The Self-Impersonation of Mythology
When I was a little girl I went to the movies; poor Cary Grant
thought his wife was dead, but Irene Dunne, she comes back.
Oh, that just happens in the movies.
Doris Day (as Ellen) and Polly Bergen (as Bianca),
in Michael Gordon’sMove Over, Darling (1963)
Basically, Shakespeare stole everything he ever wrote.… Essential-
ly, Shakespeare was a formula writer. Once he found a device that
worked, he used it over and over again.
The Compleat Works of Wllm Shakspr (Abridged)
Many cultures tell stories about people who pretend to be other people pretending to be them, thus in effect masquerading as themselves, impersonating themselves, pretending to be precisely what they are. This great theme, in literature and in life, tells us that many people must put on masks to discover who they are under the covert masks they usually wear, so that the overt mask reveals rather than conceals the truth, reveals the self beneath the self; and it tells us that, although such masquerades cannot change people into other people, they may change them into others among their many selves.
The widespread distribution of the theme of self-impersonation argues for both its literary power and its human value. The stories in this book do not range over the whole earth (I do not, for instance, draw upon Native American or African texts)1 but are drawn largely from the Indo-European world, particularly Sanskrit literature,2 medieval European courtly literature, Shakespeare, Wagner, Hollywood, and Bollywood. Nevertheless, they cover a pretty wide swath of time and space, from