I thought reading Shakespeare was a waste of time when I was in high school. I thought it was just one of those things we did to say we did it. I remember telling my mom one time, “The only reason his works are famous is because they’re old. Its so boring.” Classic high schooler. Or classic prideful jerk. One of the two. Maybe both. However, years later I am taking a class focused on Shakespeare’s plays and I find him brilliant. What I love most about literature is how it reveals the human experience in a particular setting with particular people. These stories tell of the problems, triumphs, mistakes, and journeys of human nature. It bridges people through the universal elements of our humanity. Shakespeare is a master of this, because he uses the stage to show audiences themselves.
Most of Shakespeare’s plays revolve around a theme of identity, which evoke the questions: who am I? what makes me who I am? how do I know myself? how can others know me? …etc
My professor brought these themes and points to life, so I’ll paraphrase what he did and said:
Who are you? (awkward silence)… Okay lets flip it around. Who am I? Say you see me at a party and I walk up and say “Hi, I’m Bill”. What would you ask me to get to know me? What would your questions be? (The class answered and he began writing all of the topics of the questions on the board. When we were done calling them out to him, the list read: occupation, origin and family, hobbies, religion, politics, friends, etc. Then, he continued) Well, let’s say one day all of these things come crashing down. Let’s say you get fired from your job. Your family and friends decide to disown you. Your hobby of stamp collecting burns to the ground. The head of your religion excommunicates you. The political party collapses. And everything crumbles. (He paused and stared at us) What’s left? Who are you then? I know this is an extremely odd and unrealistic scenario, but let’s play the game. Who are you when everything you have identified with is gone? All the identifying labels that “make you, you” vanish.
What a profound point elicited from a play written in 1606. You can read something written hundreds or thousands of years ago and its relevance to present times is uncanny. How freaking relatable is a crisis of identity in the USA in 2018?
We can attach to things and people, we can associate with organizations, parties, and companies, but who am I? Who is the person I call ‘myself’? What exists after all the other things are stripped away?
What transcends these labels?
We desire concrete answers to these ultimate questions, but I think simple, trite remarks to such foundational and real questions would commit an act of injustice. Rather, these questions present a mystery to each person. I’d like to offer a few thoughts, not as an answer, but as a first step into the mystery of our being.
One interesting phenomena of the human person is how something we encounter outside of ourselves awakens something inside of ourselves. An encounter with reality awakens our sense of self.
Here’s a trivial example all people can relate to:
You are walking in the park on a sunny day with blue skies. You’re probably day dreaming and getting lost in your own mind. Kind of in an autopilot state. Suddenly, you see an attractive person of the opposite gender walking your way. You’re immediately conscious of where you are and how you are. You are now aware that your hair feels slightly messy because of the wind in the park so you begin to fix it. You are now aware that you have a bad taste in your mouth and left your gum in the car. You have now started to walk in a more intentional way, and you smile as you pass the beautiful person. A deep breath. Now you think about whether or not they noticed you. Or what they thought about you. And so on.
Hopefully this frivolous example elucidates my point. It wasn’t until you saw an attractive person of the opposite sex that you became fully aware of how you presented yourself. The interaction with a person, an other, roused a sense of self awareness. You really don’t experience yourself as an “I” until you are in relation to someone or something. Only in relation can we be known.
We can live in our own minds and worlds, and it may seem that we know ourselves. However, I think we can only come to know ourselves through interacting with the world outside of us. I think the self only becomes actualized when it enters into a relationship. When I relate to reality. Otherwise, it lies stagnant absorbed in itself without any life or reason to be.
Knowledge of our true selves, and answering these ultimate questions that Shakespeare centered his work upon, can only come once our sense of self is awakened. Only when we experience ourselves as an “I” through our gift of consciousness.
“Awakening is first and foremost a state of arousal that signals change and transformation and, therefore, carries with it the taste of risk.” – Bonnitta Roy