This volume of the Harvard Classics was dedicated to Napoleonic-era German poet, dramatist, novelist, scientist, and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In addition to three works by Goethe, Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan drama “Dr. Faustus” is included as both reference and an important work of English drama.
Beginning with Marlowe, “Dr. Faustus” is the greatest play of its era not written by Shakespeare. “Dr. Faustus” tells the story of a German scholar who, seeking arcane knowledge, makes a pact with the devil for the services of Mephistopheles. The deal is Mephistopheles will serve Faustus throughout the remainder of his life, at which point Faustus’ soul will belong to the devil. The action of the play consists of Faustus’ search for knowledge, his pact with the devil, and his subsequent fall. In between are humorous scenes, possibly added after the fact, with the Pope and the Emperor. Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” is a great piece of drama, but Goethe surpasses it entirely.
Goethe’s take on the Faust legend is a bit different. In this one, Faust strikes a better bargain with the devil. In this case, the Faust’s soul is contingent on Mephistopheles being able to satisfy Faust’s quest for knowledge. The Harvard Classics only includes Part 1 of Faust, which is powerful enough on its own. While the devil brings Faust to a series of pleasurable encounters, the second half of the story is dominated by Faust and his lust for the maiden Gretchen. The main object of Goethe’s Faust is the depiction of the modern soul. Faust strives for knowledge and the sublime, but can never be satisfied in his quest for either of them. Spengler uses this characterization to describe modern society as a whole. This focus on the emerging modern man in the wake of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Romantic era makes the verse relevant to today. The issues Goethe grapples with in Faust are issues we still have with us today.
In addition to Faust, another Goethe play, Egmont, was included in this collection. Count Egmont was a noble in the Spanish Netherlands whose execution was a flashpoint that started the Eighty Years War, which resulted in Dutch independence. The play outlines the last days of Egmont’s life, and the tumults going on in the Netherlands. Ultimately, this play casts Egmont as an early progenitor of Goethe’s ideal of national self-determination and liberty. The most famous part of Egmont however, is not the play itself. The score for the play was written by Beethoven, and the overture does a better job describing the play than my measly paragraph ever could.
The final work of Goethe in this volume was Hermann and Dorothea. A simple love story, beautifully written in verse, and set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars make it an engaging work of literature.
Next up on the docket is Dante’s Divine Comedy, followed by Il Promessi Sposi, The Odyssey, and Two Years Before the Mast to round up a long stretch of narrative-driven works.