AskDefine | Define Faustus

Dictionary Definition

Faustus n : an alchemist of German legend who sold his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for knowledge [syn: Faust]

Extensive Definition

Faust (German for "fist") or Faustus (Latin for "auspicious" or "lucky") is the protagonist of a classic German legend in which he makes a pact with the Devil. The tale is the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic and musical works, such as those by Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, Mikhail Bulgakov, Thomas Mann, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt and Charles Gounod.
The name "Faust" has come to stand for a charlatan alchemist (some claim "astrologer and necromancer") whose pride and vanity lead to his doom. Similarly, the adjective "Faustian" has come to denote acts or constellations involving human hubris which lead eventually to nemesis.

Historical Faust

The origin of Faust's name and persona remains unclear, though it is widely assumed to be based on the figure of German Dr. Johann Georg Faust (approximately 1480–1540), a dubious magician and alchemist probably from Knittlingen, Württemberg, who obtained a degree in divinity from Heidelberg University in 1509. According to one account, Faust's infamy became legendary while he was in prison, where in exchange for wine he "offered to show a chaplain how to remove hair from his face without a razor; the chaplain provided the wine and Faustus provided the chaplain with a salve of arsenic, which removed not only the hair but the flesh" (Barnett).
In Polish folklore there is a tale with a Pan Twardowski in a role similar to Faust's, and seems to have originated at roughly the same time. It is unclear if and to what extent the two tales have a common origin or influenced each other. The figure of Pan Twardowski is supposedly based on a either a 16th century German emigrant to the then-capital of Poland, Kraków, or possibly John Dee or Edward Kelley. According to Melanchthon, the historic Johann Faust had studied in Kraków, as well.

Sources of the Faust legend

The first recorded Faust committed to print is a little chapbook bearing the title Historia von D. Iohan Fausten published in 1587. The book was re-edited and borrowed from throughout the 17th century.
  • Johann Spies: Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1587)
  • Das Wagnerbuch von (1593)
  • Das Widmann'sche Faustbuch von (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)
With Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, written in the early 1590s, it also received an early theatrical treatment. Plays and comic puppet theatre loosely based on the legend were popular throughout Germany, often reducing Faust to a figure of vulgar fun. The 1725 chapbook was widely circulated, and also read by the young Goethe.
It has been suggested Jacob Bidermann used such an earlier source for his treatment of the legend of the Damnation of the Good Doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus (published c. 1602). Possibly related tales of a pact between man and the devil include that of Theophilus of Adana, and Mary of Nijmegen,the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century Dutch play attributed to Anna Bijns.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

The early Faust chapbook, while already in circulation in Northern Germany, found its way to England, where it was translated into English by "P. F., Gent[leman]" in 1592 as The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus. It was this work that Christopher Marlowe used for his more ambitious play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (published c. 1604). Marlowe also borrowed from Acts and Monuments by John Foxe, on the exchanges between Pope Adrian and a rival pope. Another possible inspiration of Marlowe's version is John Dee (1527-1609), who practiced forms of alchemy and science and developed Enochian magic.

Goethe's Faust

Goethe's Faust inverts and makes greatly more complex 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; ending in a Faust who is saved, carried aloft to heaven, as Mephistopheles looks on.
The legend of Faust was an obsession of Goethe's. Although by no means a constant pursuit, the composition and refinement of his own version of the legend occupied him for over sixty years. The final version, not completely published until 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 and power, he attracts the attention of the Devil (represented by Mephistopheles), with whom Faust makes a deal to serve until the moment Faust attains the zenith of human happiness, at which point Mephistopheles may take his soul. Goethe's Faust is pleased with the deal, as he believes the moment will never come.
In the first part, Mephistopheles leads Faust through experiences that culminate in a lustful and destructive relationship with an innocent and nubile woman named Gretchen. Gretchen and her family are destroyed by Mephistopheles' deceptions and Faust's desires and actions. The story ends in tragedy as Gretchen is saved and Faust is left in shame.
The second part begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust (and the rest of mankind) and progresses into rich allegorical poetry. Faust and his devil pass through the world of politics and the world of the classical gods, and meet with Helen of Troy (the personification of beauty). Finally, having succeeded in taming the very forces of war and nature Faust experiences a single moment of happiness.
The devil Mephistopheles, trying to grab Faust's soul when he dies, is frustrated as the Lord intervenes – recognizing the value of Faust's unending striving.
Goethe's Faust was the source material for at least two successful operas: Faust by Charles Gounod and Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito. It has inspired numerous additional major musical works, such as the "dramatic legend" The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust, the second part of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8, and Franz Liszt's Mephisto Waltzes.
In September 2006, Oxford University Press published an English, blank verse translation of Goethe's work entitled Faustus, From the German of Goethe, now widely believed to be the production of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Although Coleridge famously insisted during his lifetime that he "had never put pen to paper as a translator of Faust", he was never the most trustworthy source for matters autobiographical, and the volume's editors, UCLA Professor Emeritus Frederick Burwick and University of Montana Professor James McCusick (both renowned Coleridge scholars), have assembled over 800 verbal echoes between the translation and Coleridge's other poems and dramatic works, uncovered a wealth of circumstantial evidence, and used computer-aided stylometric analysis in order to support their claim that Coleridge was the author. The translation, which was published anonymously in 1821, was previously attributed to George Soane. Despite this evidence, the status of the translation as the work of Coleridge is still disputed by some Coleridge authorities.

See also


  • Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Edited and with and introduction by Sylvan Barnett (1969, Signet Classics)
  • J. Scheible, Das Kloster (1840s).
Faustus in Arabic: فاوست
Faustus in Czech: Faust
Faustus in Danish: Faust
Faustus in German: Johann Faust#Die_Sage
Faustus in Estonian: Faust
Faustus in Spanish: Fausto
Faustus in Basque: Fausto
Faustus in French: Faust
Faustus in Italian: Faust
Faustus in Hebrew: פאוסט
Faustus in Dutch: Faust (legende)
Faustus in Japanese: ファウスト
Faustus in Norwegian: Faust
Faustus in Polish: Faust (motyw w sztuce)
Faustus in Portuguese: Fausto
Faustus in Slovenian: Faust
Faustus in Serbian: Faust
Faustus in Finnish: Faust
Faustus in Swedish: Faust (sagogestalt)
Faustus in Turkish: Faust (kitap)
Faustus in Chinese: 浮士德
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