Shakespeare and Pseudonymity

image of author Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy


5 min read

Statue of a man

Today I was planning on writing about video modalities, but last night I watched a production of Hamlet that sent my mind down an unexpected path. Video modalities are going to have to wait.

Prince Hamlet is a Girl

This particular production of Hamlet got me thinking about pseudonymity in a way I never had before. Specifically it made me consider what makes pseudonymity similar to anonymity and what makes it similar to a  verified identity.

Before taking a closer look at this I want to explain what it was about this Hamlet that stirred things up for me this way.

Most of the roles were played by actors of the opposite sex. Prince Hamlet was played by a woman, as were Guildenstern, Horatio,  and Laertes. Ophelia was played by a man. Normally I’d expect this sort of affectation to distract from the play. It didn’t at all. In fact I barely noticed it. And that’s what surprised me most.

It wasn’t until today, on one of my early morning hikes, that I began to wonder why  Federay Holmes and Elle While, the production’s directors, had done this. I came up with three plausible explanations.

The first one I considered was the woke explanation, and I came at it from two perspectives:

1. Historical redress:  women were given the good men’s roles because they’d traditionally been denied that opportunity.

2. Gender fluidity: gender is subjective, so it objectively shouldn’t be a consideration.

Both of these seem trite in light of the play itself. The direction was too intelligent. The directors are true Shakesperians, so I dismissed this explanation.

The second one was the traditionalist explanation. In Shakespeare’s day all the roles were played by men. Having most of the major male roles played by women seemed like a nod to tradition with a modern wink. This seemed a bit more plausible.

The third plausible explanation was my favorite. I thought of it as the it-doesn’t-matter explanation. Acting isn’t ballet. Roles rarely require physical characteristics only possessed by one sex. So maybe the directors just considered their troupe of actors and picked the one they thought best suited for each role, irrespective of gender.

I’ll never know if any of these three, or maybe even another, was the reason behind the aggressive transvestism. I’d rather not know, because it doesn’t matter.

This was one of the best productions of Hamlet I’ve seen. The woman who played Prince Hamlet, Michelle Terry, was the best Prince Hamlet I’ve watched. It was one of those performances that will become a reference point for every Prince Hamlet I see from now on.

Believing that Michelle was the prince while I watched her perform made me realize that I’d given pseudonymity short shrift in my recent thinking about etiquette and anonymity.

Anonymity, Pseudonymity, and Identity

I argued that we didn’t know how to manage the evolution of etiquette in the face of anonymity. But pseudonymity is different. I think I finally understand how.

When an actor plays a role, his performance is pseudonymous, i.e., his words and actions are those of the character he is playing. From the audience’s perspective, the fiction lasts as long as the play. Had I been at the live production of the Hamlet I streamed last night, I might have gone back stage to congratulate Michelle for her wonderful performance.

Although I’d just spent two hours believing that she was Prince Hamlet, I would not expect to find Prince Hamlet backstage.

And although I’d just spent two hours believing that Prince Hamlet’s actions were both inevitable and justified, I’d be horrified to walk into Michelle’s dressing room and find her forcing her uncle to drink a fatal poison while stepping over her dead mother.

The pseudonymous fiction was time-bound by the play.

Here’s another example.

I have a soft spot for drag queens. When they’re good I have no problem believing they’re women and treating them accordingly. When they’re out of drag I also have no problem calling them by their real names and interacting with them as I would with any other men. The transformation is real but impermanent. And just as I expect Michelle as Hamlet to act like Hamlet, I expect Joe as Dollface to act like Dollface.

Neither Michelle nor Joe are anonymous. They are temporarily someone else. If they were anonymous they would be no one else. They would just be unknown.


It turns out is the critical measure of a pseudonymous performance. Time is more important than the quality of the performance itself. Time is the reason a pseudonymous individual is so similar to or sometimes identical to an identified individual. (I could go further and argue that an individual’s given name is nothing more than a pseudonym conferred by his parents but I think we’re far enough down this rabbit hole as it is.)

Plays and drag performances are easily time bound. Other forms of pseudonymity – particularly online – are not.

I spend a lot of time in what people call “crypto Twitter”, this is a collection of important people in the cryptocurrency space. Many of those people are pseudonymous, for a variety of reasons. Some of those pseudonymous Twitter accounts have existed for years. They have very clear personalities. Some of them are smart, and many are influential. Are those characters anything like the people behind them? Who knows. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are known and accepted as they are. They behave exactly as we would expect an identified individual to act. They are as bound by Twitter’s etiquette as I am.

Until my morning ruminations over the relationship of actors to their roles, I hadn’t appreciated the importance of time. It’s so obvious when action is live, but far less obvious when it takes place in digital space.

A pseudonymous account is anonymous on creation. Over time the pseudonymous personality becomes more and more real until it is indistinguishable from an identified individual.

In my earlier thinking about anonymity, I stated very clearly that I believed online worlds with anonymous actors could not be governed by etiquette. That’s not true for pseudonymous actors. I appreciate Shakespeare’s clearing that up for me, but now I’m faced with another conundrum: when is a pseudonymous actor old enough to be real?

Prince Hamlet considers the dichotomy between being and not being. While that is still possible from the perspective of the online pseudonymous actor, it isn’t possible from the observer’s perspective because the observer has to consider time. Pseudonymous characters are always in the process of becoming.

Thankfully, humans are good at managing ambiguity. Despite uncertainty, we muddle through.

Just as we’re grappling with consequences of online anonymity, we are grappling with the consequences of online pseudonymity. As someone who has to worry about providing environments where both might exist, I’ll continue trying to contribute to the framing and, with luck, solutions to these problems.

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image of author Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy

Toucan co-founder.
Rabbi, driving instructor, and acrobat in parallel universes.

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