For Faust, as for Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the world is a prison, confining him, shackling his imagination, and limiting his power. His study is a prison made out of books, dead authorities and empty words. His body is a prison that he attempts to escape by means of suicide, only to be interrupted. His deal with Mephistopheles could see him condemned to that most miserable and inescapable prison of all, hell itself. However, Faust is a uniquely restless and resourceful prisoner, always seeking means of escaping from himself, of becoming more than he is. Magic, nature, love, and earthly power in the service of human society are all keys that he uses to escape his unnecessary limitations and achieve freedom and enjoyment.
To emphasize and refine the idea of imprisonment and liberation, Goethe includes in Faust several literal prisons and keys. Margarete, for example, is imprisoned for murdering the child she and Faust conceive together, and Faust steals a jailer’s keys in order to liberate her and save her from her impending execution. Margarete understands, however, as Faust does not, that her prison is not physical, but is more truly the haunting guilt she experiences after the deaths of her mother, brother, and child. This is a prison that is inescapable other than through profound penitence. Homunculus is trapped in a prison as well, the vial in which he unnaturally crystallized in Wagner’s laboratory. His key, metaphorically speaking, is exposure to the Classical Aegean Sea, which the play holds up as the natural origin of life, where he experiences a passion so strong that his vial shatters. Finally, there is the key that Mephistopheles gives to Faust so that he can descend to the realm of the mystical Mothers, a Nothingness where Faust hopes to find his All. He uses the key to liberate back into life the shades of Helen of Troy and her lover Paris, and so the key also becomes a phallic symbol, that which unlocks from the feminine Nothingness new life. Try as he might, however, and despite being armed with so many keys, it is only after his death and ascension into heaven that Faust’s soul truly achieves freedom.