Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It
Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It

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Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It

2.1 Passage 1: ‘All the world’s a stage’

In the first activity, you will be digging into the details of one of the most famous passages in all of world literature: the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech, with its celebrated opening line ‘All the world’s a stage’. You will be using your initial response to the speech as a starting point for detailed critical analysis.

Activity 1

Read the passage below, the ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech from Act 2, Scene 7 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] of the play. The numbered footnotes in the extract below can be accessed by clicking here: Passage 1 footnotes. If you would like to view text and footnotes together, you can do so on the Internet Shakespeare Editions website (lines 1118–1145, with notes indicated by the green underlining).

These lines, some of the most famous ever written by Shakespeare, are delivered in As You Like It by a cynical courtier, Jaques. Jaques has fled into the Forest of Arden with his master, Duke Senior, after the overthrow of Senior by his villainous brother Frederick. Immediately before this speech, Orlando, the hero of As You Like It, has interrupted the good old Duke and his courtiers at their forest meal. Orlando himself has just been banished by Duke Frederick, and he and his companion, the old servant Adam, are starving and desperate for help. As Orlando goes off to fetch Adam, the Duke points out to Jaques that the arrival of Adam and Orlando has shown that other people are as unfortunate as themselves:

Thou see’st we are not all alone unhappy:

This wide and universal theatre

Presents more woeful pageants than the scene

Wherein we play in.

This theatrical metaphor prompts the glorious set-piece speech from Jaques that follows. As you read the speech, think about the following question:

Can you characterise the overall tone of this speech? Is it jokey? Or serious? Or both? What details in the speech would you say have contributed to this tone?

When you have finished, click ‘Reveal discussion’.

JAQUES

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,

Mewling1 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 pard2,

Jealous in honour3, sudden4, and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice5,

In fair round belly with good capon6 lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws7 and modern instances8;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon9,

With spectacles on nose and pouch10 on side,

His youthful hose11, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank12; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes13

And whistles in his14 sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history15,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans16 teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Discussion

This is certainly the play’s most quoted moment. The idea of the world being like a stage has numerous sources (as you will see if you have a look at the Internet Shakespeare note on this speech); it may also be that Shakespeare is in part defending his own craft of acting against Puritan objections to the theatre as a place of immorality by highlighting the universal nature of acting and role-play.

The dramatic context is a serious one: you will remember that the occasion for the speech is the Duke’s observation that there are many ‘woeful pageants’ in the world. There are light moments in Jaques’s speech, however. There is an amusing contrast between the snail-like schoolboy’s ‘whining’ as he goes ‘Unwillingly to school’ and his scrubbed-up ‘shining’ face (a contrast highlighted by the rhyme), while the lover certainly seems a comical figure, with his ‘woeful ballad/Made to his mistress' eyebrow’. What could be sillier than writing love poems to an eyebrow? (We find out a little bit later on in As You Like It when we hear the trite love poems that Orlando writes to Rosalind [Act 3, Scene 2].) The dominant tone, however, is sharply critical: Jaques seems to unpick the pretentions of all seven of the ‘ages of man’ that feature in the speech and hold them up to ridicule. Much of the time he focuses on appearances: the beards of the soldier and the justice and the ludicrously enormous trousers of the old man (the ‘pantaloon’), carefully and uselessly kept since youth. The futile martial ‘reputation’ that means so much to the soldier is dismissed by being compared with an evanescent ‘bubble’ disappearing as it swells. Throughout, Jaques is a sceptical observer, looking scornfully on an absurd set of figures as if a spectator at a play. The one reference to theatrical matters in the main body of the speech is telling: ‘And so he plays his part’ follows on immediately from the evocation of a supposedly wise, settled middle-aged man, the justice. Jaques undermines the justice's ‘eyes severe’ and ‘wise saws’ by describing them simply as ‘his part’. Earlier on, in Act 2, Scene 1, Jaques’s employer, the good old Duke, has been full of wise sayings, minting moral insights from his group’s isolation in the forest: ‘this our life’, he says, ‘exempt from public haunt [cut off from the crowds] / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything’. Is Jaques implicitly criticising the Duke here? And himself? What is ‘All’s the world’s stage’ but a collection of wise sayings and examples?

Jaques’s cynical approach owes much to contemporary verse satire, a genre which was so controversial in Shakespeare’s day that in June 1599, very close in time to the first performances of As You Like It, the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered that a list of nine books of this sort be censored: seven were burned. Elizabethan society was, like the wicked Duke Frederick’s court, authoritarian. It tried to control what people read and so what they might think; in such contexts, writing satire could easily land the unwary writer in trouble.

The grimmest part of Jaques’s speech is the seventh age, with its depiction of senility as a gradual withdrawal from all the good things in human life: it is ‘second childishness and mere oblivion,/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’. What’s noticeable here is that we have moved away from the vivid pictures – the spectators’ views – that characterise the rest of the speech. Instead, the focus is on the perceptions (taste, sight) of the individual scrutinised, or, more accurately, its absence. We have moved away from physical appearance into nothingness. Overall, Jaques offers a sombre, perhaps even a tragic, vision, and hints at the potential seriousness of the play we are studying.

The play as a whole invites us to consider Jaques on a number of levels. On the one hand, as the moralist of this ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech (and of others), he is a self-conscious outsider, who frequently appears ridiculous in the theatre. His name was possibly pronounced ‘jakes’, which would have made a pun on the Elizabethan slang for ‘toilet’ (Shakespeare, 2009, pp. 87–8). In this spirit, the critic C. L. Barber views him as a character who is designed to stand outside society: ‘Jaques’ factitious melancholy [. . .] serves primarily to set him at odds both with society and with Arden and so motivate contemplative mockery’ (Barber, 1972 [1959], p. 228). He is a figure of fun because he is an outsider. On the other hand, at key moments, he offers a provocative counterpoint to the conventions of love. Towards the end of the play, as the lovers all pair off and head for marriage, Jaques, in love with nobody, unpartnered, bids farewell to everyone else on stage, allocating each to her or his own ‘happy ever after’ and ends by saying ‘So to your pleasures / I am for other than dancing measures’ (Act 5, Scene 4). While the play as a whole is finally more on the side of the social lives of the lovers, Jaques’s exit at this point, denying the ‘dancing measures’ of romantic convention, is surely more complex than that of a laughing stock whose actions the audience should reject.

‘All the world’s a stage’ is clearly a set-piece speech. Even when spoken as part of a performance of As You Like It, it has a tendency to stand apart from the surrounding action. The next extract you will read is very different. There are two speakers and you will find that the feeling of the extract is quite different from Jaques’s satiric survey of the ‘ages of man’.

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