Part II of Faust is definitely more difficult than Pt. I, in part because it is much richer. It's also important for understanding Goethe's ideas about our relation to nature. Therefore, at the risk of giving you more to read, I'll offer some suggestions of things to notice in Act I, which may help you to find your way in it.
First, in Pt. II many of the events of Pt. I are echoed, but on a
social or collective level rather than on an individual level.
Thus, while Pt. I begins with an individual, Faust, who has lost his
direction and vitality, Pt. II begins with a dysfunctional kingdom.
We covered this in class. In summary, I think the two most important points are Faust's rejuvenation by nature and (as symbolized by the rising sun and rainbow) his understanding and acceptance of the fact that his contact with the sources of divine vitality must be through earthly works (Faustian "striving"). This explains, in part, his worldly involvement with the Emperor and his later projects in Pt. II.
This begins a common literary and mythological motif, "the Sick King." The basic idea is that when the king is sick, so is the kingdom. This scene introduces us to an empire in chaos, and we see that the dissolute and irresponsible Emperor is the main reason. The Sick King theme typically has several stages, so it will be worthwhile to keep your eyes open for them:
In its alchemical form, this theme often has the sage facilitating a
(physical and spiritual) union between the alchemist and his "mystic
sister" (his assistant), or between the symbolic king and queen, or the
sun and moon, etc. The point is that on both the individual,
psychological and collective, social level, oppositions and polarities
must be united and transcended to achieve healing.
Mephistopheles (who, I think, is playing the role of the sage here) offers to cure the kingdom's ills by means of the gold hidden in the depths. Of course, on one level, this should be interpreted literally, since the empire is in financial ruin. On the other hand, I think Goethe also intends an alchemical interpretation, and that M is referring to the "true gold" (the "gold of the philosopher's," as opposed to ordinary "vulgar gold") hidden in the earth, which is able to transform and heal whatever it touches. That is, he is referring to the hidden vitality of nature. From a psychological perspective, these treasures are the sources of creativity buried in the unconscious. Indeed, as M begins to describe it, the crowd begins to feel the stirrings of "the powers that deep within [Nature] lurk" (4988).
An alchemical interpretation is also justified, I think, by Goethe's direct allusions to it. When Mephistopheles, speaking through the Astrologer, mentions a conjunction of the sun and moon (representing a union of male and female, and by extension all polarities), the crowd mutters that it's "Alchymistic" (4965, 4974). Also, M wraps up the scene with a reference to the philosopher's stone, and a hint that most readers will not understand the alchemical allusions: "If the philosopher's stone were theirs, / Stone would seek sage and find him not." (5063-4) Or, in another translation, "Had they the Philosopher's Stone, I swear it, / The Stone would lack the Philosopher!"
This is a Carnival or Mardi Gras celebration, which descends from
ancient rites of springtime purification and renewal. In the
Christian tradition, it immediately precedes Lent, and so creates a
polarity between the wild, earthy, sensual, and unrestrained
celebration of Carnival, and the ascetic self-denial and spiritual
focus of Lent. (You may recall that Pt. I begins on Holy
Saturday, which ends Lent.) In this scene we have a progression
of allegorical figures, beginning with light-hearted flower girls but
progressing toward more ominous figures.
We move to a different level with the arrival of Mephistopheles in the guise of Zoilo-Thersites (5457-83). The Herald strikes him, reducing him to a chaotic, unformed lump, which then transforms to an egg, which separates into two halves (traditionally associated with heaven and earth), from which a bat flies up into the heavens, and an adder wriggles off into the earth. These peculiar images date back to pre-Socratic philosophy and were also common in alchemy: the reduction to unformed "prime matter," the separation into opposites (male & female, mind & matter, "volatile & fixed," etc.). The goal is to reunite the opposites (5482), but the Herald refuses to be "a third" to effect this conjunction (5483). This episode is clearer when you understand that alchemists understood everything in terms of three principles, which they called Sulphur, Mercury, and Salt (again, these are not the ordinary substances with these names, and are closer to spirit, soul, and body, both in the individual and at a cosmic level). In some versions, at least, Mercury is the third principle that unites the opposites Sulphur and Salt. The alchemists were also very aware of the fact that the Roman god Mercury was the herald of the gods, charged with the task of facilitating communication between heaven and earth.
The next important event is the arrival of Faust (disguised as Plutus) in a vehicle guided by the Boy Charioteer. As one would expect, a conjunction of the male and female leads to the birth of a (real or symbolic) child, so you should pay especial attention to the several childlike figures that are mentioned in Goethe's Faust. The first is the infant born of Faust's first encounter with the feminine (Gretchen), which was destroyed: a real child resulted from physical union. The Boy Charioteer reflects a more abstract (spiritual) union of male and female, as suggested by Herald, who says that he could be mistaken for a girl (5549). So in alchemy the philosophers' stone, created by the union of male and female, may be represented by a hermaphroditic child. Psychologically, this is the unification, or transcending, of all the polarities, divisions, and oppositions in the psyche, to create a newborn (or reborn) integrated self. In this case, permanent psychological integration is not achieved, for Faust dismisses the Boy Charioteer (whom he calls "spirit of my spirit" and "son" — 5623, 5629) to his spiritual realms while he stays behind on earth (5689-96). The Boy Charioteer observes (5699-702) that he and Faust are complementary, and offer contrasting riches: Faust distributes (illusory!) material wealth and ease (5699, 5709-38), while the Boy Charioteer offers "blessedness" (5700). So, the conjunction, which is supposed to produce the alchemical child, as failed twice, in two different ways (once by being interpreted too concretely, the second time by a dissociation of spiritual and material values).
Finally, the Emperor, in the guise of the god Pan, arrives with his courtiers, disguised as various uncivilized nature spirits (perhaps representing the preoccupations of the court). When he attempts to lay his hands on the devil's gold, it all bursts into flame, perhaps reflecting the way the kingdom's wealth has gone up in smoke due to his irresponsible mismanagement. The scene ends with another unification of opposites, as the magical fire from the earth (3921-3) is neutralized by water from the air (5974-84) — thus involving all four of the traditional "elements" (fire, earth, water, air). (In alchemy, a union of the four elements is necessary to produce the Quintessence, or fifth element, associated with a completely integrated psyche. In Jungian psychology, the four elements symbolize the four functions of consciousness: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition, and so an integrated psyche transcends the polarities: thinking vs. feeling, sensation vs. intuition.)
The central event in this scene is the introduction of paper money,
which was only about a century old when Goethe (who was a financial
minister for the Duke of Weimar) wrote this scene. Mephistopheles
adds an interesting twist by arguing that the money is backed by all
the undiscovered gold buried under the ground (which by default belongs
to the Emperor), and that it's not really necessary to dig it up!
So, this is really unbacked currency, or currency backed only by the
"faith" that the necessary gold is underground. This "magically"
solves all the Emperor's financial woes, and the economy is magically
revived by the circulation of this (inherently valueless) paper.
There are many interesting ways to look at this. For example, the political economist H. C. Binswanger, in his book Money and Magic: A Critique of the Modern Economy in the Light of Goethe's Faust, has argued that the modern economy is "a continuation of alchemy by other means." In particular, the pre-modern alchemists attempted to multiply gold (i.e., wealth) by chemical procedures, which doesn't work, whereas the modern economy does it by means of paper money, which in fact accelerates the creation of real goods (Binswanger, Science 281, Issue 5377, 640-641, 31 July 1998). So the Treasurer says, "I cherish a magician as my double" (6142). Binswanger also observes that later in the drama we will see Faust engaged in the other defining characteristic of the modern economy, the technological subjugation of nature (op. cit.). So in this scene we are beginning to see modern Faustian man in action (with the aid of Mephistopheles).
Mephistopheles' introduction of paper money engages another theme that has appeared several times in Faust: the apparent creation of meaning by the systematic use of meaningless signs. We saw this in Faust's discussion of rhetoric with Wagner (Pt. I, Night, 522-93), in Mephistopheles' discussions with the student (Faust's Study ii, 1982-2000), and in connection with the marmosets (Witch's Kitchen, 2388ff) and the witch's spells, which M connects to theological dogma (2555-66). The theme of creating real value from an illusion will appear again in Scene 7 (Hall of Chivalry) with the apparition of Helen.
One last thought on the symbolism of paper money. If you accept the psychological symbolism of Scene 2 (Imperial Palace), that the treasure hidden underground represents the creative potentials undiscovered in the subconscious mind, then the unbacked paper money represents symbols or ideas disconnected from their sources of meaning and value. Although unbacked paper money can generate a lot of productive activity for a time, the ultimate bankruptcy of the kingdom will eventually be exposed, unless the "philosophical gold" can be retrieved from the underworld and brought into the light of consciousness. In slightly different terms, genuine, living meaning is born from the womb of nature, not from artificial imitations of it. Make any sense?
By the way, pay especial attention to what the Jester does with his newfound wealth.
This scene seems to be pregnant with meaning, but it has been
difficult to put that meaning into words. There is at least one
book devoted to just this scene. "One of the most pursued and
most elusive mysteries in the whole of Goethe's Faust is the
meaning and intent of the realm of the Mothers to which the hero goes
and from which he returns with the images of Helen and Paris." (Jantz, The Mothers in Faust: The Myth of Time and Creativity, p. 3)
Faust has foolishly promised to produce an apparition of Paris and Helen of Troy for the Emperor's amusement ("Ideals female and male, ideally mated" — 6185). Mephistopheles is outraged because he has no control over the pagan underworld (the drama is moving from the Nordic folklore of witches and diabolical pacts to classical Greek mythology). Nevertheless, although he cannot help, he tells Faust that Helen can be brought up from the underworld in only one way: Faust himself must descend to "the Mothers." M describes the procedure in detail, and we must assume that Faust executes it correctly, for he stamps his foot, disappears underground, and does not appear again until Scene 7.
Who are the Mothers? Although they have some vague similarities to certain mythological goddesses, Goethe seems to have brought them directly from the depths of collective unconscious mind. Therefore, you do not need any special background information in order to understand them; let your own mental associations be your guide.
Here are a few additional thoughts. In alchemical terms, F is descending into the dark, formless primary matter from which all things are born. Psychologically he is descending into the deepest regions of the collective unconscious, to the source of life and all creation. Mater (mother), matrix (womb, generative substance), and matter all come from the same root. This is Faust's next encounter with the feminine, but it's obviously of a very different kind than his relationship with Gretchen.
The collective unconscious represents all the "archetypes," which are the innate patterns of behavior and perception that are a part of human nature, that is, that we have by biological inheritance. Formless in themselves, the archetypes structure perception and influence behavior. Like equations of motion, they govern processes taking place in time, but are themselves timeless, that is, outside of space and time. So this realm seems like the correct place to find the images of Ideal Beauty (Helen) and the Ideal Lover (Paris). However, to bring them up into the light of consciousness Faust has to use the key, given to him by Mephisto, and join it with the tripod vessel of the Mothers: another union of the male and female.
The following scene, "Halls brightly Lit," which you are not expected to read, depicts the generally frivolous benefits that people want from what Mephisto has to offer. Interestingly, it shows M to be quite as helpless without Faust, as F is without M. (Without F as his complement, M is worried he might be reduced to telling the truth — 6364!)
Faust has returned and, with the aid of his key, produces an
apparition of Paris and Helen in the fumes arising from the Mothers'
tripod. Everyone else, including Mephistopheles, treats the
apparition as a bit of light entertainment, but it takes place in an
ancient temple (6404) and Faust is garbed as a priest (6421) and refers
to his own priesthood (6491). F has been changed by his encounter
with the Mothers.
Recall the Sick King motif: the sages (Faust & Mephisto) have arrived in the ailing kingdom and offered their services (each in their own way); Faust has descended to the underworld and returned. The final stage should be the magical conjunction of male and female, or the divine wedding, which heals the kingdom. Indeed, the conjunction is about to take place when Faust is overcome by jealous desire for Helen and intervenes. He tries to grab her, and everything goes up in smoke (another failed conjunction).
It's probably worth remarking at this point that, although Helen is generally considered the ideal of mortal female beauty, she was originally a goddess, and in ancient Greece there were temples where she was worshipped. In a myth, which we will encounter again later, Leda, the queen of Sparta, was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a swan; later that evening, she also made love to her mortal husband. As a consequence she eventually gave birth to an egg (!!), from which came the mortal princess Clytemnestra and the semi-divine Helen. We have already encountered (Scene 3) the theme of the primordial egg separating into heavenly and earthly halves, from which emerge a pair of beings, one heavenly, the other earthly.
What is going on here? Here are a few thoughts. Because of their origin, we know that Helen and Paris are not real, physical people; they are archetypal images, which we may call Ideal Beauty and the Ideal Lover, brought up from the depths of the collective unconscious. They are indeed, by their nature, destined for union. However, it is also part of the nature of Ideal Beauty to inspire action ("striving"), as well as competition and conflict (as occurred in the Trojan War). The collective unconscious is, indeed, an infinite well of energy and creativity, but it takes different forms, depending on the archetypal figure that embodies it or draws it forth. So Helen inspires desire, love, and competition. Faust is overwhelmed by this sudden influx of this energy from the unconscious, and tries to take Helen from Paris and possess her for himself. He attempts to embrace her as though she were an ordinary mortal woman, but she is not; she is an immortal archetypal figure, a goddess, an idea. Therefore his attempt at a concrete or physical union cannot succeed. Faust is knocked unconscious as the vision explodes in his face.