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Faust is the central character of the archetypical story of a Deal with the Devil. Though there were earlier stories of individuals bargaining with demons for magical power (such as Simon Magus, Cyprian, and Theophilus), it is the legend of an early 16th century German scholar that has been the most frequent and profoundest inspiration for works of art on this theme.
The original seems to have been a John or George Sabellicus, born near the end of the 15th century, a ne'er-do-well con-man who passed himself off as a scholar and conjuror. There is some confusion as to whether Faust was his real surname or a pseudonym, and as to whether it was derived from Latin faustus (="lucky") or the German Faust (="fist"); he seems originally to have been described, not as a doctor, but a master of arts; there is even some doubt as to his given names (Goethe calls him neither Johannes or Georg, but Heinrich) or whether there might not have been more than one Faustus. Be all that as it may, he seems to have made a living by various snake-oil type schemes (one was for a depilatory that took off not only the client's beard, but "the skin and most of the flesh as well"), until he came to a bad end — his body is said to have been found mutilated, sometime around the year 1540. Various magical manuals ascribed to Faust circulated the first quarter of the 16th century, at least one of which contains the name of a demon, "Mephostophiles" [sic].
The legend that he had sold his soul for magical powers, and had been torn to pieces by devils upon the expiration of the contract, seems to have sprung up immediately, spread by Lutheran preachers who used him as an Awful Example. The first surviving fictional account of his adventures was a chapbook that appeared in 1587, Historia von D. Johan. Fausten dem weitbeschreyten Zauberer und Schwartzkünstler ("History of Dr. Jno. Faust, the far-famed Wizard and Sorcerer").
In this or similar form the legend spread to England, where Christopher Marlowe would embody it in The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (first published 1604, probably written c. 1590). Marlowe suggests a more complicated figure than the mere seeker after wealth and pleasure presented in earlier versions; his play establishes Faustus as a great scholar, one who longs for Knowledge as well as Power, who turns to sorcery after he has already reached the limits of human science and philosophy. His Faustus vacillates more between God and the Devil than the simple character of the chapbook (his Good and Evil Angels appearing bodily, though presumably not in miniature form a few inches above his shoulders, given the conditions of the Elizabethan stage); given several opportunities to repent, he nevertheless proves obdurate, and is duly haled off to Hell, leaving the Chorus to point the Aesop that there are Some Things Man Was Not Meant To Know.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the story proved popular in Germany in the form of chapbooks and puppet plays, often incorporating a great deal of humor and spectacular effects. Certain episodes became standard: Faust summoning up Mephistopheles; Faust disputing with him on the nature of God and the universe; Mephistopheles mocking Faust's scholar-servant, Wagner; Faust gaining the love of Helen of Troy; Faust appearing at the court of the Emperor; Faust or Mephistopheles in invisible form playing pranks on The Pope; Faust being given the chance to repent and refusing; and, finally and inevitably, Faust being dragged off to Hell by devils on the expiration of his contract. A subsidiary episode, in which Faust demands marriage with a virtuous peasant girl and is refused by Mephistopheles on the grounds that marriage, being a sacrament and thus pleasing to God, is against the terms of the contract, would form the basis for the story of Margaret (Margarethe, Gretchen, Marguerite) in subsequent versions of the story.
The greatest embodiment of the story is probably Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust: Eine Tragödie (begun c. 1770). Published in two parts: the first (1808) tells the story of Faust's pact with Mephistopheles and his affair with the hapless Gretchen; the second (1832) recounts his union with Helen of Troy and the birth of Euphorion, the Spirit of Poetry, from this mating of northern Romanticism and Greek classicism. Despite the work's title, Goethe would seem to have been the first to have given the Faust story itself a happy ending (though earlier Deal with the Devil stories had sometimes featured Christ, the Virgin Mary, or some saint, tricking the devil out of his prey, often in an elaborate trial scene featuring a number of quite far-fetched legalistic quibbles) — Faust is redeemed from Hell because he uses his magical power to serve his fellow men, rather than exploit them. Goethe also popularized the image of Mephistopheles as a Deadpan Snarker in red silk doublet and hose (leading to the modern "devil in tights" image); his devil is less an elemental spirit of pure Evil than a sort of universal cynic.
Most subsequent versions of the Faust story either base themselves on one of these two dramas or react against them. The character has been depicted by artists such as Rembrandt and Delacroix; and by composers such as Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Charles Gounod, Boïto and Richard Wagner. Faust has also appeared in cinematic versions, such as Murnau's Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926) and Jan Svankmajer's Faust (1994); while Goethe's version of the story inspired a musical adaptation in two linked albums from metal band Kamelot, Epica (2003) and The Black Halo (2005).
Tropes associated with the Faust story in its various versions
- A God Am I: In some versions, Faust actually aspires to divinity.
- All Women Are Lustful: Almost all the women lust after Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust, especially if they're witches. The attraction, however, is not mutual. In Marlowe's version, the only female presences are the spirit of Lust, Helen of Troy (who is presented as a succubus), and the pregnant Duchess.
- Alternate Continuity: Different authors have different takes on this story, including several that show Faust actually outsmarting the devil with whom he makes a pact.
- Whole-Plot Reference: The essential story of Faust, in particular the Marlowe and Goethe versions, has been lifted for dozens, if not hundreds, of works over the centuries. Modern examples include Spawn, Preacher (Comic Book), and Madoka Magica (though the last isn't obvious at first). Also seen in the Blue Exorcist anime- notice the name Mephistopheles.
- Altum Videtur: Various versions use Latin for Faust's spells.
- Anti-Hero: More or less, depending on how sympathetic the author is with Faust's dissatisfaction with the moral set-up of his world.
- Black Magic: As in, derived from devils.
- Cast From Lifespan: The price Faust has to pay for his magic.
- Celebrity Is Overrated: Depending on the author, can be the reason Faust makes his bargain — or the reason he regrets it.
- The Dark Side Will Make You Forget: In many versions, Faust starts out with good intentions, which he gradually pays less and less attention to as he goes along — even, in some versions, to the point of complete dehumanization.
- Deal with the Devil: Pretty much the story's entire plot.
- Defictionalization: Up to the 18th century shady booksellers made a buck with weird 'grimoires' that supposedly were written by Faust, or contained his 'real' magic spells.
- Dragged Off to Hell: The standard finale until Goethe came along.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Despite being the story of a man who makes a Deal with the Devil, being referred to as a tragedy, and being based on a story with a Downer Ending, Goethe's Faust is ultimately saved; the ending explicitly states that he earned his happy ending through his endless striving in his search for philosophical truth.
- Evil Is Not a Toy: Faust's bargain generally involves a great deal of trouble, even if he eventually manages to wriggle out of it.
- Evil Sounds Deep: In musical adaptations, expect Mephistopheles to be a bass or baritone — who at some point will most likely burst into a HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!
- Faustian Rebellion: Trope namer.
- Flaming Devil: Mephistopheles is commonly characterized as latently or overtly homosexual in stage productions. Both Marlowe's and Goethe's versions of the story support these interpretations.
- Good Angel, Bad Angel: Some versions have good angels appear to debate with the demons.
- Historical Domain Character: Besides Faust himself, the Emperor, usually Charles V, and The Pope, though he is rarely specified (Alexander VI and Julius II are possibilities).
- In with the In Crowd: As a result of his bargain, Faust gets to hang with the Emperor and the Pope, not to mention Helen of Troy and Satan.
- Kid with the Leash: Devils are at his beck and call...for a while.
- Noble Demon: Mephistopheles, in some versions.
- Mundane Utility: The all-powerful magician uses his magic to do things like draw wine from a table and play pranks on detractors.
- Popcultural Osmosis: C'mon, how many versions of the Faustian Bargain have you seen actually featuring a guy named Faust?
- Rage Against the Heavens: In some versions, Faust is driven to his course by his sense of God's cruelty and injustice to mankind.
- The Renaissance: Naturally, the setting for the story.
- Satan: He and various associate devils will often show up to support Mephistopheles.
- Summoning Ritual: Nearly every version will feature the scene in which Faust summons Mephistopheles — and sometimes various other summoning scenes as well.
- Sympathy for the Devil: Mephistopheles, in several versions of the story, seems much more sympathetic — and certainly more intelligent — than the relatively blind and completely self-centered Faust.