“All the world’s a stage.” – A Letter to My Pre-University Self | An Ode to Life

Friday 21.04.17 – 10.27AM

I’ve just submitted a law essay which I believe has redirected me onto the path to Enlightenment, and I need to stop everything that I’m doing in order to write down what’s in my head. Brace yourselves…

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And then he said to me, ‘Isn’t it funny we’re all just people walking around trying to put on appearances. . .’

‘I’m gonna grow a moustache and start smoking. It’s just another way to meet new people.’


Dear 17-year old YeYe. The very things you are doing in your final weeks of school are the same as the ones I’m doing now as a prospective graduate student.[1] Revision is the same; essay writing is the same; social anxiety is the same. They didn’t tell you this at the career talks, open days or induction days. You’d never consider it anyway; higher education of this generation presents itself as a door to new knowledge, new life. You’ll be transformed! say the banners and prospectuses. Join us, join us! (And pay us.)

You probably didn’t expect this blog to survive after almost 6 years, that the content would be so varied, or that your writing would ever improve. You also probably didn’t imagine to be standing strong after 4 years of university, studying Shakespeare in your final term. And you definitely would not have envisaged that an undergraduate law essay you wrote could force you to stop researching and revising during finals, because the wisdom it gave you was so overwhelming as to halt any mental activity other than that which was geared to properly understanding this precious wisdom.

This wise, arresting law essay was prescribed coursework for my class, Shakespeare and the Law, one of the modules in Jurisprudence and Legal Theory. It asked me to explore Shakespeare’s use of legal trials in his plays. Without wanting to turn this blog into an academic paper or hamper you with the entirety of my essay, I’ll just summarise my argument. The trial is a central idea to Shakespeare’s plays because:

The trial is theatre; and the theatre is a trial. The audience is the jury; the jury is the audience. The actors play roles on stage and employ rhetoric in their speeches; lawyers play roles in court and also employ rhetoric in their legal arguments. A trial scene is thus a ‘play within a play’ – one of Shakespeare’s resounding themes.

Shakespeare recognised the artifice in the legal world, which is inherent in a trial, and shows us this artifice in a trial scene. Because of the trial/theatre resemblance, the trial becomes an extremely effective dramatic device through which Shakespeare communicates moral/legal/ethical issues, encourages us to reflect on these issues, and makes us aware of the artifice of life itself. [2]

This was forgotten news to me. The ideas of ‘play within a play’ and ‘all the world’s a stage’ were explained to me clearly at school when we analysed The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale.[3] But after writing this essay on trial scenes and understanding Shakespeare’s philosophy through another lens, I realised that this theme of appearance/reality is one that neither I nor anyone in this world will ever escape. It is a theme that must be rediscovered, retold and remembered.


And then he said to me, ‘Isn’t it funny we’re all just people walking around trying to put on appearances. . .’

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Othello at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, March 2017

Many colourful ribbons emerged during the writing of my essay, ribbons which connected Shakespeare’s message to other aspects of my life and of society. I see the tension between appearance and reality everywhere and in everyone, and I cannot un-see it. I cannot un-see a glaring truth.

On a mundane level we have:

People – All persons, making themselves appear to embody a certain personality, e.g. to be nice because they don’t want to seem like ass-holes.

Social media is the internet world of appearance and theatricality. I don’t think this needs any explaining.

This blog, obviously. My blog is the appearance of my life and thoughts. Whether you take what I say to be real is up to you. (Spooky…)

Universitya place where some students try to be the best all the time and claim to not be afraid of their lives.

On a deeper, more worrying, systematic level:

Law, as previously mentioned, parades itself as the beacon of good, right and just, when in reality it disproportionately discriminates and harms certain groups of people. Equality laws do not always result in equality if an already prejudiced society has ingrained the culture of inequality in our minds and practices.[4] So think again, Equality. Likewise, universal human rights are a Western ideal that do not fit into the cultures and practices of everyone in the world. Therefore, human rights cannot help them in the same way they help us, let alone lift them out of poverty and suffering. So think again, Universalism. [5]

Brixton Prison claims to be a progressive, educative and innovative prison. They show visitors – politicians, students and the like – the highlights of the estate: the training and education they provide for the offenders. The construction site where they can learn how to scaffold; the hair academy where they can learn how to cut hair;  and the bakery where they can learn to bake.

But,

‘They don’t want to show you what’s in the cupboard – that stuff that falls out when you open the doors.’

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What Brixton Prison don’t want you to know is that the prison staff call the offenders by their assigned number, rather their own name. They don’t want you to know that some offenders are unable to get advice on employment and housing before they leave prison, cast into the strange abyss of society. They don’t want you to see the offenders on the Imprisonment for Public Protection sentence, who are bored out their minds and have nothing to do, as they wait for their release, a date which is not fixed. They don’t want you to see the offenders who, out of despair and desperation, hang themselves in their cells, when life simply becomes too unbearable to continue following it.[6]

IMF, World Bank, World Development programs, Nike and other corporations.
These organisations claim to support the fight against poverty in the Global South by promoting the ‘girl effect’. They hope to ’empower’ women and girls, equip them with education/work opportunities, in order to liberate them from their ‘backward’, patriarchal, restrictive societies. Women empowerment in this sense will enable women to become the independent, self-realising individual – an ideal vision of woman that is championed in the West. Women become an ‘exploitable’ workforce that companies can invest in. Giving them these work/education opportunities will get them out of poverty. By making them more employable, they can work, earn money and subsequently help boost the economy.

But in reality, the ‘girl effect’ slogan is duplicitous. Organisations use it conceal their own damaging actions which created poverty in the first place. Companies like Nike benefit from the newly discovered female workforce expanding their factories and sweatshops. The ‘girl effect’, so promising and inspiring, is in fact another tool to fuel Western capitalism. It is Colonialism Version 2. So International Organisations and Feminism, think again. [7]

These are just a handful of the ribbons you can find in the world which tie us to the theatricality of life. I could go on and on; I could, for instance, write a whole blog post about appearance/reality in the media and that of politicians. But I think the examples above are enough to demonstrate my point so I’ll move on. [8] (Let me save some energy and finish my post a.s.a.p so I can start an actual research essay due Monday 24 April…)


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So, what does this mean for me and what does it mean for us? What is real, what is not real? Is the human race nothing but pure fabrication? Can I ever have a genuine relationship with anybody if everyone is just pretending all the time, playing a role and putting on some kind of appearance? Why have you written all this, you’ve just made my life so much more confusing? What do I do with myself…

AM I NOT REAL ANYMORE?

From here, I take a little detour back into the world of theatre and opera, to see what it can teach us about life.

Last night, the name and picture of Joyce DiDinato kept coming up on my Facebook newsfeed so I decided to see what she was all about. Okay, she’s arguably the world’s biggest soprano right now – how could I have missed this. I fell upon her vlogs and masterclasses on YouTube, and was hooked on them for much, much longer than I ought to have been, given my current exam-period predicament.

In one, she interviews stage director Leonard Foglia[9], who spewed out so many pearls of wisdom that my ears were glowing by the end of the video. The first pearl was:

‘On stage, there is only true, and there is only false.’

This idea fits into Shakespeare’s idea of the tension between appearance and reality. Shakespeare says ‘All the world’s a stage’ because both life and theatre toy with the tension of ‘appearance versus reality’. Foglia’s idea can add to this: theatre and life are the same, because both are platforms on which we present ourselves as either true or false. Mix Shakespeare and Foglia together and you have yourself a bespoke cookie of wisdom. I name the cookie, Shakespearia.

Foglia’s words resonate with me not only as a human, but also as a musician. A musician, like any performing artist, must embrace the stage and express something on it through their art. For many, including myself, this can be a terrifying endeavour. It is why we have ‘performances class’ at music school and conservatoire; so that we can quell the anxious butterflies in our bodies and shape ourselves into the perfect performers we aspire to become.

But, why should I fear the stage? Is it really any different from everyday life? I am on that stage as I am now, this very moment, on the ‘stage of the world’ (which just happens to be in the glorious halls of the British Library). I could be acting a role in front of my laptop the same way I act in my role as leader of a given orchestra at a given place and time. All that is different is the sort of act I am producing: I write words here, and I play music there.

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Anna Meredith and friends at Scala, London (Nov. 2016)

Why does this excite me so much that over 4000 marbles flew out of my brain causing me to delay all ‘serious’ productivity? Because, after munching the Shakespearia cookie, I finally understood that we, as humans, are just presenting and representing ourselves in certain ways almost every single moment of the day – in various settings; for multiple purposes; and maybe towards particular types of people, regardless of the depth of the relationship shared between you and them.

This means that the stage and the British Library are no different from each other. Both are places where we choose to put on appearances and perform certain actions. This means I can look at performance anxiety in a completely different way. If there is no need to freak out in the British Library as I type my blog post, then there is equally no reason why I must freak out on stage during a performance.

Couple the Shakespearia cookie with this pearl from Joyce DiDinato. In this vlog she reminds us that:

(1) nerves and anxiety are permanent aspects of life; we all have to work out our own way to deal with them; and that

(2) nerves and anxiety on stage are the exact same responses as those we hold against other fears we have in life – they’re all part of the same ‘fight or flight’ syndrome.

The latter point is what makes her pearl shine brighter than any of the jewels in my Basket of Artistic and Life Advice. How did I fail to notice that performance anxiety is basically identical to the fear I feel when I want to strike up a conversation with a stranger? Or, a lesser version of the terror that can consume me when I walk through London alone at night? If I can overcome the ‘stranger-danger’ fear and stride down the streets after midnight untouched, surely I can just walk on stage and perform without a single worry? If I can overcome my fear in life in one place, why can’t I overcome it in another more familiar, and much safer, place?

The stage and the London street are no different from each other. If I can stride down the streets of London towards my destination, then I can stride just as easily onto the stage towards my performance.

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‘As an actor, you must understand what your character needs, what she is searching for and where she might find those answers.’ – Leonard Foglia

Now, let’s accept that in life, as on stage, there is only true and only false. Foglia’s second pearl of wisdom says to me that the ‘true’, which must be presented on stage, is the character with all her accompanying needs, desires and questions about life. In order to be true to your character and your role, you must first understand the meaning, purpose and journey of your character.

Apply this acting technique to ourselves: if we are playing a role, acting in character all the time, whatever that role may be – in order to work out what we truly want to do, to find our ‘truth’, we have to ask our own character the same questions:

What do you need, what are you looking for, and where can you find such answers?

In order to give life to your self and be true, you must find your own meaning, purpose and journey.

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Where do you find your own meaning, purpose and journey? I do not know the answer to this question. I don’t even know the answers to my own questions. Whatever I have said in this post is not intended to be a straight answer to yours, either. Like everyone in the world, I am searching and wandering down the valleys of my own life, working out what I’m supposed to do. (Yo – shout out to all final years, and sixth formers who don’t know where they’re going next!) For the time being, I am following the advice of a good friend, who suggested that I enjoy these questions. And I guess that’s what this blog is about – just enjoying the questions that have crystallised in my head.

What I wish to add though is my opinion: of things that I believe are true to me. While I struggle to find my own truth – my life’s purpose and meaning – this doesn’t mean that I am completely lost in my existence. (Indeed, I might never, ever find out the truth about myself.) Reflecting upon my actions, habits and wanderings, I believe I take a more ‘negative’ approach to finding my purpose:

If I can’t find the truth, then maybe all I can do for now is get rid of all that is untrue about myself.

Whilst I cannot find the truth, I can somehow deduce from my experiences that which is untrue to me. I do this by listening to my gut and my senses, by seeking to understand how I feel at any given moment. When something is untrue I just know it, feel it and embody it. I cannot explain why or how I know – it just is untrue.

Some of you may have been aware that, earlier in the year, I was really serious about doing conservatoire auditions. I was practising a lot of violin every day. I did my research, networked, contacted teachers, visited music colleges, attended open days, and had an entire timeline sketched out with deadlines and targets for each month. To me, conservatoire mission was achievable, because I was still burning up the musical fuel of the last three years of my life. Surely what I did during those years says something about my purpose and meaning?

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I was ready and driven and took my violin to university almost every day to practise my pieces. I didn’t really question it. I just assumed I could and would do it. I just assumed that I wanted to go to conservatoire after my degree.

But very gradually, new questions and feelings started to creep up on me, until one day, my gut told me, with a pompous squeal: I’ve had e-NOUGH! I wrote an email to my violin teacher saying that I couldn’t continue my regular lessons. Rather than paraphrase it, I’ll just paste a little section of the message.

I thought back to how I played in my last lesson – fed up – and to the recent feelings I’ve been having with regards to classical musical commitments in general. I realise that I feel quite exhausted from classical music as an institution. I have done classical violin consistently for pretty much all my life. That being, I also recognise my relatively modest experience in the field and young age. But the urge to change direction seems too apparent to ignore. There is indeed still so much learn, but most of what I pick up from classical projects and lessons is stuff that I have learned before, from years back, or from a lesson the previous week. It is predictable, even if the repertoire is increasingly varied and technically challenging. 

Unlike the high-pressure atmosphere in music conservatoire, the context of university has been extremely liberating, giving me the time and space to further my violin playing. But, paradoxically, these final months have been working against me. The work load is somewhat manageable; but it becomes unmanageable when violin takes up so much time. And dealing with unmanageable work becomes unbearable, when the thing for which studying is sacrificed is no longer what you love to do.

My mission to go to conservatoire felt untrue. Thus, I ceased all operations.

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A feeling is not a concrete object or a tangible goal, but it is very real and very true. I cannot fake my feelings. I cannot dress them up to myself. Even if, as was the case with violin, I thought and convinced myself that I wasn’t dressing up my feelings, I knew deep down that I was lying to myself and to all the those around me. I know when it feels untrue, and the audience knows it too.

Looking at my email, might I be able to deduce what could be true? Without wanting to sound like honey-sap and brie, I would say that the corollary of untrue, i.e. what is true, might be…

…love?

My, this piece is turning too much into a Hollywood epic. It has exceeded 4000 words and I don’t know where I am going with it. I feel quite exhausted, and I also have a life to keep pursuing and an anthropology essay that needs writing, or else I fail that module. (Why can’t this be my essay?!) But I must continue because I know that I cannot start my essay until this is finished. I take inspiration from my flatmate who was unable to continue work on his dissertation until he absolutely finished the whole tub of Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough Ice Cream. I salute you, sir.


‘To know what your character’s meant to feel or say, you can’t just search for it within yourself. Look into the eyes of the other characters on stage and see what they are going through. What you see in them can tell them something about you.’

– Leonard Foglia

I want to write some final paragraphs in relation to another question, one which might also be on your tongue. If ‘all the world’s a stage’ and everyone is playing their role, then will it ever be possible to make a genuine human connection with anyone, let alone develop a friendship or a life-long intimate relationship? My answer would be Yes in spite of what I have just explained above. I’ve been trying to think how this is possible given all the odds against seeing a person’s true character beneath the costume.

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One idea of mine is that human connection occurs, first, when two humans recognise the artifice of life. They accept and embrace the fact that life is a stage, and that, in order to get through it, they’re going to have play their roles and wing it. Then, once these two humans meet each other, they chat a bit. It might be after this first encounter, or after a few, when they find out that they both recognise the artifice of life and both play unique roles.

The fact that they see the façade of life draws them closer. They become curious about one another and how the other person wings it through this theatrical life; how this person tries to answer her own questions. When you form a human connection with someone, you see them in the dressing room putting on the makeup and costume, talking themselves into their role. You see the on- and off- stage personalities and myriad other facets of their self. You don’t quite know which of them is true. You might have seen the true one a few times; you might never even seen it at all. Yet you stay with them regardless. You want to be close to them because you never know when that moment of truth will come back again. And that moment was so beautiful, that it is worth waiting years and years, until the end of time, to see that true self again.


I am not sure how I can wrap up these words. I’ve flung them into the world-wide-womb. Where on earth will they go? Who’s going to read them?

I’m not good with goodbyes, and this ineptitude appears to extend to the conclusions of my blog posts. In fact, I’m not sure if I can or want to say goodbye to this piece. How can I if it’s going to keep humming in my mind for an indeterminate length of time? I cannot conclude it perfectly; it feels technically impossible. And any conclusion would feel untrue to the nature of this post, which is essentially just one gargantuan question about the meaning of life.

Perhaps all I can do is enjoy the question and skip along. Stumble through graduation. Earn money, somehow. Do something new. Create, write and play more crazy things; make the most of my human capacity of perception and expression.

Dye my hair.

‘…grow a moustache and start smoking.

It’s just another way to meet new people.’

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21.04.17 – approx. 11.00PM

First draft finished. 


References – another first since the inception of this blog. So I’m footnoting my posts now? Jesus Christ.

[1] Minus the music stress.

[2] It feels weird referencing my own blog post with my own paper, which scarcely merits such treatment anyway, since it’s only 2500 words, unpublished and written by an undergrad. But hey ho, if you want to read my essay just ask. Thanks Moobs and Matteo for proof-reading and helping me refine my ideas.

[3] Thanks Ms Snell, you rock!

[4] Elaine Player (2014) ‘Women in the criminal justice system: The triumph of inertia’, Criminology & Criminal Justice, Vol. 14(3) 276–297

[5] Heather Montgomery (2001) ‘Imposing rights?: A case study of child prostitution in Thailand’ in: Cowan, Jane K.; Dembour, Marie-Benedicte and Wilson, Richard A. eds. Culture and rights: anthropological perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 80–101.

[6] Direct quote from an offender we spoke with. Thanks Dr Elaine Player for organising this visit to Brixton Prison for the Criminology Class. You rock!

[7] Jason Hickel (2014) ‘The girl effect: liberalism, empowerment and the contradictions of development’, Third World Quarterly, 35(8) 1355-1373

[8] If you fancy even more philosophical and existential juices, then I’d recommend watching  Hypernormalisation on BBC iPlayer.

[9] Cool fact: Foglia means ‘leaf’ in Italian, and ‘leaf leaf’ is my name translated from Chinese.

[10] This is exactly what you did when you were 17. Did you expect you’d feel the same after 4 years?

[11] Cheers Kitten for that last line.

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