Analysis of the Use of Performative Speech in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

In Marlowe’s, Dr. Faustus, the use of performative speech is highly evident. Through the use of performative speech, Marlowe explores ideas such as the purpose of drama, social class, and the nature of evil. However, before one can fully understand Marlowe’s use of performative speech in Dr. Faustus, it is important to know what performative speech is and how to identify it. According to the article “Performative,” on Glottopedia.org, which examines the lectures by John Langshaw Austin, “Performatives are used to carry out an action. In that they differ from other types of declarative sentences (constatives) which only describe the world (constatives) in systematic ways.

According to Álvarez, in her paper presenting the theories of J.L Austin, titled, “Performative Speech Act Verbs in Present Day English,” she states, “In performative utterances, some kind of action is being done at the moment of uttering by the person who utters” (2). Álvarez also goes on to list some characteristics of performative speech according to J.L Austin, one being, “the uttering of the ‘statement’ carries out the act named by the verb, that is, it implies something more than just saying words (2).” Once determining the meaning of performative speech and how it is used in writing, it is easy to spot Marlowe’s use of it and how that he uses it to explore the purpose of drama, social status, and the nature of evil.

In Andrew Sofer’s article, “How to Do Things with Demons: Conjuring Performatives in Dr. Faustus” it is stated, “conjuring models a performative speech act that blurs the lines between the distinction of theater and magic (2). During the performance of the play, many audience members believed that it was not all just an act, but that Faustus was, in fact, really conjuring a demon through his summonses. Elizabethan audiences reported seeing “one devil too many appearing on stage during performances of Faustus” (2). It was most likely the potential for magic through drama and through the actor’s performative speeches that enthralled the audiences, causing them to see things, such as devils, that were not really there.

In the same article by Sofer, it is stated, “I argue here that much of the fascination conjuring held for Elizabethan audiences can be traced to its unnerving performative potential” (2). Marlowe’s, Dr. Faustus, certainly enacts performative speech through drama and the actors’ acting in the play. Performative speech is seen many times throughout the play but especially stands out to the audience, especially during the Elizabethan period, through dramatic soliloquies to summon demons. The drama and use of performative speech is so powerful that it has the effect of making audiences see what is not even there. Marlowe’s, Dr. Faustus, is most definitely a successful example of how to use performative speech to build the dramatics in a play.

In the play, Faustus is recognized by his social and educational status as a doctor, but we also know that at first he was nothing but an ordinary man who originated from a humble background and was born to humble parents, this can be seen in the Norton Anthology text, “Now is he born, his parents base of stock” (680).

Because of this, it is not startling that issues of education, and the social status that comes along with it, are at the center of the story line and are of so much importance to Faustus. Marlowe examines the idea of formal education and its association with social status and power. Higher education often promotes one to a higher social class and moves one up in the so called, social hierarchy. It is through education that Faustus goes from just “Faustus,” a man of humble origins, to “Dr. Faustus,” a scholar differentiated from the lowly. However, Faustus knows that not everything can be learned through the traditional way. In his opening soliloquy, Faustus rejects the traditional areas of study because what he seeks from Mephistopheles cannot be obtained through traditional ways.

In this soliloquy, one see’s Faustus in his study talking to himself. Marlowe uses Faustus’s own words to expose Faustus’s own blind spots. In his speech, for example, he establishes a hierarchy of disciplines by showing which are nobler than others. He does not want only to protect men’s bodies through medicine, nor does he want to protect their property through law. He wants bigger and better things, and so he proceeds on to religion and dark magic (681-682). He focuses his mind on magic and sends for his friend to come teach him the ways of magic. He is taught the summonses that he needs to recite in order to call for the demons and thus he recites them, again using performative speech. For Faustus, knowledge means power. He desires knowledge with no limits because of the social power, freedom, and riches that come with it; and indeed, the power that Faustus possesses with his magic is due to his knowledge of magic summonses. In Marlowe’s play he suggests that there are limits that come along with proper knowledge and education. The desire to learn is not fundamentally negative, but Faustus goes too far and seeks to know too much for the personal gain of social status and great riches.

There are two ways to view evil in the play; these being the nature of evil for the actual actors and the nature of evil in the actual context of the play. During the Elizabethan time period, the time in which Dr. Faustus was written and performed, black magic was considered evil. So, what did it mean to recite black magic on stage as an Elizabethan actor? Did they fear being damned themselves because of this evil? By the logic that these actors were reciting conjuring’s through performative speech, they were made under safe conditions, since they were on stage and were for an act of “performance.” So, while it may seem as if the actors were really going to conjure devils, they were in fact acting and using performative speech. The next way to view evil is in the actual context of the play.

According to the journal article by Warren D. Smith, “The Nature of Evil in Dr. Faustus, “Miss Ellis-Fermor has gone so far as to declare the protagonist guilty of nothing more than frivolity during the twenty-four years of the contract of the contract with Mephistopheles, and Miss Lily B. Campbell, also unable to detect evil in the antics of the hero, has come to the conclusion that the only sin committed by Faustus during the course of the action is the sin of despair” (175). While many view the play as being intently evil, it in fact teaches a lesson against evil and displays the consequences that come along with such evil doings. In a way, it offers an argument against sin by establishing evil. One can see how by “refusing to take evil as a temptation worthy as an aspiring mind, he makes it, (evil) completely unattractive by reducing it to its essential smallness (175). Faustus learns that the realization of sin falls below the original anticipation of what was expected. As soon as Faustus makes his bargain with the devil, he begins to see the limitations of Mephistopheles’ powers, thus being let down and realizing that maybe his decision and the bargain he made was not worth it.

Overall, the use of performative speech is seen all throughout Christopher Marlowe’s, Doctor Faustus. It is important to understand what performative speech is before it can be picked out through text, but once discovered, it makes a text or play much more action driven and almost realistic. Marlowe’s use of performative speech made his play widely successful, especially to the Elizabethan audience at the time. His use of performative speech helped drive the play and helped explore many ideas more thoroughly such as: the purpose of drama, social status, and the nature of evil.

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