Friday, 16 December 2016

Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

It's been about two months since I read the first part of Goethe's Faust and now, at last, I've read the second part: Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy (Faust. Der Tragödie zweiter Teil). This was published in 1832, twenty-four years after Part I in 1808. A short version of my post on this would be: it's longer, it's harder, and it's not quite as good but it is still enjoyable. Before I go any further I must say: this review will contain spoilers for Faust Part I.

In the beginning of the second part we see Faust mourning the loss of Gretchen (also known as Margareta), with whom he had fallen in love in the first part. We see him in a wildflower meadow falling asleep, being sung to by Ariel and other spirits. When he wakes up, he is once again ready to continue his journey with Mephistopheles, who is eager for Faust to enter into the world of politics. Disguised as a Fool, Mephistopheles has entered the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, who is suffering financial hardship. Mephistopheles advises him to issue paper money or banknotes representing gold and silver (a reference to the introduction of paper money during the French Revolution). That problem solved, the Emperor then asks for Helen of Troy to be brought to him. As Faust tells Mephistopheles,
But there’s something I need done:
Commander and Chamberlain egg me on.
The Emperor, I must work quickly for him,
Wants Helen and Paris to appear before him:
He wants to see the ideal form of Man
Clearly revealed to him, and Woman.
Get to work! I daren't break my word.
And so Helen and Paris, the ideal forms, are summoned from Hades but they fail to impress the Emperor and his court. Nevertheless Faust finds himself falling in love with Helen, but when he tries to take her away from Paris is he is struck down and has to be carried away by Mephistopheles.

From there Mephistopheles and Faust attempt to find Helen, travelling to Ancient Greece and then convincing her that her husband Menelaus intends to kill her. She is taken to a castle and then, after Menelaus and his troops attempt to invade it, to Arcadia where they have a son, Euphorion, an Icarus type who crashes to earth and dies having flown to high. On his death, Helen too returns to the Underworld, after which Faust and Mephistopheles continue their adventures...

It's difficult to sum up my feelings for Faust: The Second Part. It is enjoyable, but it's odd, disjointed almost. It's full of references to ancient mythology, Helen and Paris being the most obvious example, but I particularly liked the appearance of Baucis and Philemon, characters in a myth I read retold by Ovid that I loved (Book VIII of Metamorphoses). That, I suppose, is what really made the reading experience for me: plot alone, aside from the Greek myths, perhaps isn't quite as strong as one would have hoped. I certainly recommend it, but of the Faust myths I do prefer Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1588-93) and Goethe's Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy. This second part didn't quite meet those standards but it's certainly impressive for foreseeing modern phenomena such as inflation and the scientific creation of life (referring of course to Wagner's creation of the homunculus).


  1. Yes, forget the plot, at least until the end, and enjoy rummaging through the massive pile of crazy Goethe-stuff.


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