[For an essay question on a take-home exam, this is excellent. That context allows for a degree of informality among the originality so long as the scholarly content is not sacrificed. In another more formal context, those quotations listed at the end would be incorporated. But this far outshines the usual safe bilge one sees on short essays.]

Tyler H. Bevis
15 June 1999

Final Essay

Who are we? Paul Simon said, "I am a rock." John Lennon said, "I am the walrus." Steve Miller said, "I'm a joker, I'm a smoker, I'm a midnight toker." Richard Nixon said, "I am not a crook." Basically, it boils down to this: people naturally don't really know who they are, or really are. These metaphorical song lyrics (excluding Tricky Dick) seem to be searches at an explanation of the self. People have been attempting to secure their identities forever. At first this search seemed synonymous with a search of an origin. Religious doctrines were devised to explain who people are and if not, how they should be. However, one's identity or soul or true self is not a stagnant or secure identity. One's character or self is always apt to evolve with age and experience, or quicker, depending on situations like if one is drunk (Cassio), etc. The ambiguity of people's personage is a theme Shakespeare explores in most of his works. He does so with many means: the use of costumes, magic, dishonesty, and most often with confusion. Characters in Shakespeare are never what they seem. Hamlet says, "I know not 'seems.'" Iago says, "I'm not what I am." Henry V says, "Presume not that I am the thing I was."

What Shakespeare seems to be doing is breaking down identities. We develop a discourse of pattern-based predictions about who people are and how they will behave. When people act differently or out of our perception of their character we assume something is wrong. We all fester a natural tendency to seek black and white or at least know where people stand. Trust and honesty, declared and respected virtues, are based on this inherent need. Shakespeare again and again breaks these beliefs down by basing all significant action in his plays on people acting out of their perceived characters. Examples include the love quadrangle in A Midsummer Night's Dream; the rejection of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 2; Othello's struggle with Desdemona's potential promiscuity; Claudio and Prince John's assumption of Hero's whorishness; the Archbishop, Mowbray, and Hastings' belief in the honor of Lancaster's inferred intentions; etc. So often in Shakespeare's plays, characters put on disguises and wear masks to hide who they truly are for some purpose or another. So much of his story lines depend on instances where people's assumptions are false perceptions of who someone really is.

I think Shakespeare is interested in the idea that we really don't know who people are or who we ourselves are -- ironic, since we're skeptical of who Shakespeare was. We base our assumptions on class, race, culture, and other group classifications and specializations. Our identity is interdependent on this ideology. But this system is flawed because individuals are not molded out of the same soul. We can predict people's actions according to a number of groupings, such as horoscopes, personality types, sex, etc. But there is no absolute -- we think we want to know everything about how a person will behave, but really this would be boring. People wouldn't be people if they behaved the same way in all situations. This is what robots and allegorical figures do and it's unattractive and uninteresting. Yet on the other extreme, people seem to have a tendency to fear unpredictable people, like schizophrenics. I think when it comes down to it, James Joyce in Ulysses says it the best: "Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves." People can play any and all parts. Shakespeare explores this theme constantly.

We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us.
(Hamlet III.i)

Doth not the appetite alter?
(Much Ado About Nothing II.iii)

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
(Much Ado About Nothing II.iii)

Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale told by
an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.
(Macbeth V.v)

All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts...
(As You Like It II.vii)

Is it possible he should know what he is and
Be that he is?
(All's Well That Ends Well IV.i)

Shakespeare Index