Shakespeare’s Comedy Of Errors, like most of Shakespeare’s work, addresses timeless issues that are virtually always applicable to life. And one of the play’s seminal lessons is the intrinsic strangeness of ordinary existence.
Like that feeling one might get when thinking too hard about the fact that we live in a boundless universe—the barely digestible vastness of the cosmos—to comprehend or think deeply about the strangeness of ordinary existence is, in itself, tiring. But it’s a profound point nonetheless, and one that’s relevant to us too. Try thinking really hard about social media—it brings about an icky feeling, doesn’t it? Well that’s because social media is fundamentally a truly weird and bizarre thing.
However, thinking about this really hard will provoke another feeling too, a timeless human fear that Shakespeare taps into in Comedy Of Errors: A loss of identity; or, the need to go outside of yourself to find your identity. In the play, two brothers—Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus—are separated at birth. Yet despite this, they end up exactly the same. When Antipholus of Syracuse goes to Ephesus to look for his twin brother, their identities blur into one another. Because not only are the two brothers identical and go by the same name, but they also have identical looking servants with the same name as well (Dromio). And while we may not be familiar with these precise circumstances that are also really strange and farcical, we certainly are with this stifling, hackneyed feeling it evokes. It seems to suggest that the truth of this play is that identity itself may be an error; that the only thing we can know about ourselves is that we can’t know ourselves at all. And since every time madness is mentioned in the play it’s associated with truth, it’s safe to assume that a loss of identity precipitates madness.
And it seems that our current definition of madness hasn’t deviated much from this meaning either. For, how else to explain the deep obsession and serious compulsion with social media, gross self-promotion, and building up our online presence? It’s comforting to think you’re carving a distinct identity for yourself; to believe that you’re a contrarian, and not following the masses. In Jacques Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage, he maintains that an infant feels pleasure when looking in the mirror because he or she sees an ideal image of his or her future self in the reflection. And we, too, are elated by the idealistic image we try to flaunt on social media. And it makes sense; we often narrate ourselves on Twitter and shit not as we truly are, but as we would like ourselves to be.
I’m certainly guilty of this—in fact, the extent to which I’m guilty of this dawned on me the other day when I was overtaken with indignation after someone told me they “saw my doppelgänger.” As if all of my efforts on Twitter and Facebook are in vain. And yet, the truth is, they are. These efforts are all meaningless and futile because the identity social media ultimately provides us with is not solid or whole, but false.
Life today is like a build-up of attempts at trying to be an individual, and acknowledging this actually confirms how unoriginal we are. And while on the one hand it seems that an individual identity is all we really want, it’s also equally clear that everyone is just as scared to have one. We try so hard to create these distinct identities for ourselves, but the nature of humans—that we all learn from one another—is in fact proof that this is nearly impossible. As is the nature of the Internet. If a funny video goes viral, a slew of parodies will inevitably crop up and proliferate; and we are constantly re-tweeting, making memes, and appropriating identities. Perhaps the best example of this is Vice‘s parody twitter account, Vice_Is_Hip. While their tweets make me pee myself, without fail, every time, they are still unoriginal. The guys behind Vice_Is_Hip are just stealing Vice’s basic formula and tweaking it. What started as an effort to distinguish itself from Vice, and to point out the absurdity of Vice, has become the thing they hate most. Their identities have blurred into one another so deeply that I can’t even differentiate one from the other.
Perhaps we’ll never be in full possession of our individual selves, but the good news is we can keep pretending.