To perform or not to perform (that’s the question)

The play’s the thing – Hamlet

This year, at TEDxAmsterdam 2011, we pose the question: What is human nature? On the 25th of November, a lot of inspiring speakers will not only share their thoughts and but also their personal experiences and stories on this theme. TED thus takes a role which has been around for a long time: to share knowledge by telling stories. For centuries, we find all kind of thoughts and blueprints on the possible nature of us humans in storytelling. Especially in the stories, or plays, of maybe the most famous storyteller of all, William Shakespeare, who wrote such profound characters that some critics even argue he has invented humanity. If there is one thing which is of importance in exploring human nature, it is researching which stories, plays and performances we tell each other and how we approach them, and who to better guide us in this quest than the master himself?

Off with his head! – King Richard III

So, what role does storytelling play in forming human nature, or more specific: identity? Identity, or just simple I, is the maybe the most commonly used word in contemporary society. Identity is constructed, sought after, and thought of by everybody. Theorists explain this fascination about identity by the fact that identity has few places to anchor and no safe haven to dock in today’s ‘liquid modernity’, as the Polish philosopher Zygmund Bauman calls it. Conditions which previously provided a fixed script for building identity, like family structures or the church, have gradually lost their power over the years. ‘Off with their heads’ the mass screamed and while the traditional roles got chopped into pieces, something changed in the way we experience our own identity. Identity no longer has a fixed essence which determines how to lead your life, but has to shape itself again and again in everyday life. Identity has become a creation.

All the world’s a stage – As You Like It

One could say that ‘All the world’s a stage’, the phrase from 1600 that begins a monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which compares the world to a stage, life to a play, and – my personal addition given the present situation – identity as a performance. Being yourself is a daily choreographed played out story. The sociologist Erving Goffman states that there is no essential authentic person who plays several roles, but through the roles one plays during his/hers life’s performance, one becomes that role. Thus creating a whole different relationship with storytelling. Nowadays, stories are not just things which are passively passed on or listened to, they are things which can be actively played out.

Why then tonight let us assay our plot – All’s well that ends well

In her 2010 TEDTalk ‘The politics of fiction’, the Turkish writer Elif Shafak offers another clue for our changing relationship with telling stories. She states that we not only get to know ourselves through stories, but also the Other. In real life we are surrounded by circles of people who essentially look very much alike: like ourselves. Our everyday life is a Google+ one: a life in ‘cultural ghetto’s’ like Elif Shafak calls them. This role of storytelling – to create some punchholes in our mental walls through which we can get a glimpse of the Other, and sometimes even like what we see – has become much more important in the performance of identity. It gives us opportunity to pop out of fixed categories and roles. Where Shakespeare’s phrase ‘All the world’s a stage’ originally meant that one must play the role life has given him, nowadays the speech takes on a new meaning: we can all be the director of our own play.


To be or not to be (that’s the question) – Hamlet

This gives a very different twist to the most used Shakespearean quote. To be or not to be, that’s not the question anymore. In contemporary western culture, the question is: who do you want to be from the range of options that you have? The fool? The maiden? The bold knight? Of everything in between? It’s your choice. Thank god Hamlet didn’t stage in the 21th century with those endless options. That would have been quite a tedious, dreadfull play.

This blogpost is also published on TedxAmsterdam 

Further Read

– Biography of Elif Shafak on TED

– Erving Goffman (1993/1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

– Zygmunt Bauman (2000) Liquid modernity

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