Speech Study: All the World’s a Stage… (the first three ages)

Ask just about anyone (who’s read As You Like It) what the most famous speech from the play is, and they’ll probably tell you that it’s the “seven ages” of man speech, commonly known as “All the world’s a stage” speech. So let’s take a look at it, shall we?

But first, a little context. Duke Senior and his men, including the melancholic Jaques, sit around (presumably a campfire) readying for dinner, when Orlando bursts in, playing the role of the desperate desperado, demanding food. When he’s met with civility and kindness, rather fear or violence, he explains his situation–and more importantly, Adam’s situation–and the duke sends him off to retrieve the old man. As Orlando exits, the banished duke sets up Jaques’ speech to follow:

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
  • II.vii.135-8

The stage analogy that Jaques will use in his speech is not purely extempore; rather it is set up by the Duke’s use of terms like “theatre”, “pageants”, “scene”, and “play.” Jaques takes the metaphor and runs with it, extending it over nearly the next thirty lines…

                              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.
  • II.vii.138-65

Jaques’ opening half-line completes the duke’s last poetic line, maintaining its iambic pentameter, without missing a beat, to form a perfect antilabe. Jaques’ wit is strong and fast, but no one is so smart as to come up with this unbroken thought if only the last portion of the duke’s speech (using the word “play”) sets up this analogy. The duke uses four references in the previous two-and-a-half lines, and this allows for Jaques’ easy flow into the speech. The next two lines continue the simple iambic rhythm, all the while setting up dualities (“men”/”women”, “exits”/”entrances”). If the speech were to end there, these lines would have completed the duke’s thought.

However, Jaques pushes on. And the meter tells us that he doesn’t have the rest of thesis completely mapped out:

~ / / ~ ~ / / / ~ /

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.

The first line is a rhythmical mess, with both a trochee (“man in”) and a spondee (“time plays”), showing us the lack of certainty in his argument, and while the first half of the next line attempts to be iambic, it only works if the “being” is elided as a single syllable. But then at the period, it’s as if he has nowhere to go poetically or thematically. For the line to work rhythmically, either there needs to be a caesura (or pause) at the period–which would send the line into hexameter–or the second half of “ages” would need to elide with “At”, which is damn near impossible. So, a caesura, it is. And this jump-starts the second half of the line, which ends with a feminine ending (the extra unstressed syllable), which in turn leads perfectly into the next line’s opening trochee (“Mewling”). Once that rough patch is over, seemingly using the long-U assonance of “mewling and puking” to get back on track, the rest of the line, as well as the first age of man (infant), runs in perfect iambs.

The next age (school-boy), and its two and a half lines, are rhythmically unsurprising (with only a single trochee breaking up the iambs). What is interesting here is the use of rhyming gerunds and adjectival participles (“whining”/”shining”) plus the other “ing” forms (“morning“, “creeping“, and “unwillingly”), that tie together this age of man and launch us into the third age (“Sighing“). Note, too, that the repeated “L” sounds help accomplish the same effect (“snail” “unwillingly” “school” “lover”).

This third age (lover), like the first, begins after the line’s midway point, and its first half line ends with another feminine ending (“lover”), again leading into the trochee (“Sighing”) that kicks off the second line, which itself ends with a feminine ending (“ballad”) leading into another trochee (“Made to”), and these two trochees are the only non-iambic feet in the section. So what’s interesting here is certainly not the meter, but rather the consonance used (“with”/”woeful” and “Made”/”mistress'”) to tie together its theme.

And at this point, the first age was told in one-and-a-half lines, the second in two-and-a-half, and the third in two full lines (over the course of three poetic lines). We seem to be growing in length and rhythmical complexity. Will this continue as we reach the fourth age of man (and beyond)?

Well, let’s leave with a little suspense…

Until next time!