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How do you analyze a drama? Let's try and start with "Faust". Here are a few tips that can also be used for other works. We proceed in three steps.

Status: 03/31/2015 | archive

The focus of this lesson is the analysis and interpretation of dramatic texts. As an example, Goethe's "Faust" will be analyzed step by step. It's best to have a copy of the book on hand and follow the steps.

If possible, make yourself aware of the type of drama or dramatic text before reading it: A tragedy? A comedy? Which specific individual form is the case: a bourgeois tragedy? Some form of epic theater? etc. The graphic shows you an overview of the basic forms and individual characteristics.

Let's start with the title page

Let's take a closer look:

The title page

Title: Faust. A tragedy.
Author: Goethe

In later editions, for example also in the edition of the Reclam publishing house:
Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Title: Faust. The first part of the tragedy

Both titles make it clear: It's about the character Faust and his story will not end well. A person will fail because it is a tragedy, a tragic event. A noble person will fail, that much is certain.

The later edition also makes it clear that this is only the first part - that means the story is not told all the way to the end. Goethe thus announces at least one more part.

We also find out on the title page: The work is by Goethe and it was published in Tübingen in 1808.

The figures that appear in one piece also provide clues. Many pieces start with a list of the people. This is not included in all editions of "Faust". If the list is missing, you can create a list of people for the drama yourself. It can help to keep an overview.
In the case of "Faust I." it would look like this:

Dr. Heinrich Faust, a scholar
Mephistopheles (Mephisto), devil
Margarete, called Gretchen, a young girl
Marthe Schwerdtlein, Gretchen's neighbor
Wagner, Faust's Famulus (his student assistant)
Valentin, Gretchen's brother
Frosch, Brander, Siebel, Altmayer, "funny fellows" in Auerbach's cellar
Lieschen, a friend of Gretchen
Director, a theater director
Funny person, an actor
Raphael, Gabriel and Michael, three archangels
The Lord God
Spirit, earth spirit

Also: choir of angels, choir of women, choir of disciples, strollers of all kinds, farmers, ghosts, witch animals, evil spirits, Walpurgis Night figures, voice from above, a poodle, the witch's monkeys.

The first three are the most important:
fist, Mephistopheles the devil and Margarete, these are the key figures. A scholar and the devil - a conflict can already be guessed at here. An older scholar and a young girl is also an unusual encounter, here too a conflict can be expected.

The other characters also play a role, of course, and help move the story forward - but they're far less important. Then there are characters like:
the witch, three archangels, the lord, spirit and earth spirit

So it's not just about human things, it's also about fantastic or even heavenly things. Then there is a theater director, a poet and a funny person - an actor. Strange? One can already assume that theater issues are also dealt with here.

Step 2: We inform ourselves about the structure and content

Freytag model

Now visualize the plot of the drama again and try to locate the scenes in the Freytag model (or a modified form or a form adapted to the drama. Here is the scheme again.

How does the piece start? That's where you mostly get to know the main characters. But with "Faust" it's completely different. The piece starts three times, with:

  • "Appropriation", a poem: It is intended to bring the poet's situation closer to the viewer / reader.
  • "Prelude to the Theater": A conversation between theater director, poet and actor. In this way, the play is presented as an art product before it has even started. What is that supposed to mean? In this way the poet probably wants to make it clear to the viewer that there is a different view of what is happening.
  • "Prologue in Heaven": The prologue also precedes Faust's actual tragedy. The prologue begins with the singing of the archangels Raphael, Gabriel and Michael. In the subsequent conversation between God and Mephisto it says:

"The Lord: Do you know Faust?
Mephistopheles: The doctor?
The Lord: My servant! "

'Fist. The first part of the tragedy, Prologue in Heaven, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Mephistopheles doesn't think much of people, whereas God has a positive image of man.

"A good person, in his dark urge,
Is well aware of the right path. "

'Fist. The first part of the tragedy, Prologue in Heaven, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Even if people sometimes get astray, they can always find their way back.

A threefold beginning - that is initially puzzling. Why does Goethe choose this lengthy entry? Goethe had completed central parts of the story of his famous drama as early as 1790 - and then writing came to a standstill for many years. The poet was in a crisis, he didn't know what to do next. One can understand this complicated entry as a kind of crisis management. As a very personal introduction. And the prologue in heaven should show that everything that happens there in the earthly has a prelude in heaven. The tragedy cannot be stopped.

Strictly speaking, the drama "Faust" even contains two tragedies.

  • First there is the so-called scholarly tragedy: the aging Faust, as a scientist, desperate at the limits of human knowledge. He only breaks off a suicide attempt at the last moment. At the end of the scholarly tragedy, there is Faust's pact with the devil.
  • Then follows the so-called Gretchen tragedy, in which Faust woos and seduces Gretchen, only to leave her at the influence of Mephistus. In desperation, Gretchen kills her newborn child and ends up in dungeon, where she waits to die. And Faust is guilty of both tragedies.

Faust and Mephisto - actually two completely opposite figures - and yet they fraternize, even in a pact written in blood. And finally there comes the fateful turning point.

Forest and cave scene (excerpt)

Mephisto incites Faust to finally turn to Gretchen, he arouses his desire. With Faust's decision to actually seduce Gretchen, the path to perdition begins.
Gretchen's last words to Faust when he visits her in the dungeon to take her with him:

"Heinrich! I dread you."

Margarete, dungeon scene, 'Faust I', Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Example of a short summary of the content

Embedded in a "Prologue in Heaven", which introduces the action, in which the Lord and Mephistopheles, God and the Devil (based on the Old Testament story of Job) make an agreement, a twofold tragic action develops:
1. First of all, the so-called scholarly tragedy focuses on the aging fist. As a scientist, he is desperate at the limits of human knowledge. He only breaks off a suicide attempt at the last moment. At the end of the scholarly tragedy, there is Faust's pact with the devil in the form of Mephistopheles. Luck beckons as a reward. The price: the loss of your own soul.
2. The so-called Gretchen tragedy follows: After his pact with Mephistopheles, Faust is magically rejuvenated. He meets a young girl, Gretchen. He woos and seduces her, only to leave her on the action of Mephistus. Little does he know that Gretchen is getting pregnant from him. In desperation, Gretchen kills her newborn child and ends up in dungeon after the crime is discovered, where she waits to die. Gretchen rejects an attempt to rescue Faust on moral grounds.

3rd step: Look closely at a scene and interpret it

Interpreting a dramatic text means looking very carefully at individual passages of text. From these analysis steps one can then develop a coherent interpretation. To do this, it is helpful to mark important text passages or to mark them in color.

The three key questions of interpretation help here

What is said
How is it said
Why is it said?

An example: The scene "Street" from "Faust"

Fist. Margarete temporarily.
My beautiful lady, may I dare
To offer my arm and company?
I'm neither a miss, nor beautiful,
can go home unguided. (She breaks loose and off.)
Good heavens, this child is beautiful!
I've never seen anything like it.

Let's look closely at the text:

My beautiful lady, may I dare ...
My - pretty sassy. This is an offer - you should be with me.
Nice - Faust clearly says here that he likes Margarete.
And young lady: Here Faust shows that he does not want to see a difference in class. But then he rowed back again:
The "may" and the "dare" give the impression of politeness. The form of the question underscores this effect.

I am neither a miss, nor beautiful, No "I" - Margarete wants to show distance.
With the denial of the name young lady she wants to make it clear that she is a simple girl who is not entitled to such a designation for reasons of class.
That Margarete also "beautiful"rejects, is an expression of modesty - or also of decisiveness. Modesty, because it makes it clear that she has nothing to do with your appearance. Determination, because she is not so easily impressed by flattery.

Margarete puts it into practice right away - "She breaks loose ", so the instruction in the text. So Faust not only asks her if he can offer her his arm as an escort, but he touches her immediately - rather impudently.

Good heavens, this child is beautiful! Faust calls to heaven at the sight of Margarete. Actually, he approached the girl very briskly and with clear intentions. But now, after the first encounter, Faust seems transformed. He thinks about it, pauses and is emotionally touched.

These are only a few lines, but there is a lot to be seen about the people, their intentions, their conflicts and - every single word is important.