Article Title

Unpardonable Sins: The Hazards of Performative Language in the Tragic Cases of Francesco Spiera and Doctor Faustus


Daniel Gates


The story of Francesco Spiera, an Italian Protestant who died in 1548 in despair, convinced that he had committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit after publicly renouncing his faith and reconverting to Catholicism, has long been recognized as a possible source for Doctor Faustus. This article reexamines both the 1570 translation of Spiera’s story into English and its connection to Faustus in the light of recent philosophical investigations into performative language. Despite the striking similarity in Spiera’s and Faustus’s final despair, Marlowe’s play actually subjects the theory of performative language presented in the Spiera story to an iconoclastic analysis. While the Protestant tract presents a dire warning against the unforeseen consequences of performative speech acts, Doctor Faustus challenges this pious view of religious utterances. In contrast to the theory of performative language presented in the tract, the play reveals even the necromancer’s seemingly most potent utterances to be hollowly theatrical, dependent for their power on their ability to persuade others to take appearances for reality.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.