What did it mean for an Elizabethan actor to perform black magic on the early modern stage? What characterized the extraordinary “symbolic utterances” that constituted black magic, at least in the Elizabethan popular imagination? Viewing Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus through J. L. Austin’s theories of performative speech, this essay investigates the fascination conjuring held for Elizabethan audiences, tracing its unnerving performative potential. In Doctor Faustus, conjuring models a performative speech act that threatens to blur the distinction between theatre and magic. The play’s power in performance relied on keeping the ontological stakes of black magic deliberately uncertain. Far from dismissing black magic as mere charlatanism, Doctor Faustus equated conjuring with the dangerous verbal magic of performativity itself. It was precisely the potential for inadvertent magic on the part of the players that thrilled and alarmed Elizabethan audiences, causing them to see devils that were not literally there. Doctor Faustus at once enacts and critiques performative speech, challenging Austin’s distinction between “efficacious” (successful) performatives and “hollow” (unsuccessful) theatrical quotations of them.


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pp. 1-21
Launched on MUSE
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