That Shakespeare’s plays are suffused with images of acting and the stage should be no surprise. After all, Shakespeare was himself an actor, and we can assume that for the twenty years or so that he was a practicing playwright (averaging nearly two scripts a year), his life revolved around the other members of his company and the environment of the theater.
What may take us aback, however, is the variety of meanings and denotations that the theme of “acting” invokes. In some plays, the references imply metaphoric parallels between a character onstage and a human being functioning in the “real world.” In other works, the implications of “acting” resonate more deeply, involving the very attitude with which a character proceeds through life. These figures, Shakespeare suggests, may be aware of the artificiality and fleeting nature of the “roles” they play. Such characters often conclude that they are performing a part in the drama of events that surround them, improvising lines and actions that maintain their performance. Furthermore, when we consider the aggregate of these characters and Shakespeare’s implications about them, we are forced to question the nature of our own existence. To what extent are we, too, playing roles? Ultimately we may ask, both about Shakespeare’s characters and ourselves, to what extent do such roles supersede our own personality? Or is that personality nothing more than the sum of the many parts that we assume, such as spouse, employee, friend, or sibling?
Let us begin with those characters who mention theatrical imagery only briefly, but to sharp effect. In King Lear, for instance, the title character, who has been expelled from his home and stranded on the heath, and who now stands battered and nearly mad with grief, removes his crown of weeds and flowers and reflects: