In Act II scene 7 of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, we encounter one of the more fatalistic and artful monologues in all of Shakespearean literature, Jaques’s famous “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy. Drawing on Ovid, Shakespeare uses the character, Jaques, to compare the totality of human life to the charade of a play, and he enumerates the seven stages of a man’s life -it is sometimes called the ‘Seven Stages of Man’ monologue. However, unlike Ovid there is something nihilistic about Jacques’s speech -perhaps an idea he gets from the clownish “philosopher” Touchstone.
To set the scene, the tyrants have overtaken the good and noble men. Orlando, a willing and capable man with natural talents (“Fortune”) is denied his due inheritance and rightful place by his conniving and jealous older brother, Oliver. According to their family servant, Adam (thought to have been played by Shakespeare), Oliver plans to kill his younger brother Orlando, so Adam and Orlando take flight into the Forest of Arden. Meanwhile, Duke Senior has been overthrown by his usurping brother, Duke Frederick, and has fled with a band of loyal noblemen into the Forest of Arden to live like Robin Hood and his merry men in the wild, pastoral, wilderness. One of these men is Jacques who has been led to question the nature of things and the meaning of life by a fool -a philosopher who laments the passing of time. According to Jacques, all of life becomes a tragedy when considering the passing of time as nothing more than another step closer to death. Are we growing or merely rotting? Is all of life vanity? Jacques, who has been influenced by the poison of the fool, is led to a life of woe -he is disillusioned and depressed. However, Duke Senior is not persuaded by his lugubriousness. Instead, when Orlando bursts onto the scene and demands food from the strangers for himself and his dying compatriot, Adam, Duke Senior provides an example of civility by inviting Orlando to the table. It is a moment of justification for civilization’s conventions to the brooding Jacques. Like the famous anecdote of Diogenes contra Alexander the Great, Jaques tells Duke Senior to stand out of his light. He plays the part of a cynic and Epicurean. He would rather live ‘like a dog’ (the meaning of the Greek word “cynic”) and entertain his mind with minstrels and distractions, preferring not to eat or care for the needs of his body.
Returning to the passage in question, Duke Senior has just tried to convince Jaques that “we are not all alone and unhappy. This wide and universal theatre presents more woeful pageants than the scene wherein we play” (136-139). With the grace and respect shown among civilized men, Duke Senior and Orlando, there are many worse and more woeful places wherein Jaques could dwell. The debate is between cynicism and convention, Diogenes and Alexander the Great. Duke Senior defends the superior of the latter, while Jaques seems tempted by the former.
We now turn to Jaques’s monologue. “All the world’s a stage” is stated by Jaques in response to the Duke claiming that there are “woeful pageants” elsewhere that are far worse than the present situation. Jaques undermines Duke Senior’s claim not by denying that there are worse situations elsewhere, but rather that all situations are mere fantasy. The word “All” is used twice to encompass both ‘all the world’ and also ‘all the men and women’. The most significant word in the opening sentence is “merely” used to describe players. The reason for this significance is that it serves to deny praise of theatre, claimed by some, and rather to highlight Jaques’s pessimism about the nature of things. In other words, a “mere” player is directly connected to the stage, and one could make the claim that all the world’s a stage is a Platonic or perhaps Nietzschean notion that high art is what forms the basis of culture, however Jaques is not a creator, in the way that Prospero is in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Recall Prospero’s “our revels now are ended” monologue during the fabled marriage ceremony of his daughter, Miranda. He laments the transience of all things man-made, but perhaps not to bring them all down and see things from a jaded, disillusioned perspective. Jaques, being a young man and well-traveled like Odysseus, is quickly and easily reoriented by the fool to be a woeful Epicurean moral philosopher. His opening statement is an ontological claim -all the world is a stage. He does not use poetic similes, such as ‘like’ or ‘as’ imagery to highlight his claim to knowledge of the meagerness of the world and all the men and women who dwell in it.
“They” (or all the men and women) have their “exits and their entrances” and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. Jaques has moved from denying the authenticity of the stage, to affirming the falsity of all busy men and women, to examining the life of one man in his seven ages, limiting human beings to a short and easily defined life. Under the weight of this new perspective gained from the fool, Jaques proceeds to identify the seven ages of man. For guidance through each age, we turn to the help of Robert Smirke’s painting series in 1798-1801.
1) Infant: this stage is defined only by one sentence, of an infant “mewling and puking” in his nurse’s arms. Here Jaques employs the grotesque, rather than the charming, to describe an infant that is typically the subject of adoration.
2) The “whining schoolboy” who goes to school by “creeping like a snail” in order to avoid the cane. He also has a “shining face” and a satchel. He has gone from mewling to whining.
3) The “lover”: in this stage he ‘sighs like a furnace’ with a woeful ballad (we recall Orlando and Rosalind’s great sighing in fits of love) with the ballads being written for his mistresses’s “brow” (taken from Petrarch). We note that in the first three ages, there is great suffering.
4) A “soldier”: here he is full of “strange oaths” and also “bearded like the pard”or a leopard. He is jealous in honor, sudden and quick (recall “swift footed Achilles”) and he is seeking a reputation even in the cannon’s mouth. The cannon destroys both life and fame, the cannon’s mouth does not echo the deeds of great man, only ends them without glory, we recall the moment Don Quixote encounters a gun for the first time.
5) The “Justice”: his belly is now fair and round, like a rooster or a capon. His eyes are severe now and his beard has a “formal cut”. He is also full of “wise saws” and “modern instances”, or arguments and justifications. Note that the “Justice could be replaced with a sophistry.
6) Jaques bookends the last 5 stages with “and so he plays his part” and a period. In the sixth age he is older with “pantaloons” and “spectacles”. Suddenly the world is too wide for him. His voice turning to “whistles” and “pipes” again. This age is also bookended with a period, whereas the first four were with a semicolon.
7) The last scene “ends this strange and eventful history” and is called “second childishness” that is sans teeth, sans eyes, and sans everything. Along with childishness it is called “mere oblivion”. This fatalism concludes Jaques’s monologue and, shortly following, concludes Act II.
For this reading I used the essential Arden 3rd edition of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.