Using the Devil with Courtesy

Shakespeare and the Language of (Im)Politeness

by Bianca Del Villano (Author)
©2018 Monographs 216 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 253


Renaissance England was marked by a pervasive culture of courtesy. The research hypothesis of this book is that verbal courtesy, for historical and social reasons involving social mobility and the crisis produced by the clash between different systems of thought (Humanism, Catholicism, Protestantism, new scientific discourses), soon became strategic language, characterised by specific forms of facework detectable through the patterns of politeness and impoliteness employed by speakers.
Adopting a historical pragmatic perspective, Using the Devil with Courtesy semantically and conceptually connects courtesy and (im)politeness to analyse Renaissance forms of (im)politeness through Shakespeare. Drawing on a methodological line of research running from Goffman (1967) and Grice (1967), to Brown and Levinson (1987), Jucker (2010) and Culpeper (2011), the book focuses specifically on Hamlet (c. 1601) and The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1594) with three principal aims: 1) to survey the (im)polite strategies used by the characters; 2) to explore how this language connects to a specific Renaissance subjectivity; 3) to link language and subjectivity to extra-textual (historical and semiotic) factors.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 0.1 Talk, text and subjectivity – a pragmatic approach
  • 0.2 Linguistic methodology
  • 0.3 Outline of the book
  • Chapter One: Introducing (im)politeness
  • 1. Defining the concepts of politeness and impoliteness
  • 1.1 Politeness: early studies
  • 1.2 A face-based model: Brown and Levinson
  • 1.2.1 Positive and negative face
  • 1.2.2 B&L’s politeness strategies
  • 1.3 Discursive approaches to politeness
  • 1.4 A theory of impoliteness
  • 1.4.1 Contextual factors, (non)-inherent meaning and conventionalisation
  • Chapter Two: (Im)politeness and the Early Modern period
  • 2.1 Contextualising historical pragmatics and Early Modern (im)politeness
  • 2.1.1 Historical events and newhistoricist perspectives
  • 2.1.2 Subjectivity and the Renaissance
  • 2.1.3 Language and semiosis
  • 2.2 Diachronic definitions of politeness terms and strategies
  • 2.2.1 Politeness terms from a diachronic perspective
  • 2.2.2 Politeness and language strategies from the Anglo-Saxon period to the 18th century
  • 2.3 Politeness as a sociocultural practice
  • 2.4 Second-order politeness and Shakespeare
  • 2.5 Method
  • 2.5.1 Politeness markers
  • 2.5.2 Discernment vs strategic politeness
  • 2.5.3 Sociological variables
  • 2.5.4 General procedure
  • Chapter Three: Speaking daggers: (Im)polite strategies in Hamlet
  • 3.1 Routine courtesy: the forms of discernment politeness
  • 3.1.1 Barnardo and Francisco
  • 3.1.2 King Claudius: introducing variable RF (reflexivity)
  • 3.1.3 Powerful characters and variable A
  • 3.1.4 The Gravedigger: from discernment to strategic (im)politeness
  • 3.2 Courtesy as ambition
  • 3.2.1 The deadly politeness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
  • 3.2.2 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at work
  • 3.2.3 Playing a pipe
  • 3.3 Off-record Hamlet
  • 3.3.1 The fishmonger: splitting words
  • 3.3.2 Switching positions
  • 3.4 Summary
  • Chapter Four: The gendering of (im)politeness: The Taming of the Shrew
  • 4.1 The Induction: (im)politeness and identity construction
  • 4.2 Sly, the Lord
  • 4.3 Katherina and Bianca: impoliteness vs obedience
  • 4.4 Katherina and Petruccio: introducing mock politeness
  • 4.5 The Taming
  • 4.6 Summary
  • Conclusions: The sense of (im)politeness
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

← 10 | 11 →

List of Abbreviations

← 12 | 13 →


I would like to thank all the colleagues, friends and scholars who have made the publication of Using the Devil with Courtesy possible.

My first thanks go to Hugo Bowles: I would have never been able to tackle and finish this work had it not been for his help and encouragement, his revisions and suggestions. Thanks to the linguists, pragmatists and literary critics from whom this study has benefitted considerably: Jonathan Culpeper, John Douthwaite, Keir Elam, Giuliana Garzone, Daniela Guardamagna and Gabriella Mazzon for reading chapters or the entire manuscript, inspiring me with their comments and feedback, and for advising me on how to work on the boundary between linguistics and literature. Thanks also to Simonetta de Filippis who many years ago introduced me to the study of Shakespeare, a path I have never abandoned since, and to Giuseppe Balirano and Oriana Palusci for their help in the final phases of the publication of this book.

Finally, thanks to my friends and family, and especially to my daughter Federica, to whom this book is dedicated. ← 13 | 14 →

← 14 | 15 →


When Hamlet is about to meet Gertrude in the ‘closet scene’ to tell her how much he disapproves of her, he says: “I will speak daggers to her but use none” (3. 2. 386). This remark relies on a distinction between deeds and words, expressing an intention to hurt his mother without actually killing her. At the same time, the metaphor establishes a link between what Hamlet is saying and what he is doing, since it has a considerable effect on the interlocutor; indeed, at the end of the exchange, Gertrude repeats the metaphor, deploying the very same expression used by her son: “O speak to me no more! / These words like daggers enter in my ears. / No more, sweet Hamlet” (3. 4. 92–94). The painful effect of Hamlet’s words on Gertrude is conveyed through a bodily image (the ears) that gives an impression of physical pain. Hence, words have actually performed actions as if they were weapons (daggers). What is the nature of this linguistic performativity? In what ways can it be related to verbal (im)politeness? What does it reveal about the subjectivity underlying it? These questions, which arise at the interface of talk, behaviour and subjectivity within Renaissance culture, are the main focus of study in this book.

0.1  Talk, text and subjectivity – a pragmatic approach

In order to address the key question of how to analyse such a complex network of interconnecting problems, we need to start from some general considerations about our perception and analysis of talk and text.

As regards spoken language, interactive communication is usually experienced by speakers as a ‘natural’ act, needed to convey ideas and emotions, and to structure interpersonal relationships of various kinds. If the mechanisms underlying speech are almost unconscious in their practical realisation, the awareness that conversation is a linguistic ← 15 | 16 → practice embedded at different levels in every cultural, social and subjective process is the basis on which the various branches of linguistics have developed since the 1960s. Sociology has played a role in this respect, particularly Goffman’s theory of face (1967) – the image that each person has of him/herself. This image is variously affected by encounters with others and becomes a site of negotiation between subjects, their ego and the culture to which they belong. In the interconnection between these elements, language has become a privileged arena of investigation, especially since the evolution of Austin’s theory of speech acts, which developed in the 1960s. Austin demonstrated that language not only tells us about the world, but also creates it by virtue of a performative force that allows words to do things. Since then, language performativity has become central to research on spoken interaction, in fields such as conversation analysis (CA) and discourse analysis (DA), which became increasingly interested in verbal interaction as the main site of the formation of subjectivity rather than simply of its expression.

At the level of the text, after the spread of the poststructuralist methodology and of critical trends (newhistoricism, cultural materialism, cultural studies) aimed at exploring the political and ideological demands converging in or emerging from texts, the study of subjectivity, of language and of cultural contexts has been informed by the idea that every communicative event is ‘textualisable’ and that textuality is marked not only by the creation/expression of meanings but also by their interpretation and reception. Texts, therefore, should not only be understood as the product (form plus content) of the communicative event but also as a space informing and interconnecting – more or less creatively – elements such as the speaker, the hearer, the language and the context.

The critical methodologies studying the interconnection between subjects, cultures and languages have been applied to texts both from a synchronic and a diachronic perspective. Diachronically, a long-standing debate on the need to historicise subjectivity has led to a focus on the Renaissance as a historical period in which a new sense of the Self emerged: the early modern subject felt entangled within a network of cultural and social forces still looking back at the medieval past, whilst starting to imagine and express a kind of premodern individuality, located at the interface between the feudal condition of being subjected to a ← 16 | 17 → Power coming from above and the urge to claim a status as an active subject, endowed with a certain degree of agency and power coming from below and from within. As Greenblatt notably suggested in his seminal Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), the Renaissance is the moment at which human subjects started feeling remarkably unfree, constrained into identity-positions determined by the social systems in force, whence – one could assume – sprang a quest for an autonomous Self, detached (in the Cartesian sense) from the world. Among the reasons for the emergence of this urge towards self-determination were the dissemination of new forms of knowledge – tied to Protestantism and to the birth of scientific discourses – and an unprecedented social mobility, fuelled by the economical transformations that would later lead to the definitive rise of the middle classes. Though under the surveillance of the Monarchy, the potential for ascending the social ladder led to the radicalization of specific behaviours connected to the culture of courtesy. Far from being merely an ideal of perfect courtly behaviour, courtesy was a practice that influenced the positioning and recognition of individuals in society, through ways of speaking, of properly addressing others and of efficaciously presenting one’s opinions at court as well as in other contexts.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
impoliteness Shakespeare Historical Pragmatics
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 216 pp., 6 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Bianca Del Villano (Author)

Bianca Del Villano is a Lecturer in English Linguistics at the University of Naples«L’Orientale». She holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Turin and a PhD in English Linguistics from the University of Rome Tor Vergata. Her research interests span pragmatics, stylistics, and literary linguistics in general. She is currently working on (im)politeness in early modern English drama and on contemporary English language fiction. Her publications include the monograph Lo specchio e l’ossimoro. La messinscena dell’interiorità nel teatro di Shakespeare (Pacini 2012).


Title: Using the Devil with Courtesy
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
217 pages