How to reduce the whole span of an average human life into just a few lines of verse? Shakespeare managed it, in this famous speech from As You Like It, which begins with the famous declaration that ‘All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players’. Jaques’ ‘philosophy’ on the proverbial threescore years and ten of an average human life has become one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches; before we offer some words of analysis, here’s a reminder of Jaques’ speech from As You Like It.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Note: these lines come from Act II Scene VII of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
In summary, Jaques’ ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech acts as a sort of microcosm of As You Like It: arguing that life is one big performance, and that theatre and illusion are both noble arts and somehow transcend the literal stage. We play many ‘parts’ in our lives, just as actors play fictional roles on stage. Shakespeare, being an actor who had become playwright and shareholder in the theatre, knew theatre through and through (he almost certainly played the role of Adam in As You Like It: he was probably not anywhere near the finest actor in his company, but he continued to act in many of his plays from the 1590s, and perhaps later).
Jaques begins by describing our infancy and schooldays: ‘the infant, / Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms’ grows into ‘the whining schoolboy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like snail / Unwillingly to school’. He then takes us through the other five stages. Next, we have the (young) lover, falling head over heels in love (and lust) feeling the hot passion of love (and lust) like a ‘furnace’: ‘Sighing like a furnace’ succinctly captures both the lovelorn sighs of the frustrated lover pining away for a beloved and the heated young passion of the man desperate to act on his love, with the aural image of the furnace ‘sighing’ capturing both senses while also suggesting the plaintive singing of a serenade or love song for his ‘mistress’ or sweetheart.
Then we have the soldier, the man going off to fight for king/queen and country, or to earn a living through military service while he is still young and strong. Until relatively recently, most generations of men would have faced the prospect of military combat: the generation who fought in the First World War had children who grew up to fight in the Second World War, as recently as the twentieth century. In the Elizabethan era, when Shakespeare was writing As You Like It, there were military campaigns in Ireland, against France, and against Spain. Soldiery was not just a possible career option but something that men of fighting age might be drafted into under the law. Note that the young lover, now he has turned into the sweary soldier (‘strange oaths’ suggesting the foul language associated with men at war), has grown a beard that resembles the face of a ‘pard’ (i.e. leopard).
The image of the ‘bubble’ and the ‘cannon’s mouth’ is another ingenious piece of compacted imagery: imagine a (human or animal) mouth blowing a bubble, and then imagine a soldier staring down the mouth of a live cannon that could blow his head clean off. The soldier seeks glory and a ‘reputation’ for soldiery even in the face of danger and possible death.
After his career as a soldier, the next in the seven ages of man is the ‘part’ of the judge, magistrate, or ‘justice’: middle-age spread has taken its toll and the lean soldier has filled out with a ‘fair round belly’ filled with good food (a ‘capon’ is a castrated chicken). The soldier’s wilder beard (‘like the pard’ summoning the appearance of a wild animal) has become more neatly trimmed and ‘formal’ as the older man, now a justice sitting on magistrates’ panels and dispensing verdicts, assumes a formal role as lawmaker and lawgiver. ‘Wise saws’ are wise sayings or moral wisdom, while ‘modern instances’ are recent examples or arguments which might be used as part of a legal case.
Once the man has played the ‘part’ of justice, he effectively becomes retired, slipping into comfortable clothes (‘lean and slippered pantaloon’, i.e. baggy trousers worn by old men of the time). The ‘hose’ or trousers the man wore as a young man are now too loose, because he has become wizened and emaciated with age. The deep ‘big manly voice’ the man had in his prime has become like a ‘childish treble’, i.e. more high-pitched, with the onset of old age.
And finally – the last of the seven ages of man. Full-on ‘second childishness’ – as weak, helpless, and dependent on others as he was when he was a very small child. And then ‘mere oblivion’, i.e. death, as everything fades: the very old man loses his teeth, his eyesight, his ability to taste food (it’s a fact that the taste-buds die the older we get), and finally, ‘sans [i.e. without] everything.’
There are several precedents, or likely influences for this famous Shakespeare speech: the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote that ‘All of Greece is a stage, and every Greek’s an actor’, which is very close to Jaques’ ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’. Meanwhile, Richard Edward, in his 1560s play Damon and Pythias, wrote, ‘Pythagoras said that this world was like a stage / Whereon many play their parts; the lookers-on, the sage’. What Shakespeare did was take this sentiment and, as so often with his work, find new, arresting images to embody a general idea.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.
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A very thorough commentary—especially about the soldiering aspect.
One day, while having lunch at Charles Laughton’s home he stood up near the mantle and delivered this speech. I was a teenager then, and he always asked me what I was studying in English literature, especially poetry, and one day gave me a lesson in how to read it. He and my father were friends, so I was privileged to hear a lot of his reading before he went on tour around the country.
What a lovely story! Oh to have had lunch with one of the greats. I bet his intonation was memorable too…