Life as a Play: Of Performances and Roles

(Laurence Olivier in his most challenging role as Othello)

“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.”–William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Shakespeare was right, of course, and many of his characters are very much conscious of the roles they themselves play whether it be Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, Petruchio, or Prospero. It is no wonder that these and his other characters have remained thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and intriguing to millions globally through the centuries.

Regardless of how old one is once one enters adulthood, one can begin to realize the truth and relevance of Shakespeare`s statement and fundamental view about life as a play. We do, in fact, learn, play and acquire many roles through our childhoods and coming of age. We are constantly trying out new roles and giving performances in the many ways we act and behave.

As preschoolers, we are curious, trying out many things “to see how they work”, “to see what will happen, “to see how others will respond”. Thus, when children have crying fits, they may be attempting any or a combination of the above three goals. As they begin to develop a sense of self, they try out and play many roles and give many of their first performances. Identity, in even its earliest form of development and awareness, might be seen as an attempt of individuals to find themselves or the roles that want most to play or become.

In a family, each person finds his or her own roles and range of roles through a similar process of scenes and interactions. Of course, in school, that sense of individual development continues to grow through contact with classmates and friends. As we age, we continue to try out new roles via classroom and hallways interaction, on stages, in gyms, on fields, and through academic performance. In school, we find those subjects that interest us or don`t, and move steadily through a series of various roles and performances toward those we most want to be or aspire to–the roles and performances in adult life which will be us and provide meaning, purpose, completion, fulfillment, and satisfaction, comfort or peace.

Relationships work much the same way as we “try out” various scenes, performances, and other “actors” to see what works and what doesn`t, again acquiring a better sense, usually, of what we are still missing or still want, desire, and need by way of interactions with others. Thus, in this way, a marriage might be viewed as a play choice, or a divorce a rejection of roles and performances.

In the process, as we age, the roles and performances pile up. Some of the latter are good and “are more us”, and some are bad or inauthentic, not the roles we choose or want to play. Likewise, some roles and performances work and others don`t. In the end, it is up to us, to choose the roles we most want to be and the performances we most want to give and with or for whom–which audiences. To know those roles and performances is, in the end, to know ourselves and to become the people or identities we most wish to be in the play that is life. Beyond that step, of course, remains the final step of personal attitude toward, acceptance of, choice of, and quality of both roles and performances.

“Life`s like a play; it`s not the length but the excellence of the acting that matters.”–Seneca


Life has often been described as a game which suggests play and how people like to play, often pretending, assuming roles, and performing. Children do it, parents do it, friends and family do it, workers and bosses do it, entertainers do it, adults do it, and so forth. It’s just something that happens and something which people do to alter or reconfigure reality, and often to adjust to reality or control and manage it and others.

We are all playing roles in the course of our days. Husbands and wives do it, parents and children, brothers and sisters, in-laws, neighbors, teachers and students, bosses and workers. As well, when we go out into public, we assume the roles of customers and clients while others act in the role of staff and employees waiting on or serving us. If we go to a library, a librarian or librarian technician, or a volunteer wait on us. Different places, businesses, and organizations call for different roles, and behaviours appropriate to and expected in such situations and dealings.

Each of us takes on and plays roles–fathers, mothers, counsellors, advisors, and so on. Often the roles are acquired, such as the role of parent. Or the roles are necessary in order to make a living. Being a breadwinner is a common role for many people in order to support many households. Along the way, we take on many roles and may, in fact, be playing several in a given day–for example, parent, employee, customer, volunteer. Some roles we will, undoubtedly like or prefer more than others. And some roles we will not be comfortable with; they are less ‘us’ or not ‘us’.

In the course of the day, too, we are involved in many scenes. A daily log of activities might include episodes in which we wake up, eat, get ready for work, have lunch with co-workers, make supper for the family, and play a game with family members. Each day plays out much like a play or a documentary film. At various key moments in life, we will enact larger moments such as birth, graduation, learning to drive, getting our first job, getting married or divorced, or experiencing a serious illness.

As individuals, we obviously look for the roles which suit us, which we dream of playing, and we look forward to experiencing scenes such as holidays, parties, and loving and being loved. Each person’s life then is a play or series of scenes with dialogue and action. We do our best with the lives, situations, and parts we have been given or end up playing. That is where the importance of attitude (mentioned in the above meditation) comes in. We will have choices; it is, as Seneca says, the “excellence” or quality of the acting which matters most in the long run.

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