Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy: A Mirror for Lovers

By Hugh M. Richmond | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
The Sonnets: Reversal of Expectations in Love

LIKE other successful dramatists such as Molière, Shakespeare started his theatrical career as an actor, and he may have continued to act at least as late as the first performance of one of his own major tragedies, for Nicholas Rowe suggests that his best role was that of the ghost of Old Hamlet. This professional experience in role-playing may help to explain why Shakespeare seems so conscious of the artificiality of human personality both on and off the stage.

A latecomer to a recent Pirandello revival in New York was asked nervously by those seated next to him, "Are you one of us or one of them?" To Shakespeare this distinction between the roles of the actors and of the audience would have seemed naive. The chief difference would not lie in the fact that one group was acting and one was not. All of them were acting out assumed roles, but each actor knew he was playing a part, while most of the audience would believe that the personalities they had assumed outside the theater were less artificial than those on the stage, not realizing that "All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players," as Jaques observes in As You Like It (II. vii. 139-140).

At the heart of Shakespeare's art lies this recognition that any confidence about personality is based only on a willful and dangerous delusion of consistent identity. The plots of most of his plays derive from the grotesque consequences of taking one's own sup

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