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.