Posing the unusual question of what Shakespeare's speech might be in relation to the texts that go under the name “William Shakespeare,” this essay puts to the question a number of assumptions in literary theory about character, subjectivity, genre, the place of the author in a literary text, and language as a system and its relation to performative speech acts. Considering the prevalence of oaths in Shakespeare's texts, the first part argues that the perfomative requirements of this speech act demand a minimal conception of literary character as an entity that can perform a speech act and sustain its ethical consequences. For oaths (and related speech acts) to be intelligible in a literary text, the subjectivity performing them has to maintain a constant identity, and cannot be in flux or divided against itself. Concluding that none of the oaths performed by Shakespeare's characters is an instance of Shakespeare's speech, the second part of the essay addresses the speech (especially oaths) of Shakespeare's sonnets. Here matters are more complex, for the conclusions reached earlier, about the nature of the performative and its relation to a stable identity and the speech of the author, are undermined in surprising ways.

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