"All the World's a Stage": Shakespeare's Theatrum Mundi of Romance

By Jeremy S. Page
2010, Vol. 2 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

The idea of the Theatrum Mundi (literally the world stage) is an apt metaphor for Shakespeare’s world-view. In many of his plays, characters are shunted about the stage (of the Globe theatre) by external forces, unable to exert control over their own lives. There are common patterns that exist between the plays, reflecting the audiences preconceptions about the plot; in the tragedies, we expect the leads to die by the end of the play, and the cross-dressing shenanigans of the comedies will no doubt end up with some happy marriage come the final act.

Most famously soliloquized by the melancholy Jacques in As You Like It, the sentiment behind Theatrum Mundi was not invented by Shakespeare; there are accounts of Henry V possessing a tapestry depicting the seven ages of man, and in 1544 German artist Hans Baldung painted Die sieben Lebensalter des Weibes (The Seven Ages of Women) . Nevertheless, it is clear from the dramatic texts that Shakespeare was highly aware of the predominating weltanschauung, and perhaps combined it with his extensive knowledge of the theatrical conventions of the time to explore his view of human existence. Shakespeare perhaps even punned on the sentiment in naming his theatre “The Globe.” Forker highlights that the theatrical metaphors frequently occur in the plays “in instances which range from very literal or technical significations to highly figurative and symbolic ones.”  Clearly Macbeth ‘struts and frets’ through life, the ‘hours’ ticking away, the ‘walking shadow’ of life a bleak perspective on a futile existence. Romeo’s courtship of Juliet, and Othello’s courtship of Desdemona show that Shakespeare is familiar with the necessity of assumed roles in the functioning of society; both men assume the role required to woo their beloveds. 

Sonnet 138 shows that Shakespeare understands that in love, many lies are told, and roles are assumed. “On both sides [of love] thus is simple truth suppressed,” (Sonnet 138, 8 ) and the selected scenes from Othello and Romeo and Juliet show how Shakespeare uses the stage of the Globe to explore the everyday theatre of romance.  Goldberg writes that Romantic ideas around love, “the impassioned, the arduous, the intense, the sentimental,” are “not characteristics of the Renaissance in general, or of Shakespeare as he is visible through the sonnets and through the other plays.”   Viewed through the lens of Goffman’s theories of performance, Shakespeare’s portrayal of love in Othello, Romeo and Juliet and Sonnet 138 remains firmly planted as part of Theatrum Mundi.

Othello offers the most interesting perspective on the roles of romance, as the Moor of Venice frequently displays his skill with the rhetoric of Venice. It is worth exploring to what extent Othello presents portrays himself to the rest of the world in an idealized sense.  His everyday life, the wooing of Desdemona, his rise through the ranks of the Venetian military, and the self-perpetuating fiction surrounding his Moorish background, all represent a skillfully and carefully created ‘presentation of self’ constructed for his own personal gain.  Goffman’s theories of the presentation of the self shows that how an individual presents themselves, the ‘role’ that they assume, imparts information such as “his general socio-economic status, his conception of self, his attitude towards [the listener], … his trustworthiness.”  In Othello we find two great actors; Othello himself, having mastered the art of venetian rhetoric, and Iago, who is so skillful in his deceit that he turns Othello’s love into a potent weapon. Goffman’s theories, although the text predates them by several centuries, are useful for reading Othello as a series of performed interactions designed to manipulate and deceive.

Goffman writes that “Society is organized on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in an appropriate way.”  For Othello, these social characteristics are carefully constructed to present the most favorable impression of himself as possible; when Brabantio takes hum Venetian court, Othello instantly assumes the role required of the situation.  It is curious that Brabantio has disregarded his own role in the preparation of military strategy.  The Duke has noted his absence (“We lack’d your counsel and your help tonight”, 1.3.51) and Brabantio himself notes the dereliction of his proper duties, for “neither my place nor aught I heard from business / hath raised me from my bed.” (1.3.53-4).  It is safe to assume that by this point Brabantio has dispensed with the social niceties demanded by the situation (as evidenced by his exclamation “My daughter!”), and the ‘roles’ have become confused; Brabantio has brought Othello before the Duke for judgement, and yet the Duke first recognizes the ‘valiant Moor’ above Brabantio, because of the military bearing of their conversation immediately prior.

Othello, in his declaration of love for Desdemona, which also serves as a defense for himself, shows that he is the more skilled at rhetoric than Brabantio.  (One cannot help but feel some sympathy for the old man; not only has his grand entrance been swept aside by the Duke’s praise for Othello, but Othello has then gone on to steal most of the lines in the scene!) Othello claims to speak “a round un-varnish’d tale” (1.3.90) but clearly this is not the case. The accuracy of the information he presents to the court must come under scrutiny, for he has much to gain from a positive encounter with the Dukes, and it is telling that one of his self-deprecations is against “the vices of [his] blood,” (1.3.123) neatly sidestepping the concern over his racial heritage. 

He exaggerates his way through the scene, and maintains his elaborate story the point where it becomes ludicrous; the reference to the “Anthropophagi” (1.3.143), as Greenblatt notes, a term “from the Ancient Roman… Pliny the Elder”  is certainly questionable. It is ambiguous whether Othello has truly witnessed the “men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders”, or if this is simply an idealized fiction– an exaggeration used to woo Desdemona that is here repeated and elaborated upon for the Dukes. Kim too highlights the ambiguity of Othello’s claims, indicating that Othello’s retelling of the story “in front of the senatorial audience becomes a re-presentation of what he told about himself to Desdemona, another audience, who is ready "with a greedy ear/ [to] Devour up [his] discourse" (1.3.148-149).” Othello has successfully wooed Desdemona, but must now present himself in the same light for the Duke and Brabantio.

It is important to note, however, that Othello’s skill with rhetoric is not intended to be a deception; unlike Iago, who by the end of the play has stolen Othello’s rhetoric and turned it against him, he has no nefarious purpose. For him, the courtship of Desdemona and the signiory is an exaggeration, rather than a deception. His “mighty magicke” (1.3.92), so feared by Brabantio and Iago, is simply his skill as an orator, and with this skill he has wooed not only Desdemona, but the whole of Venice. “Othello is not Romeo, driven by an overwhelming need [for love],” but perhaps his love for Desdemona is an unintended side effect.  His marriage to Desdemona, a fair skinned Venetian, can be viewed as a vehicle to a more secure integration into the society that he so desires a part of.  He cannot love Desdemona as a Moor, so must manipulate his own history to assume the role of the Venetian Courtier.

As Othello assumes the role of the lover, Romeo and Juliet highlights the difference between the play of love, that is, Romeo’s over-theatrical love for Rosalind, and the ‘true’ love that Romeo feels for Juliet, however both forms of love are still viewed as farce.  The play opens with an oft-quoted sonnet, which immediately creates expectations about the content; immediately, the audience knows the roles that the lovers will take, and while they may share the joy of the love the two share, they know that, just as in Othello, tragedy will come in the final act.  Romeo’s early proclamations of love for Rosalind are more farce than reality; clearly he exalts in the role of the forlorn Petrarchan lover, desiring that which he cannot have.  Benvolio is likely tired of Romeo’s “muffled” (1.1.164) love; he knows that Romeo’s love is akin to the “blind fool” of Sonnet 138. He is so enamored with his portrayal of love for Rosalind, he has been blinded the fact that he is simply role-playing at love.

The genius of Romeo and Juliet is that not only does Shakespeare ridicule the enamored role-playing of the Petrarchan tradition, he also maintains a view of cynicism towards the more romantic and consummated love that later develops between the ‘star-crossed lovers’.  The aforementioned chorus’ sonnet that opens the play indicates that the love between the two is more performative than they may themselves believe; they are so enamored with each other that there is little thought to the consequences of their love, and the frequency of sighs and ‘Ay, me!’s indicate that Shakespeare’s portrayal of love is highly parodic.  The petrarchan tradition is deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic effect.

We must feel some sympathy for Mercutio, who Romeo ceaselessly vents to about his fruitless loves.  Underneath Romeo’s assumed role of the lover, is “a clever fun-seeking, witty Romeo who can match double-entendres with Mercutio.” Mercutio is the only character in Romeo and Juliet who seems to hold Shakespeare’s cynical view of declamatory romance, and, while he speaks of Romeo’s love for Rosalind, old Montague too realizes the changing effects of love on the young Romeo:

“[Romeo] is to himself–I will not say how true–
But to himself so secret and so close.” (1.1.141-2)

There is a definite change that has come over Romeo, but in the world of the play, Mercutio and Benvolio are the only two who recognize it as the folly of a petrarchan desire.  For Mercutio, Romeo is his enamored state is the “Madman” who cries out for love.

If Romeo’s “love be blind, [and] cannot hit the mark” (2.1.33), this is the same love as in Sonnet 137. It is misplaced, misguided, and although the lovers believe it to be a destined thing, they cannot step outside their own love and view it from the external perspective.  The complications of both plays revolve around the theme of the inconstant woman; Iago represents Desdemona as promiscuous in Othello’s eyes, the ‘forgéd hooks of judgement’ are firmly planted in his mind, and once the veil of love is lifted, and he realizes the role he has played, Othello knows that there is only one solution remaining in his ‘performance.’ Likewise, Juliet realizes that without Romeo, she cannot continue to play the role of the beloved, and thus resolves to end her life.

In both plays, the lovers have died for the sake of their love, and each death is equally impassioned and misinformed.  Romeo and Othello are the “blind fools” of love, Othello in particular beholds Desdemona, or rather, Iago’s portrayal of her as unfaithful, and “does not see.” Goldberg asks what Shakespeare in his plays reveals about love; that, as in the case of Romeo and Juliet, “more love and less hate will solve everything?” Or as in Othello, “given enough love, and time, … white [may lie down with] black?”  Shakespeare’s ‘love’ as presented in these plays is a force that is so powerful that it overshadows all common sense for those involved.  Othello is so impassioned by his desire that it is easily morphed into a jealous rage by Iago. Goldberg writes that

“Romeo does not think. And so Mercutio dies. And Tybalt dies. And Paris dies. And Lady Montague dies. And Juliet dies. And Romeo himself, dies.”

Othello too does not stop to consider how he has been manipulated in his role, from enamored lover to jealous husband. The force of desire, the role playing on the stage of ‘The Globe’ represents Shakespeare’s view of the power of Love and Desire in the human experience.

“[Shakespeare’s] audience is invited to make some connection between the events of the action and the form and pressure of their own world.” The weltanschauung of the Renaissance depicts a human experience where the individual ‘plays many parts’, but has no choice what part he plays.  If indeed “All the world’s a stage”, Shakespeare must have possessed a highly cynical view of the play-acting of love, one that he felt it necessary to often share with his Renaissance audience.


Goffman, Erving. ‘Introduction to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ in Phillip Auslander (ed.) Performance: Critical Concepts in Literary and Culture Studies Volume 1. London and New York, Routledge. 2003 (1959) pp. 97-107.

Goldberg, M.A. The Multiple Masks of Romeo: Toward a New Shakespearean Production in The Antioch Review. 28(4), 1968. pp. 405-426

Kim, Tai-Won. Shakespeare's Othello in Memes: blood 17(2), 2007. pp229-244.

McLuskie, Kathleen. ‘The Patriarchal Bard: feminist criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure’ in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (eds.) Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985. pp. 88-108.

Mortimer, Ian. The Fears of Henry IV. London: Jonathan Cape, 2007.

Pechter, Edward. Othello and interpretive traditions. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Shakespeare, William, et. al. The Norton Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt. (Ed.) New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.

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