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Performances of a Lifetime and a Lifetime of Performances

By Reema Faris, PhD Student

September 11, 2018

In Act 5, Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the man at the centre of the action, who has been at war with himself, with others, and with the supernatural, laments:

    Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time,
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

At this pivotal moment, having just learned of his wife’s death, Macbeth realizes he’s on the verge of losing everything he’s gained through means both fair and foul. And while in this moment of clarity and despair, he understands that his life is a chaotic nothingness, he also recognizes the role he has played in this unfolding tale.

Macbeth and his life are not merely puppets of a greater power although there is a sense of a malevolent and malicious director lurking in the wings. He is the performer. His life, which he now sees as ultimately futile, is a performance.

I saw a reference to this passage recently on social media and what stood out for me in reading this excerpt again was its emphasis on performance.

The ways in which human beings perform, whether one is addressing gender, sexuality, or other aspects of being, is integral to many of the course concepts in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Department (GSWS) at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

Because of their roots in feminism, feminist scholarship, and feminist action, GSWS courses examine the ways in which individuals and groups challenge the assumptions and understandings upon which society and culture are based.

A complementary line of inquiry is to investigate the ways in which individuals are compelled to operate within these constructs, choose to be within them, or manifest resistance to the normative pressures they exert.

Systems, structures, and institutions are the stage for this human performance; their associated rites and rituals are the props and costumes. Each person is a performer whether they choose to follow a script that others have created, compose their own lines, or improvise.

Then there’s the tension between players, whether on an individual or collective basis, and the audience. An audience which observes passively or actively, interacts or intervenes, and the endless loop of action and reaction that characterizes life and living.

Macbeth’s words reflect the range and diversity of themes in GSWS including such topics as performativity, subjectivity, agency, power, and identity.

In fact, I believe that Shakespeare’s presentation of gender roles, and the resultant interpersonal dynamics, helps to explain why some undergraduates — and likely many others — are willing to blame Lady Macbeth for being the instigator while absolving Macbeth, or at least lessening the burden of his responsibility, for being a murderer.

Thinking about these themes felt like a good way to set the stage for a new academic year. A year that entails its own kind of performance from a diverse and broad community that serves as a cast of the university whether the role one fills is that of a student, professor, teaching assistant, administrative staff, or one of many other parts available.

With these reflections, I would like to welcome everyone back to the start of another term and I hope that the outcome of your show this year will be the realization of a sense of purpose and self-discovery and not a loss of meaning.

As Shakespeare’s Miranda says in Act 5, Scene 1of The Tempest:

    O brave new world
    That has such people in’t!

Happy questioning!

For more information on GSWS and the department’s course offerings, follow this link to the website at http://www.sfu.ca/gsws.html.