“What are you?”
That’s the question Olivia asks “Cesario,” the strangely compelling person who is “between boy and man” (and is actually the lady Viola in disguise) in Twelfth Night. But it’s also a question that pops up in various forms throughout all of Shakespeare’s plays, filled as they are with characters, both in disguise and out, who are navigating shifting positions in social class, rising and falling fortunes, and fractious political loyalties.
When I teach or conduct workshops, it’s a question I ask my students, too: What are you? How do you identify? Are you an artist? A scholar? A scientist? An athlete? A nerd? (Everyone’s a nerd about something.) If you’re a theater artist, as many of my students are, how do you specify — are you an actor? A director? A playwright? A dancer? A choreographer? A designer? A technician? Knowing my students’ background and interests helps me tailor the lesson and show how the subject matter might be applicable to their lives (and not just, you know, fascinating for its own sake).
But it’s a question we all struggle with, with frequently multiple answers, or an answer that changes over the course of a term. It will almost certainly change over the course of a life, as Shakespeare well knew. At various times in his life, Shakespeare was a glover’s apprentice, an actor, a poet, a dramatic poet (what we now call a playwright), a property owner, a grain hoarder, and a shareholder in a theater industry that he helped invent. “One man in his time plays many parts,” indeed.
Charting your life’s course requires an ability to chronicle it, to take stock of your passions, strengths, and desires in order to set a heading. Even if storytelling isn’t your career, you’ve got to be able to tell the story of You. How can we follow Polonius’s one bit of genuinely useful advice, “To thine own self be true,” if we can’t define and articulate what our own self is? And — to continue the ocean voyage metaphor — your course may change as you encounter wind and tempests; in fact, your destination may change as you grow and evolve and become a different person with different priorities, so it’s a useful habit to periodically check your bearings (to beat the metaphor completely to the bottom of the sea).
Every time you apply for a job, or a grant, or to get into college, or even go out on a date, you are telling your story, and in order to tell your story to someone else you first have to tell it to yourself. If you’re a theater artist, or in fact self-employed in any occupation, you’re having to tell your story all the time: the biggest part of many jobs is looking for the next job. Shakespeare’s plays provide numerous examples of people in transition, as does his life. One could legitimately ask “What Would Shakespeare Do?” — and in fact Jess Winfield, one of the founding members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, asked that very question and wrote a book about it. Reading and seeing Shakespeare’s plays offers a wonderful jumping-off point for discussions about identity, for surely part of the conversation is an echo of King Lear’s question, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” How do I see myself in society? How does society see me? How do I want society to see me?
(And lest you think I’m offering advice I don’t personally follow, I frequently have cause to ask myself these fundamental questions, and recently came to the glorious realization that the answer to “What am I?” is actually — I am in fact William Shakespeare himself. Stay with me here: Like Shakespeare, I am an actor and playwright who takes existing histories and stories and makes them his own, and am also part-owner of a theater company who has had some small financial success in real estate, and I sleep with my wife in our second-best bed. [This is true. Our nicest bed is in the guest room.] The similarities between me and Shakespeare are eerie.)
King Lear — like many of Shakespeare’s characters; in fact, like many people then and now — is a character in transition, and he gets a partial answer to his question when his Fool tells him, “Thou wouldst make a good Fool.” We all would, and frequently do, make great fools, usually when we pretend to an understanding we don’t have. As one of Shakespeare’s other Fools, Touchstone, says in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” We frequently act impulsively, ignorantly, and the results can be both comic and tragic, as Shakespeare demonstrates again and again.
Our identities aren’t fixed: We can change. We will change. Even a villain is the hero of his or her own narrative. It’s not for nothing that three of Hamlet’s dying words are, “tell my story.” Stories are vital and the ability to tell them — if only to ourselves, about ourselves — is invaluable.