ALL THE WORLD’S NOT SIMPLY A STAGE:
The Poverty of Dramaturgical Approach ini Sociological Inquiry
Historians of modern thought categorize the 17th century as the age of reasons. Stuart Hampshire (1957) gave an important note that in the ages of reason, philosophers began to explain natural processes in mathematical terms. They also developed vital concepts of knowledge and certainty, appearance and reality, freedom and necessity, mind and matter, deduction and experiment.
This century was the great formative era of modern thought, marked by the decline of medieval conceptions of knowledge, the rise of the physical sciences and the gradual transition from Latin to French and English as instruments of philosophical thought. There were such great 17th century philosophers as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1569-1650), and Galileo Galilei (1564-1542). The more interesting is the fact that there was also a giant of English and world literature, William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
Though Shakespeare was not a philosopher or scientist, through his drama and poetry, it seems clear that he gave a significant influence to the philosopher’s worldview of that time. “De omnibus dubitandum”, Descartes asserted that thinking is but to doubt everything. On the principles of human knowledge, he argued, first, that in order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things. Second, that we ought also to consider as false all that is doubtful (Descartes, 1975: 165).
At the same age, Shakespeare wrote and performed his “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”, where Hamlet persuaded Ophelia with his letter.
To the celestial and my soul’s idol,
The most beautified Ophelia,
In her excellent white bosom, these.
Doubt thou the stars are fire
Doubt that the sun doth move
Doubt truth to be a liar
But never doubt I love
O dear Ophelia,
I am ill at these numbers
I have not art to reckon my groans
But that I love thee best,
O most best, believe it, Adieu.
Thine evermore, most dear lady,
Whilst this machine to him.
(Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince ofDenmark, Act II, Scene II).
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, therefore, reminds us to the Cartesian skepticism. Moreover, Shakespeare was also affected by the ideas of philosophers of his time. Shakespeare’s influences across time until the emerging of Marx (1818-1903), who wrote his manuscript on philosophy of money as his interpretation to a part of Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens”.
Shakespeare emphasizes particularly two properties of money: (1) it is the visible deity, the transformation of all human and natural qualities into their opposites, the universal confusion and inversion of things; it brings incompatibles intro fraternity, (2) it is the universal whore, the universal pander between men and nations (Marx, 1963: 192).
This article, however, concerns with only the influences of Shakespeare’s ideas, especially to the conception of human’s social role. Although in epistemological perspective, this topic will implicate the controversy between narrative realism versus narrative constructionism (Fay, 1998), the focus will be paid on theoretical perspective, the debate between structural-determinism against total-subjectivism (Merton, 1976).
The idea of social role in sociological inquiry has repeatedly been described in theatrical terms. “All the world’s stage”, said Jacques. The world is stage analogy valid? Does our society make us what we are?
A. All the World’s Stage
Extracted from five acts, the most inspiring message of “As You Like It” can be found in Act II, Scene 7. Here, Shakespeare puts into Jaques’s mouth a speech that eminently anticipates the nature and potential of the category of social role, and thus illuminates many feature of the sociological concept of role.
All the world’s 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.
His acts being seven ages.
At first the infant,
mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,
and shining morning face, creeping like snail,
unwillingly to school.
And then the lover,
sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad,
made to his mistress’ eyebrow.
Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel
seeking the bubble reputation
even in the cannon’s mouth.
And then the justice,
in fair round belly with good capon lin’d
with eyes severe, and beard of formal cut
full of wise saws and modern instances.
And so he plays his part.
The sixth age shifts into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
with spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
his youthful hose well say’d a world too wide,
for his shrunk shrank, and his big manly voice
turning again toward childish treble, pipes
and whistles in his sound.
Last scene of all,
that ends his strange eventful history,
is second childishness a mere oblivion
sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
(Shakespeare, “As You Like It”, Act II, Scene 7).
Shakespeare’s main concern here is with age roles, which are only one class of social roles, but the speech at least hints at occupational and other roles (Dahrendorf, 1978). The world is a stage, which players enters and leaves. However, each player makes more than one appearance, and every one in a different mask. The same player enters the stage as a child and leaves it to return as a young man, a grown man, and an old man. Only when he dies does he have his last exit; but by then new and different players are on the stage playing “his” parts.
Today, Shakespeare’s metaphor has become the central principle of the science of society. From the sociological point of view, the idea that relates the individual meaningfully to society is the idea of the individual as a bearer of socially predetermined attributes and modes of behavior. Galang Siahaan, for example, as a schoolboy, with a satchel and a shinning morning face, creeps unwillingly to school. As a lover, he sighs and sings a ballad to his beloved. As a soldier, he wears a beard, curses, is quarrelsome and jealous of his honor. As a judge, he dresses carefully and is full of wise saws.
Schoolboy, lover, soldier, judge, and oldman, are in a strange way both this particular individual, Galang Siahaan, and something that can be separated from him and spoken of without reference to him. Although Shakespeare’s judge may no longer be appropriate for the stage of our time, we too can say what a judge is like, whether his name is Galang Siahaan or Gagar Siregar. In our time as in Shakespeare’s, it is the vexatious fact of society that wrests the individual out of his individuality and defines his being by the alien categories of the world outside himself.
The fact of society is vexatious because we cannot escape from it. There may be lovers who neither sigh nor make a woeful ballad to their mistress eyebrows, but such lovers do not play their role. In the language of modern sociology, they are deviants. For every position a person can occupy, society has defined certain personal qualities and modes of behavior as acceptable.
The incumbent of such a position must decide whether or not to behave as society says he must. If he yields to society’s demands, he abandons his virgin individuality but gains society’s approval. If he resists society’s demands, he may preserve an abstract and bootless independence, but only at the expense of incurring society’s wrath and painful sanctions.
B. The Validity of the Stage Analogy
In Erving Goffman’s (1969) dramaturgical approach, social life is depicted as theater. People are seen as actors stage-managing their conduct to control the attitudes and responses of others toward them. Impression management is used to create a favorable evaluation of ourselves in the minds of others. In other words, dramaturgical approach is a sociological perspective that views the performances staged in a theater as an analytical analogy and tool for depicting social life (Zanden, 1990: 90).
Think about impression management as a beginning college student. Most students come to college are concerned about their acceptance by the strangers they are to meet. Consequently, decisions are made, consciously or not, about how students want others to view them. Choices in clothing are made. Some students wear blue jeans and T-shirts, while others choose a preppie look.
Performances, continues Goffman (1969) with his analogy, may have a front and back stage. College students may behave one way with dates and let down when alone with members of the same sex. Students may behave as expected when with their parents or teachers. They only tell their closed friends what they really think later. Behavior changes as it is managed in various setting.
Goffman’s (1969) life’s work was devoted to the distinction between culturally prescribed roles and the fulfillment of those roles. Role behavior is the actual conduct involved in activating a role. Although some role behavior can occur in isolation, as when a student study alone for an examination, most of it involves social interaction. Social interaction exists when two or more persons mutually influence each other’s behavior.
Not all social interaction is role behavior. When patients are told to disrobe for a medical examination, they are not supposed to take this as a cue from the doctor for sexual activity, nor should doctors expect his instruction to evoke sexual cues from their patients. If sexual episodes occur, they are violations of expected role behavior.
If statuses are analogous to the parts of a play and roles the script of a play, then social interaction is similar to the give-and-take of cues in a performance, and role behavior is the actual performance. Again, in language of modern sociology, they are deviants.
Although the stage analogy is a valid one, there is a danger in taking analogies at face value. The two situations being compared are seldom exactly the same. The analogy between the stage and societal life is no exception. This stage analogy can be useful, but insight can also be gained by looking at the differences between societal life and the theater (Sephard, 1987).
First, delivery of the lines in real life is not the conscious process that we see in performers on the stage. Most role behavior occurs without much forethought. We usually act in ways that seem to be natural and correct. In fact, these natural and correct ways have been unconsciously adopted through observation, imitation, and the efforts of others to pass them along.
Second, there is considerably more of a discrepancy between roles and role behavior in societal life than between a stage script and its performance. Performers may substitute lines for momentarily forgotten ones, deliberately change lines to suit themselves, and introduce a little business here and there, but they must stick closely to the script. Differences between a role and role behavior in real life are neither as easy to detect nor as easy to control as departures from a script.
Third, on the stage there is a programmed and predictable relationship between cues and responses. One performer’s line is a cue for a very specific response from another actor. In a real life, we can choose from a variety of cues and responses. A student may decide to tell a lecturer that his examinations are the worst he has ever encountered. On hearing this, the lecturer may tell the student that it is not his place to judge or ask him to explain further so that some improvement can be made. The lecturer can choose from several roles. Moreover, the student can choose from a variety of responses to the lecturer’s behavior.
It should not be assumed that the range of acceptable responses is limitless. Only certain responses are considered legitimate. It is not an appropriate response for the lecturer to eject bodily the student from his office, and the student is not supposed to pound in protest on the lecturer’s desk.
C. Concluding Comment
It is understandable that the idea of social role has repeatedly been described in theatrical terms. What could be more plausible than an analogy between prescribed behavioral patterns for actors in given parts and socially defined behavior norms for persons in given positions?
Such an analogy may be poor and misleading. Whereas the unreality of events is assumed in the theater, it cannot be assumed with respect to society. Despite the theatrical connotations of role, it would be wrong to see the role-playing social personality as an unreal person who has merely to drop his mask to appear as his true self. The characterization of man as a homo sociologicus is more than a metaphor. His roles are more than masks that can be cast off; his social behavior is more than a play from which audience and actors alike can return to the true reality.
Does our society make us what we are? The answer to this depends in part, on how “society” and “make” are defined. Holists answer this question affirmatively by conceiving of society as things which determine their members rather like the way dies stamp out metal products (Fay, 1998). We, however, are not mere reflections of the society to which we belong. No cultural entity is so fixed, closed, or coherent that we can be a reflection of it.
Indeed, group definition is an ongoing process in which its members struggle with one another to find a suitable place for themselves within a structure of rules whose power depends on their interpretive activity. If by “make” you understand enable or constrain, therefore, our society indeed, make us. But if by “make” you mean determine, then our society does not make us what we are. It means that in the process of socialization we are not passive entities upon which social imperatives and rules are impressed as if we are a wax tablet.
“All the world is not simply a stage.
And all the men and women are not merely players!”
Dahrendorf, Ralf, 1978, “Homo Sociologicus, On the History, Significance, and Limits of the Category of Social Role”, in Essays in the Theory of Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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Fay, Brian, 1998, Contemporary Philosophy of Social Science, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Goffman, Erving, 1959, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: A Doubleday Anchor Books.
Hampshire, Stuart, 1957, The Age of Reasons: The 17th Century Philosophers, New York: A Mentor Book.
Marx, Karl, 1963, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscript”, in Karl Marx, Early Writings, translated and edited by T. B. Bottomore, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Merton, Robert K., 1976, “Social Knowledge and Public Policy”, in Sociological Ambivalence and Other Essays, New York: The Free Press.
Sephard, Jon M., 1987, Sociology, A Complete Teaching Package, New York: West Publishing Company.
Shakespeare, W., 1954, “As You Like It”, in Thomas M. Parrot, ed., Shakespeare, Twenty-Three Plays and the Sonnets, Wisconsin: The United States Armed Forces Institute.
Shakespeare, W., 1954, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”, in Thomas M. Parrot, ed., Shakespeare, Twenty-Three Plays and the Sonnets, Wisconsin: The United States Armed Forces Institute.
Zanden, James W. Vander, 1990, Sociology: The Core, New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.
1. Sakban Rosidi is a lecturer of History of Modern Thought and Research Methodology, College of Foreign Languages Malang. He is currently a post-graduate student in Social Sciences, Airlangga University.