Tag Archives: Erving Goffman

Shakespeare’s Storytellers

“Ian considered O and Dee, holding hands under the trees as she fed him another strawberry, and Casper, watching Bianca with a proprietary air as she jumped Double Dutch. They were like characters in a play who needed an extra scene, a thread to pull them tight. And Ian held the thread” (p. 126). That’s from Tracy Chevalier’s novel New Boy, which is her retelling of Othello in the Hogarth Press series of modern Shakespeare. Ian is the Iago character, and I think Chevalier catches Iago’s sensibility as a storyteller: how Iago sees others as characters in a story that he writes, directs, and plays a leading role in. I follow Erving Goffman in believing that one part of the presentation of self in everyday life is the manipulation of others to play out a story in which that self can be what the storyteller imagines being, or perhaps discovers who they can be. Manipulation covers a wide range of actions, with Iago/Ian representing the worst. We recognize how stories are co-constructed. We acknowledge less often how enacting stories involves manipulations; there’s a fine line between these categories.

This blog is a much condensed version of what was planned to be plenary lecture I was scheduled to give at the Narrative Matters conference in Atlanta this May. That event, like everything else these days, won’t happen, and by the time of next year’s conference, I sincerely hope I’ll want to speak on something else–it’s depressing to think that a year from now, I might have the same thing to say. So this blog becomes a useful venue to set down a bit of what I would have said in Atlanta.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters who either overtly stage stories, as Hamlet does when he organizes the players to perform The Mousetrap, or like Iago/Ian, enrol others as the cast in a story the protagonist designs. In The Tempest, Prospero designs such a story with the goal of setting back in order what had been dislocated by his brother’s usurpation of his Dukedom. Prospero’s cause may be fundamentally just: usurping the rightful ruler is a bad thing, especially setting him and his child adrift in a leaky boat. But The Tempest is an edgy play because Prospero is–to use the key word again–manipulating everyone else. Miranda and Ferdinand may feel they are genuinely falling in love, and they may have a great future together, but we know that Prospero is setting them up. Social scientists, at their most annoying, like to point out that most choices we humans make are far more predictable, and easily manipulated, than we imagine. In Pierre Bourdieu’s monumental phrase, we make unchosen choices. In social science, the Prospero role is called society. What’s amazing is the pleasure with which we watch The Tempest, compared to the annoyance we feel when told our choices are less our own than we supposed.

So we might array Shakespeare’s storytellers into categories like the good, the bad, and the ugly. Iago is clearly the ugly. Who’s good and who’s bad gets complicated. Hamlet stages The Mousetrap for reasons that seem good–to determine whether the Ghost is honest by observing Claudio’s reaction to a murder that mirrors what the Ghost accuses Claudio of doing–but Hamlet is less in control of how he performs his “antic disposition”. His viciousness to Ophelia puts him in the bad category–he needs professional help, even if we think he’s aware of being watched an is performing for those spying on him.

My favourite, in the sense of most fascinating and perplexing, good/bad storyteller is the Duke in Measure for Measure. In a remarkably short first scene, he conscripts Angelo and Escalus to play his part, to be Duke, while he leaves town for unexplained reasons. The Duke doesn’t leave, but rather disguises himself as a Friar and plays that part in the story that he as Duke has instigated, but that Angelo proceeds to act out. The Duke thus acts closest to how I think people in so-called everyday life design stories. What makes Measure for Measure so engaging is the constant question how fully the Duke has predicted what would happen and remains in control, and when he’s genuinely surprised by his cast taking the story in directions he hadn’t anticipated. I find the Duke more interesting than Prospero because of his tenuous control–he has no Ariel to make him effectively omnipotent.

Measure for Measure is based on the old folktale of the evil judge who offers to release a woman’s loved one if she sleeps with him. In MfM, when Angelo acts this way–thus taking an established part in a story that precedes him–the Duke has matters in control; he might even have predicted Angelo’s behaviour. In the eventual assignation with Angelo, the part of Isabella is played by Mariana, who is (inexplicably) still in love with Angelo, despite his having jilted her over an unpaid dowry. Then comes the fascinating moment: Is the Duke surprised when he learns that Angelo has reneged on his bargain and despite believing he possessed Isabella, has ordered the execution of her brother, Claudio, to proceed? An actor can play the Duke’s reaction either way: has he suddenly lost control of the story, or did he anticipate even this turn of events?

The Duke will regain control in his endgame move of staging his own return, and that’s when he most blurs the good/bad line. Part of bringing down Angelo, before ultimately forgiving him, involves not telling Isabella that Claudio is alive (another head is sent to Angelo, in another deception). Then, having pushed Isabella to her limits, the Duke asks her to marry him, which is at least his idea of a happy ending to a story in which most of the people have been seriously unhappy. In what may be Shakespeare’s greatest silence, Isabella never gives him an answer, and different productions can cue the outcome in either direction with more or less certainty. I’m left with a question that’s a Shakespearean version of a Zen koan: Is the Duke’s proposal to Isabella honourable? And what counts, then, as an honourable proposal? What counts as honourable storytelling, with real life characters?

We tell stories not only at bedtimes and firesides, but also in how we enrol/enlist/conscript others into parts that set them acting out plot scenarios that we, the real life storyteller, have more or less in mind; that is, we expect and desire more or less specific outcomes. As the stories we have instigated play out, we watch, intervene, and maybe manipulate, accounting for that in different ways. We decide which characters need what extra scene, and we half believe we can hold the thread that pulls them; sometimes, we do hold that thread. Shakespeare shows us the continuum and complexity of what counts as manipulation, and how easily honourable manipulation turns creepy. Different periods of response to Shakespeare react differently to the protagonists’ manipulations. At the extreme, nobody has ever condoned Iago. But Prospero has been idealized and condemned, both. In MfM, Lucio describes the protagonist as “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners” (4.3.156), and I wonder how truthful that is. Which brings me back to my usual sort of questions: How much of ourselves does companionship with the Duke enable us to see? Into which of our own dark corners does MfM shine some light?

Playing Our Part

My work on Shakespeare takes me back to the sociologist Erving Goffman, whose 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life proposed a dramaturgical analysis of how people interact in shared spaces, public places like restaurants or beaches. That was, I think, the first sociology book I ever read. It was assigned reading in a social psychology course and was so badly taught that I sold my copy back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. I met Goffman when I was doing my M.A. at Penn; he gave me very sensible advice on graduate schools. I read him thoroughly while I was doing my doctorate, and when I started to publish he became a mentor and I hope a friend.

Goffman had, I believe, no use for talk about authenticity. He refers to the self, but it’s a slippery thing whatever he means. People seem better understood as playing roles, and their performances fall along a continuum between full embracement of the role–which a person might describe as feeling authentic–to displaying distance from a role. Role distance for Goffman isn’t necessarily alienation; it’s more ironic than existential. In full embracement, the person is the role. Role distance is not necessarily calculated, but a space is opened to watch one’s self perform a version of that self.

Whenever I think I’ve put Goffman on the shelf, he comes back off again, and that happened this week when I was reading a fine essay by the actor Roger Allam, writing about playing the part of the Duke in Measure for Measure (the essay is in the collection Players of Shakespeare 3, edited by Jackson and Smallwood, Cambridge UP, 1993). The Duke, as Allam begins by noting, can be played “in completely opposite ways”. For those who don’t recall the play, it begins with the Duke informing everyone that he’s going on indefinite sabbatical, and all his power–“our terror”, which Allam observes means both his absolute power and his own fear of ruling–is left to Angelo, as ruler in his absence. “The disguised ruler who seeks true knowledge of his world is an old story,” Allam writes. Shakespeare puts that old story together with another.

Angelo’s remit is to enforce laws that have been unenforced for too long, possibly most of the Duke’s reign. To keep this posting within its length, let’s just say that Claudio has violated one of these laws and is sentenced to be executed. He enlists his sister Isabella to go to Angelo and plead for his life. Here we get the second old story, which is the evil judge or ruler who tells the supplicant that he will free her brother/husband/lover if she will be his, at least for a night. We get this story from early English ballads through Tosca. Of course the Duke has never actually left. Disguised as a friar, he insinuates himself in the lives of Claudio and Isabella. He embraces the role of friar more easily than he played the part of Duke.

But who is the Duke/friar? Three of Allam’s observations seem especially useful. First, the Duke has “a rather rarified opinion of himself as being somehow above life, or certainly above ordinary human existence”. Second, “the Duke constantly uses other people … as a means of self-knowledge,” but what makes this less than totally obnoxious is that he is “above all … testing himself”. Third, the Duke becomes most “passionately articulate” when “he equates life with all that is worthless, foolish, base, and ignoble”. Allam’s summary: “I began to form a picture of a man who was a recluse, an intellectual, and a celebate; a man with a rapid mind, but who has, in a sense, thought himself into paralysis and inaction”. Rather than getting personal about how I relate to that description, let me move to the less embarrassing terrain who else it reminds me of.

Shakespeare’s plays take a few characters who have a strong resemblance and put them in different situations, enacting variations on what such a person might do in an alternative disposition of resources and possibilities. Think of who Hamlet might have become if his father had just died when he did, but no uncle slipped between the election and Hamlet’s hopes, and Hamlet had become king at too young an age. I imagine young Hamlet as king would look very much as Allam describes the Duke: someone who puts himself above ordinary existence and always risks devaluing life; a recluse, would-be intellectual, whose rapid mind can lead him into inaction.

If the Duke seems a slightly older alternative version of Hamlet, I also hear Allam describing a younger self of Prospero from The Tempest. Prospero says his reign failed due to his withdrawal into his books, leaving governance to his brother who usurps him. The Duke in Measure usurps himself preemptively. Hamlet may find space to get out of being Hamlet only during his adventure with the pirates; too bad he didn’t stay longer with them. Prospero’s island gives him space to reinvent a self that he knows better, and when he is ready he stages a little drama culminating in his restoration. The Duke stages his own restoration, but unlike Prospero, he has no Ariel and must deal with unexpected developments. Life gets away from the plot so far as he may have planned it, although how far he has planned remains a question.

Allam makes the strong interpretive claim that “the revelation of Angelo’s utter hypocrisy is a complete bombshell” for the Duke. But he acknowledges the problem of this interpretation: the Duke always knows how badly Angelo has treated his former betrothed, Mariana. How complete could the bombshell be? More important, by the end of the play, is the Duke now ready to embrace a role that he had to radically distance himself from? If something comes to the Duke as a bombshell, my choice is the moment when he hears himself proposing marriage to Isabella. I think he’s more surprised than she is. But some part of himself knows–and I in the audience believe–that as ill timed as his proposal may be, she and he need each other. Authenticity, whatever it is, is never solitary. Selves also inhabit intimate spaces. On the question of whether, after the play has just stopped rather than properly ended, Isabella agrees to marry the Duke, I love what Allam writes: “We thought probably they did, but only after a very long conversation.” That seems to evoke both intimacy and authenticity.