Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust is one of the greatest works of German literature in the modern age and one of the greatest epic poems in Western literature. Faust consumed much of Goethe's thought and work throughout his entire life. He outlined the first sketches of the Faust story as a young student of law and did not complete the play's final act until a year before his death, approximately sixty years after he first began.
Goethe's play comes from popular legends that circulated throughout Europe from the sixteenth century onward. Scholars believe that a man named Faust -- probably a doctor or spiritualist -- did actually exist in sixteenth century Germany. He even receives a mention from Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, as a "conjurer and necromancer" who dabbled in the devil's work. The real Faust probably dabbled in alchemy and made a living as a traveling magician, providing spectacle to audiences of medieval Europe.
Faust's legend grew much more popular than the real man ever was while alive. Some of the earliest works to benefit from Gutenberg's movable type were Faust chapbooks, or cheap pamphlets accessible to the common classes, that began to appear in the late sixteenth century. This Faust inevitably sold his soul to the Devil for the gifts of magic and wealth. His life, however, was doomed from the start, and he always ended as the victim of the Devil's game. His life became both a source of entertainment and a cautionary tale for those that would stray from the bounds of religion and morality.
Goethe's Faust, however, tells a much grander and more philosophical tale. Goethe wrote the play in order to explore the themes of philosophy, religion, politics, culture, and literature, as well as what these meant in the context of an enlightened age. In this story, Faust is not a magician but is, instead, an academic who has reached the limits of learning and knowledge. He seeks a fuller life and to know about nature and the universe. Through a wager with the Devil, he hopes to take advantage of a life beyond his study and see the answers that the universe might provide to him.
Goethe's style in the play is as prolific as the themes he engages. Goethe moves freely from uniform verse to irregular patterns of poetry to songs and hymns to free verse to Shakespearean blank verse and even to the simplest rhymes and meters. The play moves from scenes of intense sorrow to scenes of comic hilarity. Goethe's play tests the limits of modern forms of literature and the way that these forms might describe the human condition.
Faust is, in the end, a tragedy. This tragic context is seen most clearly through the love story between Faust and Gretchen. Faust plays a complicated role in the relationship. On the one hand, he is the tempter who lures the pure virgin from the religion and morality of her simple lifestyle. On the other hand, Faust sees for the first time that his subjective self is nothing in the face of an eternal love. However, even this realization cannot save him from his pact with the Devil. Faust, representing the modern human being, always drives himself to damnation, held back from the moment of true enlightenment.
Goethe's Faust has, along with Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, become the standard telling of the Faust legend in modern literature. In the centuries after Goethe's death, scholars and writers have remained fascinated with Goethe's retelling of the legend and the themes that he presents through the work. Novels, plays, and even pieces of popular culture have paid homage to Goethe's work, and the Faust legend continues to be one of the most well recognized stories of the modern era.