“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare: All the World’s a Stage

This was my first time reading this play, although I did see it performed on stage once. The play is fun and whimsical, and pretty accessible. Anyway, I figured for this post I would focus on one passage, possibly the most well-known from this particular play.

DUKE SENIOR

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.

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,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, 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 honour, 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 slipper’d 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.

(Act II; scene vii)

Let’s begin with the Duke’s lead in. He mentions “This wide and universal theatre” which in a way is almost a triple entendre. On one level, he is referring to Earth, the theatre on which we all live out our lives. But also, I would assert that a reference is being made to the cosmic play being acted out in the heavens. In Elizabethan England, the concept of the Great Chain of Being was a central tenet, basically asserting that what happens on Earth is a reflection of what is happening in the divine realm, and vice-versa. And finally, Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the Globe Theatre, and this appears to be an allusion to the Globe where the play would have been performed.

Now, Jaques’ response is a brilliant piece of writing, and if I wanted to, I could go line by line and tease out all the symbolism and metaphors, but instead, I want to hone this down and focus solely on the symbolism of the number seven. First off, if you are astute, you will have noticed that this passage occurs in Scene 7 of Act 2, something that I doubt is a coincidence. The next thing to note is that Jaques states “And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages.” He goes on to explain the seven stages of human development, which culminate in the final stage where man returns to “second childishness and mere oblivion,” implying the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.

Now, if we remember the concept of the Great Chain of Being, we are immediately reminded of God’s divine play in which he creates the world (or the Globe) in seven days, or in seven scenes. The correlation is being established between the seven stages of a human lifespan and the seven days of creation.

Finally, there is another level of significance for the number seven that I feel connects the divine with the mundane, and that is the known heavenly spheres, which were believed to have influence over the events on Earth. At the time Shakespeare was writing, there were seven known heavenly spheres: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The movement of these seven spheres created what was thought of as the Music of the Spheres, a philosophical concept that was prevalent in Shakespeare’s time.

The musica universalis (literally universal music), also called music of the spheres or harmony of the spheres, is an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—the Sun, Moon, and planets—as a form of music. This “music” is not thought to be audible, but rather a harmonic, mathematical or religious concept. The idea continued to appeal to scholars until the end of the Renaissance, influencing many kinds of scholars, including humanists.

(Source: Wikipedia)

I hope I didn’t go too far down the rabbit hole in my analysis. As I said earlier on, this really is a fun and accessible play, which is both witty and romantic. If you have not read it or seen it performed, I encourage you to do so. Thanks for stopping by, and have an amazing day.

8 Comments

Filed under Literature

8 responses to ““As You Like It” by William Shakespeare: All the World’s a Stage

  1. I wonder if Peart got this title for the first Rush live album?
    Crazy to think how old these stories are and yet they live on. I sure wish I know back in high school as you could have figured this stuff out for me! lol

    Stay safe Brother Jeff to you and your family.

    • Oh yes, Neil was very much referring to this passage. He was extremely well-read and and often made references to literature such as Shakespeare. Even more of a direct reference is “Limelight.”

      All the world’s indeed a stage
      And we are merely players
      Performers and portrayers
      Each another’s audience
      Outside the gilded cage

      I will give you one more Shakespeare plug. Have you ever realized that “The Lion King” is Disney’s version of “Hamlet”? The king is killed by his brother, who usurps the throne, taking the queen as his wife. Then the ghost of the dead king appears to the son (Hamlet/Simba) and prompts him to avenge his death. Shakespeare influences so much of our culture, it’s not even funny.

      Anyway, getting off the soap box. Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe!

  2. I haven’t seen As You Like It but vaguely ‘know’ the quotes you have focused on. It has always fascinated me how much so many of Shakespeare’s lines are in everyday use. I had a conversation with a friend sometime ago, she told me that she couldn’t get to grips with Shakespeare because of the language. I somewhat triumphantly pointed out in the 2 hours together she had used three lines from his work, including”All the world’s a stage”. She gracefully accepted that that was the case. I will be reading As You Like It during the lockdown.

    • Hi DQ. I hope you and your family are well.

      First, I want to say that every time I see that you left a comment, I get excited. You always leave thoughtful and insightful comments and I really appreciate and enjoy the dialog.

      That said, you are so spot on. Shakespeare’s quotes have so become a part of our global consciousness. And as far as people being hesitant to engage w Shakespeare, I think it has a lot to do with this image of Shakespeare being “high literature” when actually what he wrote was intended for common folk and not the intelligencia. Which is why I generally recommend non- lit folks watch a film or play instead of trying to read the text. These plays were meant to be performed.

      Anyway, it’s early here and I need to get my morning meditation in. Thanks for your support and I hope you and your loved ones stay safe and healthy.

      Jeff

  3. Well there is a language problem with Shakespeare’s 16th century English for many listeners/readers: archaic words and words and images that presumably meant something different to his original audience, and there’s a complexity of syntax often too. The garden variety Shakespeare sonnet, beyond some of his “greatest hits,” will puzzle many as to what he’s getting at.

    I don’t think the density of images is a big problem for moderns though (no matter where one sets as the value of a contemporary fast hip hop flow, the shear number of images and allusions can be staggering) Shakespeare has another great advantage, in that as a playwright, a great many skilled actors and theater people get to work on inhabiting and illuminating his texts, which can help considerably with the more difficult sections.

    There are passages, like the one in your post, that are easy for most to draw meaning from, even on the page. There’s your Shakespeare “gateway drug.”

    • Great comment Frank. I totally agree that great actors can open a play and provide imagery that makes the text come alive for the audience. I will also add that a little effort on the part of the reader/audience might be a good thing. It fosters critical thinking, something our world could use a little more of these days. Anyway, thank you for taking the time to share such a thoughtful comment. I hope you and your family are safe. Cheers!

  4. Pingback: The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare | Stuff Jeff Reads

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