Gretchen Tragedy

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The Gretchen tragedy is an open drama that Johann Wolfgang Goethe wove into the Urfaust of 1772 and adapted it into his main work Faust I. It describes the breakup of the love relationship between Faust and Margarete, is placed next to the tragedy of the scholar and flows together with it at the end of Faust II , exaggerated and purified.

In earlier variants of the Fauststoff , which Goethe took up, a Helena appears, which as a pagan image arouses Faust's desire (see Fauststoff). In the Gretchen tragedy, Goethe does not choose a demonic and in truth lifeless female counterpart for Faust, but an innocent woman who is drawn into his perdition.


Tragedy part one, Faust and Mephisto in the dungeon, lithograph by Joseph Fay

The " street " scene acts as an exposition and describes the first encounter between the two characters. Gretchen – who is characteristically just leaving the church – behaves reservedly about the immediate address by Faust (she thinks he is a nobleman, since he appears as a squire), who in turn – driven by the previous rejuvenation in the scene “ Witches ' Kitchen ” – immediately enthusiastic about Gretchen and recognizes in her the beautiful image of a woman that appeared to him there in the magic mirror.

Faust then visits Gretchen's room in the evening, accompanied by Mephisto , and is fascinated: How breathing is the feeling of stillness, of order, of contentment! In this poverty what abundance! What bliss in this dungeon! He ends up leaving a box of jewelry that he received from Mephisto as a requested gift. Before that, in a short monologue by Gretchen, it becomes clear that, after the initial reservation, she is becoming curious and interested in Faust. Just before she finds the gift, Gretchen's willingness and longing for a "romantic love affair" is revealed through the singing of the ballad Der König in Thule .

Faust's gift doesn't last long, because after the surprising discovery, Gretchen turns to her two fixed points "family" and "church" and leaves the jewelry to her mother, who passes the gift on to the pastor. Faust finds out about this through a conversation with Mephisto during a walk , in which he also asks Mephisto to leave jewelry in Gretchen's room once more.

Meanwhile, Gretchen meets Marthe in the neighbor's house and tells her about the second box. Following Mephisto's example, Marthe recommends never giving the jewelry to the mother a second time, but rather putting the jewelry on secretly from time to time.

Mephisto then renders outstanding services to Faust in the same scene: he tells Marthe that her husband has died. She is superficially full of sorrow, but reveals herself through her horror at her husband's missing inheritance. She immediately demands confirmation of his death, probably in order to be able to turn to other men. Mephisto promises a second witness – Faust – and arranges a meeting for the four of them, which he informs Faust about shortly afterwards on the street . At first he refuses to lie, but given the chance to meet and get to know Gretchen again, he finally gives in.

At the agreed meeting in the neighbor's garden, the two couples (Faust with Gretchen and Mephisto with Marthe) walk around and talk. Marthe shamelessly approaches Mephisto, who, however, feigns incomprehension for her ambiguous remarks. Gretchen and Faust confess their feelings and profess their love for each other. Finally, the only love scene described between Faust and Gretchen takes place in a garden shed , but this is interrupted by Mephisto.

Then, in the scene “ Forest and Cave ” – the turning point of the drama – Faust distances himself from the events that have happened and realizes that he must destroy Gretchen's world if he wants to be with her. He "demephistophizes" himself and almost returns to his former striving for higher things. Faust is restless, short-tempered, questioning and critical of religion, while Gretchen leads a regular and orderly life according to set expectations and patterns between family and church. But Mephisto appears at that very moment, goads him on again and sends him back near his beloved.

In contrast, Gretchen's situation is made clear in " Gretchen's Stube ", if only by the even and short song form of her monologue compared to Faust's long and complicated movements of contemplation . She admires Faust and describes her love for him, but realizes: "My rest is gone" (v. 3386).

After the situation of the two characters has been clearly described, Faust and Gretchen meet again in Marthen's garden , where she asks him her Gretchen question: "Now tell me, how do you feel about religion" (v. 3415). Faust gives a comprehensive and eloquent answer without convincing Gretchen. Seeing her inner conflict intensify, she agrees to give her mother Faust's sleep drops so that he can visit her at night.

An indefinite time later, Gretchen is talking to Lieschen at the well . In this conversation, Lieschen uses Bärbelchen as an example to make it clear how illegitimate pregnancies or children have led to social exclusion or even punishment. Gretchen, who is pregnant by Faust, as only becomes apparent, recognizes her sin and is desperate and full of fear. In the very next scene (“ Zwinger ”) she turns to Maria ( Mater Dolorosa ) and begs her for mercy.

Her fears come true during the night : Mephisto kills her brother Valentin through Faust, who publicly exposes her as a dishonorable whore while she is still dying.

The catastrophe occurs in the scene in the cathedral , in which an "evil spirit" talks into Gretchen and accuses her of having lost her innocence. It becomes clear that her mother died from the sleep drops. This, along with her pregnancy and the death of her brother, places an incredible burden on Gretchen, which she faints under at the end of the scene.

The two following scenes " Walpurgis Night " and " Walpurgis Night Dream " have a limited impact on the plot. Mephisto tries to distract Faust from Gretchen. This, however, appears a figure of the condemned and decapitated Gretchen, whereupon he Mephisto in " Cloudy day. Field. ' is responsible for the catastrophe and demands his help in rescuing Gretchen. Mephisto grants him this, but points out his limited powers, which probably stem from Gretchen's piety.

Both ride on magic horses to Gretchen (“ Nacht. Offen Feld ”) and pass a witches' guild that is in the process of consecrating a place of execution, but which is not the place where Gretchen is to be executed the next morning. She is supposed to die on the market square under the guillotine.

Finally , in the dungeon , Faust must find Gretchen completely confused. She killed her newborn child and is about to be executed for it. At first she doesn't recognize Faust and thinks he's the hangman who wants to pick her up prematurely. After Gretchen finally recognizes him, Faust wants to persuade her to flee. But she resists – also because Mephisto, towards whom Gretchen has an intense aversion for obvious reasons, joins her after a while. Eventually, Mephisto urges Faust to abandon Gretchen, and they both leave Gretchen.

Biographical background

In his disputation of August 7, 1771 at the University of Strasbourg, Goethe had already dealt with the question of whether a child murderer should be sentenced to death. A short time later he followed the case of the maid Susanna Margaretha Brandt in Frankfurt am Main , who killed her newborn child in 1771. She was arrested, sentenced to death in a criminal trial according to the laws of the time, and publicly executed on January 14, 1772.

At the time, Goethe was working as a lawyer in his native town. Many of those involved in the process were his relatives or good acquaintances. He had copies of the trial files made and was so impressed by Brandtin 's story that the tragedy surrounding the child murderer Gretchen became a central motif in Urfaust . In general, however, Goethe dealt a lot with this topic. In a case of child murder by Johanna Catharina Höhn on April 11, 1783, the judge asked Goethe and two others for advice as to whether his verdict was correct. Goethe replied: "[...] that, in my opinion, it might be more advisable to retain the death penalty." The scene in the dungeon , which was still written in prose and is the oldest part of the Urfaust, was probably written a short time after the execution. Goethe later did not take a position on the process in Poetry and Truth , but only reports in a brief, distanced form: "Soon a major crime was discovered, and its investigation and punishment caused unrest in the city for many weeks."

The problem of infanticide was much discussed in the 18th century. It is also taken up in works by Goethe's contemporaries, such as Zerbin or The Newer Philosophy by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz and The Child Murderer by Heinrich Leopold Wagner .


  • Siegfried Birkner: The life and death of the child murderer Susanna Margaretha Brandt, shown according to the trial files of the Imperial Free City of Frankfurt am Main, the so-called Criminalia 1771. Insel, Frankfurt am Main 1973, ISBN 3-458-32890-4 (= Insel paperback, 1190).
  • Siegfried Birkner: Goethe's Gretchen, the life and death of the child murderer Susanna Margaretha Brandt, presented according to the trial files . Insel, Frankfurt am Main 1999, ISBN 3-458-34263-X (= Insel paperback , 2563)
  • Rebekka Habermas (ed.): The Frankfurt Gretchen. The trial of the child murderer Susanna Margaretha Brandt. CH Beck, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-406-45464-X .


  1. Complete Works, Munich Edition, Volume 1,2, p. 916.
  2. Christoph Braendle, Sunday supplement of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung from 5./6. December 1998.