Performative Language in Renaissance Performance


By Laura Estill

© 2006




What is a Speech Act?

Austin’s Basics

            The speech act theory, formulated by J. L. Austin, explains that language can be used not only to describe things, but also to do things.  A speech act, also called an illocutionary act, is an action performed with words, such as the act of thanking occurring when someone says “Thank you.”  Speech acts use performative language.  A basic speech act is generally a sentence that begins with I, that uses a performative verb in the present tense, that often has you as the object, and that has a prepositional addition to describe the specifics of the act, such as I beseech you to defend my honour.  Traditionally given examples of speech acts include command, bid, beseech, demand, plead, deny, confess, vow, protest, etc. (Elam Shakespeare 202).


Searle’s additions to the Speech Act Theory

John Searle extensively added to and modified Austin’s theory of speech acts by further classifying the different kinds of speech acts.  Searle claimed that for speech acts to be valid, there needs to be intent; if somebody utters an insincere promise, this is not a speech act.  Searle further changed the speech act theory by explaining that since it is an act of communication, the hearer is an integral part of the equation: if a speaker attempts to use performative language but the hearer does not understand, or is not willing to accept, then the illocutionary act has not occurred.  Reasons a speech act could be infelicitous, or in inappropriate circumstances to occur and have effect, are easily explained with the example of a promise.  There are many reasons a promise could be made in infelicitous circumstances:  a promise does not occur if the future act is not predicated on the speaker, if the speaker does not have the authority or social standing to make such a promise, if the speaker does not think the hearer wants the promise to be performed, if the speaker is expected to do the act promised regardless, or if the speaker does not intend to keep his promise.  These are all examples of Searle’s modification of the speech act theory to include infelicitous actions as well as to make the hearer a more integral part of the illocutionary act (Coulthard 22).


Are Speech Acts Relevant to the Theatre?

            When Austin created the speech act theory, he specifically omitted literature and drama in his analysis (Rhodes 32).  Austin claimed that a “performative utterance will … be in a peculiar way hollow if said by an actor on the stage” (Elam Shakespeare 200).  Modern critics, however, apply the speech act theory to theatre, while recognizing that it is more a more complicated area of study.  Theatrical language reveals the relevance of speech acts to theatre, as most theatrical language revolves around the intertwined themes of ‘doing’ and ‘pretending.’ Drama comes from the Greek dran, which means ‘to do.’  Acting is a word that has dual connotations: that of performing an action, as well as that of playing an action or a role.  Performing is another word with two layers; performing is doing, and performing is making-believe.  Speech act criticism, therefore, is supremely relevant to theatre, because it deals with the performance of language.  Indeed, pragmatics, another word for the study of speech acts, is  derived from the Greek word ‘to act,’ or pragma (Elam Shakspeare 177). 


What have we learned about drama from Speech Acts?

A Survey of General Research

Speech act analyses demand “a sentence-based, speaker oriented mode of analysis” (Brown and Levinson 10).  This kind of analysis yields a lot of information when applied to a speaker-oriented genre like theatre.  A character’s ability to use performative language is often an indicator of how much power s/he has in the play.  Many critics have analysed Renaissance drama through these lenses, and have been able to gain further insight into particular plays, particularly tragedies.  Speech Act analyses of tragedies raise issues of social standing, and often lead critics to question who has enough authority over language to use words to perform actions.  Marlowe’s Faustus uses performative language in his acts of necromancy; however, his words are “infelicitous” and imbued with much more power than he intended (Gates 60).  When women use performative language, it can be an indicator of their empowerment, and male characters sometimes use feminized performatives.  Gender issues in theatre are made clearer through illocutionary analysis (Wofford 165, 168-169).  In Richard III, Queen Margaret’s curses both initiate and indicate action, and the play can be read the tragedy of the irreversibility of these curses (Glasov-Corrigan 383-4).  Elena Glasov-Corrigan uses the speech act theory to create a generic analysis of Cymbeline, and finds that its use of language shows it to be in “juxtaposition with tragedy,” rather than a tragedy itself (386).  These critical essays are only a few specific examples of how readings of performative language in tragedies have enhanced our knowledge of many English Renaissance plays. 


Swearing, Vowing and Oaths: A More In-Depth Analysis

            Just as we have seen that speech acts are used in gender analyses, genre studies, and character examinations, one of the ways modern scholars use speech acts is by analysing the power of promises.  Saying “I swear,” “I promise,” or “I vow” are all speech acts.  Oftentimes, in Shakespeare’s plays, using this performative language poorly leads to a character’s downfall, as in Hamlet and 1 Henry IV.  Using performative language poorly comes from not anticipating the power of the performative, not recognizing the appropriate times to perform speech acts, or from not matching physical actions to illocutionary actions.

            In Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father insists that Hamlet swear to remember him. He also insists that Horatio and Marcellus swear not to reveal that they have seen the ghost.   Critics have investigated Hamlet’s swearing: Reta Terry examines the promises in Hamlet, not from a speech act orientation, but with regards to honour. James Black, and more peripherally, William W. E. Slight, have also examined oaths in Hamlet, but the definitive speech act analysis comes from Günter Ahrends. W. H. Auden noted that Hamlet’s status as a tragic hero comes from “his inability to act, for he can only ‘act,’ i.e., play at possibilities” (Bloom 410).  Hamlet’s tragedy could perhaps have been avoided if his physical actions had matched his illocutionary actions.  Perhaps if Hamlet had taken his own advice to “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” (III.ii.17-18) he would have killed Claudius immediately and avoided the tragedy (Ahrends 101).   It is also interesting to note that the actual act of swearing is not scripted, it is given in a stage direction, and Hamlet does not ever actually say “I swear,” he simply states “I have sworn” (III.ii.112). 

            This emphasis on swearing is equally prevalent in Shakespeare’s other plays, particularly the tragedies and histories.  Joseph A. Porter examined the use of speech acts in the Lancastrian Tetralogy of Shakespeare’s plays.  In 1 Henry IV, Hal (or Harry, Prince of Wales), could be considered the play’s protagonist.  He makes frequent promises.  He explicitly promises on stage “In the name of God I promise here” to revenge himself on Percy (III.ii.153).  Hal’s character has been taken as both deceitful and heroic.  His much-debated speech wherein he decides to pretend to be idle for a while longer while planning his reformation, when analysed in terms of speech acts, gives great insight into his character.  He is making a statement of intent “to throw off this loose behaviour” and “falsify men’s hopes,” while also promising “to throw off this loose behaviour” (Porter 77).  He is making a promise to himself that the audience witnesses.  This promise is directed at himself or perhaps God, but it makes his character much more sympathetic in the eyes of the audience (Porter 77).  The second most important vow that Hal makes is to his father, and he realizes its importance when he says, “And I will dye a hundred thousand Deaths, / Ere break the smallest parcel of this Vow” (III.ii.158-9).  The rebels, even though they believe “these promises are fair” (III.i.1), lose power because they cannot maintain illocutionary power.  The rebel forces would have had power, “if promises be kept on every hand” (III.ii.168), but the audience knows that their promises are not being kept (Porter 74-75).  A speech act reading of 1 Henry IV proves that the war is won by those who keep their vows: King Henry, and Hal in particular. 


Extensions of the Speech Act Theory

To name just a few extensions of the speech act theory, it is important to mention Wolfgang Iser and Richard Ohmann’s contributions.  Iser allegorized performative language by claiming that a violation of speech act rules is a violation of generic or societal rules.  Ohmann analysed Shakespeare’s King Lear and Shaw’s Major Barbara, and came to the conclusion that we cannot measure perlocutionary effects of illocutionary acts.  In his 1971 article, Ohmann broadens the scope of the speech act theory to include the macro-speech act of telling a story (Fish). 


Doing Things in Theatre with the Speech Act Theory

Fish and Coriolanus:

Critical Debate around the Speech Act Theory

Stanley E. Fish has argued with Searle’s division of “serious” and “non-serious” or “fictional” writing (1019).  Fish’s 1976 article has been taken by some critics as an attack on the speech act theory: but his argument is for a more refined application of the speech act theory.  Fish argues for the theory to be applied using Searle’s concepts, but Fish extends Searle’s analyses into the realm of fiction.  Fish begins by undertaking an illocutionary analysis of Coriolanus, using this play as an example that supports the idea of the “essential condition” of promising, which Searle argued earlier (993).  Fish argues that Coriolanus “is determined to avoid invoking the proper formula” for promises (988), that Coriolanus specifically creates the circumstances that Searle identified as infelicitous.  Fish claims that his analysis of Coriolanus is valid because Coriolanus is “a speech act play”: a play centered on action created by language.  After analysing Coriolanus, Fish then goes on to attack what he feels are unjustified uses of the speech act theory, namely Iser and Ohmann’s abovementioned articles.  Fish’s article has itself earned critical response, including James Marlow’s reanalysis of Coriolanus using Searle’s theories that takes into account the social status of the speaker, which Fish’s exploration does not.  Gary Wihl criticizes Fish’s equation of all speech acts to imperatives; Wihl then rejects Fish’s analysis of Coriolanus, and concludes by contradicting Fish’s statement that all literary analysis can be understood through pragmatics.


Language and Authority: Beyond Speech Acts?

Which literary critic, then, to believe?  Can Fish’s very specific application of the speech act theory further all literary analysis, or is Wihl correct in assuming that there is more to language than speech acts? Language, particularly powerfully charged performative language, is often linked to authority, which was demonstrated earlier with regards to 1 Henry IV and Richard II.  In the continuing debate surrounding Coriolanus, Moretti has argued that the “absolute” monarchy attempts to stifle the “absolute freedom” of language, but shows that both states are equally negative (7-8).  Plotz believes that Coriolanus offers a view of government that situates itself between slavish obeisance (which he feels that Fish accepted as the governmental mode in the play) and anarchy, the two political and linguistic poles that Moretti identified. Plotz rejects Fish’s illocutionary analysis, and instead creates another language-based examination that demonstrates the political system advocated in Coriolanus: finding a path between absolutist regimes and individualist chaos.  Both Plotz and Moretti, as Coriolanus critics, demonstrate the shortcomings of the speech act theory by proving that there is more than one way to look at language and authority.


The Power of Language in Theatre

            Just as the speech act theory questions who has authority over language, and as critics question the authority of the speech act theory, language and theory question the authority of language in the theatre.  Susanne Wofford argues that “Shakespeare’s theatre contests the control of the performative utterance by the crown, implicitly claiming for itself the right to do things with words” (149).  Wofford claims that in As You Like It, Shakespeare’s portrayal of performative language, namely, a marriage on stage, causes the audience to question “who has the power to make the speech act” (152).  Is a marriage a marriage because the participants say “I do,” or is it a marriage because a minister is there who is appointed with the power to use the performative words “I now pronounce you man and wife”?           

            These questions raised by speech act analyses of the theatre ultimately ask if illocutionary power comes from the speaker or from the language itself. Speech in Richard II has also been studied by Calderwood, and Hapgood, though not through a performative lens. Queen Elizabeth was concerned about having a deposition staged in Richard II (Fitter 1); her discomfort about the power of actions performed with words onstage demonstrates the real effect of speech acts, even when fictionalized in theatre.

In Shakespeare’s plays, language is recognized as powerful.  Curses come true, oaths must be kept or else dire consequences will occur, and actions are constantly performed by the characters in plays.  Shakespeare’s rhetorical devices show how much power he gives language: it is personified as a being capable of murder by Juliet, “Some word there was…/ That murd’red me,” and as a weapon by Romeo, “How hast thou the heart … / To mangle me with that word” (Ryan 124).  A character’s use of language can indicate his/her status as a powerful character, or as an impotent character.  Just as language exists on many different levels for Shakespeare, his use of performatives on stage also has different levels.  Performatives, within the plays, function with their conventional force.  The audience understands that this is a representation of a speech act.  The language, however, at the same time claims performative power for the theatre itself: “I, the theater, appropriate the power to appoint those who [can use performatives]” (Wofford 153).  For many actors, the goal is “acting that is committed to the real performance of illocutionary acts [which] transforms whatever social reality the actors choose to portray into a living reality, at least for the duration of the performance” (Saltz 77).  In a literal way, the theatre itself is a macro-speech act, because staged drama is enacting an action.



Works Cited


Speech Act Theory References


Austin, J. L.  How To Do Things with Words.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1962. 


Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson.  Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1987.


Coulthard, Malcolm.  An Introduction to Discourse Analysis.  2nd ed.  New York: Longman, 1985.


Elam, Keir.  The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama.  2nd ed.  New York: Routledge, 2002.


Fish, Stanley E.  “How To Do Things with Austin and Searle: Speech Act Theory and Literary Criticism.”  Modern Language Notes 91 (1976): 983-1025.


Iser, Wolfgang.  “The Reality of Fiction: A Functionalist Approach to Literature.”  New Literary History 7 (1975) 7-38.


Marlow, James.  “Fish Doing Things with Austin and Searle.”  Modern Language Notes 91 (1976): 1603-1612.


Ohmann, Richard.  “Literature as Act.”  Approach to Poetics.  Ed. Seymour Chatman.  New York: Columbia UP, 1973.  81-108.


- - -.  “Speech, Action, and Style.”  Literary Style: A Symposium.  Ed. Seymour Chatman.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971. 241-259.


Rozik, Eli. “Theatrical Speech Acts: A Theatre Semiotics Approach.” Kodikas/Code/Ars Semeiotica 12 (1989): 41-55.


Saltz, David Z. “The Reality of Doing: Real Speech Acts in the Theatre.” Method Acting Reconsidered: Theory, Practice, Future. Ed. David Krasner. New York, NY: St. Martin's, 2000. 61-79.


Searle, John.  “A Classification of Speech Acts.”  Language and Society 5 (1979): 1-23.


- - -.  Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969.


Wihl, Gary.  “Why the Interpretive Community has Banned Literary Theory.”  Philosophy and Literature 11 (1987) 272-281.



General Shakespeare References


Bloom, Harold.  Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.  New York: Riverhead, 1998.


Elam, Keir.  Shakespeare’s Universe of Discourse:  Language-Games in the Comedies.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.


Kermode, Frank.  Shaksepeares’s Language.  London: Penguin, 2000.


Rhodes, Neil.  Shakespeare and the Origins of English.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.


Slight, William W. E. “‘Swear by thy Gracious Self”: Self-Referential Oaths in Shakespeare.”  English Studies in Canada 13.2 (1987) 147-160.


References for Specific Plays


Ahrends, Günter. “Word and Action in Shakespeare's Hamlet.” Word and Action in Drama: Studies in Honour of Hans-Jürgen Diller on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday. Ed. Günther Ahrends. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher, 1994. 93-105.


Black, James.  “Hamlet’s Vows.” Renaissance and Reformation 2 (1978): 33-42.


Calderwood, James L. Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II to Henry V. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.


Fitter, Chris. “Historicising Shakespeare’s Richard II: Current Events, Dating, and the Sabotage of Essex.” Early Modern Literary Studies 11.2 (2005) 1-47 <>.


Gates, Daniel. “Unpardonable Sins: The Hazards of Performative Language in the Tragic Cases of Francesco Spiera and Doctor Faustus.” Comparative Drama 38 (2004): 59-81.


Glazov-Corrigan, Elena. “Speech Acts, Generic Differences, and the Curious Case of Cymbeline.” SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34 (1994): 379-99.


Hapgood, Robert.  “Shakespeare’s Thematic Modes of Speech: Richard II to Henry V.  Shakespeare and Language.  Ed. Catherine M. S. Alexander.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.  139-150.


Moretti, Franco. “A Huge Eclipse.” Forms of Power and the Power of Forms. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1982. 7-40.  [re: Coriolanus].


Plotz, John.  Coriolanus and the Failure of Performatives.”  English Literary History 63 (1996): 809-932.


Porter, Joseph A.  The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare’s Lancastrian Tetralogy.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.


- - -. “Eloquence and Liminality: Glossing Mercutio's Speech Acts.” Romeo and Juliet. Ed. R. S. White. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2001. 166-193.


Ryan, Kiernan.  “‘The Murdering Word.’”  Romeo and Juliet. Ed. R. S. White. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2001. 116-128.


Terry, Reta.  “‘Vows to the Blackest Devil’: Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England.”  Renaissance Quarterly 52 (1999): 1070-1086.


Wenzel, Peter. “Word and Action in the Mad Scenes of Shakespeare's Tragedies.” Word and Action in Drama: Studies in Honour of Hans-Jürgen Diller on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday. Ed. Günther Ahrends. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher, 1994. 65-80.


Wofford, Susanne L. “‘To you I give myself, for I am yours’: Erotic Performance and Theatrical Performatives in As You Like It.” Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in New Contexts. Ed. Russ McDonald. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994. 147-169.