‘Within this circle…’ Magic Circles and Doctor Faustus.We asked…

‘Within this circle…’ Magic Circles and Doctor Faustus.

We asked our Research team to tell us a bit about magic circles and how they feature in Doctor Faustus

Within this circle is Jehovah’s name
Forward and backward anagrammatized,
The [ab]breviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs and erring stars,
By which the spirits are enforced to rise.

Doctor Faustus
Act 1, Scene 3

Open up a 1616 edition of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and you’ll find the play’s title figure, book in one hand, staff in another, standing within a circle, about to greet a devil who is emerging from the floor to his left. But what does this snapshot of early modern necromancy tell us about magic spells and circles?  

Medieval treatises tell us that magic circles had two main functions: they boosted the powers of the conjurer, and they protected them from the unfriendly spirits that could inadvertently be called up. One fifteenth-century manuscript instructs the would-be magician to ‘sign’ or bless the circle with a magic wand, and repeat the following: ‘I make this circle in honour of the Holy Trinity […] a place of protection and refuge which the demons cannot violate, enter, defile, touch, or even fly over; they must appear in a place designated for the outside the circle’. In his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), Reginald Scot also offers directions for such spells, instructing the conjurer to ‘make a circle’, ensuring that he ‘close again the place, there where thou wentest in’ once the mage has placed himself within it.

Not all magic circles looked the same. They could be traced on the earth, or inscribed on parchment; they could be simple or ornate in design. More often, like the one we see on the floor of Faustus’ study, these circles were made up of complex inscriptions and symbols (typically snatches of scripture or names for God) with designated positions for specific magical objects, including the conjurer him- or herself.

Amongst the names of saints and astrological symbols, the specific inscription that Faustus figures into his circle is an anagram of ‘Jehovah’, the Hebrew name for God. Inscribing this on his floor, Faustus not only flouts taboos that forbade writing the name but also mocks the belief that divine anagrams could bring mortals closer to God by using this specific inscription to conjure the devil.  

Magic circles are part of the Faust story, and can be found in the German legend which Marlowe drew from. In the English translation, The History and Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus (1592), Faustus is described conjuring in a forest:

[Faustus] made with a wand a Circle in the dust, and within that many more Circles and Characters … [then] began Doctor Faustus to call for Mephistophiles  the Spirite.

The circle is a space of safety, providing protection from Mephistopheles who is unable to penetrate it.

Magic circles are also part of the staging of the Faust story. One apocryphal account of a performance of Marlowe’s play at Exeter tells of one too many devils in the detail:

As a certain number of devils kept everyone his circle there, and as Faustus was busy in his magical invocations, on a sudden they were all dashed, every one harkening the other in the ear, for they were all persuaded, there was one devil too many amongst them…

Such anecdotes of extra devils appearing on stage and frightening the audience have become part of the Faustus legacy. They serve as a reminder that while Faustus might think he stands safe within the circumference of his circle while making his magic invocations, there is no guarantee that the safety extends beyond the stage…

Doctor Faustus is in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 2 February 2019.