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Dr. Fausto by Jean-Paul Laurens
1876 'Faust' by Goethe, decorated by Rudolf Seitz, large German edition 51x38cm

Faust is the protagonist of a classic German legend based on the historical Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540). The erudite Faust is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life, which leads him to make a pact with the Devil at a crossroads, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. The Faust legend has been the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical works that have reinterpreted it through the ages. "Faust" and the adjective "Faustian" imply sacrificing spiritual values for power, knowledge, or material gain and / or making a risky bargain with seemingly good intentions that goes terribly wrong.[1]

The Faust of early books – as well as the ballads, dramas, movies, and puppet-plays which grew out of them – is irrevocably damned because he prefers human knowledge over divine knowledge: "He laid the Holy Scriptures behind the door and under the bench, refused to be called doctor of theology, but preferred to be styled doctor of medicine".[2] Plays and comic puppet theatre loosely based on this legend were popular throughout Germany in the 16th century, often reducing Faust and Mephistopheles to figures of vulgar fun. The story was popularised in England by Christopher Marlowe, who gave it a classic treatment in his play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (c. 1592).[3] In Goethe's reworking of the story over two hundred years later, Faust becomes a dissatisfied intellectual who yearns for "more than earthly meat and drink" in his life.

Summary of the story


Faust is unsatisfied with his life as a scholar and becomes depressed. After an attempt to take his own life, he calls on the Devil for further knowledge and magic powers with which to indulge all the pleasure and knowledge of the world. In response, the Devil's representative, Mephistopheles, appears. He makes a bargain with Faust: Mephistopheles will serve Faust with his magic powers for a set number of years, but at the end of the term, the Devil will claim Faust's soul, and Faust will be eternally enslaved.

During the term of the bargain, Faust makes use of Mephistopheles in various ways. In Goethe's drama, and many subsequent versions of the story, Mephistopheles helps Faust seduce a beautiful and innocent young woman, usually named Gretchen, whose life is ultimately destroyed when she gives birth to Faust's illegitimate son. Realizing this unholy act, she drowns the child and is sentenced to death for murder. However, Gretchen's innocence saves her in the end, and she enters Heaven. In Goethe's rendition, Faust is saved by God via his constant striving – in combination with Gretchen's pleadings with God in the form of the eternal feminine. However, in the early versions of the tale, Faust is irrevocably corrupted and believes his sins cannot be forgiven; when the term ends, the Devil carries him off to Hell.


Pan Twardowski and the devil by Michał Elwiro Andriolli. The Polish folklore legend bears many similarities to the story of Faust.

The tale of Faust bears many similarities to the Theophilus legend recorded in the 13th century writer Gautier de Coincy's Les Miracles de la Sainte Vierge. Here, a saintly figure makes a bargain with the keeper of the infernal world but is rescued from paying his debt to society through the mercy of the Blessed Virgin.[4] A depiction of the scene in which he subordinates himself to the Devil appears on the north tympanum of the Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Paris.[5]

The origin of Faust's name and persona remains unclear.[dubiousdiscuss] In the Historia Brittonum, Faustus is the offspring of an incestuous marriage between king Vortigern and Vortigern's own daughter.[6]

The character is ostensibly based on Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540), a magician and alchemist probably from Knittlingen, Württemberg, who obtained a degree in divinity from Heidelberg University in 1509, but the legendary Faust has also been connected with an earlier Johann Fust (c. 1400–1466), Johann Gutenberg's business partner,[7] which suggests that Fust is one of the multiple origins to the Faust story.[8] Scholars such as Frank Baron[9] and Ruickbie (2009)[10] contests many of these[which?] previous assumptions.[clarification needed]

The character in Polish folklore named Pan Twardowski (Sir Twardowski in English) presents similarities with Faust. The Polish story seems to have originated at roughly the same time as its German counterpart, yet it is unclear whether the two tales have a common origin or influenced each other. The historical Johann Georg Faust had studied in Kraków for a time and may have served as the inspiration for the character in the Polish legend.[11]

The first known printed source of the legend of Faust is a small chapbook bearing the title Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published in 1587. The book was re-edited and borrowed from throughout the 16th century. Other similar books of that period include:

  • Das Wagnerbuch (1593)
  • Das Widmann'sche Faustbuch (1599)
  • Dr. Fausts großer und gewaltiger Höllenzwang (Frankfurt 1609)
  • Dr. Johannes Faust, Magia naturalis et innaturalis (Passau 1612)
  • Das Pfitzer'sche Faustbuch (1674)
  • Dr. Fausts großer und gewaltiger Meergeist (Amsterdam 1692)
  • Das Wagnerbuch (1714)
  • Faustbuch des Christlich Meynenden (1725)

The 1725 Faust chapbook was widely circulated and also read by the young Goethe.

Related tales about a pact between man and the Devil include the plays Mariken van Nieumeghen (Dutch, early 16th century, author unknown), Cenodoxus (German, early 17th century, by Jacob Bidermann) and The Countess Cathleen (Irish legend of unknown origin believed by some to be taken from the French play Les marchands d'âmes).

Locations linked to the story


Staufen, a town in the extreme southwest of Germany, claims to be where Faust died (c. 1540); depictions appear on buildings, etc. The only historical source for this tradition is a passage in the Chronik der Grafen von Zimmern, which was written c. 1565, 25 years after Faust's presumed death. These chronicles are generally considered reliable, and in the 16th century there were still family ties between the lords of Staufen and the counts of Zimmern in nearby Donaueschingen.[12]

In Christopher Marlowe's original telling of the tale, Wittenburg—where Faust studied—was also written as Wertenberge. This has led to a measure of speculation as to precisely where his story is set. Some scholars suggest the Duchy of Württemberg; others suggest an allusion to Marlowe's own Cambridge (Gill, 2008, p. 5)

Literary adaptations

Marlowe Faustus in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus


The early Faust chapbook, while in circulation in northern Germany, found its way to England, where in 1592 an English translation was published, The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus credited to a certain "P. F., Gent[leman]". Christopher Marlowe used this work as the basis for his more ambitious play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (published c. 1604). Marlowe also borrowed from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, on the exchanges between Pope Adrian VI and a rival pope.

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Goethe's Faust

Goethe's Faust


Another important version of the legend is the play Faust, written by the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The first part, which is the one more closely connected to the earlier legend, was published in 1808, the second posthumously in 1832.

Goethe's Faust complicates 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.

The composition and refinement of Goethe's own version of the legend occupied him, off and on, for over sixty years. The final version, published 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, power, and enjoyment of life, he attracts the attention of the Devil (represented by Mephistopheles), who makes a bet with Faust that he will be able to satisfy him. Faust is reluctant, believing this will never happen. This is a significant difference between Goethe's "Faust" and Marlowe's; Faust is not the one who suggests the wager.

In the first part, Mephistopheles leads Faust through experiences that culminate in a lustful relationship with Gretchen, an innocent young woman. Gretchen and her family are destroyed by Mephistopheles' deceptions and Faust's desires. Part one of the story ends in tragedy for Faust, as Gretchen is saved but Faust is left to grieve in shame.

The second part begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust (and the rest of mankind) and progresses into allegorical poetry. Faust and his Devil pass through and manipulate the world of politics and the world of the classical gods, and meet with Helen of Troy (the personification of beauty). Finally, in anticipation of having tamed the forces of war and nature and created a place for a free people to live, Faust is happy and dies.

Mephistopheles tries to seize Faust's soul when he dies after this moment of happiness, but is frustrated and enraged when angels intervene due to God's grace. Though this grace is 'gratuitous' and does not condone Faust's frequent errors with Mephistopheles, the angels state that this grace can only occur because of Faust's unending striving and due to the intercession of the forgiving Gretchen. The final scene has Faust's soul carried to Heaven in the presence of God by the intercession of the "Virgin, Mother, Queen, ... Goddess kind forever ... Eternal Womanhood".[13] The woman is thus victorious over Mephistopheles, who had insisted at Faust's death that he would be consigned to "The Eternal Empty".

Goethe's Faust is a genuinely classical production, but the idea is a historical idea, and hence every notable historical era will have its own Faust.

  — Kierkegaard[14]

Mann's Doctor Faustus


Thomas Mann's 1947 Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde adapts the Faust legend to a 20th century context, documenting the life of fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn, as analog and embodiment of the early 20th century history of Germany and of Europe. The talented Leverkühn, after contracting venereal disease from a brothel visit, forms a pact with a Mephistophelean character to grant him 24 years of brilliance and success as a composer. He produces works of increasing beauty to universal acclaim, even while physical illness begins to corrupt his body. In 1930, when presenting his final masterwork (The Lamentation of Dr. Faust), he confesses the pact he had made: Madness and syphilis now overcome him, and he suffers a slow and total collapse until his death in 1940. Leverkühn's spiritual, mental, and physical collapse and degradation are mapped on to the period in which Nazism rose in Germany, and Leverkühn's fate is shown as that of the soul of Germany.

Benét's The Devil and Daniel Webster

Faust and Lilith (1831) Richard Westall.

Stephen Vincent Benét's short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" published in 1937 is a retelling of the tale of Faust based on the short story "The Devil and Tom Walker", written by Washington Irving. Benet's version of the story centers on a New Hampshire farmer by the name of Jabez Stone who, plagued with unending bad luck, is approached by the devil under the name of Mr. Scratch who offers him seven years of prosperity in exchange for his soul. Jabez Stone is eventually defended by Daniel Webster, a fictional version of the famous lawyer and orator, in front of a judge and jury of the damned, and his case is won. It was adapted in 1941 as a movie, The Devil and Daniel Webster, with Walter Huston as the devil, James Craig as Jabez and Edward Arnold as Webster. It was remade in 2007 as Shortcut to Happiness with Alec Baldwin as Jabez, Anthony Hopkins as Webster and Jennifer Love Hewitt as the Devil.

Selected additional dramatic works


Selected additional novels, stories, poems, and comics


Cinematic adaptations


Early films

The Damnation of Faust (1903), directed by Georges Méliès
  • Faust and Marguerite, a short copyrighted by Edison Manufacturing Co. in 1900[16]
  • Faust, an obscure (now lost) 1921 American silent film directed by Frederick A. Todd[17](p 235)
  • Faust, a 14 minute-long 1922 British silent film directed by Challis Sanderson[17](p 249)
  • Faust, a 1922 French silent film directed by Gérard Bourgeois, regarded as the first ever 3-D film[17]

Murnau's Faust


F.W. Murnau, director of the classic Nosferatu, directed a silent version of Faust that premiered in 1926. Murnau's film featured special effects that were remarkable for the era.[18] In one scene, Mephisto towers over a town, dark wings spread wide, as a fog rolls in bringing the plague. In another, an extended montage sequence shows Faust, mounted behind Mephisto, riding through the heavens, and the camera view, effectively swooping through quickly changing panoramic backgrounds, courses past snowy mountains, high promontories and cliffs, and waterfalls.

In the Murnau version of the tale, the aging bearded scholar and alchemist is disillusioned by the palpable failure of his supposed cure for a plague that has stricken his town. Faust renounces his many years of hard travail and studies in alchemy. In his despair, he hauls all his bound volumes by armloads onto a growing pyre, intending to burn them. However, a wind turns over a few cabalistic leaves, and one of the books' pages catches Faust's eye. Their words contain a prescription for how to invoke the dreadful dark forces.

Faust heeds these recipes and begins enacting the mystic protocols: On a hill, alone, summoning Mephisto, certain forces begin to convene, and Faust in a state of growing trepidation hesitates, and begins to withdraw; he flees along a winding, twisting pathway, returning to his study chambers. At pauses along this retreat, though, he meets a reappearing figure. Each time, it doffs its hat in a greeting that is Mephisto confronting him. Mephisto overcomes Faust's reluctance to sign a long binding pact with the invitation that Faust may try on these powers, just for one day, and without obligation to longer terms. Upon the end of that day, the sands of twenty-four hours having run out, after Faust's having been restored to youth and, helped by his servant Mephisto to steal a beautiful woman from her wedding feast, Faust is tempted so much that he agrees to sign a pact for eternity (which is to say when, in due course, his time runs out). Eventually Faust becomes bored with the pursuit of pleasure and returns home, where he falls in love with the beautiful and innocent Gretchen. His corruption (enabled, or embodied, through the forms of Mephisto) ultimately ruins both their lives, though there is still a chance for redemption in the end.

Similarities to Goethe's Faust include the classic tale of a man who sold his soul to the Devil, the same Mephisto wagering with an angel to corrupt the soul of Faust, the plague sent by Mephisto on Faust's small town, and the familiar cliffhanger with Faust unable to find a cure for the Plague, and therefore turning to Mephisto, renouncing God, the angel, and science alike.



Films published after 1945.

La Beauté du diable [The Beauty of the Devil]
Directed by René Clair, 1950 – An adaptation in which Michel Simon plays a dual role as Mephistopheles and the older Faust, with Gérard Philipe playing Faust as transformed into a youthful form.[19]
Doctor Faustus
Directed by Richard Burton and Nevill Coghill, 1967 – A British horror film adaptation of the 1588 Christopher Marlowe play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.[20]
Phantom of the Paradise
Directed by Brian DePalma, 1974 – A vain rock impresario, who has sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for eternal youth, corrupts and destroys a brilliant but unsuccessful songwriter and a beautiful ingenue.
Directed by István Szabó, 1981 – Portrays an actor in 1930s Germany who aligns himself with the Nazi party for prestige.[21]
Lekce Faust (Faust)
Directed by Jan Švankmajer, 1994 – The source material of Švankmajer's film is the Faust legend; including traditional Czech puppet show versions, this film production uses a variety of cinematic formats, such as stop-motion photography animation and claymation.
Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, 2011 – German-language film starring Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk.
American Satan
Directed by Ash Avildsen, 2017 – A rock and roll modern retelling of the Faust legend starring Andy Biersack as Johnny Faust.[22]
The Last Faust
Directed by Philipp Humm, 2019 – a contemporary feature art film directly based on Goethe's Faust, Part One and Faust, Part Two.[23] The film is the first filmed version of Faust I and Faust II as well as a part of Humm's Gesamtkunstwerk, an art project with over 150 different artworks such as paintings, photos, sculptures, drawings and an illustrated novella.[24][25]

Audio adaptations


The Christopher Marlowe play has been broadcast on radio many times, including:

A five-part adaptation by Martin Jenkins dramatized by Jonathan Holloway was broadcast as part of BBC Radio 4's 15-Minute Theatre 18–22 February 2008. The cast included Julian Rhind-Tutt as Faustus, Mark Gatiss as Mephistopheles, Thom Tuck as Wagner, Jasmine Guy as Gretchen/Demon and Pippa Haywood as Martha.

Musical adaptations

Feodor Chaliapin as Méphistophélès, 1915



The Faust legend has been the basis for several major operas: for a more complete list, visit Works based on Faust



Faust has inspired major musical works in other forms:

Other adaptations


In psychotherapy


Psychodynamic therapy uses the idea of a Faustian bargain to explain defence mechanisms, usually rooted in childhood, that sacrifice elements of the self in favor of some form of psychological survival. For the neurotic, abandoning one's genuine feeling self in favour of a false self more amenable to caretakers may offer a viable form of life, but at the expense of one's true emotions and affects.[36] For the psychotic, a Faustian bargain with an omnipotent-self can offer the imaginary refuge of a psychic retreat at the price of living in unreality.[37]

See also





  1. ^ "Faustian". The Free Dictionary (thefreedictionary.com). — pertaining to or resembling or befitting Faust or Faustus; especially in insatiably striving for worldly knowledge and power even at the price of spiritual values; 'a Faustian pact with the Devil'.
  2. ^  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainPhillips, W.A. (1911). "Faust". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 10 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 211.
  3. ^ "Christopher Marlowe". Biography (biography.com). Archived from the original on 23 March 2018. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  4. ^ An 1875 edition is at:
    de Coincy, Gautier, Par; Poquet, M., Par l'Abbé (1857). Les miracles de la Sainte Vierge (in French). Parmantier/Didron.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ See, for example, this photo at:
    Ballegeer, Stephen (5 August 2006). Portal on the north transept. flickr (photo). Notre Dame, Paris, FR. Archived from the original on 29 November 2016.
  6. ^ Nennius (2006). Historia Brittonum [History of the Britons] (in Latin and English). Translated by Giles, J.A. Project Gutenberg.
    See also Nennius — Historia Brittonum
  7. ^ Meggs, Philip B.; Purvis, Alston W. (10 May 2016). Meggs' History of Graphic Design (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. p. 73. ISBN 978-1-1187-7205-8.
  8. ^ Jensen, Eric (Autumn 1982). "Liszt, Nerval, and "Faust"". 19th Century Music. 6 (2). University of California Press: 153. doi:10.2307/746273. JSTOR 746273.
  9. ^ Baron, Frank (1978). Doctor Faustus: From history to legend. Wilhelm Fink Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7705-1539-4.
  10. ^ Ruickbie, Leo (2009). Faustus: The life and times of a Renaissance magician. The History Press. ISBN 978-0-7509-5090-9.
  11. ^ Schamschula, Walter (1992). Birnbaum, Henrik; Eekman, Thomas; McLean, Hugh (eds.). Pan Twardowski: The Polish variant of the Faust legend in Slavic literatures – a study in motif history. California Slavic Studies. Vol. 14. University of California Press. pp. 209–231. ISBN 9780520070257.
  12. ^ Geiges, Leif (1981). Faust's Tod in Staufen: Sage – Dokumente. Freiburg im Breisgau: Kehrer Verlag KG.
  13. ^ Goethe, Faust, Part Two, lines 12101–12110, translation: David Luke, Oxford World Classics, ISBN 978-0-1995-3620-7.
  14. ^ Kierkegaard, S. Either / Or: Immediate stages of the erotic.
  15. ^ Pagel, Louis. Doctor Faustus of the popular legend Marlowe, the puppet-play, Goethe, and Lenau, treated historically and critically. p. 46.
  16. ^ "Faust and Marguerite". Library of Congress. Retrieved 1 June 2022.
  17. ^ a b c Workman, Christopher; Howarth, Troy (2016). Tome of Terror: Horror films of the silent era. Midnight Marquee Press. pp. 235, 249. ISBN 978-1936168-68-2.
  18. ^ "F.W. Murnau (German director)". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 16 June 2019.
  19. ^ Khan, Imran (18 November 2013). "'The Beauty and the Devil' and the Visual Feast". PopMatters. Retrieved 12 March 2021.
  20. ^ Bevington, David (2010). "The performance history". In Deats, Sara Munson (ed.). Doctor Faustus: A critical guide. A&C Black. pp. 41–71. ISBN 9781847061386.
  21. ^ Cunningham, John (2014). The Cinema of István Szabó: Visions of Europe. New York City: Columbia University Press. p. 157. ISBN 978-0-231-17199-1.
  22. ^ "American Satan (2017)". Internet Movie Database (imdb.com). Archived from the original on 5 May 2018. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  23. ^ "The Last Faust". The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com). 2 December 2019. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  24. ^ Feay, Suzi (29 November 2019). "The Last Faust: Steven Berkoff stars in Philipp Humm's take on Goethe". Financial Times. London, UK. Archived from the original on 10 December 2022. Retrieved 31 December 2019.
  25. ^ Humm, Philipp. "The Last Faust – Ein Gesamtkunstwerk". philipphumm.art. Retrieved 31 December 2019.
  26. ^ "BBC Regional Programme: Christopher Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus' (1932)". BBC Programme Index. 29 June 1932.
  27. ^ "BBC National Programme: The Tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus (1934)". BBC Programme Index. 13 April 1934.
  28. ^ "BBC Third Programme: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1946)". BBC Programme Index. 11 October 1946.
  29. ^ "BBC Light Programme: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1949)". BBC Programme Index. 18 October 1949.
  30. ^ "BBC Home Service: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1964)". BBC Programme Index. June 1964.
  31. ^ "The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus (1995)". Internet Archive. 24 December 1995.
  32. ^ "Drama on 3: Dr. Faustus". BBC Programme Index. 23 September 2007.
  33. ^ "Drama on 3: Dr. Faustus". BBC Programme Index. 19 September 2021.
  34. ^ Malone, Paul M. (2004). Faust as rock opera (PDF) (Report). Icons of Modern Culture Series – via rudolf-volz.de.
  35. ^ Maierhofer, Waltraut (2017). "Devilishly good: Rudolf Volz's rock opera Faust and event culture". Music in Goethe's Faust, Goethe's Faust in Music (PDF) (Report) – via rudolf-volz.de.
  36. ^ Fosha, Diana (5 May 2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A model for accelerated change. Basic Books. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-4650-9567-4.
  37. ^ Williams, Paul (2001). A Language for Psychosis: Psychoanalysis of psychotic states. Taylor & Francis. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-4159-3325-4.



Further reading

  • van der Laan, J.M.; Weeks, Andrew, eds. (2013). The Faustian Century: German literature and culture in the age of Luther and Faustus. Camden House. ISBN 978-1571135520.
  • Seung, T.K. (1976). "A philosophical interpretation". Cultural Thematics: The formation of the Faustian ethos. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-030001918-6.