The Seven Ages of Man: Summary & Analysis

The Seven Ages of Man by William Shakespeare

Introduction:

The Seven Ages of Man, also known as “All the world’s a stage” is a dialogue from the English playwright William Shakespeare’s comedy ‘As you like it.’ The dialogue takes place in Scene VII of Act 2 where the dreamy philosopher Jacques is talking to Duke Senior and Orlando in the forest of Arden. They’re having dinner when Duke Senior confesses to Jacques that he and his men are alone and unhappy whereas the whole world is full of joy.

The ‘Seven ages of man’ is the reply Jacques gives to Duke Senior. The purpose of this reply is partly to console the sad Duke Senior and partly to tell the audience of the play that unhappiness is a part of life and that we all go through certain stages of life. The extract is also regarded as the character’s comment on the futility of life.

The ‘ages of man’ was already a beaten-up topic in Shakespeare’s time, so this verse didn’t really have the kind of popularity it has today. Aristotle had proposed four ages of man and the idea was around for a long time since then. What’s new in Shakespeare’s version of the ages of man is that he divides them in seven ages, whereas it was common for earlier writers and philosophers to divide life in three and four ages.

We also see a similar and more familiar system of ages or stages of life in the Indian philosophy, particularly that of the Nyaya System called ‘Ashrama Dharma’ where the life of a man was divided into four ages, namely Brahmacharya-ashrama, Grihasta-ashrama, Vanaprasta-ashrama, and Sanyas-ashrama.

Theme of the Poem:

The poem is a philosophical reflection on life and our role in it. It breaks down the complexities of human life into exceedingly simple stages and makes a sweeping generalization as to the manner in which an individual progresses in life. The entirety of Human life and the poet’s view on it is covered in the dialogue of Jacques in merely seven sentences.

The dialogue stands as a strong case for the poet’s argument of the futility of life. We see this emotion well explored in the play. For instance, we see in the same scene the line ‘And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot, and thereby hangs a tale.’ This all the more validates the sentiment of futility of life expressed in the dialogue.

Technical Aspects and Form:

Rhyme: The dialogue has no rhyme scheme. There is no presence of internal rhymes. The lack of this is, however, more than made up by the prodigal use of alliteration and repetition. Shakespeare focuses more on the message of the dialogue rather than on the meter and rhyme here.

We can however see a repetition of consonant sounds throughout the poem. Men, merely, man, many, mewling, morning, etc. and players, plays, parts, puking, etc. are the prominent examples. Similarly, the final line is the best example of repetition used to emphasize and dramatize a single sentence where the word ‘sans’ is repeated four times for greater poetic effect.

Rhythm:

A quick scansion reveals that the poem has no traditional metre which is followed throughout the poem. However, it is interesting to note that a single line contains about 10 to 11 syllables with the exception of the first line. We also see a stressed and unstressed syllable alternation throughout the poem, but the feet don’t form a uniform metre in the dialogue.

Figures of speech:

The dialogue is full of figures of speech as one would expect. Some of them are enlisted as under with their most prominent examples.

Metaphor: The dialogue starts with the phrase ‘All the world’s a stage’ which is a widely acclaimed example of a metaphor where this world is compared to a stage and the people are to actors.

Antithesis: In the third line we see the words ‘exits’ and ‘entrances’ in the same line forming an example of antithesis.

Simile: ‘Creeping like snail’, ‘sighing like a furnace’ and ‘bearded like a pard’ are the examples of simile in the text of the dialogue.

Line-by-line explanation of the poem

“All the world’s a stage,”

This is a famous and oft quoted line and has many implications. Shakespeare is comparing the world to a stage which must’ve naturally appealed to him since he was a playwright. The idea of the world as a stage was also around before Shakespeare and was made popular by Richard Edwardes. He finds a similarity between the world and the stage as in the stage is full of action just like the world.

“All men and women are merely players.”

Shakespeare says that all men and women are actors on the stage of the world in the play of life. The words ‘merely’ tells us that he regards a singular human life very small and inconsequential in the grand expanse of the world. It also alludes to the writer’s belief in some kind of world order, maybe nature or nature’s god, before which we are trivial beings. We observe a feeling of vanity and existential crisis in the character’s voice.

“They have their exits and entrances.”

The speaker is talking about life and death and how they are inevitable. What we should pay attention to here is the plural form of the words ‘exits’ and ‘entrances.’ The speaker isn’t talking only about life and death. He is talking about human relationships as well. People come and go in our lives, relations are made, broken and re-established. Further what is truly noteworthy is that the speaker puts exits before entrances, which gives off the somber mood of character and the scene in general.

“And one man in his time plays many parts. His acts being seven ages.”

The first part of this line says that a man plays many parts throughout his lifetime. The word ‘parts’ is not only restricted to the ages, but has a broader connotation. It means the different roles we play in life as a child, a parent, a sibling, a spouse, etc. The latter part of the line says that a person plays these several parts stretched over seven acts which are seven different ages. This is again a Play analogy. We see a clever association between plays and life in this introductory part of the dialogue.

THE AGES:

The Seven stages of a man’s life according to Shakespeare are as follows:

Stage One: Infancy

“At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.”

The first stage of life is birth. All life begins with birth. When a child is born, it is completely oblivious to the cares of the world. Infants don’t do much; they are dependent on their mother and caretakers. So, we see that the speaker establishes the first stage of life as the stage of dependency. Infants have no other way of calling out other than their cry. Also, they cannot eat and are dependent on their mother’s milk. They often vomit.

In England of Shakespeare’s times babies were delivered at home by nurses. The mewling and puking in nurse’s arms sets a scene of a child born moments ago. But this stage is not just limited to the time period of birth. This stage of life extend till the infant is old enough to go to school.

Stage two: Childhood

“Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.”

The infant grows into a child. He no longer needs the complete attention of his parents and custodians and they send him to school to educate him in the ways of the world. But the infant who has seen only love and adoration from his immediate environment looks reluctantly towards this change. He whines and cries and throws tantrums to avoid separation from his parents. The parents, however know what is best for their ward and they force him to go to school. They dress him in the school uniform and give him a satchel and make him ready for school. The little child however is unwilling to go to school.

This description of the second stage of a person’s life is again a generalisation by the writer as even in his time it was only a select few who could afford education. Most of the children were either home-schooled or learned their way about the world from observation.

Stage three: Adolescence

“And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.”

Next, the educated youth is in the height of teenage when adolescence sets in. The erstwhile child now weaves the dreams of love. He witnesses new changes in his mind and body and feels differently than he’s done before. His heart is set on love and he pines for his mistress. He writes and sings sad ballads for his mistress, exalting her beauty and form. For the lover the world is all roses and cherry blossom; he sees beauty in every aspect of life. This is the period in a person’s life when he witnesses beauty and the feeling of amorous love and infatuation.

We should also try not to forget here that the male lead of the play Orlando is in the third age of his life. We can see it from the fact that he is deeply in love with Rosalind who is the protagonist of the play, but is unsuccessful in expressing his love for her.

Stage Four: Youth

“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.”

The next age is that of a young soldier. The tender lover slowly transforms into a soldier — a soldier in the battlefield of life. Soldiers take up strange oaths of allegiance and honour and live by them. The speaker says that a soldier is bearded like a Panther. He is courageous, and full of vigour with a never-back-down kind of attitude. They zealously protect their honour and don’t hesitate to quarrel in proving their point.

At this stage of life, honour and reputation are very valuable to them and they will ever prefer death to guard their reputation. Thus, this age is marked with courage and vigour and is the stage of life when a youth becomes a man.

Stage Five: Mid-Life

“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.”

Then the soldier, as he goes into middle-age, is seen as a judge passing on judgement and protecting the people with law and order. This again is a generalisation; the professions chosen by Shakespeare in the dialogue are not necessarily how people lived their life, nor is it any indicator that the same order is followed in the professions.

The justice is shown as round-bellied, well-to-do man; eating chicken which the speaker humorously says is lined in his belly in the form of fat. His eyes are severe and his beard is of a formal cut, which suggests his stern nature. He is full of wisdom and modern examples where they are relevant; he carries about his part imparting knowledge and carrying out the duty of justice.

Stage Six: Senescence

“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.”

The sixth age, according to the speaker is the entry of the middle-aged man into senescence. The person progressively becomes lean and frail. He looks like an old fool (pantaloon) in his ragged slippers (slippered). The old age comes with a gradual weakening of the senses. An old man is often seen wearing corrective glasses and pouch on their side to carry their items.

The youthful sinewy frame of the soldier now reduces to the lean and bony stature of the old man. The speaker makes a humorous comment that the person’s shrunken bottom saves a wide space for his equally shrunken legs in his hose. That is just another way to say that the person becomes slim and lank. The once roaring and manly voice of the soldier and the authoritative voice of the justice reduces in pitch and volume, becoming something akin to child-like in the old man. His voice whistles as he talks. We see the effect of time and age upon a person.

Stage seven: Dotage

“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

The last of the ages is dotage leading into the finality of death. The speaker calls it the ‘last scene of all’ in the play of the person’s life on the stage of the world. We see a continuation of the metaphor developed in the former lines of the dialogue in this final section. Shakespeare calls this journey of a person through the seven ages a strange and eventful history. He describes this final stage of life as a second childishness where the person enters into oblivion. Dotage causes a loss of all senses and the person is left with nothing. We see a return to dependency in this stage of life.

The final line is characteristic as it represents the negative aspect of life and can be related to biblical references. It is argued that Shakespeare chose the seven stages of life to mimic the biblical reference to the seven deadly sins, and in that respect the ‘sans everything’ phase can be regarded as an experience of hellish life. Thus, from Jacques’ soliloquy we witness a journey from infancy to infirmity through the seven ages of man.