I’m up to my ears in Faust and it is good.
Goethe’s early nineteenth century play about a deal with the devil may seem daunting, and indeed, it’s a challenge. While even Shakespeare’s verbose five-act plays can fit in less than 100 pages, my copy of Faust is 500 pages (granted, it’s a bilingual edition, so 250 would be more accurate), and the eponymous character monologues more than Hamlet. There are, however, some factors that make it easier.
Faust, although in play format, is meant to be read, and it reads like a novel and even more like an epic poem. I don’t know how many times anyone has attempted to actually perform Faust, but it would be difficult, both because of the monologuing (the first scene is essentially Faust, by himself, the whole time) and the necessary special effects (talking monkeys, wine pouring out of a hole in a table, various things bursting into flame). Additionally, since it’s a translation anyway, you’re spared the difficult language of Shakespeare or Milton.
I’m not even through the first part yet, so I can’t provide much of an analysis, but I’ll say something about the characters. Faust himself (whose name is Latin for lucky and German for fist) is, it must be admitted, pretty angsty, but his frustrated yearning for something beyond earthly knowledge is far less annoying and more relatable than Romeo’s lovesick mooning or Hamlet’s guilt-wracked wimpiness, at least to me. He’s a careful balance of the everyman protagonist, carried along by events, and a complex personality with opinions and desires that spur on the events–after all, the devil doesn’t come to him; he summons it.
But who cares about Faust? As with Paradise Lost and every other morality tale, we’re really only reading for the villains. It isn’t fair to say that Mephistopheles steals the show. He is the show. Friendly, casual, taunting, and impudent, he assimilates himself into every situation he’s in and brings it under his own control. Writing tempters is tricky: You have to make the offer attractive enough that the readers can sympathize with the protagonist for wanting to accept it, yet twisted enough that it’s clearly evil and the audience doesn’t come away thinking that it actually sounds like a pretty good deal. Mephistopheles fills the role to perfection.
His offers seem open and reasonable, but given human nature, it’s obvious that people are always going to choose the option he wants. Take, for instance, Faust’s desire for sustained youth. Mephistopheles takes him to a witch to get a magic potion. When Faust objects, Mephistopheles tells him that if he prefers, he can live a simple lifestyle, eat right, and do honest hard work and he’ll stay completely healthy. Take a guess what Faust chooses. Was Mephistopheles actually giving him a choice, or just taunting his obvious weakness?
His central role as a character overcomes is the reason why I’m so pleased with Faust even though I’m less favorable towards the supernatural when it appears in sources like Shakespeare. I greatly prefer the plays, comedy and tragedy, where the main conflict is achieved without supernatural assistance (Othello, Much Ado About Nothing) to those where ghosts, witches, or fairies are required to help things along (Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), because the latter feels like a simple deus ex machina. It feels cheap to use the supernatural to get the plot going. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with putting supernatural elements into a story to give it a fantastical or demonic feel, as Shakespeare does in The Tempest; the witches from Macbeth also fill this role, although they’re deus ex machinae of the first degree as well. Further, if the story is actually, fully or in part, an exploration of the nature of good, evil, and/or the supernatural, like Paradise Lost, then of course angels and demons should be present. Faust falls squarely into that category.
More updates to follow when I’m done with the book and can take a more comprehensive look at it.