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Contexts -- Faust

Although the most interesting parts of the Faust story are wholly legendary, there was in fact a historical Johann Faust around whom the legends formed. Faust was born in Knittlingen, Württemberg, around the year 1480, was educated at the University of Cracow in Poland, and died around 1540 in Staufen im Breisgau. Little more is known with any certainty, for fact and myth soon become entangled. He is said to have studied alchemy and magic, and rumors were told of his disdain for the clergy and his extreme conceit; he was held to have boasted that he could himself repeat all the miracles supposedly done by Jesus. According to one account, when Faust was lecturing on Homer at the University of Erfurt, he summoned the spirits of the Homeric heroes and presented them to his students in the flesh.

Soon the central element of the Faust story emerged: his pact with the devil. A Franciscan monk known as Konrad Klinge testified to Faust's own admission that he had sold his soul to the devil, and the theologian Melanchthon insisted Faust had been seen talking to the devil in the form of a dog. A German chapbook ("the Faust book") on the story appeared in 1587 and was translated into English in the same year: the German title page read "Historia of Dr. Johann Faust, the widely acclaimed magician and black artist, how he pledged himself to the devil for a certain time, what strange adventures he saw meanwhile, brought about and pursued, until he finally received his well deserved wages. Compiled and prepared . . . as a horrible example and sincere warning for all conceited, clever, and godless people." This popular chapbook -- in addition to several legitimate and pirated editions, there was a rhyming version and a Danish translation within a year -- was soon followed by Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (written c. 1588; published posthumously in two versions in 1604 and 1616), the first dramatic adaptation of the legend. Marlowe's Faustus, as in the earlier versions of the story, dies and is bound for damnation.

The most famous version of the story, however, is contemporary with Mary Shelley: Goethe's Faust, the work for which he is now best known. At what point he read Marlowe's play is uncertain (his first recorded reading was in 1818), but he could have known the story from its popular representations in German folk drama and puppet shows -- which can themselves be traced back to a company of English actors performing Marlowe's play in Germany in 1593. Goethe began the first part after completing The Sorrows of Werther in the middle 1770s, under the influence of German enthusiasm for the works of Shakespeare. In the 1780s he resumed work on Faust, this time under the spell of classicism. The full text of Faust, Part I, appeared in 1808.

Goethe had begun work on Part II as early as 1800, but it was published only between 1827 and 1832 (after his death).

Although Goethe's Faust, Part I, was in print in 1808, it had not yet appeared in English translation. Percy Bysshe Shelley was introduced to its text during the summer of 1816, when M. G. ("Monk") Lewis (1775-1818), the gothic novelist and dramatist, arrived from Germany on 14 August to pay a visit to Byron, during which visit he translated large sections of the play. Mary Shelley was not present for this literary discourse, but would have already have been acquainted with Faust through Germaine De Staël's account of it in De l'Allemagne (Of Germany), published in London in 1813. It is thought that more of the work's essence would have filtered to her through her conversations with P. B. Shelley after his meeting with Lewis. During 1822, the last year of his life, Shelley made considerable headway on his own translation of Faust, Part I.