Faust II

Faust II (written 1825-31; published 1832; first performed 1854)

The sequel to Faust I is an epic of over 7000 lines. Because of its length it has hardly ever been staged in its entirety. The first performance of both Faust I and Faust II together was in Weimar in 1875. The most notable recent production of Faust I and Faust II was directed by Peter Stein in Hanover and Berlin in the year 2000, starring Bruno Ganz as Faust.

Faust II explores five different modes of modernity:

Act One shows the creation of the modern banking system;

Act Two anticipates genetic engineering;

Act Three explores the modern age’s fascination with mythology and the ancient world;

Act Four examines political revolution and its suppression by the ancien régime;

Act Five shows Faust as the founder of a new colony, pursuing a vast engineering project.

In Act One, the play begins with ‘Anmutige Gegend’; ‘Charming Location’. A dawn chorus of elves, set in a beautiful meadow, cheers Faust up and enables him to forget his betrayal of Gretchen. Faust is particularly charmed by a rainbow, which for him reflects the diversity of human endeavour (Bestreben, line 4723):

Allein wie herrlich, diesem Sturm ersprießend,

Wölbt sich des bunten Bogens Wechseldauer,

Bald rein gezeichnet, bald in Luft zerfließend,

Umher verbreitend duftig kühle Schauer.

Der spiegelt ab das menschliche Bestreben.

Ihm sinne nach, und du begreifst genauer:

Am farbigen Abglanz haben wir das Leben.

(lines 4719-25)

But how splendidly, produced from this storm,

Arcs this bright bow’s changing permanence,

Now clearly depicted, now dispersing into the air,

Spreading cool, hazy showers round about.

It mirrors human endeavour.

Consider this, and you will comprehend more clearly:

In this colourful reflection we have life itself.


The rest of Act One takes place in Kaiserliche Pfalz. The Holy Roman Emperor is short of cash so Mephistopheles invents paper money, thus inaugurating a modern, speculative economy:

Ein solch Papier, an Gold und Perlen Statt,

Ist so bequem, man weiß doch, was man hat;

Man braucht nicht erst zu markten, noch zu tauschen,

Kann sich nach Lust in Lieb' und Wein berauschen.

Will man Metall, ein Wechsler ist bereit,

Und fehlt es da, so gräbt man eine Zeit.

Pokal und Kette wird verauktioniert,

Und das Papier, sogleich amortisiert,

Beschämt den Zweifler, der uns frech verhöhnt.

Man will nichts anders, ist daran gewöhnt.

So bleibt von nun an allen Kaiserlanden

An Kleinod, Gold, Papier genug vorhanden.

(lines 6119-30)

Such a paper, instead of gold and pearls,

Is so convenient, you know exactly what you have;

There is no need to haggle nor to cheat,

You can indulge in love and wine as you please.

If you want metal, a moneychanger will do it,

Or if there isn’t one, just dig a while.

Goblet and chain will be auctioned,

And debt, liquidated at once,

Shames the doubter, who dares to mock us.

People want nothing else, they expect it.

And so from now on in all Imperial lands

Will be enough jewels, gold and banknotes to hand.


Here Mephistopheles appears as the cynical, skilful salesman, the purveyor of accelerated gratification.

In Act Two, Faust’s assistant Wagner creates artificial life: a homunculus in a glass container. The homunculus yearns to escape its narrow laboratory and sail south to the Mediterranean, even though this will lead to its death. Mephistopheles is reluctant to go, but the homunculus insists:

Nordwestlich, Satan, ist dein Lustrevier,

Südöstlich diesmal aber segeln wir –

Satan, your preferred region is the north-west,

But this time we will sail to the south-east –


Inserted between Acts Two and Three is the ‘Klassische Walpurgisnacht’; ‘Classical Walpurgisnacht’. At the edge of the Aegean sea, the homunculus participates in a festival of sirens and nereids, led by the shape-shifting god Proteus and the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus.

In Act Three, Faust is transported to the palace of King Menelaus of Sparta where he meets Helen of Troy. The product of the union of Faust (modern spirit) and Helen (classical poetry) is Euphorion (modern poetry). Euphorion flies too high and, like Icarus, plunges to his death. Euphorion’s character is loosely based on Lord Byron, a poet Goethe greatly admired (Byron had died recently in 1824).

In Act Four, Faust and Mephistopheles assist the Holy Roman Emperor in his war against a pretender to the Imperial throne (‘Gegenkaiser’; ‘Anti-Emperor’). Mephistopheles summons up a ghostly army which helps the Emperor to win the war. Goethe had witnessed Napoleon’s destruction of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, and here the drama suggests the Empire’s fragility. At the end of Act Four, the Emperor rewards the four princes who led his armies with four imposing but archaic titles: ‘Erzmarschall’ (Arch-Marshal); ‘Erzkämmerer’ (Arch-Chamberlain); ‘Erztruchseß’ (Arch Lord High Steward); ‘Erzschenk’ (Arch-Cupbearer). The medieval monarch awards these spurious titles in order to prop up his own fading authority. As for Faust, he is a given a coastal region to develop.

In Act Five, Faust orders the industrial development of the coastal region which has been given to him. He is annoyed because a section of the land belongs to an old couple, Philemon and Baucis. Their refusal to sell their land obstructs his colonisation of the region. Philemon and Baucis are figures from Greek myth: they embody a long and happy marriage. They are significant because they represent the stable, loving relationship that Faust and Gretchen could never have. Faust destroys the lives of Philemon and Baucis, just as he had previously destroyed Gretchen in Faust I. Faust orders Mephistopheles to remove the old couple. Mephistopheles claims that the old couple will be rehoused in a new settlement, but instead he sends three henchmen to kill them. At midnight Faust is visited by four old women: Mangel (Lack); Schuld (Guilt); Sorge (Worry); and Not (Need). Sorge breathes on Faust’s face and blinds him. Faust gropes his way out of the palace. He is dying, and makes his final speech, which alludes to the wager he made with Mephistopheles in Faust I (line 1700):

Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluß:

Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben,

Der täglich sie erobern muß.

Und so verbringt, umrungen von Gefahr,

Hier Kindheit, Mann und Greis sein tüchtig Jahr.

Solch ein Gewimmel möcht' ich sehn,

Auf freiem Grund mit freiem Volke stehn.

Zum Augenblicke dürft' ich sagen:

Verweile doch, du bist so schön!

Es kann die Spur von meinen Erdetagen

Nicht in Äonen untergehn. –

Im Vorgefühl von solchem hohen Glück

Genieß' ich jetzt den höchsten Augenblick.

(lines 11575-80)

This is wisdom’s final conclusion:

Only he deserves freedom and life,

Who must conquer it each day.

And that is how, surrounded here by danger,

Youth, maturity and age spend each industrious year.

Such a throng I would like to see,

To stand on free ground with a free people,

Then to the moment I could say:

“Stay a while, you are so beautiful!

The trace of my days on earth

Cannot fade for aeons.” –

In anticipation of this great happiness

I now enjoy my greatest moment.


After Faust’s death, Faust’s soul is rescued by a choir of angels and by Mother Mary, and so Mephistopheles is cheated of his prize. The final words of the drama imply that Faust has been saved by Gretchen’s love:

Das Ewig-Weibliche

Zieht uns hinan.

(lines 12110-11)

The Eternal Feminine

Draws us onward.


Further Reading

David T. Barry, ‘Accommodating “Helena”: Reading Goethe’s Faust II at the Intersection of Weltliteratur and his late morphological writings’, Modern Language Review 108:4 (2013), 1177-98

Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 1983), pp. 60-86

Hans Christoph Binswanger, Money and Magic: A Critique of the Modern Economy in the Light of Goethe’s “Faust” (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994)

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

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

E. M. Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935)/(Boston, MA: Beacon Hill, 1958), section on 'Helena', pp. 135-46

Gerald Gillespie, ‘Classic Vision in the Romantic Age: Goethe’s Reconstitution of European Drama in Faust II’, in Romantic Drama, ed. by Gerald Gillespie, A Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages, vol. IX (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1994), pp. 379-98

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

Elisabeth Krimmer, ‘“Schon wieder Krieg: Der Kluge hört’s nicht gern”: Goethe, Warfare and Faust II’, in Enlightened War: Theories and Cultures of Warfare in Eighteenth Century Germany, ed. by Elisabeth Krimmer and Patricia Simpson (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011)

Franco Moretti, Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to Garcia Marquez, trans. by Quintin Hoare (London and New York: Verso, 1996), Chapters 1-4

Web Link in German


Historical-Critical Edition of Goethe’s Faust