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The One Troubling Thing 
Abel Sharpe 

God help me! Art is long,

And life is short. – Wagner in Faust I, 558


Just one thing troubles me, however:

Time is short, and art is long. – Mephistopheles in Faust I, 1787


Although there are few and far similarities between the devil and a mere attendant, Mephistopheles and Wagner both note the brevity of life, comparing it to the seemingly timeless works of art. Mephistopheles continues on and advises Faust to “associate with some great poet…and let him heap all noble qualities / upon your head,” as though the Faust created by the poet will later supplant the Faust in real life (Goethe I, 1789-1792). The text, itself a work of art, is self-aware of its longevity and how it contributes to the lifespan of any character. Goethe, as a writer, does not “heap all noble qualities” on Faust, but on the contrary describes a lying, occasionally cowardly, and sometimes despicable character. Although Faust bears the weight of complex “qualities,” he is nevertheless engrained into literary history, survived by art. However, there are moments in the text where Goethe creates a character without sustaining him or her with the longevity of art, namely when the German writer portrays the bystanders and passers-by.

In an early scene, “Outside the Gate,” the beggar sings out his plight and is never seen again; the Second Apprentice, at most, has two lines; and the servant girl says eight words (Goethe I, 808-859). The many characters crowd the set, each one contributing to the cacophonous atmosphere. For each character, their time is indeed short, but their artistic worth does not seem long nor extensive. Goethe’s practice of introducing characters without subsequent appearances is by no means, uncommon in playwriting. In the beginning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, Francisco answers the critical question “Who’s there?” without saying his name, and then later disappears (Shakespeare Act 1.1, 1-14). Francisco, to a certain extent, is a nobody. If one watched the play without a list of all the characters, Francisco is just a nameless passer-by, walking the parapets. Goethe seems to apply the same practice with the characters outside the gate, their identities and names arbitrary to the audience. Both Shakespeare and Goethe appear to create the bystanders casually, unaware of how unmemorable each of them is.


However, none of Goethe’s characters have real names, only labels. Goethe’s notion of identity, for these short-lived characters, is narrowed down to their roles in society: the beggar, the apprentice, and the servant girl. Unlike Goethe, on paper, Shakespeare does acknowledge that his first character has a name. Moreover, Francisco’s non-answer to the question “Who’s there?” as well as his following exit, can be seen as a succinct prelude to the existential theme of Hamlet. Francisco actively hides his own identity and name, as he wants to be “just a nameless passer-by.”

Goethe does not enter such depth with any of his bystanders as none of them particularly epitomize a theme in the text. However, the accumulation of the many passers-by makes a different point. Five apprentices, two girls, one young lady, two students, three citizens, a singing beggar, an old woman, and an unspecified number of soldiers: at least fifteen characters stay on set, outside the gate, before Faust and Wagner enter the scene. Like the many stakes holding down a tent during a storm, one could argue that these characters ground the play in reality, contending with the spiritual aspect of the text, such as the appearance of an evil spirit. One apprentice says, “the prettiest girls, the best beer too”; a citizen talks of “war and rumors of battle”; another citizen claims: “I can’t say I care for our new mayor” (Goethe I, 815, 861, 846). On the other side of the spectrum, the play begins with a Prologue in Heaven. Similar to how Francisco acts as an early vessel for Shakespeare’s existential theme, the mentions of local politics, wars, and women become part of a vessel through which Goethe situates his story in reality. Consequently, whether one should consider Goethe’s bystanders as characters is a question worth asking. They instead appear like many props and reference points, each doing their small part in their conflict with the spiritual feature of the play.


The delicate balance between realism and the magical continues to flourish later in Goethe’s Faust. The large cast of bystanders and passers-by, representing normalcy, contrast with the supernatural —first introduced by Faust’s summoned spirit, later epitomized by Mephistopheles’ presence. In Faust’s study, Mephistopheles, acting as Faust, meets a student to discuss education (Goethe I, 1868-2048). Although the student has a comparatively longer part in the scene, he does not show up again later, nor is he named – similar to the many other passers-by in the play. Moreover, the student represents a larger group of “dear boys” waiting outside Faust’s corridor – an academic fan-club of sort (Goethe I, 1841). The student personifies the values which Faust once held and now discards – the type of student who Faust now “cannot bring himself to see” (Goethe I, 1843). Therefore the scene provides another explanation as to why Goethe expends so much effort on so many minute, nameless characters: Faust himself does not care for them. Faust does not want to know the name of the local peasant girl or the old man. The local populace all know and admire the famous Faust, but to the Doctor, each individual is just another member of his dissatisfying past. Instead, Faust wants to shed his past and proceed to “a new life filled with color” (Goethe 1121). Consequently, the problem of time being short, or art being long should not apply to these temporary figures: the soldier, the citizen or the student. To Faust, the titular character of Goethe’s work, these characters are worth little of his time, and should only have a short part in a play about himself.



Works Cited

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust the First Part of the Tragedy. Translated by Margaret Kirby, Focus/Hackett, 2015.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Edited by Sylvan Barnet, Signet Classics, 1998.

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