“All The World’s A Stage” Considered

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.

seven ages 11) 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.

seven ages 2

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.

seven ages 3

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.

seven ages 4

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.

seven ages 5

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.

seven ages 6

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.

seven ages 7

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.

As You Like It, Act II

Scene 1

In Act II, the longest of the five Acts in the play, we are redirected to (presumably) the Forest of Arden where Duke Senior praises the innocence of the noblemen’s new idyllic life. He calls it “sweet”, “free from peril”, and without the “penalty of Adam”. He hearkens a golden age, but not in a suffering for a long-gone antiquated world. Instead, he praises the harshness of the natural world -“Sweet are the uses of adversity” (Scene 1, 12).

Scene 2

However, being far from the “painted pomp” of court, the noblemen, including Duke Senior, lament the need to murder deer for venison. This is especially true of the lugubrious Jacques, who equates deer in the forest with citizens of a city. He calls Duke Senior a worse usurper than his own for his upsetting of the natural ‘political’ order of the Forest by murdering the deer. Jacques’s brooding begins with his failure to distinguish between  politics and nature. Meanwhile, the usurping Duke Frederick decides to follow after his daughter who is sure to be among the company of the youth who foiled Charles, the wrestler. In Scene 2, we are first exposed to the juxtaposition between the city and the country as Duke Senior and his Lords live a pastoral life, hearkening to the “golden age” alluded to in Ovid. However, the humans are still confused about their place. They know the country only insofar as it is in reaction and contradistinction to the “pomp of court”. Trees become like books and brooks like poetry, the stuff of the city, and the denizens of the forest can only best be compared to the city’s citizenry.

Scene 3

Orlando and his family servant, Adam, flee into the Forest of Arden as Adam laments: “O what a world is this, when what is comely envenoms him that bears it” exposing the tyrannical nature of Orlando’s older brother, Oliver, who is expected to come and burn down the swelling of Orlando. Adam persuades Orlando to leave with his meager retirement savings, also justifying his robustness, despite his age. Orlando tells him: “Thou art not for the fashion of these times, where non will sweat but for promotion, and having that, do choke their service up even with the having” (Scene 3, 59-62). Both Adam and Orlando demonstrate their virtue – Adam says,”Yet fortune cannot recompense me better than to die well and not my master’s debtor” (75-76). Adam is praised for his “duty” not his sweat for “meed”.

Scene 4

Exhausted, Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) and Celia (disguised as Aliena) tramp through the Forest with Touchstone. They come upon Corin (perhaps borrowed from the name of a shepherd in Virgil’s 2nd Ecologue) and Silvius (meaning “of the woods” in Latin -a lover, as are most in the woods), two shepherds, Corin is scolding Silvius for his affliction of love. quietly Touchstone says: “as all is mortal in nature, so all is nature in love mortal in folly” (51-52). Rosalind is drawn to Silvius’s “passion”. With the shepherds, they use their gold to buy a remote cottage.

Scene 5

The Lords, including Amiens and Jacques, are singing about the merriness of the Forest, though it makes Jacques melancholy. Jacques decides to remain alone while Amiens goes to the banquet of the Duke.

Scene 6

Adam lies down saying he cannot go on any longer. He asks Orlando to leave him to die, but Orlando rushes to find food in the forest.

Scene 7

The Duke comes upon Jacques in the woods and asks him about why he has become so brooding and melancholy in their pastoral Eden. Jacques responds that he came upon a “motley fool” who lamented the time, as each hour passes we “ripe and ripe” meaning we also “rot and rot”. Jacques is recognizing the aimlessness of the pastoral life, from the fool he recognizes the closing imminence of death. The impressionable Jacques, like Ivan from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, longs to be the somber, reflective, saddened fool he met earlier. Self righteously, he long to be a disillusioned Diogenis of the Forest’s noblemen, in order to “cleanse the foul body of th’infected world, if they will patiently receive my medicine” (60-61). To this, the Duke rebukes him and his foul illness he seems to have caught. To try to justify himself, Jacques defends the need for one to attack pride and vices that are ever-present in the city. He lives his life in praise of reason, thanks to his exposure from the motley fool he met at an unknown earlier time.

Suddenly, Orlando storms the scene and demands that no man eat until necessity has been served (devoid of food, justice is served ‘each according to his needs’ as the Marxist saying goes’). The Duke instructs him to be gentle and civilized, his gentleness can force more, than force itself. He then invites Orlando to the table to eat, embarrassing Orlando who apologizes for disgracefulness, puts away his sword, and ‘blushes’.

The Duke Senior uses this scene in an attempt to educate Jacques, showing that in this “wide and universal theatre” not all people are alone and unhappy. The Duke makes the case for the goodness of traditional conventions, while Jacques, the reasonable pessimist, remains disillusioned with any kind of custom. Orlando then returns with Adam where they feast together, enjoy music, and the Duke pleasantly learns that Orlando is the son of Sir Rowland de Boys.


As You Like It, Act I

Scene 1

At the outset, we encounter Orlando, an English spelling of the French hero named Roland (of Chanson de Roland, or the “Song of Roland”, the great French heroic poem from the reign of Charlemagne) bemoaning his state of affairs to the family servant Adam in an orchard. The setting is far from the court in a country estate, and news of the court does not come well -the old Duke Ferdinand is banished by his younger brother and has taken up in the forest of Arden with a band of merry men like Robin Hood. The new Duke Frederick has claimed the lands of the Duke Ferdinand’s loyalists so he lets them wander. The time period is unknown, it is perhaps a-temporal, though through textual evidence we can conclude the setting takes place after Robin Hood during a time in which France and England live well together in a mythic context, devoid of Christian allegory but rife with allusions to classical antiquity.

As with other Shakespearean plays, Shakespeare steals much of the story from another playwright, in this case Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde. In Lodge’s play, the setting of the opening scene is explicitly in an apple orchard.

A good play to compare with As You Like It is King Lear. Consider that at the opening of King Lear we are concerned with the perpetuation of the perfect regime. King Lear has united the kingdoms and is attempting to divide his kingdom in a way that is fitting for the future, to ensure a lasting regime. His enemies are subdued and two of his daughters are set to be married to noblemen, and he decides to divide the kingdom unequally between his daughters, with preference given to his chosen daughter, Cordelia. However, the much-discussed “love-test” to which he subjects his daughters fails and Lear is left to the extremities of his kingdom, seeking out the nature of men and kings. However, in As You Like It, we find that the patriarch has already died -Rowland de Boys (or “of the woods”) and, according to the youngest son, Orlando, Oliver, the eldest brother, is giving all of the fruits of their father’s bequest to Jacques, the middle son, while Orlando receives no education. Curiously, Orlando identifies education with “profit” and “gain” -has Jacques “profited” from his education? To what extent might he be worse for his education? His character only appears in Act 5, scene 4. While King Lear is a tragedy about the retreat of a court into nature, As You Like It is a flattering pastoral comedy of the same kind.

However, Orlando desires his portion of the inheritance in order to become a “gentleman” and Oliver bitterly relents, giving Orlando “some part of [the] will” (1.1, 70-75), only after Orlando has physically grabbed Oliver by the throat. Orlando is not afraid to use force if necessary. He is not merely concerned with profit for its own sake, but Orlando is also more physically fit than his brother, capable of overtaking him rather than persuading him. Enter the wrestler Charles who informs Oliver that Orlando plans to come in disguise to challenge Charles, for he would not have been old enough to compete, and Oliver commands Charles take down Orlando in the wrestling match, because Orlando is a “villain”. In private confession, Oliver states that he hates nothing more than Orlando, though he doesn’t know why. We are exposed to Oliver’s resentment for his brother by acknowledging that he is “gentle, never schooled and yet learned, full of noble device, of all sorts enchantingly beloved…” (1.1, 155-160). Yet still he would like to kill his brother in his rage, and resents his natural talents and favorability. As Orlando’s name suggests, he is chivalric or gentlemanly by nature.

Shakespeare is a classical writer, devoted to holding up a mirror to nature rather than providing a kind of salvation for mankind to relive its “estate” or the burdens of life, unlike the project other moderns like Francis Bacon or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Romantic followers. He exposes nobility, baseness, villainy, and heroism for the audience to consider, as pure contemplation is one of the highest Aristotelian virtues. One can make the argument that Shakespeare has a civilizing effect on his audience, as the goal of identifying a common virtue and a common vice is also the highest end of civilization.

Scene 2

We meet Rosalind (“beautiful rose” or rosa linda in Spanish), daughter of the banished Duke Ferdinand, as she lugubriously laments her “estate” to her cousin Celia (meaning “heavenly”) who is the daughter of the usurping Duke Frederick. She tries to tell Rosalind that she must love Duke Frederick for he will include Rosalind in his estate. In order to reverse her melancholy state, Rosalind decides to “devise sports” such “falling in love”. Celia advises Rosalind not to love a man “in good earnest” (2.1, 50-60). Instead Celia advises that they mock the blind lady Fortune, who does not distribute fate equally, to which Rosalind disagrees and claims that she refers to Nature rather than Fortune. Fortune gives gifts of the world, while Nature is organic.

Touchstone enters (a smooth rock used to test whether a rock is of quality gold or silver), but they are distracted discussing the merits of fools until Le Beau,a courtier, tells them that they are missing much of the sport but can still catch the end. Le Beau points to three able bodies brothers who were killed or left with broken ribs at the hands of Charles. Touchstone says it is hardly a sport for ladies but Rosalind asks that they watch the violent and dangerous sport. When she first sees Orlando, she notices how he is too “young” but he also looks “successfully”. Upon speaking to the ladies, Orlando says he has no friends and nothing in the world, so his death would not be a loss in the match. Charles taunts Orlando, and Orlando throws Charles, knocking him out or possibly killing him, either way rendering him incapacitated. Astonished, Duke Frederick asks who Orlando is, to which he responds that he is the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys. Dismayed, Duke Frederick (the usurping Duke) notes that the “world esteemed thy father honorable” but Duke Frederick still found hime an “enemy” (1.2, 214-215).

Neither Duke Frederick nor Oliver recognize natural greatness, meritocratic values. Both resent those who are excellent and successful because of prejudices or past transgressions. Is Shakespeare showing us the character of the tyrant?

An argument can be made that the moment Rosalind and Orlando find love is when she places her necklace round his neck and he claims “my better parts are all thrown down, and that which here stands up is but a quintain (a dummy wooden post used in jousting), a mere lifeless block” -the first of many connections between wrestling and falling in love. At the same moment Rosalind claims that her ‘pride fell with her fortunes’ and that he has ‘overthrown more than his enemies’.

To make mention of the many homoerotic undertones of the play, the love between Rosalind and Celia (who is taller) are described as unique. For example, their loves are described by Le Beau, the courtier, as “dearer than the natural bonds of sisters”.

Le Beau warns Orlando of the usurping Duke Frederick’s intent to be rid him and also his jealous wrath towards Rosalind due to the people’s praise of her virtues and their pity for the loss of her father. Le Beau bids Orlando farewell: “hereafter in a better world than this I shall desire more love and knowledge of you” (1.2, 273-274).

Scene 3

The final scene of Act I opens with Celia trying to reason away Rosalind’s affection and Rosalind swooning madly over Orlando.

Suddenly, Duke Frederick enters in a fury and demands that Rosalind leave his court. If she is not gone in 10 days, she shall be put to death. Rosalind asks once what she has done, and the Duke responds that he does not trust her, she claims that mistrust alone is not a punishable offense, and the Duke responds that she is her father’s daughter and that is enough to banish her. Once again, Rosalind responds that “treason is not inherited”. Celia also tries to persuade her father stating that she and Rosalind have been like Juno’s swans and have slept together -doing everything together- therefore she must also be accused of treason. However Duke Frederick notes how the people value Rosalind’s “silence and patience” and he calls his daughter a “fool” for she will “seem” more virtuous to the people. Duke Frederick is always concerned with his image among the people, in desiring his daughter to appear more virtuous rather than behave virtuously in earnest. Celia states she cannot live without the company of Rosalind.

In grief Rosalind and Celia decide to retreat to the forest of Arden to find Duke Ferdinand. Celia will cover herself with dirt to look like a peasant and Rosalind, since she is tall, will dress like a man to be called “Jove’s own page”, Ganymede (who was a Trojan shepherd boy swept up by Jove disguised as an Eagle to serve as his cupbearer and attendant). While Celia will be called Aliena (meaning “stranger”). The purpose of their disguises are for protection -Rosalind becomes the homoerotic disguise of a boy called Ganymede and heavenly Celia becomes a stranger. Celia also notes that this will help as she will no doubt be trailed by members of the court. Lastly, Celia decides to “woo” Touchstone the “Clowne” into joining them: “Now we go in content to liberty and not to banishment” (1.3, 134-135). Why does Celia even suggest they bring the clown with them? Could it have some relationship to their discussion Fortune and Nature in Scene 2? Or could it be connected to the fact that her father called her a “fool” twice before banishing Rosalind. It should be noted that he never explicitly banishes Celia.


Thucydides on Greek Origins

At the outset of Thucydides’s “archaeology” of the Peloponnesian War, the greatest “motion” of the city yet seen by either the Hellenes or barbarians or also possibly of all mankind, including the ancient Trojan War, Thucydides provides many opportunities for wonder. Pointing to later thinkers, like Hobbes, Thucydides gives an account of how the Hellenes came to be.

The early peoples of Hellas were not settled, uprooted like the Scythians of the Steppes as discussed in Herodotus. Tribes of fewer numbers were compelled by tribes of larger numbers -the rule of force reigned supreme in this “state of nature”. Men did not plant and grow food because settlements were frequently pirated, and men only cultivated the necessities of life devoid of capital or commerce. Therefore there was heavy competition among the tribes over fertile regions like Boetia or the Peloponnesus. These fertile regions caused certain individuals to seek enrichment, except in Attica where the soil was relatively poor and where many victims of war sought refuge until Attica could no longer maintain them all and they sought out colonies in Ionia.

According to Thucydides, the ancients were weak and barbarous, like the men of the Homeric epics. All of life was devoted to war, and like in Vico, we find the early cities established by the patriarch who provided shelter to the rootless many through both his virtue and wealth. The old Hellenes are like the modern barbarians in that life is governed by the superior rule of force. For example, in Thucydides’s opinion, Agamemnon’s ability to compel the Argives was less due to his oath of Tyndareus and more so to do with his superior strength (his vast navy). Fear was at least as strong as love in the Trojan expedition under Agamemnon, and Chaos and tyranny, rather than freedom, ruled the lives of the early Hellenic peoples. Slowly hereditary monarchies degenerated into tyrannies as wealth grew for the Hellenes and new technologies were developed, such as the triremes that might have originated from the Corcyrans.

“Again, wherever there were tyrants, their habit of providing simply for themselves, of looking solely to their own personal comfort and family aggrandizement, made safety the great aim of their policy, and prevented anything great proceeding from them; though they would each have their affairs with their immediate neighbors” (1.17).

It was Sparta that would eventually put down the tyrannies thanks to their long-lasting regime free from tyranny for over 400 years, supported by Athens (Note: this is distinct from the Athenian account of their victory without the help of Sparta who was busy at a religious festival when the Medes invaded). After the repulsion of the Medes (Persians), the Hellenes split into two factions: the Spartans, the chief military power of the Hellenes who established their regime by building loyal oligarchies at each polis under their protection, and the Athenians, the democracy and naval power who imposed monetary tributes on their subordinate city-states. However, Thucydides is critical of Athens, the first city to embrace a relaxed and luxurious style of life. Thucydides muses on the distinctions between Spartan and Athenian culture -while he maintains the superiority of the Spartans, he also imagines that years from now the ruins of Athens will be looked upon as greater than those of Sparta. He states that while many accept the account of the origins of the Peloponnesian War to be the breaking of the peace treaty between Athens and the Peloponnesians, Thucydides claims the chief cause must be the alarming growth of Athens that Sparta found threatening.

In a dispute between the Corcyrans and the Corinthians, both request aid from Athens, but Athens chooses Corcyra by providing defensive naval support. This threatens Sparta and her allies. Corinth attacks Sparta for allowing the Athenian tyranny to spread, and the Athenians try to self-righteously defend their actions.

It should be noted that Thucydides gives an account of the Hellenes -a city in “motion”, i.e. at war. Socrates calls for this in the Timaeus, the Platonic dialogue immediately following the Republic, and a similar account of Hellenic origins and decay is given in the Laws. In the same way that Plato uses the particular to explore the universal, i.e. the life and death of Socrates, so Thucydides uses the particular -the “great motion” of the war between Sparta and Athens, to explore the universal. However unlike the philosopher, Thucydides’s horizon extends only as far as the city, not in speech but in motion. That is, his history is an account the particular cities in situations that have already come to pass in an effort to proceed to a better account of the good and just city.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition by businessman turned classical scholar, Robert B. Strassler.