‘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 woeful ballad. Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard… 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. In second childishness and mere oblivion. Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything…’
As You Like It, written by the great bard himself, William Shakespeare. I must admit, I don’t know a lot about Shakespeare. In fact, I imagine the Americans probably know more than the British do, mainly because we have a total disregard for our heritage. Even the schools are at it. No, really. My school never bothered with Shakespeare and just showed us some movies, instead. Translated of course, into modern English. Wasn’t quite as romantic, must be said. Ha, I remember this one moment in one movie where this guy was with a girl and… I can’t finish that story, come to think of it. It’s too early for it…
As You Like It was a comedy written at some point, but we don’t know when because let’s face it, historians aren’t really bothered. It was Shakespeare’s 23rd and followed the heroine Rosalind as she fled persecution in her uncle’s court, accompanied by cousin Celia to find safety and, eventually, love, in the Forest of Arden. None of this is a euphemism. It was there where she met Jaques, who uttered many of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. All the world’s a stage. Too much of a good thing. A fool! A fool! I met a fool in the forest! No, I… I don’t think that one is strictly relevant anymore, but hey-ho.
The play wasn’t well loved, with many saying it was of a lesser quality to Shakespeare’s other works. Others, however, stand firm in their belief that this is one of Shakespeare’s finest plays. Most people who read it think so, of which I am not one because… did I mention how shit my school was, especially regarding Shakespeare? If there wasn’t a movie of it and if said movie didn’t have nudity and swearing in it, they wouldn’t show us it…
The speech compares the world to a stage and life to a play, cataloguing the seven stages of a man’s life: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, Pantalone and old age, facing imminent death. It’s powerful stuff. But comparing the world to a stage wasn’t a Shakespearean creation. In Richard Edwardes’s Damon and Pythias, we have this: ‘Pythagoras said that this world was like a stage, whereon many play their parts; the lookers-on, the sage.’ In Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly, we have, ‘For what else is the life of man but a kind of play in which men in various costumes perform until the director motions them off the stage.’ Shakespeare himself even referred to this in an earlier work, The Merchant of Venice, no less. ‘I hold the world but as the world… a stage where every man must play a part. And mine, a sad one.’ Awww, diddums…
The concept Shakespeare is talking about here is a powerful one indeed, exceptionally striking. The Earth re-imagined as a theatre stage on which various characters appear for a short while, emptying out to make way for a new production. For me, it’s Shakespeare’s most potent image. In it, he is drawing our attention toward a drama that everyone lives and must live in each and every day. He reduces our very existence to a performance, that we are all players playing allotted roles in our everyday lives. That we are acting out the roles we are given. The role of a soldier is the example Shakespeare gives us, but equally, it could be one’s performance as a frozen pea tester. That is a real job, Google it…
Many have remarked that Shakespeare here is being a massive miserable git, and it’s a sentiment we all must surely share. He has reduced life to the role of an actor. The first stage is that of an infant. Puking in the nurse’s arms. The second, a child ‘creeping like a snail unwillingly to school.’ The third, bringing us before a love singing woeful ballads for his beloved. Soldier, the fourth stage, when we seek fame despite its short-lived and temporary nature. Even endangering our lives for this goal. Fifth is the middle aged man, a round belly to boot. In the sixth age, man becomes weak. His voice not clear due to a loss of teeth. And the final stage, a miserable and rotten existence, old and frail. No relations still alive. He has lost it all. When man feels like life is nothing except for loss and yearning for a past life.
A cheery number, isn’t it?
Shakespeare wants us to believe that we fall into those categories. But if one is that old man, Shakespeare is saying that he no longer serves a purpose, harsh in the extreme. We are all the same living off a state of dependency on the stage of life that is our world. Breaking down human life to a cheap generalisation of seven stages and little more. That the ultimate loser in life is man. That life is nothing but a shadow and that the years we are given are few in number. But is all this utter nonsense, or was Shakespeare on to something?
As a man burdened with social anxiety, I come at this from a very difference angle. You see, to me, life is a stage, but perhaps not how Shakespeare intended it. I don’t believe in the seven stages, but perhaps more out of ignorance of the truth than denial they are real. Every day for me is a new play, a new performance. You do feel as if the world is staring you down, each day like every single one of them is gawping and laughing morbidly at your naked flesh. You have to put on your best face, shoulders back, head up, and try your best to face the world without letting them know you are squirming inside. Every single second trying not to show a chink in your armour. That you’re struggling to appear normal. Like the bus isn’t the most terrifying thing imaginable. Sweating at the thought of getting on because you fear being in public. Being around people. I am an actor, of course, albeit not a great one. As uncanny as it feels to say this, I think Shakespeare was right, at least when it comes to me.
As for other people, I couldn’t possibly comment. But my inkling is that it’s far truer of people that I think most people would imagine it to be…
So yes, I think all the world is a stage, but what about you, readers? Do you agree?
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