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One Devil Too Many: Understanding the Language of Magic Spells in the English Renaissance

Keywords: Early Modern English , Christopher Marlowe , The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus , John Dee , Speech act theory , Martin Heidegger , Emmanuel Levinas , Enochian , language theory , religion , magic

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Attempting to explain the mass hysteria generated by demonic apparitions during Elizabethan and Jacobean performances of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, this paper complicates Andrew Sofer’s recent assertion that audiences were responding to the frisson afforded by Marlowe’s play between constantive and performative speech-acts. Instead, the paper provides an analysis of Doctor John Dee’s Enochian language (which it concludes is properly understood to be a fragmentary and enciphered form of English) and his ‘Angelical conversations’—real life attempts to summon supernatural beings—which resulted in much the same effects. The paper, having thus discarded an effective difference between dramaturgical and practical summoning rituals from evidence, then utilizes several strains of speech-act theory (Austin, Searle) and continental philosophy (Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida) to explain why no such split is possible: all language is necessarily constantive; all language participates in the authoring of reality, and as such, all language is, properly understood, ‘magic.’ It further suggests that these moments of epistemic/linguistic breakdown (and even terror) are caused by our encounter with the radical and inhuman ‘Other’ that is the necessary and originary interlocutor of all speech.


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