Tag Archives: Erving Goffman

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.