One Face, One Voice, One Habit, and 400 Years' Worth of Persons

A scene from Twelfth Night (Library of Congress)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare—or at least, the man we think of as Shakespeare. The best-loved and most-mythologized author in the English language is also one of the most mysterious and controversial; as Irvin Matus noted in our October 1991 issue, “No fewer than fifty-eight claimants to that title [of True Author] have been put forward.”

That October issue featured a heated debate on the subject, between Matus, taking the side of Shakespeare the actor from Stratford, and Tom Bethell, taking the side of the better-read, better-traveled Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford. Both scholars build meticulous cases for their candidates, and both read convincingly enough to make for a puzzling problem indeed. As Twelfth Night puts it, “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons! … How have you made division of yourself?”

But, well, what’s in a name? The thing is, I don’t think Shakespeare himself would have minded all this controversy. Whoever he was, it’s safe to say that no one loved a good case of mistaken identity more than he did.

As Megan recently wrote, Shakespeare was “an inveterate punster,” piling meaning on meaning in every phrase so that even his words have double identities. What’s more, his plays are filled with masks and mix-ups, double agents and disguises, lookalikes and false appearances. The effects are often tragic: Hamlet mistakenly stabs Polonius from behind a curtain; two-faced Iago goads Othello to murder Desdemona; Romeo dies because to all appearances, Juliet looks dead.

But there are comic confusions too, and those are sometimes the most illuminating. When we watch the mixed-up lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream trade desires for a night, we discover how our own desires shape who we are. Or take Twelfth Night, a play whose gender-bending love triangles fascinate scholars of gender and sexuality today. Shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian are separated, each believing the other has drowned. They end up on an island, where Viola for safety disguises herself as a man, Cesario. Beneath her disguise, she loves a duke, who loves a woman, who loves Cesario, who gets confused with Sebastian, whose reappearance seemingly brings both twins back from the dead. Pretty straightforward, right? If you’re dizzy, that’s the point: What the play drives home is that identity can shift and transform, even from moment to moment.

Or take Much Ado About Nothing. Hero and Claudio are about to be married, but Claudio calls off the wedding when he thinks he’s seen her with another man. Hero’s family puts out the news that she has died of shame. Eventually, Claudio realizes his mistake, performs a funeral rite for Hero, and guiltily agrees to marry her cousin. When the time comes, the “cousin” takes off her mask and reveals that she is Hero after all, telling Claudio:

When I lived, I was your other wife
And when you loved, you were my other husband. …
One Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid.

Don Pedro: The former Hero! Hero that is dead!

Leonato: She died, my lord, but whiles her slander lived.

There’s a lot that’s admittedly weird about this resolution, not least the fact that Hero is willing to take that credulous jerk Claudio back. But it comes down to the power of story—the fact that the myths around someone’s life become as vivid and real as the true events, the fact that one’s identity is as much created as it is lived. That’s true for Viola, who builds herself a new identity as Cesario. And it’s true for Shakespeare, the actor-turned-author whose impact upon literature is so large that people speculate endlessly about who he was and what shaped him.

The scene also hints at another truth of Shakespeare’s work: that people cannot be a single story. Sweet Hero, as everyone calls her, “dies” when Claudio’s accusations and an inflexible moral code destroy her reputation of purity. Similarly, Othello’s obsession with his ideal of a completely pure and devoted Desdemona ends up literally suffocating her—and destroying him as well. But once we bury Hero the pure, we get the true Hero back.

Simply put, people are complicated. To present them as otherwise would be a failure of art. And Shakespeare knew that well, as Matus in The Atlantic observes:

After all, Shakespeare’s theater, unlike that of his contemporaries, is a theater of characters, a world on the stage, richly populated with humanity in all its variety. … Shakespeare’s creations have a spontaneity and a mutability that may seem puzzling on the printed page but that assume a vividness on the stage. It is from these characters that Shakespeare’s plays take their form and come to life.

These lifelike characters, too, assure the reputation of their creator, so that four centuries after the death of the man from Stratford, Shakespeare cannot die. He, and his characters, and all their many identities, are reborn into their stories, over and over again.