William Shakespeare famously penned in, “As you Like It” “All the world’s a stage and the men and women the players”
Classic Greek literature informs that the aphorism, “Know Thyself” is inscribed in the Temple of Apollo, in the City of Delphi; the same has been the frequent abjuration of such great Greek pedagogues as Sophocles.
Despite anticipated charges of presumption, as well as literary blasphemy, p. observes that these revered, time-worn maxims, like all aphorisms (see blog #11) raise more questions than furnish answers (despite, in this case, the eminence of their authors). Such purported verbal pillars of wisdom have less meaning and use than is commonly attributed to them.
An actor’s role in a play is assigned to him and is completely predictable. Perhaps therefore there may be a slight problem with the great Bard’s metaphor. In the real world, by contrast, the individual role and identity of the player is a multifaceted and complex one which can only be somewhat ascertained by a reference to a consensus on the part of his contacts.
Were William Shakespeare alive today, his great plays would have to undergo significant alteration in style, size and certainly in content. Contemporary audiences are, in this age, aware of the universally accepted existence of differences in perception, as well as of multi-faceted persona. No longer are individuals frequently and simplistically identified by virtue of a big black beard, a deep voice or by physical stature such as “a lean and hungry look.”
It is important to bear in mind that the beholder is always affected in his observation and judgment by his past experiences and his own inclinations. There are an infinite number of beholders and, accordingly, an infinite number and variety of evaluations.
Let us assume, merely for the purpose of illustration, that a single specific trait of an individual were selected by a consensus of observers, still, complete agreement upon the subject of personality and character would l vary by virtue of predictable differences in perception.
Other imponderables: are traits acquired in childhood? At earlier or later ages? Can they change by virtue of experience, education or significant experiences?
Thus, in the effort to identify and describe an individual and his role, one’s personal experiential past and individualized perception, may make accurate, objective determination extremely difficult or impossible; it makes “Know Thyself” extremely difficult; especially when we privately disagree with the perception of others.
Even further complications arise when one factors the common human trait in viz., the need to see other people as we need them to be (in the hierarchy of our fantasies). For example, the celebrated western heroes of popular fiction, such as Davey Crockett, Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and many others, are revealed by simple research to be undesirables; men running westward to escape the law, creditors, wives and other normal responsibilities. They are to us, nevertheless, authentic, legendary heroes, simply because we need them to be. Another example is the case of the mother of a dangerous fugitive, arrested for the commission of numerous cruel and horrendous crimes, who persists in her claims (and belief) that her son is “a good boy.”
How practical and useful is the adage “Know thyself” (excuse me, Socrates) when it seems that it is the consensus of opinion as to our worth and our role, that is determinative.
Different roles seem as well to be dictated by, and vary with, the nature of our interactions. For example, a hardened, cruel criiminal may play the role of a loving creampuff in the presence of his wife and small child.
Lastly, there are many roles played conditionally, in exchange for the performance of a specific and promised role on the part of another person.
So, what part can we attempt to play on Shakespeare’s world stage?