William Shakespeare was an English playwright and a poet. He was born in 1564 in Stratford – Upon- Avon. Shakespeare’s works belong to the Elizabethan Age.
“ The Seven Ages of Man” is an extract from a soliloquy of a cynical character called Jacques in As You Like It. These seemingly whimsical lines hide a deep analysis of life.
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.
Shakespeare, a dramatist by trade, likens the world to a stage, a place he is familiar with. He sees people as actors playing various parts throughout their lives. According to the poet a lifetime consists of seven acts:
2. school boy
6. a middle aged man
7. an old man
An infant spends its time mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. Shakespeare does not see the angelic baby many other poets have seen. To him infancy and the infant is something to be endured.
At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
The second act is the childhood. A schoolboy with his satchel is seen going to school quite unwillingly. Despite his wholesome appearance the child of Shakespeare’s poem is not happy. This could be the poet’s own reaction towards the contemporary system of education. Schools of his era were notorious for their rigid disciplinarian attitude towards education.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwilling to school.
In Act Three, the audience meets a youth. All vestiges of childhood and puberty are long gone. He compensates for the lack of any depth in him with an abundance of feelings. For him trivial things like the shape of his mistress’ eyebrow are inspirations for “woeful ballads”. As a young man in love he is seen “sighing like furnace”. Young people are easily excitable by feelings.
And then the lover
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad,
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.
The lover gives way to a brash, querulous soldier. He is physically mature as indicated by the full beard. Despite physical maturity, the soldier displays very juvenile qualities. The language of soldiers is notoriously salty - "full of strange oaths," as the poet puts it. He guards the good name (arete) he has acquired through his military ventures jealously. Though he is an adult the soldier lacks judgement, therefore, quick to get into fights. He would not hesitate to undertake any dangerous mission in order to earn worthless praise.
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.
In the Fifth Act the soldier has become a justice. One could be forgiven for wondering what possible traits has enabled the soldier to become a justice.
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.
As a justice, the man is trying hard to project himself as a mature, respectable and knowledgeable person. He has cultivated his outer appearance in order to project the qualities he wants the world to see in him.
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.
An old man shuffles on to the stage opening the sixth stage. The powerful physique is a thing of the past. The well-preserved clothes of his youth do not fit his shrunken frame. The manly voice he has used to such a good effect in his youth to sing ballads and later to swear and quarrel as a soldier too is a thing of the past. The awe-inspiring voice has started to turn “towards childish treble” and it “pipes and whistles” like a dysfunctional billows. Not at all an impressive sight!
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
During the last age of a person’s life he slips back into his childhood both physically and mentally. He loses control over all his bodily functions and has to be taken care of like a child. Old people are often absent-minded. As a result they become nonentities in the eyes of family and society at large. They lose everything they have gathered throughout their lifetimes when they become too senile to control them. In the end they die the same way they came into the world, alone and empty-handed.
It is quite clear that the character Jacques/the poet has understood the all too impermanent nature of life. He observes all the strutting and posturing people do with utter detachment. It is as if he pities his fellow mankind. His observations are cynical and sarcastic. By likening the cycle of life to seven acts in a drama, Shakespeare has highlighted the transient nature of life beautifully.