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Ritual speech acts and the Shakespearean stage

Matthew C Hansen, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The prefatory Act of Uniformity of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer explicitly insists that the rituals it proscribes be followed not merely in spirit or in doctrine, but in word: “in such order and form, as is mentioned in the said book, so authorized by Parliament.” In “Ritual Speech Acts and the Shakespearean Stage,” I investigate early modern English conceptualizations of speech acts, and the intersection of speech acts, religious ritual, and dramatic performance. While I survey the various ways in which Shakespeare treats the marriage rite in his plays, As You Like It is of especial concern as is Thomas Heywood's The Wise Woman of Hogsdon. Close readings of these two plays reveal a great deal concerning an early modern understanding of the power of ritual language to transform or create. I trace, through philosophical writings, grammars, legal records, and texts articulating sixteenth-century literary theory, the ways in which the performative aspects of language were conceptualized in early modern England. J. L. Austin and John R. Searle and their followers, in articulating specific pragmatic theories of language use as speech acts, provide the critical lens through which I read and discuss a variety of texts—literary and non-literary, dramatic and non-dramatic. I challenge the claims put forward by leading New Historicist critics Stephen Greenblatt and Louis Montrose that, as a by-product of the Protestant Reformation in England and the concomitant emergence of public, professional theatre, the significance of religious rituals was “evacuated.” I argue that a detailed study of how the marriage rite was represented—or more to the point how and why it was not directly presented—on stage reveals a widespread and deep-seeded reverence for ritual. This reverence, I further argue, is very much in keeping with early modern England's culturally broad-based internalization of the power of language, especially ritual forms of language, to create and transform.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Linguistics|Theater

Recommended Citation

Hansen, Matthew C, "Ritual speech acts and the Shakespearean stage" (2005). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3163988.