Shakespearean Pragmatics: Richard III’s (im)polite behaviour

31 May 2024
Conference Room

Shakespearean Pragmatics: Richard III’s (im)polite behaviour

This contribution aims to situate itself in the field of historical pragmatics. It applies some pragmatic theories to Shakespeare’s Richard III for the double purpose of contextualizing the early modern production field and showing how a taxonomy of pragmatic patterns is fundamental in terms of character definition.

The lack of extralinguistic cues in written texts is counterbalanced by what Culpeper and Kÿto (2010) call speech-related genres, i.e. genres displaying linguistic features which can be associated with spoken face-to-face interaction. In this sense, Shakespeare represents a pivotal object of pragmatic study, because of his well-known, all-encompassing linguistic inventiveness and due to the very nature of his pièces, since plays are classified as speech-purposed texts, providing the most information on authentic spoken language of the early modern period.

Richard III epitomizes the anti-heroic character winning his confrontations through the mastering of argumentative strategies. In this contribution significant dialogic situations from the Shakespearean play are taken into account with a focus on the interpersonal functions of language, in particular (im)politeness (Brown and Levinson 1987; Del Villano 2018), speech acts and controversies (Austin 1962; Jucker and Taavitsainen 2008). Being interactions fundamental activity types for context and meaning interpretation, the study of facework – in terms of (im)polite behaviours and face-threatening acts – is fundamental to reconstruct both cultural scripts and linguistic identities, and to show the usefulness of applying new methodological frameworks to old texts.



Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brown, P., Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Culpeper, J., Kytö, M. (2010). Early Modern English dialogues: Spoken interaction as writing. Studies in English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Del Villano, B. (2018). Using the devil with courtesy: Shakespeare and the language of (Im)politeness. Bern: Peter Lang.

Jucker, A. H., Taavitsainen I., (2008) (eds). Speech Acts in the History of English. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Shakespeare, W. (2009). King Richard III (ed. by J. R. Siemon). Arden Edition. London and New York: Bloomsbury.