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Analysis of the Communicative Situation in Aphra Behn’s "The Rover" Using Speech Act Theory, Grice’s Maxims of Conversation and Relevance Theory

Essay 2014 12 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur




Language in The Rover: performative or constative? Application of Austin and Searle’s Speech Act Theory to the play

Grice’s Maxim’s of Conversation, and Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory applied to The Rover

The characters’, especially the ‘victims’’ strategies in this unusual communicative context

Open questions


Works cited:


This essay argues that The Rover is first and foremost a play about language and communication, and the transformative power of language. Verbal communication in The Rover is the most powerful instrument in the game of seduction. It not only structures the social relations between the two sexes, but it gives structure to the whole play.

This essay applies Speech Act Theory, Grice’s Maxims of Conversation and parts of Relevance Theory from the linguistic field of Pragmatics to The Rover and will thus provide an analysis of the communicative situation in the play. The analysis will mainly focus on Willmore, Hellena and Angellica’s speech, but will take the other characters into consideration, too. I will show that the characters in the play have different philosophies of language. While Willmore considers and uses language as performative and transformative instrument, his female interlocutors consider speech as a means for conveying and knowing truth. These different philosophies, or understandings of the power of language, problematize communication in the play and explain why in one and the same conversation communication can be felicitous for one interlocutor and infelicitous for the speaker.

First, Austin’s Speech Act Theory will be applied, and a detailed differentiation between Willmore and his female interlocutors’ concepts of language will be provided. These observations will in a second step be supported by Grice’s Maxims of Cooperation and Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory. I will then show what strategies the characters in The Rover develop to deal with Willmore’s philosophy of language. Finally, a number of questions which this analysis raises will be identified.

Language in The Rover : performative or constative? Application of Austin and Searle’s Speech Act Theory to the play

John Austin’s initial[1] distinction between constatives, utterances which are used in order to make a true or a false statement, and performatives, utterances which are made for doing something[2], helps us understand the communicative situation in The Rover.

When Willmore speaks to women, language has mainly got a transformative power. It is performative. It enables the speaker to transform the world: to transform a woman who was initially not seduced by him into a woman who is seduced by him after his act of speaking. For his female interlocutors, however, language has another power: Angellica, Hellena (and also Florinda) read speech in general, and Willmore’s speech in particular, as constative: they understand his utterances as true statements about the world, his feelings, and their relationship[3]. These two different philosophies of language lead to the fact the speaker and the addressee interpret one and the same utterance in an entirely different way.

Shoshana Felman has made a similar analysis with regard to the communication of seduction in Molière’s Don Juan. She has also applied Austin’s Theory to that play, and has shown that in Don Juan:

the real conflict […] is the opposition between two views of language, one

that is cognitive, or constative, and another that is performative. According to

the cognitive view, which characterizes Don Juan’s antagonists and victims,

language is an instrument for transmitting truth, that is, and instrument of

knowledge, a means of knowing reality. Truth is a relation of perfect

congruency between an utterance and its referent. (13)

And that

saying, for [Don Juan] is in no case tantamount to knowing, but rather to

doing: acting on the interlocutor, modifying the situation and the interplay

of forces within it. (14)

The very same analysis is valid for the communication of seduction in The Rover.

Especially for Hellena language seems to be part of an epistemological approach. She uses communication to understand the world. This is stressed from the very beginning of the play: the first act starts with a conversation between Hellena and Florinda, and Hellena’s speech contains a strikingly high number of words from the semantic field of knowledge: “full of questions”, “I would fain to know”, “inquisitive”, “I know” (I.1.159).

In order to achieve the performative power of his speech, Willmore makes use of his most powerful type of Speech Act, the “commissive” (Searle’s typology): he promises to be loyal, he “vows”. His vowing commits him in the eyes of his female interlocutors to some future action (loyalty and love), and makes them fall in love with him. Felman’s analysis that the perfomative act of promising in Don Juan “not only gives rise to the conflict, but structures it” (13) is also true for The Rover. The main structure of the relationships between Willmore and women is repetitive and follows the following pattern: Willmore’s performative utterance: vow/promise – understood by woman as a constative – woman is transformed, and has expectations concerning Willmore’s loyalty – Willmore is caught being philandering by the respective woman – decision to take revenge – another performative utterance by Willmore: new declaration of love and loyalty – respective woman transformed again.

Austin explains that a Speech Act always consists of three acts: a locutionary act, which is the production of speech, a phonic act; an illocutionary act, the force of the speech act, the intended meaning[4] ; and a perlocutionary act, the (not always intended) effect of the speech act on the addressee of the utterance. For this analysis, the illocutionary and the perlocutionary act are of importance. Since Willmore and his female interlocutors have so entirely different philosophies of communication, the illocutionary force of Willmore’s speech can never be in accordance with the perlocutionary effect of his speech. The intended meaning of his words (words as an instrument for transformation) is never understood by his interlocutors as such. Interestingly, the fact that Hellena and Angellica do not have access to the underlying real illocutionary force of his words is the precondition for the performative, transformative power of his speech. If these women were able to fully penetrate his performative concept of language, his speech would produce a perlocutionary effect that would be in accordance with its illocutionary force, and he would not be able to transform the world (the women’s feelings) by means of speaking.

Behn provides the audience/the reader with an access to the illocutionary force of (not only) Willmore’s (but also some of the other characters’) speech: the Asides. The Asides make the real intention, the real feelings which underlie a characters words verbally explicit to the audience/reader. The following quotation form Act IV shows this exemplarily:

Willmore: Oh, you destroy me with this endearment.

- Death! How shall I get away [Aside.] – Madam, twill

not be fit I should be seen with you – besides, it will not be

convenient – and I have a friend – that’s dangerously sick.

(IV.1.215 own emphasis)

Normally, communication is successful or felicitous when the message encoded by the speaker is decoded in an appropriate way by the listener, and thus, when both interlocutors have the same understanding of the content of the message. In The Rover, however, this is not the case. Here, communication is felicitous for one of the interlocutors (Willmore) when it is infelicitous for the other interlocutor(s) (Hellena and Angellica). His speech is successful (and thus transformative) when it is misunderstood by Hellena or Angellica.

Interestingly, Willmore is only successful with women when he consciously uses the force of language. This can, for instance, be seen in the scene in which he tries to rape Florinda and fails. Due to his drunkenness, he is not able to use speech as he normally does: “Come, be kind without any more idle prating” (III.3.202). This is another parallel to the analysis of Felman’s Molière’s Don Juan whose “erotic success is accomplished by linguistic means alone” and who when he “decides for once to risk ‘performances other than those of speech and to use physical force […] experiences failure, ‘infelicity’” (14).

Willmore’s speech, and his concept of speech seem to be different when he talks to his male friends from when he talks to his female interlocutors. When he talks to Belvile, Frederick or Blunt, his speech seems more straightforward. It is less performative, and much more constative. The illocutionary force underlying his utterances is more evident, too. For instance, he tells his male friends openly that “[his] business ashore was only to enjoy [him]self” (I.1.166). Here, he makes explicit the illocutionary force underlying most of his utterances. Later, when the male friends are talking about nunnery, he exclaims: “Death! But will they not be kind? Quickly by kind? Thou knowst I’m no tame sigher but a rampant lion of the forest” (167). Willmore adapts his concept of communication and Speech Acts to the specific goal he pursues in a particular “Speech Event”. Whereas when he talks to his friends, his speech tells the truth about him and is therefore constative, it is performative and transformative when he talks to women.

In this context, it is interesting to analyse the scene in which Hellena is dressed in men’s clothes and talks to Angellica in Willmore’s presence about the latter’s other mistress (Act IV, Scene 1). In this scene, Willmore will sometimes be forced to talk to Angellica and Hellena at the same time, and to master two different conversations with two different illocutionary forces at the same time:

Willmore (to Hellena who is disguised):

So you have made sweet work here my little mischief;

Look your lady be kind and good-natured

now, or I shall have but a cursed bargain on’t.

[Angelica turns towards them]

- The rogue’s bred up to mischief, Art you so great a fool

to credit him? (IV.1.218)

When he talks to the disguised Hellena here, he is honest and his speech has a constative quality. When he addresses Angellica, however, his communicative goal is different: he wants to persuade her. His speech is therefore of a more performative quality when he talks to her.

We can conclude that Willmore really masters the art of speaking, the art of rhetoric. He is able to quickly adapt his utterances to his particular communicative aims. In the context of seduction, his speech is performative, in other contexts, it is constative.


[1] Later, he cancelled this distinction and claimed that every utterance is performative.

[2] References to Austin and Searle’s Theories are based on Huang and Grundy’s handbooks.

[3] As Angellica notes: “‘Twas thus! he talked, and I believed” (V.1.239).

[4] The illocutionary act is comparable to Grice’s notion of „implicature”.


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analysis communicative situation aphra behn’s rover using speech theory grice’s maxims conversation relevance

Titel: Analysis of the Communicative Situation in Aphra Behn’s "The Rover" Using Speech Act Theory, Grice’s Maxims of Conversation and Relevance Theory