Speech Acts, Generic Differences, and the Curious Case of Cymbeline - Essay

William Shakespeare

Speech Acts, Generic Differences, and the Curious Case of Cymbeline

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Elena Glazov-Corrigan, University of Saskatchewan

Cymbeline, one of the most unwieldy of Shakespeare's plays, exhibits a sprawling plot, an overwhelming number of characters, a striking lack of coordination between these characters and their language,1 and a last act invariably challenging at every performance with "its twenty-four … dénouements,"2 much hated by Bernard Shaw.3 This essay seeks to show that a striking correspondence exists between the language of the play, "so curiously mixed in [its] style of composition,"4 and the lack of coordination at every other level of the play. My main argument is that the hidden mechanism for this lack of unity is to be found in the play's use of language. It is also in Cymbeline's language, unsuitable for either tragedy or comedy, that one must seek an explanation of its genre. Some basic tenets of Speech Act theory will be invaluable in this analysis, although the essay will also isolate the limitations involved in the application of Speech Acts to the literary text. In view of these difficulties, I shall propose a new avenue of inquiry, namely, the exploration of the relationship between speech acts and the generic characteristics of drama itself.

Speech Acts and Shakespeare Scholarship

There are at least two main reasons for heuristic uncertainty regarding the application of Speech Acts to Shakespearean scholarship. Even if one disregards John L. Austin's initial placement of performative utterances outside the domain of drama (viewed by him as unreal or pretended speech)5 and accepts Searle's definition of artistic discourse as "a serious illocutionary intention" (i.e., a real textual order for actors to pretend and for readers to imagine),6 still the main obstacle to the application of Speech Acts resides in the fact that a strict classification of speech utterances is impossible to uphold.

The basis for differentiation was established by Austin's initial distinction between constatives (statements which can be either true or false) and performatives (utterances in which saying something counts as doing something) and also in his alternative classification of locutionary acts (certain sentences with sense and reference roughly equivalent to meaning), illocutionary acts (utterances which invite a response, e.g., warning, suggesting), and perlocutionary acts (utterances which achieve their goal in the moment of being employed, e.g., misleading, surprising, deterring). It became clear nonetheless to Austin and subsequent investigators not only that in communication acts merge into each other,7 but also that these distinctions are context-oriented,8 and, as other theorists have shown, socially and politically determined.9 In other words, no strict rules of grammar or social reality can adequately explain or measure the progression of language from a binding order to mere suggestion and then to the neutral communication of information.

What then can be the need for Speech Act theory in literary criticism? The major relevance of Speech Act theory to drama remains indisputable: in drama words generate action, or rather a plot unfolds out of a series of Speech Acts,10 and "the action rides on a train of illocutions."11 Thus, the attractiveness of Speech Acts still consists in their central concern with language as action, a concern which coincides with a direction of inquiry central to literary theory, namely, a view of literary language as a generative principle of the artistic work as a whole rather than its secondary characteristic. Nevertheless, once the parallel directions and correspondences of pragmatic linguistics and literary theory are accepted, one immediately encounters a second very real obstacle: the above-mentioned lack of clear rule-tested classifications becomes further complicated by a genuine uncertainty about the practical applicability of even the initial classification to the literary text.

While in theory the view of language as a generative principle of fiction promises a shift from a static view of '"characters' represented by their 'diction'" to an examination of "interpersonal forces responsible for carrying forward the narrative dynamic,"12 in reality this enterprise is locked into a laborious and often sterile cataloguing of multiple utterances.13 The result has been that in almost two decades the application of Speech Acts to Shakespeare has not escaped Stanley Fish's pessimistic conclusion concerning the integration of Austin's theory and Shakespeare's text, a conclusion drawn from Fish's study of the Speech Acts in Coriolanus: "while a Speech Act analysis of such texts will always be possible, it will also be trivial (a mere list of the occurrence or distribution of kinds of acts); while it is the condition of intelligibility that makes all texts possible, not all texts are about those conditions. Coriolanus is about those conditions, and it goes the theory one better by also being about their fragility."14 In other words, Fish suggests that since commands, oaths, promises, and pleadings often fail in Shakespeare's plays, their investigation and cataloguing are ultimately futile.

Speech Acts and Genre: Tragedy and Comedy

It is remarkable that in this conclusion Stanley Fish misses the central discovery of his own analysis: the correspondence between the play's two striking failings, the failure of its protagonist to persuade Roman citizens and the failure of the play itself to secure the effect of tragic action (cf. "it is questionable whether or not it is a true tragedy, or even in the usual sense, a drama").15 Coriolanus refuses to plead; he wants only to command, but as a general among civilians he is surrounded by a democratic Rome which by definition refuses to grant perlocutionary force to the hero.16 Since the sociopolitical situation of civil obedience necessary for the tragic hero is absent from Coriolanus's Rome, the play becomes a depository of the characteristics constituting an alienation from the tragic genre and an abandonment of the central word-mode which nourishes tragedies, that is, the illocutionary utterance with perlocutionary force which, in fact, becomes a binding perlocution, a command which must be carried out, and which, of course, Coriolanus cannot employ.

Viewed in this light the application of Speech Acts to genre permits the reader to enter into new levels of metadrama in Shakespeare. When the binding command of the protagonist is isolated as a form-creating generic characteristic, its prescriptive unconditional goal reflects the necessary character of the tragic effect, namely, tragic pathos, the arousal and purgation of pity and fear, the only cathartic effect that tragedy seeks, prescribes, and fulfils and which Lear articulates best:

Howl, howl, howl! O, [you] are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack.

The prescriptive language of the tragic protagonists and the necessary and predetermined effect of the genre reflect each other and in Speech Acts both come under the heading of perlocutionary force.

Indeed, the consensus among Speech Act theoreticians who have ventured into Shakespearean scholarship is to regard tragedy as the purest form of the performative as well as one of the most intense forms of the perlocutionary act.18 The significance of these observations becomes clear when they are considered in the context of the genre as a whole, a genre whose delineations are so precise that they have hardly changed since Aristotle first gave them description in his Poetics: single, rarely a double plot; a protagonist larger than life and of the highest social status; a man deserving sympathy and even admiration, but possessing a tragic flaw, which in turn effects a reversal of fortune, tragic peripeteia.19

Moreover, as already indicated in the case of Coriolanus, the structure of the genre cannot change without an alteration of its effect on the audience, for the organization of this genre ensures that the force behind the binding language of the tragic protagonist is his political power, and his words are literally heavier and weightier than those of any other character. Whether he communicates in either locutionary or illocutionary acts (whether he is informing or ordering), his words, in fact, have perlocutionary power; his thoughts and intentions are to be obeyed. The movement of tragedy inevitably consists in the depiction of how the protagonist's words construct the universe and then become entrapped by their own performative reality. Moreover, the protagonist's linguistic domination, hubristic by necessity, is not the folly of a petty tyrant, but a characteristic of his social state.20 As Mark Antony observes about Caesar's state: "When Caesar says, 'Do this,' it is perform'd" (I.ii.10). The world such power constructs, however, will always be short of the Divine, always marred by human imprecision, or hamartia, which causes the character's downfall. Tragedy, therefore, is a depiction of the destruction implicit at the very foundation of autocratic, aristocratic power. The linguistic reality of the text reflects the downfall of authorized perlocutionary acts in the inevitable fall of the protagonist whose every word is a command simply by the very nature of his status. Viewed in this light, language ceases to be the genre's external characteristic, but becomes its dynamic centre, and genre instead appears as an outward manifestation of an utterance's unveiling into act.

It becomes significant in terms of the alteration within the genre that when compared to their tragic predecessors, Shakespeare's tragedies exhibit an additional characteristic: his protagonists give vows and the ensuing tragic action customarily unveils and dramatizes the determinism evoked in the moment of swearing rather than of command.21 Hamlet swears thrice to the ghost of his father. Lear seals his fate by banishing Kent for the latter's opposition to the royal vow. Lady Macbeth calls upon demonic power to assist her in the unhesitating execution of the intended murder; Othello swears to Iago that he shall visit a horrifying punishment upon Desdemona; and Coriolanus binds himself by an oath to plead like a beggar: "I will not do't,/Lest I surcease to honor mine own truth" (III.ii.120-21). The introduction of oaths as a dominant illocutionary/ perlocutionary force into the tragic genre is a specifically Shakespearean characteristic: the shift to commissive illocutions (committing the speaker himself to a certain course of action) from directives as a main focus of drama results in an important shift in action.22 While in Greek tragedies the powerful protagonists bind others to the execution of their will and in so doing bind themselves, in Shakespeare tragic characters bind themselves and then discover that they have thereby bound others.23 The emphasis shifts from a political and religious spectacle to a psychological one; hamartia as an error in judgment becomes an inner defect, a flaw of the overall character.24

Furthermore, the dominant patterns of tragic utterance provide an insight into the hidden dynamism of other genres. In Shakespeare's early history, Richard III, for example, Queen Margaret's curses (I.iii. 187-302) already play this double role of action-initiator and indicator of genre: they literally prescribe action as they call for the death of her enemies, all of whom, including Richard himself, are much more powerful than the destitute queen. Here in the very manner of these curses' utterance—"Poor breathing orators of miseries / Let them have scope" (IV.iv. 129-30)—one finds a mirror of the play itself and its contrast to tragedy: their speaker is powerless and, thus, calls upon a supernatural effect of hate and misery to help victims destroy the victor. The employment of curses in Richard III underscores their difference from the role of oaths/commands in the tragedies as both initiators and indicators of action. Curses (and in Shakespeare's histories all deposed or injured characters curse), while prescribing and predetermining action, put emphasis not upon the fall of the word-utterer but upon those who are cursed. Curses, therefore, admit the social inferiority and relative unimportance of the utterer's fate and include an ever-widening circle of other characters and fates, whereas oaths shift the focus back to the speaker as an initiator and major participant in the unfolding action. Thus, if tragedy is a study of hubris, or of autocracy destroying itself, the histories examine and include the binding and deconstructing power of marginalia, which finds its symbolic expression in the supernatural and seemingly marginal intrusion of curses.

Nevertheless, the histories and tragedies employ a language that binds and binds unconditionally. Their plots are inevitably striking for the irreversibility of the unified progression from intention to deployment, from word to act. In contrast to this perlocutionary imprisonment of life by language, the comedies concern themselves with depicting and celebrating unauthorized decodings of language, with the multiplicity of fracturing and misadventure that occurs on the journey of the word into its incorporation into act. Keir Elam's recent study of the application of Speech Acts and Language Games (Wittgenstein's notion) to the language of comedies shows that the basic design of comic dialogues is the construction of linguistic impediments to the progress of customary linguistic decoding. When, for example, Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing (or Petruchio and Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew) insult each other, the comic effect of their insults or "flyting" springs not merely from their intention to misrepresent each other's words in a wilful fashion, but also from the multiplicity of unauthorized interpretations and unauthorized diversions found in this manner. The merry-making of comedy, therefore, operates as a growing circle of unauthorized decodings and corruption of words, a craft at which Clown Feste in Twelfth Night declares himself to be a master: "I am indeed not her fool, but her corrupter of words" (III.i.35-36).25 The design of unauthorized decodings progresses from a single interchange into a series of unauthorized effects, and also into the very design of Shakespeare's comedy as a whole; the multiplicity of unauthorized miscomprehensions is reflected in comedy's multiplotted convolutedness, its complex and again multileveled sociopolitical reality,26 its surfeit of characters, and ultimately the multiple marriages celebrated at the end of so many plays.

Still, the freedom of misreadings offered by a comic genre represents only a superficial contrast to the perlocutionary force of tragedies and histories, for comedy seeks and secures the effect of laughter with the same perlocutionary force of intention, as tragedy seeks pathos and most of the histories a royal demise. In other words, a jester cohabits with a king, sharing with him the space of perlocutionary intention.

Specifically in the tragedies, however, where all are eventually encompassed by common woe and where the perlocutionary power of oaths and commands charges language with hidden determinism, Shakespeare dramatizes in a focused manner the reality and the consequences of the imprisonment of action and of characters by linguistic utterance.27 This is not to say that the protagonists have no choice, but rather to propose that they are presented as abandoning this choice, choosing to succumb to the power of words, and then finding themselves entrapped.28 In other words, perlocutions transmit their capacity for control to locutions and illocutions and literally imbue them with a sort of sinister prefigurement to action which reduces all discourse to perlocutionary inevitability. When Juliet, for example, muses upon meeting Romeo, "If he be married, / My grave is like to be my wedding-bed" (I.v. 134-35), she uses a constative utterance, but as the play unfolds, this utterance proves to be performative; the world of the play is created according to the laconic design of her observation. Similarly when Gloucester explains to Regan his assistance in the king's disappearance "Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes" (III.vii.56-57), he too inadvertently initiates his own blinding scene. Here language dictates life, and tragedy discloses the reality of the social world ruled by perlocutionary intentions.

The overwhelming power of tragic language and spectacle imprisons actions and reactions, arrests life and freedom, and finds its ultimate fulfillment when the animate characters become the most static of all objects—corpses upon the theatrical floor. The heaviness of language and its implicit malice are frequently counterpointed in tragedies by a distrust of language's role altogether, by the desire to negate the force of what is simply "words, words, words" (Hamlet II.ii.192). When at the closing of Shakespeare's tragic period the word-shy Coriolanus greets his wife with the only tender words of the play, "My gracious silence, hail" (II.i.175), he articulates a constant subtheme of Shakespeare's tragedies—a preference for silence, be it Hamlet's refusal to be played upon as a flute, Cordelia's stubborn reticence, Edgar's postponement of the revelation of his identity, or even Iago's mysterious last words.

This surfacing theme of choice between a language which overdetermines and entraps, on the one hand, and determined silence, on the other, emphasizes the auto-reflective nature of Shakespeare's tragic craft and testifies to a resistance to the propagation of language which strips choice and freedom from those who enter the threshold of the speaker's world. A bitter self-irony is strikingly disclosed in Timon of Athens where the predominant theme of linguistic bankruptcy indicates a full-fledged state of artistic impasse, as is declared by Timon's servant: "That what he speaks is all in debt: he owes / For ev'ry word" (I.ii.198-99). Furthermore, Pericles, the first of the romances, forcefully reenacts the attraction of silence implicit in the tragedies, when King Pericles chooses not to speak in the face of his life's great disasters.29 The king's silence is defeated by Marina only at the end of the play. Pericles' resumption of speech is counterpointed by an announcement that a more joyous performance is about to begin and that, furthermore, it will reinterpret Pericles' long sufferings:

Before the people all. …

perform my bidding, or thou livest in woe;
Do't, and happy, by my silver bow!
                          (V.i.243-48; emphasis added)

Cymbeline, therefore, coming upon the heels of Pericles, is thematically introduced and prefigured as a juxtaposition to tragedy.

"It is … as if something had been given up and resigned,"30 observed B. Ivor Evans of the language of the romances, and this observation can equally be applied to the language and every other feature of Cymbeline. Indeed, the means by which Shakespeare habitually develops either his tragic or his comic actions are emphatically left behind. The social superiority of the hero is no longer a focus for action, since otherwise Cloten, and not Leonatus Posthumus, would have found himself in the role of the play's protagonist. Nor is there any place for comic flyting, since the lovers are separated for most of the play. Most significant, perhaps, is the carefully staged confusion regarding the performative power of the main speeches, all of which are invariably misplaced: the vicious fool, Cloten, for example, recites the soliloquy about the power of gold (II.iii.66-76) "in an accomplished blank verse, and in tones that might echo those of Timon or Lear."31 "The silken smooth" villain Jachimo speaks fifty or so lines (II.ii.l 1-50) in "the finest language … [with] a hypnotic fascination beyond any other passage in Shakespeare";32 and Imogen's heartbreaking lament over the body of her husband is pronounced over the body of Cloten (IV.ii.295-332)! Lack of coordination enters into every aspect of the play, and it seems as if no new constructive pattern follows upon the ostensible abandonment of the earlier, so successfully deployed artistic forms. It is at this juncture that an examination of the play's locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts helps to uncover the linguistic figura which serves in Cymbeline as a hidden vehicle of generic form-creation.

Locutionary Acts in Cymbeline

A good example of a locutionary act is a description, and central to Cymbeline' s gallery of portrayals is that of Posthumus, presented at the beginning of the play in a manner "that must have puzzled nine playgoers out of ten,"33 for it sets up a mutual interdependence between Leonatus's external appearance and his inner qualities, as if both are measurable, tangible items: after seeking "through the regions of the earth" it becomes unlikely that "so fair an outward and such stuff within/ Endows a man but he" (I.i.20-24). Once the measurable correspondence between the superior inner and outer qualities has been established, it is immediately canceled as insufficient, but canceled in such a manner that the language of external appearance is still propagated:

I do extend him, sir, within himself,
Crush him together rather than unfold
His measure duly.
                      (I.i.25-27; emphasis added)

Even Imogen's portrayal of her husband treats human qualities in terms of solid objects, or monetary values, while undercutting this correspondence with an uncertain "almost": "A man worth any woman; overbuys me / Almost the sum he pays" (I.i. 146-47). The implicit cancellation and yet employment of the referential field of physical evidence plays more than a passing role: it is a first trace of the new linguistic direction which becomes more and more prominent as Cymbeline's plot unfolds, and both Leonatus and Imogen are literally weaned (albeit in painful fashion) from this manner of comparing human qualities with material objects. Jachimo, an initiator of the protagonists' misunderstanding and subsequent misfortune, is, in fact, irritated precisely by Posthumus's reputation, as constant and permanent as any inanimate object or monetary value: "He was then of a crescent note. … But I could then have look'd on him without the help of admiration, though the catalogue of his endowments had been tabled by his side, and I to peruse him by items" (I.iv.1-7).34 Thus Jachimo, by proposing to measure Imogen's virtue solely by his ability to acquire her bracelet, literally ruptures this referential dependence of human qualities on objects. As a result, when Leonatus confronts the ensuing chaos of his life, he is insistent that no external objects are to be employed to measure his new state: "I will begin / The fashion: less without and more within" (V.i.32-33). When he finally relents and accepts an external signifier—"this label on my bosom" (V.v.430), this new description is ostensibly confused, an illogical prophecy which attracts him through "sympathy":

Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such
As sense cannot untie. Be what it is,
The action of my life is like it.

Even when the soothsayer unfolds the meaning of the prophecy, the dislocation between utterance, on the one hand, and its sense and reference, on the other, is not eliminated: all the etymological roots which the soothsayer offers are, in fact, false derivations.36

Thus, none of Posthumus's descriptions, neither the original eulogy nor the final and adequate "label," can be regarded as bona fide locutionary or constative utterances. The portrayals fail as locutions because their referential field is undermined as soon as it is established. They fail as constatives because their truth value remains un-certain. When Leonatus at the end of the play dismisses Jachimo's high praise of himself and of his "noble" intention to wager Imogen's honor (V.v.170), Leonatus's selfdeprecation—"villain-like, I lie" (V.v.218)—proves to be equally wrong, since from the vantage point of this new high moral perspective he still does not recognize his Imogen ("The temple / of virtue was she" [V.v.220-21]) in the young page who tries to quieten him. Descriptions in terms of valuable material objects prove neither true nor false, for the protagonists are both better and worse than the cardboard figures of high eulogies.

Leonatus's descriptions are only a sampling in a much broader and persistent pattern of a language which no longer "name[s] things directly"37 and which flees a clearly established field of reference. Imogen's brothers, for example, have two names—their birth names and the names acquired while they lived in nature. When the two realities are brought together, the identities of the two princes remain in a state of permanent tension between two states, two styles, two fathers (V.v.347-403), to which Imogen testifies "I have got two worlds by't" (V.v.374) and accepts Bellarius as her second father. The identities of all protagonists can only be caught in a state of transition: they are literally "not born for bondage" (V.v.305). Nos-worthy points to Cymbeline's enigmatic and yet consistent pattern of attaching the names of birds to the main characters,38 and even this curious device strengthens the overall sense of the dynamism of every description. Thus, language does not merely reject its own equation with static objects, and the parallel equation between human beings and the objects thus evoked, but it itself is depicted as originating in this equation and literally escaping from it into act, just as Posthumus's "label" becomes a prophecy and not a description.

This pattern of flight from identification with static appearance is challenged in the play only in the figures of its two unredeemed villains: the queen and Cloten. These two exceptions, however, are instructive in that they prove the overall pattern rather than refute it. The queen's dedication of her life to a perfect semblance of virtue should have been a warning to the king of her duplicity even though "it had been vicious / To have mistrusted her" (V.v.65-66), for the perfect incarnation of virtue has to be rejected for its very perfection. Moreover, if the queen pretends that her nature is like her appearance, Cloten, her son, believes that appearances determine nature. Thus, the famous scene where he speaks about the power of gold (II.iii.63-76) only appears to contradict his character; in reality, it summarizes the whole nature of his world. The discovery that men are ruled by riches, that their every act is best expressed as a function of soulless beings—such a discovery could have crushed Shakespeare's tragic characters; but for Cloten it is simply a statement of the rule that governs his world. Moreover, this complete identification on Cloten's part with the world of static appearances explains why Imogen's statement that she prefers Posthumus's garments to Cloten (II.iii. 132-36) is taken by him as a straightforward insult to his being. What is crystallized in the queen and Cloten, therefore, goes so far against every other pattern of description, that with their deaths the idea that a material counterfeit can represent the whole of reality is expelled from the play altogether.

The central descriptions of Cymbeline consistently refuse to be static in a manner which sharply contrasts with those of the tragedies and comedies. As a rule in tragedy constative utterances were clearly defined and were also threatening in their uncanny ability to become irrefutable inanimate objects, to create a sinister world of intentions and solidified thoughts. Thus, Macbeth's "dagger of the mind" becomes a dagger in the hand, Othello's jealous ramblings cannot rest until Desdemona is silenced, and Leontes' spirited wife turns into a stone statue after his investigation of the evidence in the court scene. By contrast in Cymbeline, locutions are never finalized within a static reference: the undercutting of any hard and fast identification between word, human subject, and static object keeps all descriptions perpetually in transition. Perhaps, Arviragus's determination to use even the "green world" as his point of departure and not as his identity operates in the play as a symbol of a new artistic program which visits the craftsman in his old age, wherein he perceives static objects not as a final tangible reality but as a bondage from which flight originates:

What should we speak of
When we are old as you? When we shall hear
The rain and wind beat dark December. …

Our valour is to chase what flies. Our cage
We make a choir,
as doth the prison'd bird,
And sing our bondage freely.
                 (III.iii.35-44, emphasis added)

In other words, there is no demarcation line in the world of Cymbeline between locution and illocution, constative and performative, because the initial state of locutionary utterance is already moving; the audience observes the words as fleeing, as turning into action, even if they may appear to be in need of rest.39

Illocutionary and Perlocutionary Acts in Cymbeline

The blurred line between illocutionary and perlocutionary acts constitutes the very heart of drama, since drama in-variably concerns itself with the double effect of the spoken word upon both the characters and the observing audience. Cymbeline in this regard is a striking play, for the only effect upon the audience deduced so far is that of confusion and, thus, a complete contrast to the precision of the tragedies.

Furthermore, since the relationship between words and things is constantly undercut in this romance, one may suspect that the link between words and actions is more synchronized, more streamlined. Even a casual glance at the play, however, discovers that this is hardly the case. In fact, none of the usual arsenal of illocutions or perlocutions—promises, lies, commands, oaths—displays even a vestige of what appeared in tragedy to be the irreversible progression of words into acts. On the other hand, and herein resides the complexity of the new employment of language, it is also impossible to deduce that all such progressions are thereby ruptured or deferred.

For example, the promises of Cymbeline are strikingly ambivalent: they are neither fulfilled, nor failed. When, for example, the play's lovers are separated, Posthumus promises to "remain / The loyall'st husband that did e'er plight troth" (I.i.95-96) and to keep Imogen's ring as a sign of truce. In his very next scene, Posthumus gives the ring away to Jachimo (I.iv), but he does not thereby break his own trust; rather he demonstrates his total confidence in its reality. His subsequent order to Pisanio to kill Imogen is again both a break and a continuation of his promise to "plight troth," for in his wife's murder he intends to wipe away her dishonor. The journey between word and action is a simultaneous rupture and yet fulfillment.

Similarly ambivalent is the fate of false reports, as Bellarius's paradoxical escape indicates. Falsely accused of being a traitor to the king, Bellarius knows himself to be innocent. However, if he is to remain loyal, he must be obedient to Cymbeline's order and thus be executed. Yet, in order to avoid a traitor's punishment, Bellarius in fact commits treachery: he escapes from the kingdom and steals the king's sons, whom he thereby saves from certain death at the hands of the queen. In treachery honest and in honesty treacherous, Bellarius proves the false report to be truthful by preventing it from ever taking effect.

In a similar way, the commands of the play reinforce the ambivalence of the emerging design, for they simultaneously display and yet prevent their own consequences. Cymbeline's first appearance in the play is accompanied by a frightful order to Posthumus to leave and to return only if he is ready to die (I.i. 125-27); Leonatus breaks the command and returns to Cymbeline, but he does this in search of death in battle. A similar pattern is disclosed in Cymbeline's orders to the queen to ensure Imogen's death,40 and even in Leonatus's command to Pisanio to kill his mistress. Pisanio's refusal to obey orders is paradoxically a sign of his loyalty and true obedience, whereas the queen's attempt to poison her stepdaughter is a profoundly treacherous act.

Only the play's oaths, perhaps, do not strike the audience as utterances which result in an ambiguous effect. Nevertheless, this very lack of ensuing ambiguity is balanced by the incorporation of ambiguity into the act of giving vows, for in Cymbeline all oaths without exception are used to promote evil ends or to deceive. Thus, Bellarius states that he was defamed in the eyes of Cymbeline by a false oath (III.iii.65-68). Moreover, the two villains, Cloten and Jachimo, prove to be the only swearers. Cloten's attachment to oath is underlined in all his scenes: "When a gentleman is dispos'd to swear, it is not for any standers-by to curtal his oaths" (II.i.10-11), and his central wicked act, the attempted rape of Imogen, is replete with oaths:

Lord Cloten,. …

With his sword drawn, foam'd at the mouth, and
                                         [A]way he posts
With unchaste purpose, and with oath to violate
My lady's honor.

If Cloten's swearing is the reflex action of a sinister character, Jachimo uses oaths specifically in order to arrive at a wicked end. It seems particularly poignant in view of Shakespeare's long fascination with oaths that Jachimo's swearing is a decisive detail that finally persuades Posthumus of Imogen's unfaithfulness (II.iv.121-29). It is no coincidence, therefore, that Pisanio's greatheartedness is revealed when he forgoes oaths and proves forsworn to Posthumus (III.ii.11-23).

Thus, the ambivalence of the incorporation of words into acts is curiously a consistent feature of the play: these acts both testify to the control of words and yet under-mine this control. To put this another way, a similar pattern exists in the journey from word to action (in illocutions and perlocutions), as from word to thing (locutions): the straightforward path is broken and yet a kind of inter-dependence is still enacted. In fact, the action stretches the initial significance of the word into an extended space of simultaneous fulfillment and rupture. Only oaths seem to be beyond this manner of expansion: in their search for perlocutionary control they are demoted in Cymbeline explicitly to negative characters.

There can hardly be, therefore, a more dissimilar pattern between the employment of illocutionary and perlocutionary utterances in the tragedies and in Cymbeline. If in tragedy the word determines and imprisons action, in Cymbeline action is at least as powerful as word: for action initiates the reevaluation, expansion, and even reinterpretation of words. The association between Cloten and oaths is particularly significant in this context, for here Shakespeare embodies his most pessimistic nightmare in the complete fool. Whereas tragic action, directed by a given vow, progresses in an unmistakable design, this dependence of action on word is suspended in Cymbeline. This suspension is effected in such a manner that the action can rewrite the word's significance, can, indeed, pull this significance at once in two opposite directions, and yet can stop short of refusing these words and acts their mutual interdependence.

When confronted with such a deployment of language, the audience, almost against its own will, is drawn into the same confusion as the play's protagonists. This curious ambivalence of language makes the spectators almost sympathize with the villain Jachimo, or dislike the heroic Posthumus, and suppress laughter at Imogen's grief. In the terms of Speech Act theory, one may suggest that Shakespeare explores a perlocutionary utterance against its grain, moving not towards the pole of direction and control, but towards its potential to produce resistance to its command, while, nevertheless, employing obedience. The audience's struggle with the pull of language draws it into an enactment of the central dilemma of the play—into a new relationship between language and action.

In fact, this consideration of the audience's perspective uncovers an additional Speech Act, whose role is both central in Cymbeline and yet almost imperceptible. Bertrand Evans observes that in contrast to Shakespeare's other nontragic plays the audience in Cymbeline is given no figure which presides over the action: "no force to our knowledge while action continues—watches Jachimo as Vincentio and Prospero watch Angelo and Caliban."41 Evan's insight is marred by a curious omission, by a curious it is true that no character presides over the plot, it is incorrect that "no force" is present: each time the audience's awareness of future events is as insubstantial as that of the heroes, the situation is invariably accompanied by a prayer. Posthumus prays for the safety of his marriage when he is forced by Cymbeline to leave Imogen (I.i. 115-17); the second lord prays most emphatically for Imogen's honor (II.i.62-65) just prior to Jachimo's emergence from the trunk (an occasion upon which Evans bases his view). Pisanio calls upon the power of heaven to intervene during Cloten's chase after Imogen (III.v. 160-61). He restates his belief that "the heavens still must work" (IV.iii.41) just prior to the battle when all the major characters confront their unmasked vulnerability. And, of course, in the prison scene where Posthumus awaits his death, all the preceding prayers are gathered in the prayer of the spirits. Jupiter's answer—

No more, you petty spirits of region low
Offend our hearing; hush!. …

No care of yours it is, you know 'tis ours.

—shows both that prayers do disturb the heavenly gods and that the gods are constantly involved in human affairs.42 This means that in terms of the construction of Cymbeline, there is a force which presides over the characters' fate and is exhibited (inconspicuously everywhere except in its culmination in the Jupiter scene) and communicated to the audience at those moments of highest danger—and this force, in terms of Speech Acts, is the perlocutionary force of prayer.

The inconspicuous nature of prayers in Cymbeline provides further insight into the specific nature of the perlocutionary control which they possess. Jupiter's confirmation of their effective power ("offend our hearing") is reminiscent of Queen Margaret's belief in Richard III that her curses "ascend the sky, / And there awake God's gentle-sleeping peace" (I.iii.286-87). While it is evident that a similar principle is at work, the difference in these perlocutions is profound. Curses, and in this they fore-shadow both oaths and commands, determine the pattern of action they initiate in the moment of their utterance, whereas this mutual determination of word and action is canceled in Cymbeline as the romance pushes acts and utterances as far apart as the dramatic action can permit.

In fact, the prayers of the play are a literal incorporation of that indeterminate distance between word and action which is performed in Cymbeline. All the play's prayers refrain from dictating the action, from articulating or predetermining the pattern which they call forth. In contrast to the anguish of separation from Imogen, Posthumus simply asks the gods to help him keep his wife, and Pisanio in a similar manner prays for Imogen's protection: "Flow, flow, / You heavenly blessings, on her!" (III.v. 160-61). The prayer of the spirits is, of course, a simple call for help. The action which such prayers initiate, therefore, is not predetermined or controlled: the inner elasticity of the utterance is reflected in the puzzling design of its incorporation. Prayers, therefore, play the role in Cymbeline which in tragedies is executed by oaths and commands (or in Richard III by Margaret's curses), and the difference between these perlocutions is enacted in the difference between the plays' overall emotional timbre and, of course, the more general construction of genres. If oaths and commands accelerate the execution of the action they prescribe, prayers unfold the connection between word and act into a prolonged time-frame as well as into an enigmatic and unexpected design. Moreover, if oaths and commands concentrate action in the hands of the protagonists, prayers employ every peripheral response and action. In fact, if in tragedy the successful fulfillment of its major perlocutions can be witnessed only by a small number of characters, action as an answer to prayer runs a natural and seemingly unfocused course of developing the potential of each character. The correspondence between prayer and action can become clear only when the limitation of a single vision is replaced by a mosaic of many testimonies, unwieldy with "its twenty-four dénouements."

This new relationship of the word's unveiling into act dramatized in Cymbeline profoundly influences two subsequent plays: in The Winter's Tale and The Tempest this dramatic technique is developed further and cast into a more active mode. If Cymbeline discovers a Speech Act which in its enactment incorporates the participation of all the play's characters within the boundaries of the natural, or probable, unfolding of each different temperament, then The Winter's Tale transforms this deployment of language into a double movement: the demise of oaths and commands is mirrored in the stripping of the tyrant Leontes of his verbal powers, whereas the second part of the play grants verbal control to his servants Camillo and Paulina whose proclaimed role is not to impose, but to synchronize: in Camillo's words, "Omit / Nothing may give us aid" (IV.iv.624-25). Prospero's verbal magic reenacts prayer's potential to incorporate all elements both central and peripheral, but Prospero's spells cast the passive character of Cymbeline 's prayers into an active mode. The magic of his island is such that it commands lovers-to-be to be in love, revelers to revel, traitors to commit treachery and then lose all sense of their inner world, and those capable of repentance to repent. However, the control which Prospero's spells impose is not a control of external design or will, but an acceleration of the natural unfolding of what is originally only a potential. Thus, Prospero's magic borrows from Cymbeline a sense of the natural rather than the social perlocution, and from the tragedies an understanding of dramatic perlocution as a temporal acceleration of its unveiling, which produces as a result a much crisper romance than the unwieldy Cymbeline.

One may regard Cymbeline, therefore, as an experimental play, which dramatizes the relationship between words and deeds in a manner never again repeated in Shakespeare. Paulina is emphatic that no prayer will get Leontes out of his predicament (III.ii.210-14), and Prospero closes his play by indicating that the acts of prayers lie along-side the province of his craft. As an artist still, he consoles his weak, disrobed self that this word-mode is the only utterance which can assist the journey from word-magic to everyday reality, for there prayers are as potent as the spells of his beloved island (Epilogue. 15-20). In contrast to the two earlier genres, Cymbeline's prayers as form-creating utterances have power but no authority; they cannot control or yet be disobeyed. Cymbeline, then, does provide a dramatic alternative both to tragedy and to comedy: to the former because the play's prayers direct action without subduing it and to the latter because devoid of authority they cannot initiate unauthorized patterns of enactment. In this, Cymbeline becomes a careful and fully worked out dramatic draft for the subsequent plays, for it disperses the habitual direction of the verbal drama and in so doing finds a new pattern of performance and even permits the poet to redefine his view of his own craft.

The employment of Speech Act theory in Shakespearean scholarship, therefore, can assist in touching the very axis of language's role in dramatic form-creation. The journey from word to deed and the relationship between utterances are as variable as human experience and often as enigmatic. In fact, the history of pragmatic linguistics seems to follow the progression of Shakespeare's work with genre: the initial belief that utterances have clear demarcation lines is found after the first excitement to be too restrictive and is slowly replaced by a vision of their interpenetration and mutual co-dependence. What Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies show most specifically is that if the demarcation between the Speech Acts is sought for and upheld with all possible strictness, the perlocutions isolated as separate reality will subdue all other acts, freezing the world within their autocratic structure. Shakespeare's work with language indicates how the strictness of linguistic divisions and the patterns of their interpenetration can reflect and even generate disaster, imprisonment, doom, fate, happiness, joy, and wonder. In the final analysis, his plays emphasize not so much the purity of speech acts as the levels and characteristics of their mutual influence and interpenetration by enacting them in dramatic forms. As Speech Act theory reorganizes itself according to its employment in communication and sets itself into the context of the social paradigms of the speakers and their interlocutors, it may venture with profit into the world of Shakespeare's plays. Thus, as one traces the transmutations between locutions, illocutions, and perlocutions in the comedies, tragedies, and romances, the emerging theoretical design shows not only what Speech Acts can do for Shakespeare, but what Shakespeare can do for Speech Acts.


1J.M. Nosworthy summarizes critical opinions about "occasions when the characters' portrayal seems inconsistent or even contradictory" (Introduction to the Arden edition of Cymbeline [London: Methuen, 1955], pp. lxiii-lxxii). For a more recent discussion see J. Gillies, "The Problem of Style in Cymbeline" SoR 18, 3 (November 1982): 269-90.

2This is the opinion of a theatrical company of 1909 quoted with approval by Roger Rees ("Posthumus in Cymbeline," Players of Shakespeare: Essays in Shakespearean Performance by Twelve Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, ed. Philip Brockbank [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985], p. 150).

3On Shaw's revision of Cymbeline and for the mockery of the last scene, see Ruby Cohn, Modern Shakespeare Off-shoots (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 334-36.

4James Sutherland, "The Language of the Late Plays," More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. J. Garret (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1959), p. 151.

5John L. Austin, How To Do Things with Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), p. 22.

6John R. Searle, Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979), p. 75.

7'Austin, pp. 55, 88; see the account of Austin's revisions in de Souza Filho, Language and Action: A Reassessment of Speech Act Theory (Amsterdam: John Benjamin, 1984), pp. 17-55; see also

8John R. Searle, "The Background of Meaning," Speech Act Theory and Pragmatics, pp. 221-32.

9de Souza Filho, pp. 146-47.

10Ross Chambers, "Le Masque & le miroir: Vers une théorie relationelle du théatre," Etudes littéraires 13, 3 (December 1980): 397-412, 401.

11Richard Ohmann, "Literature as Act," Approaches to Poetics, e d. S. Chatman (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 81-107, 83.

l2See Keir Elam's summary of the application of speech act theory to dramatic discourse, Shakespeare's Universe of Discourse: Language-Games in the Comedies (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), p. 7.

13For a similar assessment, see Elam, p. 89.

14Stanley Fish, "How to Do Things with Austin and Searle: Speech-Act Theory and Literary Criticism," MLN 91, 5 (October 1976): 983-1025, 1025.

l5Fish, p. 1024.

16Considerable disagreement exists among Speech Act theoreticians about whether to regard the utterance which secures an intended effect by verbal means as illocutionary with perlocutionary force (Searle's position) or perlocutionary (Peter Strawson and H.P. Grice). This essay sides with the latter position, although it is clear that the ensuing dilemma is far from settled. Therefore, when in doubt (as in the case of oaths) I will refer to the utterances as illocutionary / perlocutionary. On the background to this disagreement, see The Philosophy of Language, ed. John R. Searle (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971), and the latest forceful restatement of the argument in Speech Act Theory and Pragmatics, particularly the essays by Bierwisch (n. 7 above) and Steven Davis, "Perlocutions," pp. 37-56, who emphasize the importance of accepting the perlocutionary utterances as a verbal conventional act.

17A11 quotations from Shakespeare will be given parenthetically in the text and are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

18Ohmann, pp. 87-90; Elam, pp. 200, 230-31.

19Aristotle, Poetics, trans, and ed. S.H. Butcher (London: Macmillan, 1917), chaps. 6-13.

20On the relationship between the action of Greek drama and the political significance of the protagonist's status, see P.O. Cleirigh, "Political Anachronisms in the Pattern of Power in Sophoclean Drama" (Ph.D. diss., Cornell Univ., 1975).

21Frances Shirley first observed a tangible connection between the frequent use of oath by the protagonists and the tragic intensity of the action, and observes, for instance about Othello, "One wonders if Othello would have been able to complete the killing, had he not taken a vow" (Swearing and Perjury in Shakespeare's Plays [London: George Allen and Unwin, 1979], p. 118).

22The oaths which the protagonists of Greek drama give are usually peripheral to the action whereas their commands constitute the focus of action (e.g., Creon's oath in Antigone, lines 300-310).

23The downfall of the king's commands and of his language as a manipulator of others was dramatized by Shakespeare not so much in the tragedies as in the histories. See James L. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II to Henry V (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979) and Joseph A. Porter, The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979). The latter work is very insightful in connecting Speech Acts to the wider issue of genre in the histories.

24In support of the meaning of hamartia as an error in judgment, "ignorance combined with the absence of wicked intent," and not a character flaw, see Brian Vickers's discussion of the history of the interpretations of "hamartia" (Towards Greek Tragedy: Drama, Myth Society [London: Longman, 1973], pp. 4, 44 n.l).

25Elam, p. 308.

26Camille Slights, "The Unauthorized Language of Much Ado About Nothing, " Elizabethan Theatre XII (1993): 113-33.

27Lack of consensus among theorists with regard to illocutionary/perlocutionary distinction prevents Elam from considering the possibility that the secured effect of laughter indicates a perlocution: "Perlocutionary success is not, generally speaking, a fruitful source of comic plotting in Shakespeare" (Elam, p. 231). On the resulting inconsistency of his conclusions, see Joseph A. Porter, "Speech Act Theory Abused," SQ 36, 4 (Winter 1985): 505-507.

28On the entrapment of the protagonists by action, see James L. Calderwood, If It Were Done: Macbeth and Tragic Action (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1986).

29Cf. Elena Glazov-Corrigan, "The New Function of Language in Shakespeare's Pericles: Oath Versus 'Holy Word,'" ShS 43 (1990): 131-40.

30B. Ivor Evans, The Language of Shakespeare's Plays (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1952), p. 176.

31R.A. Foakes, "Character and Dramatic Technique in Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale," in Studies in the Arts, ed. Francis Warner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), pp. 116-30, 120.

32Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), p. 255.

33Sutherland, p. 145. On the difficulty of this opening speech see also

34In the last scene of the play, Jachimo confesses that he was also irritated by Posthumus's bragging about Imogen's permanence of virtue "as Dian had hot dreams / And she alone were cold" (V.v. 180-81).

35See also

36David Solway, "Intoxicated Words: Language in Shakespeare's Late Romances," Sewanee Review 95, 4 (Fall 1987): 619-25.

37Solway, p. 620.

38Nosworthy, pp. lxxii-lxxiv.

39See Sutherland's suggestion that Shakespeare in Cymbeline is tired (p. 155).

40On the correspondence between the king's order and the queen's use of mineral poison, see Solway, pp. 619-20.

41Bertrand Evans, p. 253.

42Without observing the presence of the prayer pattern in the play, Richard P. Knowles emphasizes that the appearance of Jupiter "is the surfacing of a control that we have both sensed and wanted" ("The More Delay'd, Delighted: Theophanies in the Last Plays," ShakS 15 [1982]: 271-72).

Source: "Speech Acts, Generic Differences, and the Curious Case of Cymbeline," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 379-99.