All the World’s a Stage: Shakespeare and Goffman

Erving Goffman believed in social interactionism, in the concepts of micro-interactions. According to Goffman’s dramaturgic theory, social life is a theatrical performance in which we are all actors on metaphysical stages with roles, scripts, costumes, and sets. He suggests that depending on our surroundings and what our concepts are of them, we act differently. Just like how behavior when around elderly people can be extremely different from behavior when around peers. Goffman’s theory reminded me of something written a long time ago. In Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It, the character Jaques performs a monologue about the different parts of a man’s life. 

“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, His acts being seven ages.” –As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

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The words seem similar to Goffman’s idea. People are actors that play specific parts in their lives, whether it is when they are a child or when they are an adult. Shakespeare suggested that people do not continue to remain the same as they grow older. We are constantly evolving, though perhaps in more than just “seven ages”.

This can be seen clearly in young adults. For the first time, they are truly beginning to find themselves, rather than live with their parent’s influence. When around their parents, for the most part, young adults are respectful. They attempt to avoid cursing, put on a mask of obedience. However, when around their friends, these same young adults may become more vulgar and unfiltered. They may drink or do drugs (two highly discouraged acts in their parents’ eyes) because they are in a different setting with different characters and different props.

What makes this concept fascinating is the idea that society truly shapes us. The dramaturgic theory is clear in its attempt to emphasize that we are never truly ourselves as long as we are around other people. This leads me to wonder, if we consistently put on new mask depending on the environment around us and its contents, then how can we find our own identity. While isolation is typically seen as a more negative part of life, maybe it is sometimes necessary in order to gain a better idea of our self. So what can we do to find the balance between our masks and the identity we form alone?

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