Peter Paul Rubens - Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara - WGA20377

Alfonso d'Este (1476-1534), Duke of Ferrara, the persona used in Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess". By Peter Paul Rubins (1577-1640), 1600's. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In ancient Latin, persona meant "mask." Today it does not usually refer to a literal mask but to the "social masks" all humans supposedly wear.

A persona, in the word's everyday usage, is a social role or a character played by an actor. This is an Italian word that derives from the Latin for a kind of mask made to resonate with the voice of the actor (per sonare meaning "to sound through").[1]

The Latin word probably derived from the Etruscan word "phersu", with the same meaning, and that from the Greek πρόσωπον (prosōpon). Its meaning in the latter Roman period changed to indicate a "character" of a theatrical performance.

In poetryEdit

In poetry, a "persona" is a character, invented by the poet, who tells the story of the poem. Every poem has a speaker, the person who speaks (or thinks) the words of the poem. The speaker need not be the poet, but can be an invented persona. This technique is akin to playwrighting, in which the poet puts his poems in the mouths of his characters (such as in Shakespeare's monologues).

For instance, in "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the story is told not by Tennyson himself but by Ulysses, King of Ithaca (the hero of Homer's Odyssey), in his old age. Robert Browning used highly developed and psycholigically compsex personae in his dramatic monologues, such as "My Last Duchess" and "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister."

In modern literature the term has become associated with the work of two modern poets, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and the writer Luigi Pirandello. They understood the term slightly differently and derived its use and meaning from different traditions. Eliot had taken over and developed Laforgue's ironic "I", whereas Pound worked from Robert Browning's dramatic monologues. Eliot's personae were Prufrock and Sweeney, Pound's were Cino, Bertran de Born, Propertius, and Mauberley. Whereas Eliot used "masks" to distance himself from aspects of modern life which he found degrading and repulsive, Pound's personae were poets and could be considered in good part alter-egos who are to be dissociated from "characters" like Malatesta, John Adams, Confucius, or Thomas Jefferson that we find in Pound's later poetry, The Cantos. For Pound, the personae were a way of working through a specific poetic problem. In this sense, the persona is a transparent mask, wearing the traits of two poets and responding to two situations, old and new, which are similar and overlapping.

In Homage to Sextus Propertius, for example, Pound "translated" parts of Propertius's elegies and by means of various modernizations of diction, drew attention to parallelisms existing between Propertius's situation and Pound's own, especially the pressures of living in an empire at war and Pound's desire to cease writing shorter lyrical poems and start on longer epic structures. Pound at that time (1917) had written his first three Cantos but was doubtful of their value. In writing the Homage he worked through his anxieties of whether the epic was compatible with modernity or worth writing at all, given the political and social statement of the genre. Pound at that time had no political education, which he would start to acquire only after the end of WWI with C.H. Douglas and A.R. Orage in the offices of The New Age.

Assuming personae was a Greek and Roman tradition abandoned during the Medieval period. Instead of wearing masks the actors assumed their characters' personality. As part of a teaching strategy, teachers in the US state of Iowa have adopted this method to teach their students Shakespeare. The students were asked to become the character to reduce their alienation from the text and to assist them to reflect on the character's beliefs, values and motivations. This experiment achieved a few goals: 1) The students are able to connect to the concepts and context. 2) They are able to construct meaning. 3) Allows students to choose whether to like or dislike Shakespearean text.[2]

In musicEdit

File:David Bowie 1976.jpg

Usually the performers assume a role that matches the music they sing on stage, though they may also be composers. For that reason, many performers make use of a Persona. Some artists create various characters, specially if their career is long and go through many changes over time. That is the case, for example, of David Bowie, initially largely recognizable as the alien Ziggy Stardust and later as The Thin White Duke.[3] More than just artistic pseudonyms, they are independent characters used in the artist's shows and albums (in the case, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Station to Station). However, in music, a Persona not always means a change. Some authors, for instance, has noted that Bob Dylan's charisma is accredited largely to his almost stereotyped image, always with a harmonica, guitar, and with his distinctive hair, voice and clothing.[4] The persona also serves to claim a right or to draw attention to a certain subject. That is the case of Marilyn Manson and his interest on death and morbidity, and Madonna and her interest on sexuality.[5]

The concept of Persona in music was introduced by Edward T. Cone in his The Composer's Voice (1974), that dealt with the relation between the lyrical self of a song lyrics and its composer.[6] Nowadays the concept of Persona can be used to refer also to an instrumentalist, like a pianist and his playing style,[7] although the term is more commonly used to refer to the voice and performance nuances of a vocalist in a studio album or in a live concert, such as in the cases of Maria Bethânia, Elis Regina, Edith Piaf, Nina Simone and also Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, who takes the guise of Satan in the song "Sympathy for the Devil" and of a housewife in "Slave", etc. It's also remarkable in the case of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, which presents a group persona,[8] specially the character Billy Shears "played by" drummer Ringo Starr.[9]

In psychologyEdit

The persona is also the mask or appearance one presents to the world.[10] It may appear in dreams under various guises (see Carl Jung and his psychology, and Persona (psychology)).

In communication studiesEdit

In the study of communication, persona is a term given to describe the versions of self that all individuals possess. Behaviours are selected according to the desired impression an individual wishes to create when interacting with other people. Therefore, personas presented to other people vary according to the social environment the person is engaged in, in particular the persona presented before others will differ from the persona an individual will present when he/she happens to be alone.

In designEdit

As used in the design field, the Persona is an artifact that consists of a narrative relating to a desired user or customer's daily behavior patterns, using specific details, not generalities. A very popular artifact is the 'persona poster' that is usually presented in an 18 inch format with photo and text. For more details see Persona (marketing).

In marketingEdit

Some marketing experts recommend that one creates a persona that represents a group of customers[11] so that the company can focus its efforts.


  2. Burnett, Rebecca E. and Elizabeth Foster. 'The ROLE'S the Thing': The Power of Persona in Shakespeare". The English Journal, Vol. 82, No. 6 , pp. 69-73. National Council of Teachers of English (Oct., 1993)
  3. James E. Perone, The words and music of David Bowie (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007), ppp. 39, 51, and 108. ISBN 0275992454
  4. Paul Williams, Bob Dylan: performing artist 1986-1990 & beyond : mind out of time (Omnibus Press, 2004), p.229. ISBN 1844492818
  5. Bhesham R. Sharma, The death of art (University Press of America, 2006), p.14. ISBN 0761834664
  6. Deborah Stein and Robert Spillman, Poetry Into Song: Performance and Analysis of Lieder (Oxford University Press US, 2010), p.235. ISBN 0199754306
  7. Deborah Stein and Robert Spillman, p.106.
  8. Kenneth Womack and Todd F. Davis, Reading the Beatles: cultural studies, literary criticism, and the Fab Four (SUNY Press, 2006), p.21. ISBN 0791467155
  9. Allan F. Moore, The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.75. ISBN 0521574846
  10. Jung, Carl Gustav (August 1, 1971). "Psychological Types". Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 6. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09774. 
  11. Rind, Bonnie. "The Power of the Persona". Retrieved May 5, 2009. "The identification and application of personas improved Development’s efficiency and quality during the first development cycle in which they were used. In addition, the use of personas significantly improved corporate cohesiveness, focus and decision making at every level." 

External linksEdit

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