“Before the Gate” opens outside the town of Burgdorf with several groups of people strolling about and speaking of various things. A group of Apprentices wanders in the countryside looking for a good meal and for girls, although some want to stay away from the town because they were once beaten up there. A group of Servant Girls talk about a man that they want to meet and dance with in town. A group of Students and some of the Burghers’ Daughters admire each other’s beauty and dream of being married while the Burghers discuss issues of politics, war, and peace while they celebrate their simple lives. A group of Soldiers stands guard around the town’s castle and dreams of going off to war.
Faust and Wagner come strolling up to the gate having an intense conversation. Faust admires the beauty of spring and how it drives out “Winter’s feeble self.” From a high place, he looks down upon the peasants of the town. All of them are outdoors celebrating the Easter day. “They celebrate / the resurrection of the Lord, / for they themselves have arisen / from their glum quarters and tight little houses, / from bondage to their trade and labor....” Faust admires the way the crowd moves through the spring day with such energy and enthusiasm. This, he says, is their “paradise.”
Wagner admires Faust’s ability to find such beauty in such profane affairs of the peasants. Their playfulness is “vulgar” to Wagner, and he finds the noise “hateful.” The peasants began to sing a suggestive song as they twirl around a Linden Tree. The song is about a boy and a girl, who are also twirling around a Linden Tree, and about how the boy makes advances to the girl, touching her and flirting with her. The song ends with a lesson about how “men deceive their women” but how women fall for the men anyway.
Seeing Faust, a peasant comes up to him and thanks him for being with them on this Easter day. The peasant gives him a pitcher of drink and toasts Faust, saying, “May the sum of drops contained therein / be added to your days.” The peasant then praises Faust. He tells everyone of how Faust and his father, a doctor, would come to give medicine and comfort to the peasants during “the fever’s burning rage.” The peasant notes that though many people died, Faust always came out of their houses “whole and well.” The peasant proclaims, “Our helper’s help came from the Lord in Heaven.”
Wagner is impressed that a group of peasants heaps such lavish praise on his friend. Wagner notes that the peasants treat Faust in the same way they might treat Jesus. Faust is not impressed by the display, however, and sinks into another black mood. He tells Wagner that the acclaim he receives “sounds like mockery.” He admits that neither he nor his father knew how to heal the many dying people and, in their quest to find an antidote to the sickness, concocted potions and poisons that left many more dead. One particular potion they concocted, made of “Red Lion” and “Lily,” did particular damage. Faust tells Wagner, “With our hellish potions / we raged about these plains and mountains / and were more deadly than the plague.”
Wagner tells his friend that he should not be so depressed over the situation. He tells Faust that a person can only know what they have learned and that they can learn from their mistakes, but Faust does not feel better. “What we don’t know is really what we need,” he says. He decides the day is too beautiful to be “marred by gloomy thoughts” and he begins to point out beautiful sights of the land. Faust dreams of what it would be like to have a bird’s vantage point, to sail high above all of nature. He thinks this image must be the spirit’s vantage point and pleasure.
Wagner tells Faust that Faust has a noble dream but that he has never had it himself. He derives all his pleasure only from unrolling “a precious parchment.” Wagner says that doing so makes “the very skies come down to us.” Faust chides him for being “conscious of only a single drive.” Faust declares that his drive is much more spiritual and that he would trade anything in the world for the ability to roam with the spirits between heaven and earth. Wagner warns Faust of invoking the names of the spirits because they “pretend to come to you from Heaven / and lisp like angels when they lie to you.”
Faust stops and looks startled. He sees a jet-black dog running through a field below him. Wagner waves the dog away and says it is just a poodle acting as a dog should, but Faust sees something else in the dog’s “ample spiral turns.” Faust sees the dog “softly weaving coils of magic / for future bondage round our feet.” Wagner thinks that Faust is just confused and that if he were to see the dog up close, he would recognize that it is a dog doing what dogs normally do. Faust realizes that Wagner is right and that it is just a well-trained dog. Wagner tells him that, “Yes indeed [the dog] quite deserves your favor / as a student and a fellow-scholar.”
The setting of this scene contrasts with the previous scene of “Night.” The reader sees the ordinary lives of the ordinary town of this small German village. Through the prattling of students, girls, businessmen, and soldiers, Goethe depicts the mundane life of the villagers, which contrasts with the dark and depressed world of Faust’s life of the mind. As in the Romantic Movement, the mundane and ordinary hold a special place within the framework of divinity, while the culture of elites and intellectuals is a path into existential turmoil.
Faust shows again his inner turmoil through his conversation with Wagner. He notes how happy the people seem. His speech as he and Wagner walk through the Easter springtime offers the possibility of release from his own existential prison. He tells his friend Wagner that he knows he should live within this context, but that he cannot live within this context because the “magic” of this life has been dispelled. The “magic” in this scene is Christianity. The yearly routine of the faith not only depicts scenes of birth, death, and resurrection, but it also provides the chance for the people to experience this cycle of life and resurrection. Because Faust does not share this faith, he knows that he also cannot share in this life.
Faust and Wagner’s conversation concerning his father’s work in medicine allows Goethe to make arguments for and counter-arguments against the benefit of science for society. Faust’s father was a doctor and attempted to provide medical care to those suffering from the plague, but even this bit of altruism disgusts Faust as he sees the limitations of his care. He feels that he and his father, working under the guise of science, quickened the pace of death for those suffering. Wagner attempts to counter this by claiming that all science or knowledge must be built upon the successes and failures of those that came before. Thus, Goethe produces one of the central tensions in European Enlightenment thought, that between the ability of objective reason to bring about progress and the need for the individual to return to a natural and spiritual state of emotion.
Faust’s speech towards the end of the scene displays the paradox of his own situation. Faust, seeing the setting sun, has visions of flying high over the world, looking down upon the seas and the land. Faust is endlessly frustrated by the pointlessness of his own work and his inability to find a place in this world. Faust, in a sense, has created his own prison.
Scholars note that this scene is a depiction of several myths of the soul dating back to ancient Greek philosophy that found their way into the philosophy of Goethe’s time. The Doctrine of Two Souls is especially apparent in Faust’s monologue. This doctrine states that the soul has two competing interests, or drives. One drive is the rational, characterized by Faust’s scholarly and scientific work. The other drive is that of the imagination, or the spiritual drive, as depicted by Faust’s dream of flying over the world. Wagner, Faust notes, has only the rational drive and no desire or thoughts of the imaginative or spiritual. However, both of these drives, if out of balance with each other, do not bring about the kind of contentment that Faust hopes to achieve. As the reader will see later, a life of play becomes as much a prison for Faust as a life of reason and work.