So you're a doctor in post-medieval Germany who's getting tired of the dreary drudgery of everyday life. What to do when saving the lives of your patients no longer brings you a feeling of satisfaction and joy? Why, turn to satanic magic and summon a devil to use as your own personal slave, of course! We're sure you can guess what happens next.
The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus is 16th-century English playwright Christopher Marlowe's take on the classic legend of Faust, or, as he calls him, Dr. John Faustus. Marlowe, who in his own time was considered something of a rebel and an atheist (which is to say, someone who did not practise the faith exactly as the law said it should be practised; the word could apply to someone who was simply sceptical of the scripture as it was given, someone who blasphemed, or even a Catholic), represents Faustus as a typically Renaissance figure, seeking above all things knowledge — and the expansion of personal wealth and power that knowledge brings. His play is the first version of the story to present the central figure as a character who is somehow magnificent even in the midst of his crimes, exactly because his desires have no limits.
Perhaps the best known part of this play is the famous invocation of Helen of Troy (or, as Faustus calls her, "Helen of Greece"):
- Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?—
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.—
Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus contains examples of the following tropes:
- A Form You Are Comfortable With: This is enforced. Faustus cannot stand Mephistopheles' initial appearance, being a profoundly repulsive image, so he orders him to vanish and reappear as a Franciscan monk.
- Badass Normal: Faustus claims to have cured plagues before making his pact with the devil.
- Break the Haughty: Faustus begins the story by rejecting various scholarly studies, believing he has mastered every one of them. He rejects theology as well, completely misunderstanding the concept of sin leading to death. By the end of the story, Faustus has gone through various kinds of abuse from Mephistopheles, the Devil, and other demons. He's completely distraught, refusing to repent because he's too emotionally broken to realize his options.
- Butt-Dialing Mordor: Though Faustus himself knows what he's getting into when he starts summoning demons, Robin and Dick do not. They're larking around, misreading the Latin as if on purpose, and accidentally summon Mephistopheles himself. He isn't happy at all by their disrespectful methods and transforms them into animals. This trope suggests that there never was anything special to Faustus's original incantations and that he never actually knew what he was doing. As a matter of fact, Mephistophilis implies that Faustus' "magic" mainly "worked" by virtue of being extremely disrespectful to the name of Jehovah. One interpretation is that when the demons heard such blasphemy, they homed in on it looking for easy prey.
- Canis Latinicus: Robin says gibberish that only sounds like it's Latin. However, because of everything he's doing and the context in which he's doing it, he ends up successfully summoning Mephistopheles. This is one of many clues that Faustus isn't so special after all.
- Chronic Villainy: Faustus almost repents a few times throughout the story, but Mephistopheles and Lucifer threaten him enough that he's too scared to actually repent. Even though the Good Angel tells him otherwise, he refuses to admit to himself that he can repent. Even at the end of the play, he cannot get himself to save himself, cravenly asking for more time.
- Comedic Sociopathy: The sequence where Faustus uses his diabolical powers to prank people is both cruel and funny.
- Deal with the Devil: The Trope Codifier; Faustus sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for temporarily having Mephistopheles at his command.
- Despair Event Horizon: After Lucifer introduces Faustus to the sins and threatens to torment him physically should he try to repent, the man loses all hope for redemption. He realizes the severity of his deal but cannot admit to himself that the eternal ethereal peace profoundly outweighs the temporary physical torment.
- Downer Ending: Faustus refuses to repent, desperately begs for more time, and is physically overpowered by a swarm of demons who literally drag him — kicking and screaming — to Hell.
- Evil Is Not a Toy: One of the themes of the play. Namely, man cannot control evil, so don't make deals with Lucifer. He'll get what he wants for eternity while you only get what you want temporarily.
- Evil Is Petty:
- Faustus gains great demonic power and immediately punches the Pope.
- Mephistopheles is summoned on accident by Robin and Dick and so he decides to transform them into animals.
- Evil Makes You Ugly: Mephistopheles implies that Lucifer before his fall was superhumanly beautiful, but the first thing Faustus does upon seeing the present-day Lucifer is ask "Who are you that look so terrible?"
- Evil Virtues: Both Faustus and Mephistopheles have a defining one:
- Faustus is filled with Ambition to a fault. His primary reason for his interest in dark magic is because he refuses to accept any limitation on what he can know or do. It doesn't work out.
- Mephistopheles displays a surprising amount of Honor. He keeps his bargain to the letter, giving Faustus everything that he promises, without abusing possible loopholes based on Exact Words.
- False Reassurance: Mephistopheles is totally honest, but his words (the famous "why this is hell" speech) are vague enough that Faustus can stupidly interpret them however he wants to.
- Flat-Earth Atheist: Despite just summoning a demon from Hell and proceeding to sell his immortal soul to the Devil, Faustus insists to Mephistophiles' annoyance that Hell and damnation are metaphorical.
- Get Thee to a Nunnery: Tons and tons. One of the minor characters mentions that he'd use magic to transform into a flea and crawl into women's plackets, quite literally slits in skirts.
- A God Am I: Faustus says, "A sound magician is a mighty god."
- Good Angel, Bad Angel: Marlowe actually calls the characters Good Angel and Bad Angel in the script.
- Gratuitous Latin: Enforced. This is a play set in Medieval European academia, after all. Academics used Latin because the Church did (the universities, after all, were established to train clergy) and because it meant their scholarship could be understood across Europe. It also has the fringe benefit of making inane debates seem lofty. It becomes a character trait for Faustus, because he uses it to dignify his faulty arguments. This is especially apparent in his opening monologue, where he convinces himself that he's too smart for every academic field with liberal use of out-of-context phrases from the Latin classics.
- Healing Factor: Part of Faustus's deal with the devil. In one version, he regrows a torn-off leg and a severed head.
- Homoerotic Subtext: A fair portion of Mephistopheles' dialogue with Faustus implies homosexuality on the demon's part. It is ambiguous as to whether he feels this way to all humans or to men specifically when he says things like Heaven "is not so fair as [Faustus] or any man that breathes on earth." Stage productions will sometimes make the subtext more explicit.
- Idiot Ball: After being humiliated by Faustus, the knight Benvolio gets a group of knights together to get revenge. Against the scholar with a demon slave and all the powers of Hell. It goes about as well as you'd expect.
- Informed Ability: You'd think a so-called genius like Faustus could come up with more intelligent uses for his powers than pranks and shows.
- His Own Worst Enemy: Ultimately, Mephistopheles does not deceive Faustus at all. Faust makes a Deal with the Devil that's explicitly horrible for him in the long run, squanders the power he does get, and is dragged to hell purely because he's so impulsive and shortsighted.
- Magic Is Evil:
- Magic in this story comes in the form of angels exerting their energy on the physical world. It just so happens that all of the "angels" are actually fallen angels, or demons. Thus, all magic is depicted as evil.
- Two scholars discuss Faustus early in the play, and they realize that he has made a deal with Lucifer. They talk about the two magicians that introduced Faustus to magic, which they consider to be inherently evil.
- Meaningful Name: The demon Faust summons is originally called "Mephostophiles", which is Greek for "Not A Lover of Light". This is one of several implications as to Mephistopheles' true opinion on Lucifer, who is the "Bringer of Light."
- Mundane Utility: Sure, Faustus has the powers of hell at his disposal, but most of the time he uses it to... make fun of the pope? Get fresh grapes in winter for his lady friend? Have sex with Helen of Troy? Faustus eventually realises that he wasted his infinite knowledge for the pettiest of reasons, instead of using said knowledge as he promised before he made that stupid pact, like changing the world for the better. Alas, it is too late, and marks the point where he crosses the Despair Event Horizon.
- Noble Demon: Mephistopheles adheres to Villains Never Lie and does exactly what Faustus tells him so, to make the point that it is Faustus himself who ruined his own life.
- Pride: Faust suffers heavily from hubris. In true Greek style, Faust rejects and questions God, angels and devils thinking himself better and more learned than them
- Religion Is Wrong: The story has Mephistopheles and Hell, but Faustus begins the drama by rejecting religion and Mephistopheles implies that hell and damnation means something different from how Christianity has conceived it.
- Satan is Good: Mephistopheles, ironically, seems to be one of the sanest and most honest characters in the entire play. Not to mention his "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it" speech.
- Self-Inflicted Hell: In this particular adaptation, Faustus truly believes there's no way to repent for his sins, despite freaking angels telling him otherwise. In some versions however, Mephistopheles gloats how he tricked Faustus into going too far to repent.
- Seven Deadly Sins: Faustus meets them in Anthropomorphic Personification form at the beginning.
- Special Person, Normal Name: Faustus's first name is ... John.
- Summoning Ritual: The play features a scene in which Faust summons Mephistopheles from Hell.
- Sycophantic Servant: When Faustus is considering rescinding on their bargain, Satan appears to parade the Sins before him and ask whether they're delightful. Faustus agrees, emphatically, that they are. Because, under the circumstances, disagreeing would be a terminally bad idea.
- Techno Babble: Believe it or not, this comes up in an early conversation between Faustus and Mephistophilis. Faustus quizzes the demon on why the planets move the way they do. Since Mephistophilis' job is to win souls for Hell, not to answer obscure scientific questions, he cops out with the Latin phrase "per inoequalem motum respect totes," which means "by unequal motion relative to the whole." This sounds like real astronomy, especially because of the old Gratuitous Latin thing, but it's so vague and general as to be this trope. It's so vague, it's not even false per se. It's as if you asked how a car worked and somebody told you "by virtue of lubricated mechanical linkages actuated by kinetic energy."
- Third-Person Person: Faustus, especially at the beginning of the play, speaks to himself and uses his name in place of the first-person personal pronoun. This emphasizes his vanity and haughtiness, and it is one of many hints at Faustus's actual intelligence.
- Those Two Guys: Robin and Dick, who provide much of the plays comic relief by using Faustus's magic to dick around.
- Too Clever by Half: Mephistopheles manipulates Faustus into convincing himself to take the deal. In particular, Mephistopheles reasons that if he is a demon and if he exists, then God and Hell must also exist, due to what a demon is. Faustus, however, argues that just because one part of a story is true does not make other parts true. It's a fallacious argument because the "other parts" (the existence of God and Hell) are necessary for the first part to be true (the existence of demons, a.k.a. fallen angels).
- Unexpectedly Real Magic: Inverted when John Faustus recites a conjuring spell he is given, so when the messenger to the Devil appears, Faustus thinks that it has somehow worked. The demon tells him that it didn't work, but he was listening anyway and decided to find out what Faustus was doing, especially because Faustus was blaspheming and the demon really likes that.
- With Great Power Comes Great Perks: Faustus uses Mephisto's phenomenal cosmic powers to pull pranks and get women.
- Would Hurt a Child: Before summoning Mephistopheles, Faustus mentions how he would build an altar and church to sacrifice newborns to Beelzebub on. It's unclear if he would actually do it, however.