Shakespeare's Sonnets Essay - What May Words Do? The Performative of Praise in Shakespeare's Sonnets

William Shakespeare

What May Words Do? The Performative of Praise in Shakespeare's Sonnets


What May Words Do? The Performative of Praise in Shakespeare's Sonnets

David Schalkwyk, University of Cape Town

In a previous essay on Shakespeare's sonnets and their relation to performance, I have suggested that it may not be especially fruitful to approach these sonnets in particular, and early modern Petrarchan poetry in general, by assuming that their linguistic aims are primarily epistemological.1 I argue in that essay that commentators' mistaken assumptions about what the language of the sonnets is doing lead them to overlook the ways in which a sonnet's conditions of address are embodied in particular social and political contexts of performance. To pursue the fact of embodiment as the condition of a sonnet's address, I claim,

is to problematize the relationship between the signified and the referent—that is, between the embodied addressee and addressor on the one hand and the actual circumstances of the address, including a material context of uneven social relations, on the other—and to leaven the concept of subjectivity with the public reality of an audience.2

In the present essay I wish to take this argument further, this time by shifting attention from the generally theatrical notion of performance to the more philosophically technical concept of the performative as a particular use of language not confined to any genre. I shall argue that Shakespeare's sonnets use language as neither epistemology nor description but as a form of social action: in a series of performatives in which the power relations between "you" and "I" are negotiated.

The concept of the performative comes from J. L. Austin, who made explicit in philosophical terms what users of language have always known intuitively: that a form which at first glance looks like a description may in fact be doing something quite different.3 When Astrophil cries out "What may words say, or what may words not say, / Where truth itself must speak like flattery?"4 his invocation of the limits of words overlooks their power to transform, rather than merely to reflect, a situation. Better to have asked what words may do, for then Astrophil might have negotiated more successfully, as Shakespeare does, the dilemma between truth and flattery.

Many of Shakespeare's sonnets to the young man attempt to negotiate the unequal political and social relationship between actor-poet and aristocratic patron via performative uses of language. The actor-poet seeks, sometimes in vain, not so much to persuade careless nobility as to bring about something in the saying of it. Thus I hope to demonstrate that in the sonnets negotiations between power and weakness, authority and subordination, are bound up with performative rather than descriptive uses of language, and that such performatives are the means by which the actor-poet negotiates a politics of self-authorization. The illocutionary force of the performative constitutes a major part of that "dynamic, unending slippage between power and powerlessness and between one of their principle sources, success and failure," which Heather Dubrow has characterized as being typically Petrarchan.5 Even if Shakespeare was not acquainted with Austin, his poetic practice reveals a subtle understanding of the ways in which the necessary logic of the illocutionary act, as opposed to the merely contingent force of a perlocutionary or rhetorical utterance, may transform the relationship between addressor and addressee. In Shakespeare's sonnets language is mobilized not merely to say that things are so descriptively, or to move an audience through rhetorical skill merely by saying something, but to transform a situation, to make it so of conventional necessity in saying something.6

My analysis of Shakespeare's illocutionary logic is divided into three sections, each of which explores an aspect of the performative in Shakespeare's sonnets: 1) the ways in which the actor-poet attempts to negate the rhetoric of his rival through what I call the quasi-performative; 2) the illocutionary logic of tautology in the poems; and 3) the use of performative language to avoid the question of truthfulness altogether through the powers of illocutionary transformation. I shall follow the method of my 1994 SQ essay by reading the poetry in conjunction with similar moments or uses in the drama, particularly Antony and Cleopatra. Through its overt staging of the performative—its performance of the performative—the play renders more explicit the nature of speech acts in the poems. Austin reminds us that such speech acts are apt to disguise their actual nature by masquerading in the guise of constative or descriptive forms.7 Such formal masquerading has led to their actual force being overlooked in the first place. I shall thus begin with a well-known scene from Antony and Cleopatra, before going on to discuss the sonnets concerned with the rival poet, in order to show how a concern with theatricality and performativity in the play might illuminate the anti-theatrical performatives of Sonnet 23.


Recall the moment, in Act 5 of Antony and Cleopatra, when both the historical queen of Egypt and the boy-actor representing her appear as a duck/rabbit figure glimpsed for a moment, impossibly, in both aspects at the same time:

CLEOPATRA Nay, 'tis most certain, Iras. Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o'tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
Γ the posture of a whore.

IRAS O the good gods!
CLEOPATRA Nay, that's certain.


The "impossible" perception of both aspects, queen and actor, at the same time is, in contrast to two-dimensional figures like the duck-rabbit drawing, made possible by the bifold nature of theatrical performance. Here embodied action and spoken verse provide a double perspective, by which Gorgon and Mars can be presented simultaneously.9 In a moment of almost vertiginous self-reflexivity, we observe a figure, representing a historical character, entertaining the horrible thought of being the spectator of the unflattering representation of herself. The horror lies both in its inevitability ("Nay, 'tis certain") and in its reflection of the powerlessness of the represented subject before the authority of representation and performance embodied in the transformative shape of the actor. This force is particularly well conveyed by the poetic transformation of the noun boy into a verb. But the self-reflexivity that enables us to entertain at once the double aspect of Cleopatra as boy-actor and historical figure, as "queen" and "whore," is itself the re-mark of its own powerful effect. This capacity of representation to reflect upon both itself and the conditions of its own possibility, thereby displaying its limitations and precariousness, is precisely the sign of its massive authority. The scene calls attention to what Robert Weimann terms the "bifold authority" of theatrical performance: the authority of the actor to represent, transform, and limit the authority of a class that was the patron of and the most influential and powerful audience of the Jacobean theater.10

Shakespeare's Sonnet 23 is equally concerned with the anxiety of representation through performance, although it expresses the other side of the "bifold authority" exemplified in Cleopatra's speech. It presents the perspective of an actor overwhelmed by the feeling of impotent vulnerability before an audience made powerful both by its social and political position and by its formal capacity merely as audience to take offense:

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heart;
So I for fear of trust forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love's rite,
And in mine own love's strength seem to decay,
O'ercharged with burthen of mine own love's might.
O let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed.
O learn to read what silent love hath writ.
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine writ.


Sharing the double aspect of Cleopatra's speech, this sonnet displays the imbrication of theatrical and political differences of situation and power. It is one of the key poems in the subsequence addressed to the young man, since it conveys more powerfully than any other the inarticulateness of the actor before an aristocratic audience and views the silence of that audience as a source of power rather than as a sign of repression.12

The political and cultural inequality of the relationship between addressor and addressee is reflected in the asymmetrical distribution of silence and speech across actor and audience. The stage-fright expressed in the opening line arises from the poet's acute sense of vulnerability and inadequacy, both as "unperfect actor" and on account of the socially inappropriate strength of his passion for that distant patron. Whereas the silence of stage fright signifies the actor-poet's social inadequacy, the absence of the patron's voice from the poem mutely expresses the patron's overwhelming authority. The sonnet owes its existence to the fact that, as a poet, the actor, however "unperfect," can make that silence speak through the written word. By urging the patron to withdraw to the more private space of the page, and by enacting such a withdrawal through the poem itself, the actor-poet hopes to create a place in which the "Injurious distance" (44.2), imposed by both his inappropriate theatricality and his status in the theater as social institution, may be diminished.13 Eloquence is, unusually, here the reflection of impotence rather than a sign of accomplishment, and the poem itself is a paradoxically eloquent plea to be allowed to leave out difference (105.8) by moving into a private sphere with the beloved as poet rather than as tongue-tied actor. Only via the eloquent silence of writing, which matches the powerfully significant silence of the patron, will the actor-poet be able to assume a less abject position. It is in order to achieve this transformation that the speaker (who in the world of the poem does not [yet] abandon the exposure of the actor) resorts rather desperately to a series of performatives: "O let my books. .. . O learn to read." Through these illocutionary acts, the beloved is urged to negate the differences in rank and love—differences historically represented by the public distance between stage and spectator—in the supposedly socially undifferentiated exchange of written texts.

Sonnet 23 is only a moment in a sequence of negotiations and renegotiations between actor-poet and aristocratic youth, and the failure of the negotiations is made clear by the number of sonnets that continue to be informed by the actor-poet's acute awareness of his status as performer. He finally embraces this condition at the end of the narrative—"my nature is subdued / To what it works in, like the dyer's hand" (111.6-7)—but not before he has used the illocu tionary force of his verse to transform the conventions of praise. In other sonnets Shakespeare's actor-poet does attempt to resolve differences of social rank and patronage via conventional arguments comparing the plain truth of his own style with the false persuasive force of ornament used by other poets. But here the actor-poet's appeals to what Joel Fineman calls a Cratylitic "poetics of a unified and unifying eye"14 are a cover for a much more forceful, performative dimension. In the last analysis such appeals do not seek an epistemological correspondence among sight, word, and object but rather negotiate a series of pragmatically determined social and erotic consummations through the force of illocutionary or quasi-illocutionary speech acts.

The claim in Sonnet 23 that the poet's silent appeal via the ear can say "more than that tongue that more hath more expressed" is probably an early reference to the rivalry with the unknown poet, which is dealt with explicitly in the sonnets following 76. If so, it shows that one cannot simply avoid the "bifold authority" of performance and representation by abandoning the eloquence of the theater for the unstaged, private muteness of the book. The performative power of verse can be imitated, even superseded, and the private space that binds poet and reader invaded by others more authoritative, more favored, or more persuasive. It is thus the dynamic power of the rival poet's writing—"the proud full said of his great verse, / Bound of the prize of all too precious you" (86.1-2)—that the actor-poet fears in the relationship between his rival and his patron. This relationship is itself the silent expression of a "silent love," feared not for its power to mirror its addressee but rather to make its way into his heart.

Like Puttenham, Shakespeare deals with the problem of similitude in an unmetaphysical, flexibly strategic way, as different forms of social action impress themselves upon him in his...

(The entire section is 3519 words.)


When Shakespeare's actor-poet claims that tautology is the highest form of praise, this is a performative utterance which does not describe the young man but rather instantiates him as the paradigm from which beauty gets its name. As such a paradigm, the young man is beyond description. He is the standard from which words such as fair, kind, and true derive their meanings. It is logically and socially inappropriate to apply those concepts to him, since they are derived from him. We can see the logic of this argument more clearly by looking at an example from Wittgenstein: to say that the standard meter is a meter long is not to describe it but rather to institute it as a rule for the...

(The entire section is 2783 words.)


Antony and Cleopatra is imbued with a philosophy of language and the imaginary that transcends classical oppositions between fact and fiction. Lying between truth and fancy, history and fiction—"dolphinlike" as Antony's desires—the figure that Cleopatra imagines is the object of a performative use of language that is neither true nor false but, rather, enacts or brings into being the figure of which it speaks. To read Cleopatra's utterance as the object of a truth-claim is, like Dolabella, to deny that it does or ever could exist. But to see it for what it is—a different language-game, as Wittgenstein would say, and one that could be said to constitute epideixis as such—is to find "new heaven, new...

(The entire section is 2908 words.)