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Unpardonable Sins: The Hazards of Performative Language in the Tragic Cases of Francesco Spiera and DoctorFaustas Daniel Gates In 1548, Francesco Spiera, an Italian Protestant who had been compelled to abjure his faith by the Roman Inquisition, died under the conviction that in acquiescing to the Inquisition's demands he had committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. His case became a sensation among Protestants on the Continent and in England; his story enjoyed a long life especially among English Protestants who rejected the established Church, and was retold several times in different editions from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.Until a short time ago,Spiera was a footnote in English literaryhistory,mainlypart of the background for readers of Doctor Faustus, GraceAbounding to the ChiefofSinners, or Clarissa.1 But new examinations of Spiera's case by John Stachniewski, Michael MacDonald, and M. A. Overell have helped to illuminate its long circulation among English nonconformists; their studies have shown how Spiera's story served as a dire warning against the sin ofdespair and as an illustration ofthe consequences ofrenouncing one's beliefs under external pressure.2What has not always been apparent in these analyses is the intersection of this dramatic case with recent investigations into the power of performative language. Spiera's story in fact demonstrates a central concern in the theory ofspeech acts, the uncanny ability of a failed performative to exceed or thwart the intentions of its speaker. His tragic story proved so compelling in early modern England because it portrayed the immense power of ritual utterances at a moment when the nature of such words was an object of 59 60ComparativeDrama violent contention—a contention most evident in multiple competing interpretations of the Eucharist. Spiera's case reveals in particular the stakes of the language of confessions and affiliations in an age when sectarian self-identification could bear grave risks. Falsely claiming to be something one is not, or alternatively confessing one's true identity, are possibilities that his story dramatized for religious nonconformists in early modern Europe. The case ofFrancesco Spiera intervenes in this historybypresenting a theoryofperformative language that ascribes an immense power to ritual formulae. Although DoctorFaustusdoes share with the Spiera storythe depiction ofa desperate spiritual crisis,the play in fact contradicts the essential power of language as it appears in the Spiera case. Instead, Marlowe's play illustrates the impotence of necromantic spells, mocking by implication the potential theatricality ofsuch orthodox institutions as divinity and the law. Spiera's story concerns a series ofdisastrously failed speech acts, the most important of which reveal die power of language to perform in excess of its speaker's intention. Infelicitous speech acts, as J. L. Austin terms them,have been particularly important in recent examinations of gender in terms ofperformance, including, most prominently, the work of Judith Butìer. But while the appearance of Gender Trouble in 1990 revolutionized discussions ofsex, gender, and sexuality because it challengedsoprofoundlythe notion ofessential sexual identities,it also provoked uncertainty about our ability to subvert or modify the cultural production ofthese identities.3 In particular,manyobjected that Butlers theory posits a subject whose agency is hopelessly circumscribed.4 Yet this potentiallyconfusing challenge to the model ofa subjectwho chooses between performances is an important aspect of Butler's attempt to account for the uncertain outcome ofany performance: the choices a subject may make and the intention implicit in a particular performance do not necessarily influence that performance's reception. For this reason, Butler presents gender as a series ofreiterated actions open to the interpretation of an audience of observers who might be approving, critical, or perhaps oblivious—in otherwords,open to failure.The intention that motivates the performance cannot influence the manner in which it is received; the same performer,carryingout the same performance ofgender with the same intentions, might in different contexts encounter Daniel Gates61 hostility, indifference, or, at the other end of the spectrum, welcome. Because of its recognition of failure, Butler's analysis emphasizes that discursive conventions have a life oftheir own: they are at times vulnerable to our deliberate modifications, but they also bear the potential to surprise us with unforeseen effects that one would neither have hoped...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 59-81
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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