If the world is a stage, we like putting on the same shows. The Matrix, The Truman Show, Equilibrium…not original. Even in Shakespeare’s 17th century comedy As You Like It, we confront the suggestion that the world is a sham and humans are the sham’s pawns.
At surface-level, the play is a ball of fluff—a cute comedy where everything ends neatly and everyone gets married. On a closer read, though, we find that Shakespeare juggles weighty questions in this ‘ball of fluff’ like ‘what is it to be human?’ and ‘how do I ‘find myself’?’ The various characters in the play (namely Jaques, Rosalind, and ‘everyone else’) depict three different answers to these questions—beyond that, Shakespeare leaves us to untangle identity’s mysteries.
Corrosive melancholy drips from Jaques’ words. “All the world’s a stage,” he declares, “…And all the men and women merely players.” The woodland existentialist makes his cynicism clear: in using ‘merely’, he implies that our ‘stage’ is meaningless. After all, as his soliloquy continues, every life ends in nothingness—“sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything.” To ‘What or who am I?’, Jaques responds, ‘You are a pawn. Dust. Puppet of a cosmic stage.’
I can hardly find fault with the cynic when I consider how most of the characters go about finding identity: they don’t. Rather, they seem to say, ‘we simply are what we’re thrown into’. Not exerting any will over their own lives, they trip obliviously through events. To accuse them of being ‘merely players’ is easy: from exile to love to religious conversion, the characters are reflexive, their identities in constant flux because derived from immediate fortunes. In this, they cut themselves off from pursuing human ethics: a typically requirement for ethical behavior is the cognitive choice of action rather than simply responding to externals.
I admit. I commiserate with Jaques acidic misanthropy: malleable people bug me. Even when they have strong desires, the desires are imbibed. In a way, As You Like It echoes the ironic image of a million Americans wearing name-brand shirts that boldly state ‘INDEPENDENT’. I can point at it and say, “I don’t want that. I don’t want my identity to be ‘pawn’.” If my life were entirely dependent on external influence, I think I’d fall into a kind of despair.
But is Jaques the alternative?—the man who detached from society in order to see it ‘objectively’ and became, as a different character notes, “nowhere…like a man”? He doesn’t despair about his life being externally caused; he has a despair of ever having that despair! We look at aloof Jaques, polar opposite of the manipulated majority, and see that while being a puppet of fortune is bad, isolation is worse. True identities are largely dependent on involuntary givens.
As Gandalf says to Frodo, we don’t get to choose where or when we live, but only what we do with the time we’ve been given. The majority of the players in As You Like It don’t impose will on the given—they simply absorb it. Jaques tries to reject all givens, but he ends up isolated. He affects the events of the play so little that Shakespeare could exclude him in the earliest manuscripts without much alteration from the later versions.
Still, Shakespeare doesn’t leaves us directionless in the ‘insanity’, as G.K. Chesterton called it, of “the man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else.” A different character provides a satisfying example of embraced identity…Rosalind. While she fully lives in her community, Rosalind also uses her wit and desires to impact her surroundings. She is committed to the given–she engages with life as presented to her–but Rosalind is not addicted to it. She knows herself because she sees the given and accepts it, doing what she can to improve it: she is not tossed blindly by fortune, nor does she pretend she can escape fortune.
We Christians claim to ‘live in the world, but not of it’. Rosalind demonstrates that principle in action. Not fighting suspension between reflexive and rational, Rosalind gains full human identity by embracing both. Unlike Rosalind, though, I hope Christians find better use of time than matchmaking. Unless, of course, the match was made in heaven..then participation is required.