‘All the world’s a stage’ is the opening line from a monologue by a character, Jaques, in Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It. Through Jaques, Shakespeare takes the audience on a journey of the complete lifecycle of a human being, made particularly vivid by its visual images of the different stages of an Elizabethan’s life. The famous monologue is also known as ‘The Seven Ages of Man.’
‘All the world’s a stage’ monologue, spoken by Jaques, Act 2 Scene 7
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.
Then the whining schoolboy, 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 honor, 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 lined,
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 slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, 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.
In this monologue, Shakespeare is seeing life as a drama acted out on a stage in a theatre. Each phase of life is an act in the drama.
Shakespeare knew or understood a lot about many things. He knew about the lives of monarchs and the way they operate – what goes on in their private and public lives; he knew about low life in the inns and taverns of London, and he knew about the lives of rural folk. He knew about warfare and diplomacy and he knew much more.
However, he often used his own specific area of expertise – the theatre – as fodder for his poetry. None of his plays are actually about the theatre, although A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a play production at its centre, and there is the famous play-within-the-play in Hamlet, but he uses the theatre more as a source for the imagery in the language of his plays – for making poetry. He does that over and over again. This monologue is probably his most famous poetic allusion to the theatre because it is a view of the whole of life as a play.
Of course, the monologue is not actually about the theatre. The theatrical reference is just a way of introducing what Shakespeare really wants to convey, which is an outline of a man’s journey from birth to the grave. He does that magnificently, from vivid images of a healthy baby to the very sad descent into oblivion, ‘sans everything’ – of an old man with nothing left of his life.
The idea of a man’s life being no more than a brief appearance on a stage is something that fascinated Shakespeare. Macbeth sees his life in that way – you strut about and stress on the stage but all those passions and, indeed, everything you do in life, is meaningless, as at the end of that you just disappear. Like an actor anguishing on the stage over the trials of life, with great passion, and then, after the performance, just going home to resume his normal life.
It’s a religious idea in a way. An actor playing out the human drama is only an actor. At the end of the show he resumes a different, more permanent, life – an afterlife – and what he has done on the stage, in other words, in his life, is just an act. Real life lies beyond that.