Faust (foust) [key], Faustus fôˈstəs, fouˈ–, or Johann Faust yōˈhän, fl. 16th cent., learned German doctor who traveled widely, performed magical feats, and died under mysterious circumstances. According to legend he had sold his soul to the devil (personified by Mephistopheles in many literary versions) in exchange for youth, knowledge, and magical power.
Innumerable folk tales and invented stories were attached to his name. The first printed version is the Volksbuch (1587) of Johann Spiess, which, in English translation, was the basis of Christopher Marlowe's play Dr. Faustus (c.1588). Many versions followed, ranging from popular buffoonery to highly developed art forms. Spiess and Marlowe represent Faust as a scoundrel justly punished with eternal damnation, but Lessing instead saw in him the symbol of man's heroic striving for knowledge and power and therefore as worthy of praise and salvation.
Lessing's view of Faust as seeker was continued by Goethe in one of the greatest dramatic poems ever written. He enlarged upon the old legend, adding the element of love and the saving power of woman and giving the story a philosophical treatment. Goethe first came to grips with the theme in 1774 (in what is called the Urfaust ). The first part of Faust appeared in 1808; it is more suitable for the theater than the more profound and philosophic second part (1833).
The many subsequent Faust novels and dramas, among them those of Klinger, Chamisso, Grabbe, and Lenau, could not rival the power and fame of Goethe's work. A recent variant of the Faust legend is Thomas Mann's novel Doktor Faustus (1947, tr. 1948). Goethe's Faust inspired innumerable composers of operas, oratorios, stage music, and symphonic works, including Berlioz, Gounod, Schumann, Liszt, and Boito. Spohr's and Busoni's Faust operas are based on other literary models.
See H. G. Meek, Johann Faust (1930); P. M. Palmer and R. P. More, Sources of the Faust Tradition (1936).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.