The Faust Legend Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Faust Legend

The Faust legend is probably based on the life of a real person named Jorg or George Faust, also referred to as Georgius and as Johannes Faustus. He was a traveling performer or magician, thought to have been born around 1480 in the Württemberg region of southwest Germany, and to have died in the same region around 1540. The first lengthy historical mention of him occurs in a letter written in 1507 by the Benedictine scholar Johannes Tritheim. The letter is not complimentary of Faust. In it, Tritheim refers to him as one "who has presumed to call himself the prince of necromancers," but who is in fact "a vagabond, a babbler, and a rogue, who deserves to be thrashed so that he may not henceforth rashly venture to profess in public things so execrable and so hostile to the holy Church."

The principal German source of the legend surrounding Faust is the volume edited by Johann Spies in 1587 and published as Historia von D. Johann Fausten. This version, commonly called the Faustbuch, is also referred to as the Volksbuch or the Historia. This folktalewas altered and augmented over time in numerous forms (including puppet shows) and in a variety of languages. The first known English-language publication appeared under the title The Historie of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus. The basic story is about a magician who makes a pact with the Devil in return for superhuman powers, sexual pleasures, and arcane knowledge. As part of the bargain, the Devil requires Faust's soul and ultimately claims it by torturing Faust's body and dragging him to Hell.

During the sixteenth century, Martin Luther and the proponents of the Reformation found the Faust myth a useful tool. It was modified into a warning against what were considered the excesses and idolatrous practices of the Catholic Church. At the same time, the story of Faust's overreaching the normal limits of human knowledge and ability was also directed against Humanism in Renaissance Germany.

The Faust legend has been a rich source of creative inspiration. Christopher Marlowe wrote one of his most famous plays based on the legend. It was published in 1604 as The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. And in the nineteenth century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Parts I (1808) and II (1832) of his poetic drama, Faust. Over the centuries, the legend has continued to fascinate novelists, poets, painters, film-makers, and musicians. Whether they see Faust positively as a seeker of benevolent knowledge, negatively as a diabolical harbinger of fascism, or tragically as a symbol of humanity's insatiable curiosity, composers like Louis Hector Berlioz (The Damnation of Faust, 1846), novelists like Thomas Mann (Dr. Faustus, 1947), and poets like Karl Shapiro ("The Progress of Faust," 1968), have turned Faust into a cultural archetype.