“To Act, To Do, and To Perform”: Cavell, Derrida, and the Performance of Performativity in Hamlet


Abstract
Stanley Cavell and Jacques Derrida both came to Hamlet comparatively late in their careers, and in both cases, their writings on Hamlet are somewhat peripheral to their philosophical projects. However, reframing their readings of this play through their writings on Austin’s concept of performativity can, as this paper will show, lead to a surprising reappraisal of their views on Shakespeare’s masterpiece, which in turn frames the concept of performativity in a new light. Austin was notoriously dismissive of performatives spoken on stage; Derrida’s Signature Event Context challenges him on this view; Cavell’s “What Did Derrida Want of Austin?” aims to show how Derrida’s critique misses its mark. Curiously, however, when writing on Hamlet, it is Cavell – perhaps the foremost of Austin’s inheritors – who takes up Hamlet as a means of taking Austin’s formulation to task, while Derrida – perhaps the foremost of Austin’s critics – takes up Hamlet as an opportunity subtly to revisit his earlier critique in ways far more receptive to the idea of performativity. For example, Derrida’s readings of Hamlet explicitly call attention to scenes involving classic performatives such as the swearing of oaths, or bearing witness. Yet, as the quotation in my title indicates, Hamlet has its own ideas of how performativity works. Cavell’s precept that Shakespeare’s plays offer investigations of their own theatricality gives us to see that Hamlet takes up the very issues that troubled Austin, including speaking performatives on stage, and swearing to things with the tongue but not the mind. Cavell and Derrida’s readings of Hamlet, then, show us that the play is an invitation to revisit the concept of performativity, yet the play itself does so in ways perhaps more destabilising to the idea of performativity than Cavell and Derrida might have realised.
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