- "A Woman's Thought Runs Before Her Actions":Vows as Speech Acts in As You Like It
About a decade ago Susanne Wofford discussed As You Like It from the viewpoint that Rosalind uses a "proxy," her guise as Ganymede, in uttering "the performative language necessary to accomplish deeds such as marriage." 1 Thus Wofford complicated and qualified the success-oriented assumptions about performative usage of language as envisioned in Austin's speech-act theories. 2 Her starting point was that (as Austin himself said) these performative usages don't have the same kind of force if they are included in a play; and so she proposed to take Rosalind's uses of vows as playful, both theatrically and personally. Her notion of the proxy, which raises questions too about the binding force of the speech act through the identity and tactics of the speaker, is especially apt in describing exactly what Rosalind does. Understandably Rosalind's performative manqué may be a prelude to the perfected form. Another complication suggests itself if one is going to attend to niceties of language usage: given that for Austin a performative procedure is founded on conventions of language, shouldn't one also examine such linguistic forms historically? For this play the most relevant form to consider historically is the vow.
The precise formulation of vows, in espousal or marriage (both legally enforceable in church courts), was very important in early-modern England. One may wonder, then, what the formal requirements of [End Page 528] vows were, how much the analysis of them resembled and diverged from modern speech-act philosophy, and how the vows functioned. And one might ask such questions both about this play and about real-life practice. A more exact notion of vows may enrich our notions of Rosalind's playfulness with them and broaden our sense of the uses and tactics of performatives; and to the extent that this playfulness contrasts with Rosalind's serious (re)iteration of vows at the end of the play, we should give due weight to Carol Neely's suggestion that much of the pleasure for early-modern audiences lay in the body of the play rather than its conclusion. 3
The actual vows between lovers would indeed lend themselves to historicized analysis of the speech acts that constitute them. The early-modern ecclesiastical court judge Henry Swinburne made something like that in his Treatise of Spousals, with his section "By what Form of Words Spousals de futuro are contracted," and similarly on the form of words in "Spousals de praesenti." 4 The implied time of effectiveness in the commitment to marriage is crucial in church law of the time, because it determines whether the vows are, respectively, a betrothal that promises a future marriage, or a present binding (whether inside or outside church) that becomes an instant marriage upon carnal consummation. Both these declarations of commitment are performatives (once reciprocated), and they are normally established by social convention, what Swinburne calls "the Common use of Speech or Custom" (p. 83). Swinburne also concerns himself with what amount to the conditions of "felicity" that are requisite to make the speech valid—for instance, who is allowed to contract spousals (cp. Austin, pp. 14–24).
Both of these issues of timing and eligibility are important to Rosalind in the pretense of wedding in Act 4, Scene 1. As it is for Swinburne, the context is important: when Celia as priest asks, "Will you, Orlando, have to wife this Rosalind?" his answer "I will" is not good enough for Rosalind until he adds at her direction, "I take thee, Rosalind, for wife." 5 Likewise Swinburne considers at length the arguments whether there is a distinction between "I will" and "I do," and whether the future-sounding verb refers only to the beginning of a process and not its completion (pp. 8–9, 57–61). Though in general he allows the distinction (so that "I will" makes a spousal and "I do" a marriage), one of his exceptions sounds like the question that Celia first puts: "The Man demanding of the Woman whether she will take him to her Husband, she answereth [I will...