Displays of magic – Metatheatre?

The scenes of magical display within Dr Faustus obviously play an essential role within the plot, through these displays the audience is continually reminded what exactly Faustus traded for his soul, the ability to use black magic.

Whilst reading Dr Faustus, one of the main things that sparked my interest was the element of performance within these displays of magic.  Faustus’ conjuring up of Alexander for the Emperor within lines 36 and 57 during scene 9 epitomizes the performance filled delivery of his magic.

Faustus creates somewhat of a spectacle and performance within the practicing of magic to perhaps magnify the awe that it creates from the spectators and thus acting to augment his power. When asked by the Emperor to conjure up Alexander, he directly replies that he is “able to perform” (9. 37), he is not only merely saying that he can complete the task, it perhaps also suggests his perception of the act as again, a performance to inspire astonishment from, in this case, the Emperor.

For me, this is interesting as I can make somewhat of a connection between this to the concept of metatheatre, a device used so frequently within Shakespeare’s works. Metatheatre being the concept of a play within a play but also a performance within a performance, the question that therefore strikes me is, are Faustus’ performances of magic a form of metatheatre?

In Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, the scene in which Malvolio puts on the cross gartered yellow stockings at the supposed request of Olivia acts as a form of metatheatre where the ritual of actors putting on a costume before performance is somewhat emulated by Malvolio. I think perhaps the same idea can be applied to Faustus’ theatrical and dramatic application of magic. The way in which he reveals Alexander, “Here they are, my gracious lord”(9. 56) is something that comes across as theatrical and dramatic with the short nature of the line in contrast with his long preceding lines. This image conjured up resembles the revealing of the stage in theatre when the play begins and the curtains are drawn which essentially connotes ‘here is the performance’. The dramatic nature of Faustus needing to announce, “here they are” rather than letting the conjured image of Alexander speak for itself, which it would due to the visual nature of theatre, suggests that Faustus is trying to enhance the spectacle of his magic. The spectacle is again reinforced when he gives the Knight antlers shortly after, a completely unnecessary magical display that merely shows off his power in a somewhat theatrical, comedic manner.

Faustus performing within the performance and creating ‘the spectacle’ in the same way that all theatre aims to do is certainly a method of increasing his perceived power, however, my interest within these magical displays lies within whether they can be described as a form of metatheatre in the same way certain elements of Shakespeare’s plays can be or if it is merely too far of a stretch to do so.


Marlowe, Christopher. “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus”. Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. Print

Shakespeare, William. “Twelfth Night.” The Norton Shakespeare. Comp. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Andrew Gurr. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. 453-506. Print.

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2 Responses to Displays of magic – Metatheatre?

  1. Stephanie Van Dewark says:

    I like this idea of Faustus adopting an air of performance while using magic. I think you are definitely right, this is a form of metatheater, especially since magic is not something that Faustus possesses naturally; he adopts it, in the same way a actor/actress adopts a character. In fact, you could even argue that modern actors and actresses sign their life away to the movie industry in much the same way Faustus sells his soul (hmm this would make a great modern adaptation of the play). In any case, I think it would be interesting to examine how Faustus changes as a character when preforming magic as opposed to when he is not. I think it is in those moments when he isn’t using magic that he begins to doubt his decision.

  2. nicolericher says:

    I think that his illusions could be a form of metatheatre in the way you’re proposing that he adds a show to his conjuring. However, my reading of Fautus scenes when he used black magic was that he was being flamboyant about it so his audience were well aware of his part in the illusion. A major theme in Dr. Faustus was his excessive pride, so it became necessary for everyone to be equally awestruck by him as they were by his illusions. So, Faustus isn’t so much an actor in a magical play within a play, as he is simply a completing element of his conjuring. In the end, isn’t it his inability to separate himself from the illusions that pronounces his pride and ultimately his doom?
    (I agree Steph, actors selling themselves to the movie industry as Faustus did for black magic, would be an excellent idea for an adaptation.)

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