After a prelude set in the theater, where a production of Faust is to be staged, as well as a prologue in heaven, where the devil Mephistopheles declares to the Lord his intention of tempting the great scholar Heinrich Faust to damnation, the play opens on a narrow, high-vaulted study, where Faust is sitting restlessly. He has studied and mastered all fields of human knowledge, from law to theology, but is nonetheless dissatisfied. And so, in his restlessness, he turns to magic, through the arts of which he hopes to understand the very inmost forces of the universe. He summons the Earth Spirit, the force that organizes and sustains nature, but the Spirit resents Faust’s arrogance and vanishes. Faust’s assistant in scholarship, Wagner, then enters the study, and he debates with his master on the values of book learning. However, Faust breaks off the discussion and dismisses his assistant; he is sick to heart with verbiage, the monotony of intellectual pursuits, and he despairs of ever overcoming his limitations. Consequently, he resolves to kill himself by drinking poison from a vial—but the sounds of church bells and heavenly music restore his will to live.
Some time soon after, Faust and Wagner are taking a walk outside the city gates. It is a beautiful spring evening, and Faust praises the beauties and harmonies of the natural world. As night falls, however, the two scholars see a black poodle circling them, in whose wake Faust perceives swirling fire. The ominous dog follows Faust back to his study, where it begins to growl and grow to a monstrous size. In response, Faust intones a magical spell, which forces the poodle to reveal itself for what it really is: the devil Mephistopheles in disguise. In time, the despairing, pessimistic and restless scholar makes a deal with this subtle devil, going so far as to sign the contract devised between the two with blood: in exchange for a lifetime of the devil’s servitude, Faust, if he is ever absolutely satisfied with earthly life and slips into idleness, must yield up his immortal soul to damnation. The deal struck, the two mount Mephistopheles’s cloak, which they can ride through the air to wherever they please.
Faust and Mephistopheles’ first stop is Leipzig, where the two provide abundant free wine to patrons in Auerbach’s wine-cellar only for the wine to turn to terrifying fire. Their next stop is the witch’s gloomy kitchen, where Faust sees in a mirror the fantastic image of a beautiful woman that arouses all his passion; he also drinks a potion that makes him thirty years younger. Now he’ll see a Helen of Troy in every skirt, the devil chortles.
Soon after, Faust sees the beautiful, innocent Margarete (also known by the nickname Gretchen) for the first time, who passes him on a street having just received confession. It is love at first sight, at least for Faust; he demands that Mephistopheles aid him in wooing and winning this young woman. The devil agrees, secretly lavishing treasures upon her and arranging for her and Faust to meet at her neighbor Martha’s house, where Faust declares his love for her, which she returns. In order to physically consummate their union, Faust asks his lover to pour three drops of potion into her protective mother’s drink, which will put her mother into a deep sleep. Trusting her lover, Margarete does this, and the two make love in the night, then Faust departs. Margarete becomes pregnant as a consequence. Time passes swiftly and painfully; Margarete’s mother dies as a result of the sleeping potion her daughter slipped her, and poor Margarete herself becomes ostracized in her community for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. One night her brother, the soldier Valentine, comes to her door, outraged by his sister’s dishonorable conduct and eager to shed the blood of the man who seduced her. Right on cue, Faust and Mephistopheles enter and approach Margarete’s door, the devil singing a bawdy song, all of which suggests to Valentine that these two are responsible for his sister’s fall from grace. He threatens the two, Faust duels him at sword point with the devil’s magical aid, and the doctor ends up murdering the soldier. Faust and the devil flee. Soon thereafter, Margarete stands in a cathedral seeking forgiveness, but she is so hounded by the burden of her guilt that she faints.
Having fled the scene of their crime, Faust and Mephistopheles reappear some months later on Walpurgis Night, a celebration held on the summit of Brocken in the devil’s honor, attended by witches, warlocks, and all manner of evil spirits. The two watch an amateurish, phantasmagoric play staged in the mountains, after which the devil reveals to Faust that Margarete is miserable and despairing in prison—for killing her newborn child. Faust curses the devil for concealing this news, and vows then and there to free his beloved. The two hurry away on a black horse through the night, arriving at the prison a little before dawn. Faust steals a jailer’s keys and unlocks Margarete’s cell, but in a state of delirious grief she refuses to leave with him, preferring to wait for her execution, scheduled for the coming morning. After Mephistopheles threatens to abandon him, Faust leaves his beloved to her fate, though a voice from the heavens cries out that the young woman is, in fact saved. Thus ends Part I of Goethe’s Faust.
Part II opens several years later. While Part I focuses on Faust’s quest for human love, Part II focuses on his quest for earthly power and control over natural forces. To this end, Faust and Mephistopheles insinuate themselves into the Emperor’s court, which is currently addressing the social, military and economic issues distressing the imperial realm. The devil, plying the young Emperor with flattery, suggests a short-term solution to the problem, namely digging up treasures buried long ago by people fleeing from the barbarian invasion of Rome. Reluctantly, the court comes to agree that this is a prudent course of action. To celebrate the resolution, a lavish Masquerade is held, during which Faust, disguised as Plutus, creates a fiery illusion that both terrifies and entertains the Emperor. During the Masquerade, the Emperor also signs a note of paper money, which Faust and Mephistopheles suggest be printed in order to alleviate the economic hardship of the imperial realm. The Emperor does not remember signing the note, but with this influx of credit the empire enjoys a false sense of prosperity. The Emperor grants Faust and Mephistopheles a fiefdom in thanks, and appoints them to collaborate in directing the Imperial treasury.
The Emperor also requests that the magicians provide the court with entertainment, specifically by summoning the famously beautiful Helen of Troy, over whom the Trojan War was fought, and her lover Paris. To this end, Faust enters a realm of nothingness where ghosts of past existence dwell. Here the magician encounters the mystical Mothers and uses a magical key Mephistopheles gave him to summon the shades of Helen and Paris. Back in the imperial palace, these two lovers appear on Faust’s command, but are received by the courtiers in attendance lukewarmly at best. Faust himself, however, passionate as he is, falls in love with Helen. When Paris abducts her, as he is wont to do, the magician in a rage touches his phantom figure with Mephistopheles’s key, and both Helen and Paris consequently vanish. Darkness and noisy confusion ensue in the hall.
Despondent, Faust returns to his study with Mephistopheles, where little has changed. Wagner, for his part, is now regarded as the most brilliant scholar living, and his fame eclipses that of even his dear mentor Faust. Wagner has been concocting in his laboratory, by unnatural scientific means, the Homunculus, a little flame-like man who lives in a glass vial. Though Wagner could not bring the thing to life on his own, the devil’s arrival on the scene seems to catalyze the birth of this creature, for its vial vibrates when Mephistopheles enters and Homunculus speaks for the first time. Homunculus suggests that he and the devil take Faust to Greece, to raise his spirits by partaking of the pleasures of Classical Walpurgis Night. The three fly off on Mephistopheles’s cloak, leaving Wagner to his studies.
During Classical Walpurgis Night, all the figures from Greek mythology are roaming: griffins, sphinxes, and harpies, nymphs and satyrs. Faust, Mephistopheles, and Homunculus split up to go on little quests of their own. Faust goes to the healer Manto’s temple, which doubles as a portal to Hades, the Grecian Underworld, where Faust hopes to rescue the shade of Helen. Mephistopheles seeks erotic adventure with Thessalian witches, and ends up disguising himself as the monstrous hermaphrodite Phorkyas. Finally, Homunculus quests to achieve a proper existence, which he discovers on the Aegean Sea, the origin of all natural life. The shape-shifter Proteus transforms into a dolphin, on whose back Homunculus rides to the open waters. There the little creature glows, fiery with love. He breaks his vial, and his fiery being embraces the waves—the unnatural product of science reconciled to the natural world.
Meanwhile, Faust is granted his request that Helen be released from her ghostly afterlife to live again in a timeless moment. She is presently in the halls of her husband Menelaus after the Trojan War has ended, but Phorkyas-Mephistopheles warns her that her husband intends to murder her. The devil offers to instantly transport her and her companions to the fortress of a powerful and magnanimous lord, none other than Faust, of course, and Helen accepts this offer. As the devil promised, she and her companions are instantly transported to the inner courtyard of Faust’s fortress. Helen is warmly received by its master, and the Grecian woman of ideal beauty and the Germanic man of earthly power fall in love; she grants him her hand, and the two are overwhelmed by joy. Menelaus’s armies march on Faust’s fortress, but are swiftly and resoundingly pushed back. Soon after, Faust and Helen give birth to a brilliant genius of a child, Euphorion, who is nothing less than Poetry incarnate. However, Euphorion inherits his father’s fatal restlessness, and perishes after scaling the sky and falling. As quickly as Faust and Helen were wed, they are parted: after Euphorion’s death Helen leaves for the Underworld, there to live always with her fallen child. Faust rides away in a cloud made of Helen’s garments, in grief.
On a mountaintop, Faust tells Mephistopheles that he has one final grand project: he desires to create new lands by driving the sea back on itself. The only problem is that he requires a coastal fiefdom—a seaside country of his own to rule—to do so. Just then are heard the sounds of drums and warlike music: the devil explains that the Emperor is at war, because the false sense of prosperity created by the paper money circulating in the Empire led the emperor to attempt to govern his people while also enjoying a life of excessive pleasure; this in turn has led to anarchy and rebellion. The devil suggests that Faust help restore peace, with the hope that he will be rewarded a coastal fiefdom for his efforts. Faust agrees, and the Emperor, with some reluctance, accepts the aid of the devil and magician in putting down the Anti-Emperor. By summoning three great warriors, the Three Mighty Men, and by deploying black magic, Faust and Mephistopheles preserve the Emperor’s rule and earn their desired reward: a fiefdom by the sea.
Many, many years pass. Faust, now one hundred years old, has spent half a lifetime in his project of creating new lands, and has almost achieved his goal. He has ruled his fiefdom wisely and justly. However, one little property remains beyond his reach, a cottage and nearby linden grove belonging to an old married couple, Baucis and Philemon. Faust obsessively desires their property, and at last gives into the temptation to unjustly seize what is not his: he orders the devil and the Three Mighty Men to peaceably displace the old couple and seize their property. They follow the order, but much more violently than Faust would have it, with explosions, fire, and death. Despairing and exhausted, Faust retires to an inner chamber of his palace, where Care, personified as a gray woman, assails him with the burden of his guilt. Even after she blinds him, however Faust denies her power, and resolves to bring his plans to completion. He orders his workmen to rise and resume their labor of building a canal in order to drain a contaminating marsh.
Meanwhile, Mephistopheles summons the dead to rise and begin digging Faust’s grave, for the great man’s death is near. Faust has a final vision of people living and working happily in green fields, autonomous, a vision of highest happiness that blesses Faust with his highest moment on earth. He falls back, deceased, and the dead bury him while Mephistopheles summons the hordes of hell in anticipation of arresting Faust’s soul and dragging it down to damnation.
However, when Faust’s soul begins to rise from the earth, angels intervene, raining down roses on the devils, driving them back into hell despite Mephistopheles’s protests. The roses have a rather strange effect on Mephistopheles: he has a sudden urge to make love to the angels. In his lust-blindness, the devil loses Faust’s soul, for as Faust’s restlessness led him into temptation, so too did it deliver him from evil. The angels escort Faust’s soul into heaven, where the penitent soul of Margarete pleads with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, to forgive Faust for his sins. Mary instructs Margarete’s soul to fly upward, for Faust’s will follow hers to eternal salvation. A mystical chorus concludes the drama. They sing that all that is transitory is only a symbol; what is impossible on earth is done in heaven; what can’t be described below in heaven exists as a fact. They conclude that Eternal Woman shows us how to rise to heaven. Thus ends Goethe’s Faust.