Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Speaking Process

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Speaking Process

Article excerpt

IDENTIFICATION OF ETHICAL ACTION may be an inescapable "human" compulsion, evident at least in part, as we all know, in Hamlet's "to be, or not to be," (3.1.56). (1) But the act of speaking the ethical into being, as early modern humanists understood only too well, is in itself no guarantee of the ethical. Human speaking just as easily may be duplicitous, manipulative, in its effects also deadly. Moreover, it remains flail. The tradition that, as Erica Fudge points out, maintained that "speaking is the site of the human" (65) and that placed the "animal" as "the thing which the human is constantly setting itself against," (2) acknowledges simultaneously and by implication that "human-hess" is "a quality which must be learned and can be lost" (65). Humans, according to early modern humanists, have to learn to speak, and so, become "human". Even so, the "human," as Thomas Adams sermonized in the first half of the seventeenth century, remains dangerously proximate to the "animal," in the case of wrongful action, particularly, to "mysticall wolues; rauenous beasts in the formes of men.... The wicked haue many resemblances to wolues." (3)

Indeed skepticism about the possibility of establishing any distinction between the "human"--and the human power of speech-and the "non-human," reaches a point of particular intensity in the late twentieth century in, for example Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain, performed at the National Theater in London, 1980, when, just after he has been raped by Roman soldiers the Druid priest speaks of survival in a manner that infers rejection of speech as means to the ethical, the "human," and the humane:

   We must have nothing to do with them. Nothing. Abandon the life we
   know. Change ourselves into animals. The cat. No, an animal not yet
   heard of. Deadly, watching, ready in the forest. Something not
   human. (Part 1, Scene 6, p.60, my emphasis) (4)

Such a blurring of the distinction between the "human" and the "animal" sounds one of many notes of finitude for that term "humanism" that, invented, as Tony Davies argues, in the nineteenth century, (5) had certain of its origins in the early modern period, one that vested particular importance in the concept of human (meaning "male") intellection or reason, and human (meaning "male") speaking as marks of the "human."

In putting his now famous question, Hamlet attempts of course to speak (ethical) action into being by way of a binary: he juxtaposes the possibility of "being"--suffering "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (3.1.58)--against "not-being" but taking "arms against a sea of troubles" (3.1.59). Significantly and famously for Hamlet, though, that search for singularity in agency, which initial enunciation of a simple binary infers to be also (easily) decidable, proves, as the soliloquy unfolds, impossible to achieve.

I want in this essay to consider other examples of the use of this binaric mode habitual to human speaking, but ones which, in contrast to Hamlet's usage, propose simple oppositional singularities that go unquestioned. Such a habit of speaking, which seeks to conceptualize the world in terms of a putative, easily identifiable, and resolvable binary singularity suggests, I would argue, one possible reason for the fears expressed in different ways by both Thomas Adams and Howard Brenton. In attempting in this essay a reading of a number of diverse examples of such a binaric mode of speaking reality into being, I will also draw briefly on one aspect of a habit of speaking evident in the Southern African Tswana conceptualization of human and "humane" action--though patently in no way "early-modern," and itself arguably a version of what we understand to be deconstruction. What I want to foreground is the particular stress, within this Tswana analytic procedure, upon ongoing multiplicity of relevance. I call such a stress "processual," and want to suggest that such an emphasis may be useful to us for our own (deconstructive) readings. …

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