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The Alchemical Drama
of Goethe's Faust

Adam McLean ©

Goethe's Faust is rarely performed in the English theatre. The work is too arcane and often disturbs and confuses its audiences, also the stage effects, particularly the transformation scenes in Part II, are so difficult to stage convincingly, that it is no surprise that directors and theatrical managers steer clear of this classic work. However, the recent production of the two parts of Goethe's Faust at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith tackled the work energetically and did not shy away from stressing its alchemical facets.

The alchemy in Goethe's Faust is central to its dramatic conception, and is not merely added for effect. For Goethe's working of the Faust story differs from other dramas based on the archetypal legend of a conjuror who sells his soul to the devil, sealing his pact with a drop of blood, ultimately to suffer the fires of Hell, in that Goethe reveals through his drama various transformational processes working in the human soul, personified in Faust. Goethe struggles to weave the personal inner journey of Faust towards some enlightenment, together with the collective social forces that are undergoing transformation through the historical process, so here Faust is also a representative of Northern European humanity striving for evolution from the limitations and strictures of the 16th century Reformation to the new aspirations of humanity that Goethe saw developing during the 18th century Enlightenment era.

The work is too complex and multi-faceted for me to do more here than point to some alchemical themes in the play. In my Commentary to Goethe's Fairy Tale , I showed something of how Goethe, who had early in his life extensively studied alchemical literature, was able to fashion an elaborate alchemical allegory. The Fairy Tale (Marchen ) is an allegory of inner transmutation of the soul, in which various polarities emerge and are brought together again. In the Fairy Tale the two lands separated by a river are brought together through the alchemical transmutation taking place in an underground temple. In his Faust Goethe again presents the separation of polarities that are brought together in a new transformation. Part One of Faust follows the structure of the Faust myth quite closely, though in the details of the action Goethe introduces broader themes that are developed further in the second part of the play.

Part One opens with Mephistopheles entering into a bargain with God for the soul of Faust. Faust has struggled long for enlightenment, has studied deep, and thirsts after knowledge and understanding. God indicates that Faust serves His plan uncomprehendingly and that he will eventually be led towards the light, but He grants Mephistopheles the freedom to lead Faust astray. Thus Goethe subtly alters the Faust story at its outset by paralleling it with the testing of Job.

In the first part of the play, Faust is tricked into the pact with Mephisto and casting off his scholars gown leaves his study and his mean scholar's cell behind, to immerse himself in the action of life. His lofty pursuit of knowledge and study of Philosophy, Law, Medicine, Theology and the Sciences had repressed his experience of human feelings, and when Mephistopheles allows free rein to his emotions then it is not altogether surprising that these emerge in an adolescent and unintegrated form. With Mephisto's guile and cunning, Faust pursues the young virgin Gretchen and ultimately corrupts her and destroys her life. As is presented in his Fairy Tale , for Goethe the initial problem of humanity lay in its inability to relate to the feminine component of its nature. For Goethe, the proper development of the human soul lay in its forming a proper relationship between its feminine and masculine facets. Thus Part One of Faust sets before us the central problem of Faust's soul, his difficulties in relating to the feminine side of his being.

Part Two of the work is a truly alchemical drama whose five acts weave together a complex net of themes. Goethe wrote Faust over a period of nearly sixty years, and the struggle he had with this material shows in the seeming incoherence of the second part of the drama. If one reads the play as an hermetic allegory, the inconsistencies of the drama dissolve away as one senses the structure that underpins the various disparate scenes.

Part Two begins with Faust recovering through the power of Nature from the emotional buffeting he has undergone in the disastrous episode with Gretchen. With his constant companion Mephistopheles, Faust attends the Emperor's court. The empire is in financial ruin through the extravagance of the court, but Mephisto and Faust offer a solution to these problems. Till now the currency of the empire has been Gold, but there is not enough to support the extravagant spending. Mephisto suggests an easy answer - since there is undoubtedly much gold as yet undiscovered beneath the land, which belongs to the Emperor, then surely a promissory note can be made for the value of such gold. He showers the Court with the new paper money. The foundation of the empire has been moved through Mephisto's cunning from the solidity of metallic gold to insubstantial promises on paper. Faust acting the role of magus is asked by the Emperor to conjure up the spirit of Helen of Troy. Goethe is here drawing upon the story about Johannes Trithemius conjuring spirits before Emperor Maximilian. (This scene was also included by Marlowe in his Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1593). Interestingly, Trithemius seems to have met, and had scant regard for, the historical personality Georgius Sabellicus, a conjuror adventurer who acquired the name and reputation of Faust in the early 16th century.)

Again Faust seeks to make some contact with the feminine, this time in the idealised form of the beautiful heroine of Greek legend. To achieve this he must enter the realm of the Mothers, deep within the earth and outside of space and time. The spirits of Paris and Helen are summoned, and the court witnesses their encounter as a kind of tableaux. Faust, besmitten with the beauty of Helen becomes jealous of Paris embracing her, and forgetting himself leaps into the magic circle with the spirits and tries to seize Paris. Faust falls unconscious.

The second act takes place in Faust's old laboratory, where his pupil, Wagner, following up his master's studies, has just completed the alchemical work and produced an homunculus, a little man living in the flask. Wagner has produced this homunculus outside of the normal natural means of conception. This little man in the flask lies outside of the domain of Nature, a soul and spirit without a proper material body. Homunculus takes Mephisto and the still unconscious Faust to the classical world of Ancient Greece, where he seeks to become a full human being outside of his retort. Homunculus is a being of fire, his flask glows with a strange light, and through a discussion with two ancient Philosophers he decides he must seek union with the water element in order to attain to a full birth, and become a real being outside the enclosed world of his flask. He meets Proteus, the shape-shifting God of metamorphosis who constantly transforms himself from one form to another, and they approach the ocean. With the encouragement of Proteus, Homunculus enters the waves in his flask and seeks to unite with Galatea, the sea-nymph, or Goddess of the Ocean. The light of his retort illumines the waves and beneath the feet of Galatea his flask breaks and his fiery essence enters the water. The four elements are brought into a new harmony through this kind of mystic sexual union. This voluntary submission of Homunculus to the Ocean, here pictured as the feminine element, is contrasted later in the play with Faust's own attempt in Act four to contain and bind up the Ocean's elemental forces, a kind of act of rape committed against the natural order that directly leads to his downfall.

Through the figure of Homunculus, central to the play, Goethe illustrates that the path of humanity seeking a rebirth of enlighten- ment in their being, lies within themselves - the recognition and acceptance of the feminine component of the soul. It is Faust's avoidance of his feminine side that leads him into all his difficulties, for he chooses always to be guided by Mephistopheles. If we think of Mephisto as a part of Faust's soul, an alter-ego, it is significant that this trickster figure has a very masculine, even chauvinistic, perspective. Faust always projects the feminine outside himself.

The next part of the action has Faust pursuing Helen into the underworld on the back of the centaur Chiron, and with the help of Manto the Prophetess.

Mephisto, assuming a disguise as Phorkys, deceives and persuades Helen to go to live with Faust at his castle in the North. Helen here represents classical beauty but also the unrepressed sensuality of the Greek world - a world which Mephisto finds uncomfortable as it lacks a decent sense of sin, and without such dualism he has nothing to work his deceptions upon. Faust lives with Helen and they bear a boy-child, Euphorion. Euphorion is impetuous, he seeks like Faust to rise above the earthly world, to soar into the heights and take heaven by storm. Faust now lives in harmonious happy union with Helen, there is no sense now of his former tortured struggles within himself. This has been projected upon Euphorion. After trying to force himself upon a woman, Euphorion dies like Icarus, trying to fly high in the sky. The union of Faust and Helen is broken, and Helen returns to Persephone's underworld realm with the soul of their child.

The next act takes us back to the Emperor who is now at war. Faust, with the ever helpful Mephistopheles, assists the Emperor and enables him to triumph over his enemy, in return for the rights of the coastline of his realm. Faust's great plan now is to extend the land out to sea, by damming up the ocean.

The last act finds Faust having accomplished most of his grand design of pushing back the primal energies of the Ocean, and establishing his own land, attempting to redesign the natural environment. He is frustrated by an old couple, Baucis and Philemon, who hold a cottage and chapel on strategic high ground which Faust wants to mould to his design. Goethe weaves into his play, the classical myth of Baucis and Philemon. (These were an old couple in Phrygia who provided shelter for Zeus and Hermes while they were wandering incognito through that land. Everyone else had refused the travellers hospitality, so they sent a great flood upon the land. Only Baucis and Philemon were saved and rewarded by having their cottage changed into a temple where they held priestly office). In the last act of Goethe's play, Faust wishes them to move from their sacred spot and Mephisto sends his henchmen to evict them, however, the old couple die in the struggle and the house is burned to the ground. Through this tragedy Faust loses his sight.

In his final hours he tries to press on with his great scheme to drain the marshes and establish a great paradise on Earth won from the ocean bed, where he believes humanity through struggling against the forces of nature will become free. Ironically, Mephistopheles leads the blind Faust to believe his workmen are completing his life's work, when they are actually digging his grave. Faust dies believing that his plan was nearing fruition.

Goethe brings the play to a close with a scene which is difficult to grasp. Mephistopheles comes forward at the burial to seek the soul of Faust to which he has every claim. However, Angels come down from on high, and while some of them distract Mephisto by flirting with him, others raise the soul of Faust heavenwards. The spirit of Faust is led by the Angels through a chorus of anchorites and blessed souls into the presence of Mary, Mater Gloriosa. The spirit of Gretchen now appears and intercedes for him and the Divine Mother says his spirit can pass on to the highest sphere. The final words of the play echo the importance of the feminine to this process of redemption.

All that shall pass away is but reflection.
All insufficiency here finds perfection.
All that's mysterious here finds the day.
Woman in all of us show us our way.

The closing scene in Goethe's Faust had always been, to me, unsatisfactory, leaving many energies of the drama unresolved. Seeing the production did not entirely remove my doubts, though it seemed to work well enough dramatically, providing a resolution or release after the climax of Faust being raised to Heaven. Later, after meditating on the experience, I came to see more clearly what Goethe intended.

Faust was written over many years and one can see that Goethe was trying to rework the dualistic Reformation myth of Doctor Faustus selling his soul to the devil, into a new alchemical conception of the transformation of Faust through his harsh experiences of the polarities within his being. On an initial viewing or reading of the play, the closing scene does not present us with a Faust who has effected the inner transformation of his being that he should be allowed to escape the pact with Mephistopheles - instead Mephisto is deceived by the Angels by a trick worthy of himself. Gretchen appears as the penitent soul interceding with the Mother of God and offering to act as a guide to Faust's soul in the spiritual realm. But this is initially disconcerting, for our perception of the true alchemical path must surely be that we attempt to achieve this inner meeting with the feminine facet of our soul within our incarnation, and not postpone such inner development to a life after death in the spirit world.

Faust's ascension into the spirit comes quite unexpectedly in the drama. It resolves various polarities - the Father God at the beginning of the play puts Faust into his difficulties, whereas the Mother Goddess releases him from his bonds and allows him enter the spirit world. It is easy to view this resolution as rather stylised and imposed on the flow of the drama. Goethe, of course, was a deeper soul, and would not have stooped to tacking on a happy ending in Hollywood style.

It seems to me that if we focus on Faust as the main character in the allegory then we will not find the transmutation or interior development that satisfactorily resolves the allegorical drama. If we follow the interpretation I advanced of Goethe's Fairy Tale , where I showed how all the individual characters underwent some transformation, and further that in a sense all these individual characters could be seen as part of our own soul, then perhaps Goethe's Faust will begin to cohere.

We have to come to see Faust and Mephistopheles as two parts of the human soul. Mephisto is not the archetypal devil, but a part of Faust which has been repressed by his immersion in a Philosophy and Theology which stressed the Patriarchal God. The Mephisto aspect bargains with this Patriarchal figure at the outset of the play for an opportunity to reveal himself and influence Faust's life. Faust's early attempts at conjuring in the first scenes of Part One are failures because he attempts to dominate and impose his will on the elemental spirits from his book learning, but when Faust meets his repressed facet Mephisto then he abandons his earlier work. If Faust had remained true to his alchemical philosophic work (as was undertaken and continued by his pupil Wagner) then he would have fashioned the Homunculus, a being of soul and spirit but without embodiment. Homunculus must also be seen as an aspect of Faust a facet which is able to make a submissive relationship with the feminine. Gretchen again can be perceived as an aspect of Faust, which emerges after his meeting with the Mephistopheles facet. The Faust figure at this stage is still unable to recognise the feminine in himself so he uses the Gretchen figure selfishly and ultimately she is executed for his actions.

The killing of the Gretchen aspect at the close of Part One is a powerful event in the play. In the Second Part, Faust instead of looking deeper within his being for the feminine, turns to the idealised and mythical feminine figure of Helen.

Mephisto also undergoes some transformation, for under the prompting of Homunculus all three go off to classical times in pursuit of Helen. Interestingly, in all the scenes where Homunculus appears Faust is unconscious or absent from the scene. We must therefore see in the character of Faust, a failed alchemist, as one who has neglected to work upon himself in the interior retort to pursue the hermaphrodite in the soul. However, in Goethe's drama, the alchemical transformation continues in the wider context of the human soul of which Faust, Gretchen, Mephistopheles, Helen and Homunculus are but parts.

During the visit to the Classic Greek Walpurgis Night of the Witches, Mephisto shows his ‘human' weaknesses in this unfamiliar territory where the Northern European Protestant sense of sin does not work so strongly. He discovers that he is powerless against those who do not have a sense of sin founded upon dualism. Mephisto is changed inwardly by his experiences and later in the closing scene, his flirting with the angels loses him the soul of Faust. The dynamic relationship of the Faust and Mephisto facets which has energised the play from the beginning, is then severed by Mephisto's dalliance with the angels. The Mephisto character at the beginning of the play would have been too cynical ever to fall for this trick, indeed through the action of the play, by the end of Part Two Mephisto seems to have absorbed something of the Faust character's weaknesses.

The main characters in the play are thus polarised facets of the one human soul, whose journey to enlightenment is demonstrated in the drama.

Homunculus - Faust - Mephistopheles


We can see Faust as the core of a complex being living within a net of polarities. Helen the ideal archetypal feminine, and Gretchen the earthly female from which he cuts himself off. Homunculus a potential inner hermaphroditic soul guide, whom he could have developed in his being had he stuck to his alchemical work, however, he turns to the Mephisto facet for guidance. At the end of the play he has been stripped of all these polarities and lies open and vulnerable in death.

If we see Faust in this way, then the difficulties posed by the final scene dissolve and the alchemical allegory reveals itself clearly. Goethe wanted us to read the entire drama and not to identify with the Faust character, but with the wider web of characters which are parts of the whole figure he wished to put before us . Goethe always tried purposively to mystify his audiences and readers, as he wanted to lead them beyond intellectual appraisal of his ideas. To grasp the allegorical riddles in Faust requires no mere intellectual analysis of the drama and characters but an encounter with the Mephisto, Gretchen, Helen, Homunculus as well as the Faust within ourselves.