Cymbeline Speech Acts, Generic Differences, and the Curious Case of Cymbeline
by William Shakespeare

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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...

(The entire section is 8,356 words.)