Shakespeare was not the first to make the point, but perhaps he can be credited with popularizing it. In his comedy, As You Like It, the exiled Jacques muses that “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts” (II, vii). As an observation about the nature of our identities, this is an unsettling insight into the pretensions and contingencies of social life.
In 1959 Erving Goffman turned this observation into an entire theory of human behavior and social relationships. Indeed, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life stretched the analogy of “life as theater” about as far as it could go. His analysis of impression management, frontstage and backstage behavior, the dynamics of individual and team performances, conduct out of character, and so on was comprehensive, convincing, and, though humorous in parts, more than a bit disturbing. Goffman himself was relentless in his application of the analogy, insisting that even alone we play out performances in our heads and that sincerity is “merely being taken in by one’s own act.” The self was not, as we had thought, the inner reality of each individual expressed as a stable, consistent, and unique personality, but rather the various surface roles we play in life—and nothing more than that. The element of truth in Shakespeare’s adage became, with Goffman, pretty much the whole truth.