Sunday, October 2, 2016

Stephen Spender on Faust

Faust and Marguerite in the Garden by James Tissot (1861)
I have posted on this subject before, but I have recently been engaged in "de-accessioning" many of my old research files and came across notes that I had made on Spender's essay "Goethe and the English Mind." Spender was interested in the differences between Shakespeare's characters and those in Goethe's plays, especially Faust. What follows is a paraphrase:

In Goethe's plays there is not the complete identity of the real with the symbolic which makes Shakespeare's characters seem both real and unreal at one and the same moment. Faust, for instance, is a poetic symbol of overwhelming significance. One does not question his psychology, history, or background, yet they do not arouse one's curiosity in the way that one is interested in Hamlet.

Gretchen and Martha, on the other hand, have a reality that outweighs their poetic significance. They seem people introduced into a world of high poetic symbols. As poetry, Gretchen's existence is an inadequate fantasy within the poetry of the drama. She and Faust are brought together by their dramatic situation, but their poetic worlds do not really meet. Faust, according to Spender, has an "immense poetic superiority" over Gretchen.

I think that something similar occurs in Goethe's Egmont, in which there is not only immense social, but also poetic, disparity between Egmont and Klärchen.

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