Faust I

Daß ich erkenne, was die Welt

Im Innersten zusammenhält (lines 382-83)

So that I know what holds

the innermost world together

Faust I (first published 1808, first performed 1829)

Faust I went through several versions before it was finally published in 1808. Goethe started writing the play in 1773.

(1) The first draft known as the ‘Urfaust’, exists in the form of a copy made around 1776, but not published in Goethe’s lifetime.

(2) In 1790 Goethe published Faust, Ein Fragment, which contained the addition of the witch’s kitchen and ‘Wald und Höhle’; ‘Wood and Hollow’, but which lacks a proper ending, finishing abruptly with the cathedral scene.

(3) In 1808 Faust. Der Tragödie erster Teil; The Tragedy Part One was published with further additional scenes including ‘Walpurgisnight’, a dedicatory ode, and two prologues.

Most of the tragedy is in Knittelvers (a verse form with four stressed syllables per line with variable numbers of unstressed syllables between them and simple rhyme schemes), or in Madrigalvers (where the number of stressed syllables varies from line to line but where the rhyme schemes may be quite elaborate). The angels in the prologue speak in iambic verse, however. For further discussion of the play’s metrical forms, see Michael Beddow (in the reading list below).

As Heinrich Heine wrote in a letter of October 1825 and in Chapter 11 of Ideen. Das Buch Le Grand, the Knittelvers form gives Faust I the quality of a puppet play. The puppet-like form conveys a sense of anarchy and ridicule which counterpoints the tragic elements and makes them seem even stranger and more terrible. Mephistopheles’s constant sneering makes him seem like Mr Punch, and in the ‘Walpurgisnacht’ scene, the puppetry invades the action completely: inanimate objects come alive.

In Goethe’s version of the legend, Faust does not make a pact with the devil; instead, he makes a bet. Actually Mephistopheles makes two bets: the bet he makes with the Lord in ‘Prolog im Himmel’; ‘Prologue in Heaven’ anticipates the one he makes with Faust in ‘Studierzimmer’; ‘Study’. Mephistopheles bets the Lord that he can draw Faust away from his ‘Urquelle’, his original life source which is linked to his striving (streben). Faust makes more or less the same bet, and agrees that if he ever says to a present moment ‘Verweile doch! du bist so schön!’; ‘Stay a while! You are so beautiful!’ (line 1700) then Mephistopheles may destroy him.


Faust is tragic because he suffers from hubris, the hubris that he can attain perfect insight (Erkenntnis) into the universe. As he says in his opening speech:

‘Daß ich erkenne, was die Welt / Im Innersten zusammenhält’ (‘So that I know what holds the innermost world together’, lines 382-83)


Kevin Hilliard argues that the play gives a positive value to illusion: Faust strives because of his cherished delusions and so he needs illusions in order to affirm life (see K. F. Hilliard, reading list below, p. 112).

One might argue though that Gretchen is the truly tragic figure in Faust I: her love for Faust is the tragic flaw which destroys her and her family. Gretchen is not simply a naïve and innocent girl. She knows that she is playing with fire. She expresses this through her songs (Der König in Thule; The King in Thule is about an illicit love) and through her famous question, the Gretchenfrage: ‘wie hast du’s mit der Religion?’ (loosely translated, ‘do you like religion?’, line 3415)


When Faust replies that feelings are everything, she is intelligent enough to see that Faust’s attachment to emotion makes him susceptible to Mephistopheles. She senses danger but she still trusts Faust blindly, and for this she is punished brutally. Some scholars divide the play into Gelehrtentragödie (Scholar’s Tragedy) and Gretchentragödie (Gretchen’s Tragedy), but this obscures the close connections between the fates of Faust and Gretchen.

The key scene for understanding the character of Faust is ‘Wald und Höhle’ (‘Wood and Hollow’). This scene was written between 1788-90 and like the Roman Elegies of the same period it expresses sexual satisfaction. Faust addresses his thanks to the Earth Spirit (Erdgeist) who has granted him the satisfaction he asked for (lines 3217-18). But the fulfilment he has found with Gretchen is not enough – it cannot be enough for Faust. In conversation with Mephistopheles Faust soon adopts a pessimistic view of his relationship with Gretchen:

Was muß geschehn, mag's gleich geschehn!

Mag ihr Geschick auf mich zusammenstürzen

Und sie mit mir zugrunde gehn!

(lines 3363-65)

What has to happen, let it happen now!

Let her fate come down on me

And her downfall will occur with mine!


Here, as Michael Beddow points out (see below, Beddow, pp. 71-72) Faust acquiesces in Gretchen’s destruction. For an interpretation of Faust as a representative of technological modernity, see Marshall Berman (reading list below).

Further Reading in English

Peter-André Alt, ‘Mephisto’s Principles: On the Construction of Evil in Goethe’s Faust I’, Modern Language Review 106:1 (2011), 149-63

Matthew Bell, ‘Three Recent Editions of Goethe’s Faust: A Review Article’, Modern Language Review 98:3 (2003), 634-58

Michael Beddow, Goethe, Faust I (London: Grant & Cutler, 1986)

Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 1983), Chapter 1 on Faust

Paul Bishop (ed.), Goethe’s Faust I and II: A Companion (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001)

Nicholas Boyle, Goethe: Faust Part One (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Neil Brough, New Perspectives on Faust: Studies in the origins and the philosophy of the Faust theme in the dramas of Marlowe and Goethe (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 1994)

Jane K. Brown, Goethe’s ‘Faust’: The German Tragedy (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1986)

Jane K. Brown, Meredith Lee, and Thomas P. Saine (eds.), Interpreting Goethe’s Faust Today, Goethe Yearbook 1 (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994)

Sarah Colvin, ‘Mephistopheles, Metaphors, and the Problem of Meaning in Faust’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 79:3 (2010), 159-71

Osman Durrani et. al., Faust: Icon of Modern Culture (Mountfield: Helm, 2004)

Gail K. Hart, ‘Errant Strivings: Goethe, Faust and the Feminist Reader’, in From Goethe to Gide: Feminism, Aesthetics and the French and German Literary Canon 1770-1936, ed. by Mary Orr and Lesley Sharpe (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005), pp. 7-21

David Hawkes, The Faust myth: religion and the rise of representation (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Erich Heller, ‘Goethe and the Avoidance of Tragedy’, in Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (London: Penguin, 1961), pp. 33-55

K. F. Hilliard, Freethinkers, Libertines and Schwärmer: Heterodoxy in German Literature, 1750-1800 (London: IGRS, 2011)

Géza von Molnár, ‘The Conditions of Faust’s Wager and its Resolution in the Light of Kantian Ethics’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 51 (1981), 48-80

Martin Swales, ‘Goethe, Faust I’, in Landmarks in German Drama, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2002)

Ian Watt, Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

John R. Williams, Goethe’s Faust (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987)

Web Links in English


Faust I in German; click on a word for the English translation


Kevin Hilliard (University of Oxford), 'Why Faust?' (2017, 5 minute video)

Web Link in German


Historical-Critical Edition of Goethe’s Faust [in German]