"All the world's a stage," Shakespeare wrote, drawing on his own profession for inspiration. Little did he realize that the Internet and reality TV would one day provide a global stage for everyone's private drama. Shakespeare no doubt intended his statement as metaphor rather than prophecy. Theater is a supremely representational art form, after all, naturally lending itself to such uses. The original actors in Greek drama wore masks, and gods were sometimes lowered into the action on cranes to untangle the plot. In real life, of course, there are so many subplots it's not clear whether there is an overarching narrative, much less whether gods are available to untangle them all.
According to Joan Didion, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Most of us insist on acting them out, with ourselves in the starring role. Inevitably, we find ourselves caught up in some madcap improvisation, with the entire troupe angling for top billing. We all share the same stage, but not necessarily the same show. Depending on which scene-stealer commands center stage, or thinks he does, it may be a tragedy, comedy, soap opera or farce. Throw in some of each, and you've got the story of your life.
Playwrights sometimes like to explore the possibilities when purely private dramas are played out on a larger stage. Tom Stoppard reversed field in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, thrusting two minor characters from Hamlet onto center stage and moving the main events of Shakespeare's play into the background. The audience, of course, is aware of the larger narrative framework but not the two clueless protagonists, who are destined to meet a bad end. They natter on about this and that, often to hilarious effect, even as events propel them swiftly toward their doom.
We all subscribe to family, tribal or religious myths that place us in a larger narrative framework and give meaning to our lives. There is no guarantee, of course, that the stories we tell ourselves are anything more than what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern nattered on about as they were propelled forward by events they did not understand. Many people take refuge in the thought that the outcome of our story has already been written in the Book of Life. But it may be that God's meaning, if you want to call it that, emerges only as we improvise madly on the bare stage of the world.
William Shakespeare, As You Like It