Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage"

Updated on September 7, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17 Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

A Poem Excised From a Play

The title of this article follows the same rule for titling untitled sonnets: "When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text." APA does not address this issue.

Introduction and Text of "All the world's a stage"

Before beginning his heady analysis of the seven ages through which each human being's life develops, the character named Jaques begins his extended metaphor playing on the word "stage" by asserting, "All the word's a stage."

Jaques bangs on with the theater metaphor, claiming, "And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances."

Spotlighting an example man, he states that this "anyman," or perhaps, "everyman," is likely to "play many parts" in the play. Each act of each human being's life may be thought of as an age, of which there are seven successive stages.

Jaques to Duke Senior

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.

Recitation of "All the world's a stage" by Morgan Freeman

Commentary

According to the Shakespeare character, Jaques, in the play, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, a man's lifetime undergoes seven distinct ages.

First Movement: A No-Accomplishment Baby

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

Naturally and expectedly, the first age of a man's life is infancy. As a baby, a man acquires no accomplishments. In fact, he does little more than "mewl" and "puke" in the arms of a nurse.

By stating that the infant is cared for by a "nurse," the character reveals his level of aristocracy. A lower-class infant would be cared for by his mother.

Second Movement: Educated Against His Will

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

After infancy, this anyman passes into the stage of a "whining schoolboy." Pessimistically, the speaker paints a dire picture of this stage of life. This lousy little school kid bops off to school against his will.

The boy possesses a shiny face, scrubbed clean by his nurse, of course—or mother if he happens to be lower-class. The boy creeps toward the school "like a snail," no doubt hating every step, wishing he were going anywhere else.

Third Movement: Of Heaving Breath

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

The lover's character seems more pleasing than the mewling, vomiting infant and the snotty-nosed little school-hating school-boy. But the lover's his behavior bears a resemblance to a "sighing" "furnace." The horny youth warbles a "woeful ballad / Made to his mistress' eyebrow," in his often vain attempt at seduction.

Jaques' focus on the "mistress' eyebrow," an inconsequential item on the face, reveals a lack of inspiration—that same lack he seems to be exhibiting for each stage of man's existence.

Fourth Movement: Feeding the Ego

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.

At this stage, the man becomes full of himself, as he goes in search of a reputation, even though it may be one that bursts as easily as a bubble. The man then takes "strange oaths," while wearing his facial hair "like a pard." Negativity sets in as he becomes "jealous in honour" and also "sudden and quick in quarrel."

Jaques decides that looking into the mouth of a cannon is an unsuitable place to establish a stellar reputation. It needs to be kept in mind that these ages of man's life and their evaluations are just the opinion of this speaker who is making these descriptions.

Fifth Movement: Only Playing a Part

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.

By the fifth age, the man is accumulating body flesh as he undergoes the unpleasant increase often called "middle-age spread." The unlucky bugger sports a "fair round belly." The man's eyes have become "severe." He wears his beard trimmed short, which contrasts with the soldier's scruff of a beard.

While the man at this state may seem capable of spouting wise aphorisms, Jaques does not take such wisdom seriously, asserting that the man is only playing "his part" in this life as a play where "all the world's a stage."

Sixth Movement: The Return of the Schoolboy

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.

As chronological age has moved the man forward, he lands on the stage where he has difficulty even maintaining his earlier activities. He no longer fits into his clothes because he has become thin, losing that round belly from before.

The man at this advanced stage sports glasses to assist his failing vision. With his shrinking body, even his voice is undergoing a transformation from its "manly" huskiness to that of a childish whine, reminiscent of the schoolboy.

Seven Movement: The "Sans" Man

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

Jaques, who is after all French, then calls the last stage one wherein the man is "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." Without all his adult features and qualities, this man is now reduced to a "second childhood."

Each stage has produced a progression leading to a state of virtual nothingness, or worse—a man, who has become a pathetic child, returning to near infancy from where he started.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Questions & Answers

  • Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage" features an extended metaphor for what?

    The speaker of the poem is metaphorically comparing a human being's lifetime to that of an actor on a stage. The human being experiences seven "stage" or ages of life, as s/he journeys from birth to death.

  • Why does Shakespeare call the world "a stage"?

    According to the Shakespeare character, Jaques, in the play, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, a man's lifetime undergoes seven distinct ages. Before beginning his heady analysis of the seven ages through which each human being's life develops, the character named Jaques begins his extended metaphor playing on the word "stage" by asserting, "All the world's a stage." Jaques continues with the theater metaphor, claiming, "And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances." He then offers an example as he states that this "anyman," or perhaps, "everyman," is likely to "play many parts" in the play. Each act of each human being's life may be thought of as an age, of which there are seven successive stages.

  • What are some supportive points that support Shakespeare saying that society is a world stage in "All the world's a stage"?

    Spotlighting an example man, Jaques states that this "anyman," or perhaps, "everyman," is likely to "play many parts" in the play. Each act of each human being's life may be thought of as an age, of which there are seven successive stages.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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