Remarks on Part 2, Act III

Scene 1 (Before the Palace)

Act III is called "Helena" (referring to Helen of Troy) and almost forms an independent drama.  The first scene, which you do not need to read, introduces Helena as a character.  Recall that Manto led Faust into the underworld where he intended to plead, Orpheus-like, with Persephone for Helen's release.  As a consequence, and perhaps by means of Humunculus' self-sacrifice, this has been accomplished.  (In the Odyssey, the shades in the underworld can be reanimated only by drinking the blood of a sacrificed animal.)  Accompanied by a group of captive Trojan women, Helen has just arrived at the Palace of Menelaus (whom she abandoned when she ran off with Paris).  Menelaus and his Greek soldiers are still back at the shore with their ships, on which he brought Helen and the other women.

Helen reflects on all the trouble her beauty has caused, but, with encouragement from the Trojan women, she reenters her palace as queen.  However, she finds it deserted and is horrified by the stewardess she finds in charge, for it is Mephistopheles, still disguised as the one-eyed, one-toothed hag, Phorcyas.  The chorus of women attack Phocyas for her ugliness, and she replies, "Old is the saying, yet enduring its high truth, / That Modesty and Beauty never hand in hand / Pursue their way along the verdant soil of earth." (8754-6)  In the process of their verbal sparring, Phorcyas mentions various inhabitants of the Greek underworld, to which Helena reacts with increasing disorientation.  She is confused because she is standing in front of her palace, apparently alive, yet she seems to recall the horrors of the underworld (which she would know only if she were dead).  "Is this remembrance? or delusion seizing me? / Was I all that? Or am I now? Or shall I be / That nightmare image of that ravager of towns?" (8838-40)  The idea is beginning to dawn on H that she may not be as real as she thinks she is.  As though to reinforce her existence, P and H review the main events of her life, but when they come to the story that the ghosts of Achilles and Helen had been united after their deaths, she realizes, "I as a myth allied myself to him as myth. / It was a dream, the words themselves proclaim it so. / I fade away, becoming to myself a myth." (8879-81)  And she faints.

The chorus criticizes P for the negative effects of her speech, but soon Helen recovers.  Menelaus had ordered her to prepare for a sacrifice, and she tells P to make the arrangements.  P is ready and willing to do so, but where is the sacrificial victim?  It soon becomes apparent Menelaus means to sacrifice Helen herself (and hang the Trojan women).  P says she knows a way out; she can lead them to another palace, where they will be protected by its lord, who is "high-spirited, bold-tempered, nobly made, / Judicious, too, like few among the Greeks." (9011-12)  (Of course she's talking about Faust.)  They hear Menelaus' approaching army and quickly agree that Phorcyas is their only salvation, and so Ideal Ugliness leads Ideal Beauty through the gathering mists (much like the Mothers' Void) toward Faust's Gothic castle.  Thus the scene ends.

Helen is of course Ideal Beauty, with its power to inspire both devotion and conflict ("love and strife" — considered the primary cosmic forces by some ancient Greek philosophers).  Through the efforts of Faust, Homunculus, and Mephistopheles (Phorcyas) she has been "reanimated" and transformed from a static idea into a living figure.  But still, she is not real, as even she realizes on some level.  Nevertheless, she has achieved a certain degree of embodiment, of reality, and so she is ready to meet Faust.

From a psychological standpoint a very interesting structure, or complex, has been formed, which involves four figures: Homunculus, Faust, Helen, and Phorcyas.  Two males, two females: very balanced.  Homunculus, who began as a disembodied fiery spirit, has disappeared from the scene, but through his self-immolation in the Aegean Sea, he has become spirit immanent in matter.  Faust (ego) awaits in his citadel, and Helen (anima) has materialized.  Mephistopheles, by nature a shadow figure through his evil actions and negative nature, has become even more so by adopting an ugly form and the opposite sex.  Yet (s)he is the one to bring Helen to Faust.  The four constitute what Jung called a Quaternity, and it sets the stage for a comprehensive unfication of the opposites in the psyche.

Scene 2A (Inner Courtyard of a Castle, 9127-9573)

The remainder of Act III is a single long scene, which divides naturally into two parts.  In the first part Helena and the chorus of Trojan women find themselves in the inner courtyard of an opulent Gothic fortress.  They are received kindly by serving people: apparently spirits provided by Mephistopheles, beings whom the chorus recognizes as akin to themselves.  A throne is provided and Helen is invited to take her place upon it.

Faust, garbed as a knight, appears with a bound man, Lynceus, at his side and approaches Helen's throne.  He explains that L has been derelict in his duty, for he was supposed to watch for anyone approaching the castle, but he did not warn of H's approach, and so F was unable to prepare for her arrival in a worthy fashion.  F turns L over to H for punishment, and she asks him to explain his failure.  He replies, in the form of medieval German love poetry, that he was blinded by her beauty, as dazzling as the sun.  H pardons him for, she says, the ultimate fault was hers.  Faust offers his entire domain and all the treasure it contains to Helen, in tribute to her as his sovereign; Lynceus brings offerings to her, accompanied by a hymn to her divine beauty.  Faust says, "Let me in chosen fealty at your feet / Acknowledge you as mistress unto whom / By her mere advent fell estate and throne." (9270-2)

Faust's actions may seem excessively generous, but they can be understood in the context of the doctrine of Courtly Love, which was based on a platonic relationship between the Lover, a courageous knight, and his Beloved, a virtuous noblewoman who was unattainable (because married to someone else).  The Lover was expected to be entirely devoted to his Beloved and to dedicate himself in selfless service to her; further, his unsatisfiable desire was understood to be ennobling in itself.  Powerful and highly respected women, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122?–1204), presided over Courts of Love, where these practices were cultivated.

This idealization and near deification of women was correlated with other, contemporary social developments, such as an improved status for women (including a certain amount of financial independence), the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary in the 12th and 13th centuries, and other new religious ideas, such as Joachim of Fiore's (c.1132–1202) prophesy of the dawning of an "Age of the Spirit" in which the Holy Spirit would incarnate as a woman.  Significantly, this female personification of the Holy Spirit was often identified with divine Wisdom (Sophia), the World Soul, and Nature, all conceived as a (female) spiritual force pervading the material world and inspiring it with order, harmony, and creativity.

Psychologically, the practice of Courtly Love can be understood as intentional and systematically organized anima projection.  That is, both the Lover and the Beloved understood that the Beloved was taking upon herself the role of a vehicle to manifest the Eternal Feminine (those aspects of the feminine common to all men though their biological inheritance).  For men, the anima is the nearest, most accessible component of the collective unconscious, and therefore a means of greater awareness of, and ultimate union with, the unconscious mind (resulting in psychological integration).

Unconscious processes such as these cannot be governed by conscious rationality, so in Courtly Love much of the meaning was conveyed, and the practice conducted, by means of poetry and song, pregnant with feeling and symbolic meaning.  (A certain amount of ambiguity and obscurity also avoided accusations of heresy!)  These songs were composed by the troubadours, whose art seems to have developed from Islamic mystical poetry, in which Allah is identified with the Beloved.  (Some of you may know the Sufi poetry of Rumi [1207-73], which is quite popular now.)  These arts were brought to Europe by the Moslem invaders and by returning Crusaders.  Thus Lynceus sings his hymns of praise to Helen in the meters used by the Minnesingers ("love singers"), who were the German troubadours.  (For more on psychological aspects of courtly love, see <> and <>.)

Back to Faust.  Helen invites F to sit by her side and asks him about the "strange and pleasing" way that Lynceus spoke, in which "as one word repairs to the ear, / There comes another to caress the first." (9367-71)  She is referring, of course, to rhyme.  Since her appearance with the Trojan chorus they have spoken in forms imitating classical Greek drama, but Lynceus and Faust speak in a different way.  Rhyme was rarely used in Classical Greek and Latin poetry, and was largely unknown in Europe until well into the Middle Ages, when it may have become popular in imitation of Arabic poetry.  Faust begins to instruct her in the art by means of a collaborative activity, for "Exchange of speech allures it, calls it forth" (9376).  She learns quickly, inspired by longing and guided by a coordination of sound and sense in both their minds (9378-84).  Indeed, by the time they are done with the lesson, they are on the same wavelength, profoundly in love, and snuggled tightly together!

Faust is on the verge of experiencing his "perfect moment" (remember the wager?) when Phorcyas enters, cynical as usual, and announces that Menelaus is marching with his army toward the castle. A repeat of the Trojan War is in the offing, and we are reminded that strife is the polar complement of love, and Ideal Beauty excites competition along with desire.  F recognizes the inevitability of this turn of events: "For none deserves the ladies' favor / But who can guard them with most strength." (9444-5)  The chorus also understands the connection well (9482-90).

In an echo of Paris' reluctance to get "mussed up" in the war that he had caused, F decides to run off with Helen to Arcadia, a kind of Paradise, while his generals fight the war.  This inattention to practicalities can be seen as evidence of F's continuing inadequate relation to earthly reality as opposed to matters of the mind and spirit.

In a long speech (9506-9573) Faust announces that he will take Helen to Arcadia, near to where she was born, where "She broke in radiance from the shell" (9519), thus symbolically returning her to her origins.  Arcadia represents Ideal Nature, alive with spirits (Pan, the nymphs), a timeless place where "Each is immortal in his own demesne" (9552) and one cannot tell whether the inhabitants "are gods or mortal men" (9557).  This is like a return to the Garden of Eden, "Where nature works within her own pure cycle, / All worlds link up without an interim." (9560-1)  That is, in this timeless place defined by the eternal cycles of nature, all the worlds are united without any separation or division: heaven and earth; mind and matter; spirit, soul, and body; ideal and real.  The ego, with its sense of time and place, submerges completely into the oceanic depths of nature.

The last part of F's speech (9562-9573) acknowledges that this ideal realm is where Helen belongs.  In another translation, "Remember you are sprung from the greatest of the gods and in a special sense belong to the early world" (9564-5).  He invites her to let "Our bliss become Arcadian and free" (9573).  These final words effect a magical transformation to Arcadia, the second part of the scene.

Scene 2B (Shady Grove, 9574-10038)

The remainder of Act III takes place in Arcadia, which is the central region of the Peloponnese, the southern peninsula of Greece.  The Eurotas River, where Helen was conceived, flows south from Arcadia into the territory of Sparta, where Helen was queen.  Arcadia was a relatively isolated rural area, in which life was comparatively simple and unsophisticated.   Thus, pastoral literature, which celebrates, in idealized form, nature and the natural life, often has been set in Arcadia ever since Virgil used it for his Eclogues.  Pastoral poetry dates back at least to the third cent. BCE (Theocritus' Idylls) and continued to be popular through Goethe's time.

Certainly the Arcadian idea (or archetype) goes much further back, for the idea of a Golden Age, in which innocent people lived simply in peace and harmony with nature, is common to many cultural traditions.  Sometimes the Arcadian landscape takes the form of a protected or enclosed garden, the Garden of Eden being a familiar example.  Typically, nature is represented as living and sentient (hence, the presence of nymphs and other nature spirits), and divinity is manifest (so the gods live among the people, interacting with them, etc.).

This then is the setting of the last scene of Act III, an isolated and idealized landscape in which people live in a perfect, harmonious relationship with nature and each other.  Although all of Act III is outside of ordinary time and space, Arcadia is especially so, and thus after the transformation of the previous scene we find the chorus asleep, and Phorcyas remarks, "Who knows how long the maidens have been slumbering?" (9574)  Faust and Helen are nowhere in sight.  Phorcyas awakens the chorus and informs them that their lord and lady have been living in the spacious caverns that surround them, and there Helen has born a child, Euphorion.  Phorcyas has been essential to the union of Faust and Helen; he says, "me alone they summoned for discreet attendance" (9589).

According to Jung, in alchemy the spirit Mercury (whom Mephisto regularly represents) is necessary for the conjunction of the king and queen, often symbolized by the sun and moon or by gold and silver.  From a different perspective, Mercury (the soul) operates as a mediator to join the sun/king (incorporeal spirit) and moon/queen (corporeal body and its appetites).  Therefore it is interesting (at least to me!) to ponder, from a psychological perspective, in what sense the faculty represented by Mephisto is required in order to transcend the opposites represented by Faust and Helen.  From these three a fourth is born, who is the child Euphorion.

Recall that some commentators say that the acts of Pt. II correspond to the five elements.  In Act I (fire), the Emperor was engulfed in flames and the vision of Paris and Helen exploded; in Act II (water), the action was guided by Thales (who said that water is the primary substance of the universe) and Homunculus attained fulfillment by sacrificing himself in the ocean out of longing for a sea goddess.  According to this scheme Act III should be associated with the element air, and you should watch for images of air, wind, clouds, and so forth, but more generally air can refer also to an aerial spirit (for the root meaning of spiritus is breath).

"The wind bloweth where it listeth" certainly seems an apt description of Euphorion.  As Phorcyas describes him (9603-28), he jumps lightly about from cliff to cliff, although his father warns him "forbear to fly, untrammeled flight is not vouchsafed to thee" (9608).  For his safety, it is necessary that he stay grounded, in touch with earth:

      ... in the earth inheres resilience
Which will buoy thee up, if only thou adhere to it on tiptoe,    (9610)
Like the son of earth, Antaeus, it will strengthen thee at once.

Antaeus was a giant, a son of Gaia (the ancient Greek earth goddess), whom Hercules was able to defeat only by keeping him out of contact with the earth, from which he drew his strength.  (Previously, Faust compared himself to Antaeus when he acquired strength from contact with the soil of Greece: 7075-7.)  So, Euphorion is a flighty spirit, full of energy, volatility, but in danger of losing contact with earthly solidity.  As Faust is enlivened by his contact with earth and nature, so also is Euphorion; they both have too much of a tendency to fly about and live in the clouds; and as we will see they both are driven toward unbounded action.  (Recall also that F has neglected the very earthly matter of involving himself in protecting his empire from the invading army.)

To some extent Arcadia itself suffers from a deficiency of contact with earth (as does pastoral poetry), for it presents an idealized, unearthly, vision of nature.  Often we begin with a naive view of nature and its beauty, which may crash to earth when we discover that real nature is not so pretty.

Who is Euphorion?  Some myths say he was the child born of the spirits of Achilles and Helen on the White Isle, which is interesting, since it creates a parallel between Faust and Achilles.  However, in conversation Goethe described Euphorion as the "spirit of poesy," and the chorus later calls him "poesy pure" (9863), so we must also consider him from this perspective (and recall that the Boy Charioteer was called "Poetry").  Indeed, he represents Byronic Romantic poetry born of the classicism of Helen and and Germanic striving of Faust.  Finally, we must recognize him as the fourth of the child-like figures that appear in Faust (Gretchen's infant, the Boy Charioteer, Homunculus, Euphorion), all of whom are soon destroyed.

Eventually, the trio of Faust, Helen, and Euphorion appear on stage (9695).  Euphorion's effervescent activity, which mirrors F's striving, cannot be constrained.  At first he is an erotic force, pursuing one of the Trojan maidens (9790-810), but then he switches from love to strife and begins to exhibit a heroic character, "In ardent spirit soon contriving / To join the strong and bold and free." (9872-3)  He is driven to challenge death, and after attempting to fly, crashes to earth dead (9900).  The corpse quickly vanishes, leaving just his cloak, robe, and lyre behind; he plaintively calls to his mother from the underworld.

The chorus sings a dirge, which has little to do with Euphorion, but is in tribute to Byron, who had died shortly before this was written.  Like Euphorion's, Byron's nature led to its own annihilation.

Helen announces that the bonds of life and love have been dissolved, and after a last embrace of Faust, she vanishes to join her son in the realm of Persephone, queen of the dead.  Faust is left holding her robe and veil, which Phorcyas tells him to hold onto.  Sure enough, they change into clouds, which carry Faust away.  (Phorcyas hangs onto the stuff that Euphorion left behind.)

In the final part of the scene, the chorus of the spirits of the Trojan women splits into four parts, each of which transforms into a particular kind of nature spirit and enchants its own domain of nature.  As the act ends, Mephistopheles, who has stage-managed the entire Helena episode, removes his Phorcyas mask and reveals himself.

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Last updated: 2005-02-28.