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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote Faust, which is a two-part dramatic composition. It is often regarded as Germany's most substantial role to international literature. Despite the fact that it is based on a mediaeval fable about a man who sold his soul to the devil, it addresses modern man's feeling of alienation and need to come to terms with his surroundings. Goethe continued to work on Faust throughout his adult life. No definite evidence remains of a putative intention in 1769 to depict the storey of a man who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for earthly fulfilment, possibly including his final salvation.
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The magician Faust's misery, his contract with Mephistopheles, and his love for Gretchen are all shown in Part I. Part One (1808) sees Goethe commit to his second major departure from traditional fable: his Faust now makes a wager rather than a contract with the Devil. Faust stakes his life on the fact that no matter how much of human existence the Devil shows him, he will find none of it satisfying—and if he is incorrect (i.e., if he is pleased), he is ready to die. Faust now appears as a strikingly contemporary person, rushing through pleasures but doomed by his own decision to forsake them all. His tragedy (the word first occurs in the play's title in 1808) is that he is unable to experience life in the same way that Gretchen does: not as a possible source of satisfaction, but as a matter of love or responsibility. This is a recurring motif in both the first and second acts of the play.
Faust's life at court, the courting and gaining of Helen of Troy, and his cleansing and salvation are all covered in Part II. Because of its lyric, epic, dramatic, operatic, and balletic components, the play has been criticised as being formless in the past. It includes almost every known poetic metre, from drivel to terza rima to six-foot trimetre (a three-measure line of verse), as well as a variety of different styles from Greek tragedy to mediaeval mystery, baroque allegory, Renaissance masque, and commedia dell'arte towards something likened to the modern revue. Modern critics, on the other hand, saw this combination of forms and styles as a conscious effort to create a conveyance of cultural commentary rather than an incapacity to establish a cohesive form of his own, and the substance with which Goethe infused his forms supports this view. For both the more realistic Part I and the more symbolic Part II, he drew on a vast array of cultural material—theological, mythological, philosophic, political, economic, scientific, artistic, musical, and literary.
The logic of the wager required that Faust at least taste the experience of public and political life, and Goethe had always desired to dramatise that part of the classic storey in which Faust summons Helen of Troy, the ultimate expression of the old world's beauty. Faust: Part Two (1832) has become an exceptional poetic phantasmagoria, spanning 3,000 years of history and combining evocations of Classical scenery and mythical statistics with literary references from Homer to Lord Byron, as well as satire of the Holy Roman Empire, the French Revolution, and the capitalistic and colonialism of the 1820s, as Goethe accepted. It is all tied together, though, by the wager's thematic element and structural similarities with Part One, and in the end, Faust is redeemed, not by his own efforts, but by Gretchen's intercession and the heavenly love he's known in her. Part Two is a poetic encounter with Goethe's own times, with its unstoppable dynamism and detachment from his Classical ideal of fully realised humanity. Its richness, complexity, and literary daring, like most of Goethe's later work, were only acknowledged in the twentieth century.
Marlowe based his storey on the English translation of the Faust-Book from 1587, but he changed the mythical magician into a tragic figure and made his storey a strong statement of Elizabethan ideas. Marlowe's Faustus, like earlier versions, makes a contract with the devil, agreeing to send his soul to hell in exchange for 24 years of unrestricted power and enjoyment. Despite having struck the deal, this Faustus is free to fight his enslavement by the powers of evil until the time of his death. In the last scenes, Faustus is scared at the prospect of his approaching damnation and longs to be saved, but his confidence in God's forgiving love is insufficient, and he is unable to repent. Faustus is taken away by the devil at the close of the play after a painful struggle with himself. Apart from the protagonist's fate, Marlowe's drama differs from Goethe's in a number of respects. Faustus does not summon the devil out of moral or intellectual detachment, as Faust does, but out of a crass desire for power, and his subsequent adventures make little effort to investigate the numerous forms of human experience and paths to self-gratification that Goethe's poem examines. Both characters are torn by internal tensions, but Faustus is attempting to trust in God, whilst Faust is looking for a method to believe in self. Finally, Marlowe's play follows orthodox Christian theology and morality. Goethe uses orthodox Christianity only as a resource of imagery in Faust. He presents his storey within the framework of an abstraction pantheistic theological system and a flexible moral code that prioritises intentions and conditions above deeds.
Each successive artist has recreated the rich Faust story in terms of the emotional and intellectual atmosphere of his own period, and the storey has evolved into an archetypal myth of man's goals and the challenges he faces in his seeking to learn his role in the cosmos over the years. The Faust storey, like many myths, has much to teach the reader in all of its manifestations, since the storey has remained relevant in the present world. The evolution of the mythology and its extension into broader religious and ethical arenas is also a study of humanity's intellectual history.
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