1461: James Butler, War of the Roses casualty 1808: The Executions of the Third of May

Unspecified Year: Faust’s Gretchen

May 2nd, 2008 Headsman

In Goethe’s Faust (original German | English), the title character’s lover on this date spurns his rescue and is put to death for killing their illegitimate child.

In the text, Faust and Mephistopheles celebrate Walpurgisnacht. The next day — “dreary day,” Goethe has it — the hero realizes his Faustian bargain is coming due, to the indifference of his infernal patron. (This is the work’s only scene in prose.)


In misery! In despair! Long wretchedly astray on the face of the earth, and now imprisoned! That gracious, ill-starred creature shut in a dungeon as a criminal, and given up to fearful torments! To this has it come! to this!—Treacherous, contemptible spirit, and thou hast concealed it from me!—Stand, then,—stand! Roll the devilish eyes wrathfully in thy head! Stand and defy me with thine intolerable presence! Imprisoned! In irretrievable misery! Delivered up to evil spirits, and to condemning, unfeeling Man! And thou hast lulled me, meanwhile, with the most insipid dissipations, hast concealed from me her increasing wretchedness, and suffered her to go helplessly to ruin!


She is not the first.

Faust nevertheless browbeats the devil into infiltrating him that night into the prison where Gretchen (a German nickname for Margaret, Margarethe, or Marguerite), terrified, mistakes him at first for the executioner who will come for her in a few hours:

Risen at Dawn, Gretchen Discovering Faust’s Jewels — a scene from Gretchen’s seduction by Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

GRETCHEN (on her knees)

Who, headsman! unto thee such power
Over me could give?
Thou’rt come for me at midnight-hour:
Have mercy on me, let me live!
Is’t not soon enough when morning chime has run?

(She rises.)

And I am yet so young, so young!
And now Death comes, and ruin!
I, too, was fair, and that was my undoing.
My love was near, but now he’s far;
Torn lies the wreath, scattered the blossoms are.
Seize me not thus so violently!
Spare me! What have I done to thee?
Let me not vainly entreat thee!
I never chanced, in all my days, to meet thee!

Yet she refuses to flee with him — sensing the change in his character, fearful of living as a fugitive, resigned to a death incurred by her own culpability.

Day? Yes, the day comes,—the last day breaks for me!
My wedding-day it was to be!
Tell no one thou has been with Gretchen!
Woe for my garland! The chances
Are over—’tis all in vain!
We shall meet once again,
But not at the dances!
The crowd is thronging, no word is spoken:
The square below
And the streets overflow:
The death-bell tolls, the wand is broken.
I am seized, and bound, and delivered—
Shoved to the block—they give the sign!
Now over each neck has quivered
The blade that is quivering over mine.
Dumb lies the world like the grave!

Faust has had innumerable interpretations in performance, typically omitting the intervening “dreary day” scene, which makes the prison sequence appear to take place at the conclusion of Walpurgisnacht. The prison confrontation, for instance, caps a Gounod opera:

In F.W. Murnau‘s masterful 1926 silent adaptation, the sentence is carried out by burning rather than beheading. This film is in the public domain and available in its entirety free online:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Germany,God,Innocent Bystanders,Language,Notably Survived By,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Sex,The Supernatural,Uncertain Dates,Women,Wrongful Executions

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