The poem “The Seven Ages of Man” is a part of the play “As You Like It“, where Jacques makes a dramatic speech in the presence of the Duke in Act II, Scene VII. Through the voice of Jacques, Shakespeare sends out a profound message about life and our role in it.
Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and 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 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 lin’d,
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 sav’d, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards 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 drama of life, each one of us plays seven distinct roles. This, the author says, is the Seven Ages of Man. These seven roles begin at birth and end with death.
Stage 1: Infancy
Birthmarks the entry of man in the first stage of life. An infant in the caretaker’s arms is just a helpless child learning to survive. Babies communicate with us through their cries. Having been nourished in the womb of the mother, the baby learns to accept breast milk as its first food. Vomiting is common among all babies. Once a baby is breastfed, you need to burp the baby. In the process, babies throw up some milk. Since babies do nothing most of the day, other than crying and spitting up after feeding, Shakespeare says that the first stage of life is marked by these two activities.
Babies have been perceived as cute since the beginning of time. They feed and spit-up, and between these two activities, they also cry. A lot. Young parents know the drill even before they become parents. While babies continue to be puking and mewling little adorable beings, the difference between then and now is that raising babies is a concerted effort between the parents.
Stage 2: Schoolboy
At this stage of life, the child is introduced to the world of discipline, order, and routine. The carefree days of infancy are over, and schooling brings about a regimen in the life of a child. Naturally, the child takes to whining and complaining about the forced routine.
The concept of schooling has seen a great change since the time of Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s time, school was a forced practice usually overseen by the church. Depending on the status of the parents, a child went to either a grammar school or a monastic school. School began at sunrise and lasted the whole day. Punishments were common, and often harsh.
Modern schools are quite unlike their ancient counterparts. While some kids still whine and complain about going to school, many actually love school because of the “play while you learn” approach to schooling. Modern-day schools have taken a holistic approach to education. Children are taught through role-plays, visual presentations, demonstrations, and games. Homeschooling is another option that most parents prefer to formal schooling. Also, with the abundance of online resources, modern education has extended the boundaries of learning.
Stage 3: Teenager
Teenagers in medieval times were accustomed to the social etiquette of wooing a lady. The teenager during Shakespeare’s time pined for his lover, wrote elaborate verses of love ballads, and mooned over his object of desire. “Romeo and Juliet“ is an icon of romance during the period of Shakespeare’s. Love was sensual, deep, romantic, and full of grace and beauty.
Compare this love to the teen love of today. The modern age teen is technically savvy, well-informed, and romantically astute. They don’t express their love in amorous love letters. Who does that in the age of texting and social media? Relationships are not as elaborate, or romantic as they were for the medieval teenager. The youth of today is far more individual-centric and independent than those in Shakespeare’s time. Back in those days, relationships were nurtured towards matrimony. Nowadays, marriage is not necessarily the goal of every romantic affiliation, there is more sexual expression and less adherence to social structures such as monogamy.
However, despite all these differences, the teenager of today is as angsty as the teenager of the medieval time. They have to deal with unrequited love, heartbreak, and depression just as those in ancient times.
Stage 4: Youth
The next stage Shakespeare talks about in the poem is that of a young soldier. In old England, young men were trained for combat. The young soldier developed an attitude of brash courage, raw passion mixed with the impetuous temper that is characterized by unwarranted rebellion.
The youth of today have the same zeal and energy for rebellion. They are far more expressive, vocal, and assertive about their rights. Though the youth of today would not necessarily be enlisted for service in the army, they have enough avenues to form social groups to fight for a political or social cause. With social media platforms and the global reach of mass media, the young can reach their voice to the far corners of the world. A widespread reaction is almost instantaneous because of the global reach and effectiveness of propaganda.
Stage 5: Middle Age
Middle age has hardly changed over the centuries. Middle age is the time when men and women settle down, and kids, family, and career take precedence over personal indulgences. Age brings wisdom and a sense of peaceful acceptance of realities of life. Idealistic values get pushed behind, while practical considerations become important. While the middle-aged man (and woman) of today have more options to further personal or professional interests, perhaps the medieval middle-aged man had fewer such options, and, not surprisingly, even less so the medieval woman.
Stage 6: Old Age
In medieval times, life expectancy hovered around 40, and a man of 50 would consider himself lucky to be alive. Depending on the social or economic class of the person, old age could be harsh or at best, ambivalent. Though the old were respected for their wisdom and experience, most old people suffered due to neglect and degeneration of physical and mental faculties. Those who were oriented towards religious pursuits fared better than the household man.
Today, life is alive and vibrant for a 40-year-old. Many senior aged people (starting in their 70s) in the modern era are still actively involved in social activities, secondary occupations, or hobbies. Also, there are good retirement plans and financial devices available to make old age comfortable. It is not so uncommon for a healthy and young-at-heart senior citizen to go on a trip around the world, enjoy gardening or golf, or even continue to work or pursue higher education if they so desire.
Stage 7: Extreme Old Age
What Shakespeare talks about in this stage of man is an extreme form of aging, where the person is no longer able to perform basic tasks such as bathing, eating, and going to the toilet. Physical frailty and incapacity no longer allow them the freedom to live unassisted. During Shakespeare’s time, it was quite okay to treat old people as “senile.” In fact, in the Elizabethan era, where enslavement and discrimination against women were highly prevalent, ageism was hardly considered a problem. Old people were treated as “little children,” and as Shakespeare describes this stage as a second childhood, it was socially acceptable to treat the old with disdain.
Today’s modern society is more humane and sensitive to seniors. Though ageism still exists and is prevalent in many spheres, with growing awareness, seniors “sans teeth, sans eyes, and sans taste” still live with the dignity that ought to be afforded to the elderly.