Hellish Falls: Faustus’s Dismemberment, Phaeton’s Limbs and Other Renaissance Aviation Disasters—Part I

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With its aerial voyages and ominous allusions to the failed aviators Icarus, Lucifer and Simon Magus, Doctor Faustus presents an uncanny commentary on the Renaissance dream of flight. This article uncovers Marlowe's infatuation with human flight as the ultimate act of physical, intellectual and spiritual trangression. So the grisly addition to the B-text, in which a group of scholars examine—like a forensics team at a crash site—the carnage of Faustus's “mangled limbs”, is more than a lurid flourish. Mangled limbs are splattered all over the annals of pre-modern aviation. While implicating the play in Renaissance aeronautics, this study of Faustus also has some eye-opening implications for theatre history. Faustus was penned at a time when on-stage ascents and descents became increasingly feasible, and Marlowe's Icarian muse may have spurred the Admiral's Men to interpolate more spectacular flying effects, taking advantage of the throne, pulleys and dragons recorded in Henslowe's Diary. The revisions to Faustus not only showcase the flight-simulation capabilities of the Admiral's playhouses but also associate Marlowe's conjuror with other presumptuous aeronauts in the company's repertoire. In particular, Part II of this essay (to be published in a forthcoming issue of English Studies) will argue that Faustus's “hellish fall” and dismemberment mirrors that of Phaeton, the titular protagonist of a lost play performed by the Admiral's Men in 1598. While reading the fall of these characters as a literal enactment of de casibus tragedy, Part II concludes that the increasingly sophisticated aerial stunts reflect a technological optimism about transhuman flight that undercuts the Chorus's warning not to “practice more than heavenly power permits”.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)254-276
Number of pages23
JournalEnglish Studies
Issue number3
Early online date1 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2 Apr 2016


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