christian reader" played so well that by the end of the century they had grown to become the major part of the (printed) Faust Books. The general sloppiness and repetitiveness of all these additions, however, seems to have diminished the book's popularity in the long run. As people became less disposed to religious controversy it ceased to be such an attractive book.
The manuscript version was eventually edited by H. G. Haile for the Carl Winter Verlag, 1996. Haile also published a translation, The History of Dr. Johann Faustus (University of Illinois, 1965).
The book was re-edited and plagiarized throughout the seventeenth century.
Plays and comic puppet theater loosely based on the legend were popular throughout Germany, often reducing Faust to a figure of vulgar fun. The 1725 chapbook was widely circulated, and also read by Christopher Marlowe and the young Goethe.
It has been suggested Jacob Bidermann used such an earlier source for his treatment of the legend of the Damnation of the Good Doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus (published c. 1602). Possibly related tales of a pact between man and the devil include that of Theophilus of Adana, and Mary of Nijmegen, the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century Dutch play attributed to Anna Bijns.
The early Faust chapbook, while already in circulation in Northern Germany, found its way to England, where it was translated into English by "P. F., Gent[leman]" in 1592 as The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus, Faustus being the Latinization of Faust. It was this work that Christopher Marlowe used for his more ambitious play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (published c. 1604). This is widely considered the first dramatization of the Faust legend. "No Elizabethan play outside the Shakespeare canon has raised more controversy than Doctor Faustus. There is no agreement concerning the nature of the text and the date of composition...and the centrality of the Faust legend in the history of the Western world precludes any definitive agreement on the interpretation of the play...."
Thematically, the play shows the decay of a person who chooses material gains (by commanding the devils to suit his desires) over spiritual belief and in doing so, loses his soul. Doctor Faustus was first published in 1604, eleven years after Marlowe's death and at least twelve years after the first performance of the play.
The Admiral's Men performed Doctor Faustus twenty-five times in the three years between Oct. 1594 and Oct. 1597. On Nov. 22, 1602, the Diary of Philip Henslowe records a £4 payment to Samuel Rowley and William Bird for additions to the play, which suggests a revival soon after that date.
The powerful effect of the early productions is indicated by the legends that quickly accrued around them. In Histriomastix, his 1632 polemic against the drama, William Prynne records the tale that actual devils once appeared on the stage during a performance of Faustus, "to the great amazement of both the actors and spectators." Some people were allegedly driven mad, "distracted with that fearful sight." John Aubrey recorded a related legend, that Edward Alleyn, lead actor of The Admiral's Men, devoted his later years to charitable endeavors, like the founding of Dulwich College, in direct response to this incident.
The play is in blank verse and prose in thirteen scenes (1604) or twenty scenes (1616). Blank verse is largely reserved for the main scenes while prose is used in the comic scenes. Modern texts divide the play into five acts; act five being the shortest. As in many Elizabethan plays, there is a chorus who does not interact with the other characters but rather provides an introduction and conclusion to the play and gives an introduction to the events that have unfolded at the beginning of some acts.
Faustus summons a devil, under the presence of Lucifer and other devils although Faustus is unaware of it. After creating a circle and speaking and incantation, a devil named Mephistophilis appears before him. Faustus is unable to tolerate the hideous looks of the devil and commands it to change its form to that of a Franciscan friar. It would seem Faustus is either deliberately unwilling or simply unable to see things the way they are. Faustus, in seeing the obedience of the devil (for changing form), takes pride in his skill. He tries to bind the devil to his service but is unable to because Mephistophilis already serves Lucifer, the prince of devils. Mephistophilis also reveals that it was not Faustus's power that summoned him but rather anyone that abjured the scriptures would result in the devil coming to claim one's soul.
Mephistophilis introduces the history of Lucifer and the other devils while indirectly telling Faustus that hell has no circumference and is more of a state of mind than a physical location. Faustus' inquiries into the nature of hell lead to Mephistophilis saying: "Oh Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, which strikes a terror to my fainting soul." Mephistophilis seems to imply that Faustus's questioning has reminded Mephistophilis of his origins.
Using Mephistophilis as a messenger, Faustus strikes a deal with Lucifer: he is to be allotted twenty-four years of life on Earth, during which time he will have Mephistophilis as his personal servant. At the end he will give his soul over to Lucifer as payment and spend the rest of time as one damned to hell. This deal is to be sealed in Faustus' own blood. Interestingly, at first his blood congeals, leading to second thoughts by Faustus. Mephistophilis brings coals to break the wound open again, and thus Mephistophilis begins his servitude and Faustus his oath.
Faustus begins by learning much about the sciences. He has an interesting debate with Mephistophilis regarding astronomy and the "nine spheres." Two angels, good and bad, appear to Faustus giving him the chance to repent and revoke his oath to Lucifer. This is the largest fault of Faustus throughout the play: he is blind to his own salvation. Though he is told initially by Mephistophilis to "leave these frivolous demands, Which strike a terror to my fainting soul," Faustus remains set on his soul's damnation.
Lucifer brings to Faustus the personification of the seven deadly sins. Faustus recognizes these as detestable, but ignores the echo of his own 'detestable' life.
From this point until the end of the play, Faustus does nothing worthwhile, having begun his pact with the attitude that he would be able to do anything. Faustus appears to scholars and warns them that he is damned and will not be long on the earth. He gives a speech about how he is damned and eventually seems to repent for his deeds. Mephistophilis comes to collect his soul, and Faustus' body is found dismembered by his friends and colleagues.
The text leaves Faustus' final confrontation with Mephistophilis offstage, and his final fate ambiguous. The scene following begins with Faustus' friends discovering his body parts strewn about the stage: from this they conclude that Faustus was damned. However, his friends decide to give him a due burial, a religious ceremony that hints at salvation.
Some scholars believe that Marlowe developed the story from a popular 1592 translation, commonly called The English Faust Book, of an earlier, unpreserved, German edition of 1587, which itself may have been influenced by even earlier, equally unpreserved pamphlets in Latin, such as those that likely inspired Jacob Bidermanns treatment of the damnation of the doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus (1602). Whatever the inspiration, the development of Marlowe's play is very faithful to the Faust Book, especially in the way it mixes comedy with tragedy.
Marlowe also borrowed from Acts and Monuments by John Foxe, on the exchanges between Pope Adrian and a rival pope. Another possible inspiration of Marlowe's version is John Dee (1527-1609), who practiced forms of alchemy and science and developed Enochian magic.
Goethe's Faust inverts and makes greatly more complex the simple Christian moral of the original legend. A hybrid between a play and an extended poem, Goethe's two part "closet drama" is epic in scope. It gathers together references from Christian, medieval, Roman, eastern and Hellenic poetry, philosophy and literature; ending in a Faust who is saved, carried aloft to heaven, as Mephistopheles looks on.
The legend of Faust was an obsession of Goethe's. Although by no means a constant pursuit, the composition and refinement of his own version of the legend occupied him for over sixty years. The final version, not completely published until after his death, is recognized as a great work of German Literature.
The story concerns the fate of Faust in his quest for the true essence of life ("was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält"). Frustrated with learning and the limits to his knowledge and power, he attracts the attention of the Devil (represented by Mephistopheles), with whom Faust makes a deal to serve him until the moment that Faust attains the zenith of human happiness, at which point Mephistopheles may take his soul. Goethe's Faust is pleased with the deal, as he believes the moment will never come.
In the first part, Mephistopheles leads Faust through experiences that culminate in a lustful and destructive relationship with an innocent and nubile woman named Gretchen. Gretchen and her family are destroyed by Mephistopheles' deceptions and Faust's desires and actions. The story ends in tragedy as Gretchen is saved and Faust is left in shame.
The second part begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust (and the rest of mankind) and progresses into rich allegorical poetry. Faust and his devil pass through the world of politics and the world of the classical gods, and meet with Helen of Troy (the personification of beauty). Finally, having succeeded in taming the very forces of war and nature Faust experiences a single moment of happiness.
The devil Mephistopheles, trying to grab Faust's soul when he dies, is frustrated as the Lord intervenes—recognizing the value of Faust's unending striving.
Goethe's Faust was the source material for at least two successful operas: Faust by Charles Gounod and Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito; and major works for soloists, chorus and orchestra such as the "dramatic legend" The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust and the second part of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8.
Faust has inspired artistic and cultural works for over four centuries. The following lists cover various media to include items of historic interest, enduring works of high art, and recent representations in popular culture. The entries represent works that a reader has a reasonable chance of encountering rather than a complete catalog.
All links retrieved March 26, 2017.
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