Some of what we say causes action, this idea is called performativity. This concept is debated greatly in many analyses of Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Is Hamlet bound by his performative utterances? Do his thoughts and words cause him to act, or when he performs his soliloquies is he simply “self- overhearing” with no consequences?
Hamlet is bound by his word, this is the perlocutionary effect of his own vows, and also the perlocutionary effect of what his father’s ghost told Hamlet to do. The perlocutionary effect is part of the Theory of Performativity developed by J.L. Austin, other parts of this theory include locutionary and illocutionary forces. The locutionary force is what is being said and the interpretation of it on the receiving end, the illocutionary force is what is done in being said, whether it’s giving a command or making a promise, and the perlocutionary force is the effect of what was said. Hamlet is told by his father’s ghost that he was murdered by Claudius, locutionary force, Hamlet vows to get revenge, illocutionary force, and the rest of the play is all the perlocutionary effects. Therefore, the performative utterances in the beginning are the driving force behind the plot, Hamlet now has to kill Claudius and face all consequences that come with his vow to do so.
But the question still rests, do Hamlet’s thoughts portrayed in his soliloquies have perlocutionary effects? Hamlet never wavered in his decision to gain revenge on Claudius for his father’s murder, he may have pondered the different options and philosophically analyzed life and its worth, but Hamlet’s decision was made and set in motion the moment he vowed it to his father’s ghost. Throughout the play Hamlet’s thoughts are never put into action and his thoughts never produce any outcome. Hamlet’s soliloquies are simply Shakespeare’s frequently used way of developing the character through “self-overhearing,” a concept developed by Harold Bloom. Self- overhearing is a way for characters to analyze their own thoughts and actions, but it’s not only Shakespeare’s fictional characters that indulge in this practice, everyone in reality does as well.
We find ourselves self-overhearing in all different situations, whether it be thinking before bed or trying to learn from the mistakes we make. Self-overhearing is that voice in our head, and by analyzing and understanding that voice we come to learn about ourselves, the reality we live in, and how to better ourselves. Whether we choose to put our thoughts to action or not dictates whether there are perlocutionary effects. But, we have all experienced the consequences of our thoughts at some point. We can think things or achieve different things because of what we have told ourselves during self-overhearing.
Memory serves as another form of self-overhearing, we take our experiences and learn from them, reflecting back on them can change our own reality. Reflecting on past events can give us certain expectations to live up to and therefore change the results we expect. For example, Hamlet stabbed Polonious, who was hiding behind a curtain, thinking it was Claudius. If Hamlet were to reflect back on this memory, learn from it, and put himself up to a new standard, the next time he assumed Claudius was hiding behind a curtain he would know to check beforehand. Another example is a student who fails a test because she didn’t study. The next time a test approaches the student will tell herself she must study because she doesn’t want to fail again, therefore she studies and passes. Her reflection and expectation changed her own reality.
Our own self-overhearing often changes our reality, in the case of Hamlet, self-overhearing is simply a tactic of characterization and dramatization. But, the plot and characters are all heavily influenced by performative utterances, and the perlocutionary effect of oaths made in the beginning of the play.