Although rarely quoted correctly, we often hear Shakespeare's opening lines from Jaques's soliloquy in Act II, Scene VII of "As You Like It" paraphrased. "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players" is co-opted in literature, movies and music, usually as an argument for man's insignificance or in nihilistic ramblings about the absence of free will. Shakespeare had no such philosophical maxims in mind when penning "As You Like It" around 1600, however. Jacque's observations about the life of man, in Shakespeare's day, actually stood in hollow contrast to Rosalind's keen observations.
No single literary figure has been critiqued as often as William Shakespeare, so diverse interpretations of "As You Like It" and its "Seven Ages of Man" speech are no surprise. Few scholars dispute the origins or the lay meaning of the passage. An aspiring fool to the Duke's court, the melancholy Jaques philosophises about man's lot in life in his "All the world's a stage" monologue. His contention that the last stages of life are "mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything" are immediately refuted by the appearance of Adam, Orlando's elderly servant, whose integrity, loyalty and mental vibrancy dispel such gloomy prognostications. The notion of life being a stage was not new. First-century Roman writer Petronius had written something similar and its meaning well-known in Elizabethan England at the time of "As You Like It." Nor was the idea of the seven ages of man novel, a King Henry V tapestry illustrated such a concept.
"At first the infant/Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms." Man's first stage is infancy.
"And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel/And shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school." Man's lack of confidence and a reluctance to leave the nest mark this phase.
"And then the lover/Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad/Made to his mistress' eyebrow." Melancholy over lost love, man seeks other outlets. Orlando, distraught over perceived unrequited love, unwittingly confides in Rosalind, disguised as a teenage boy, his love for Rosalind. Because, in Elizabethan times, teenage boys played the roles of women, the audience witnessed a teen boy playing a woman (Rosalind) disguised as a teen boy. Although comic, this provided the opportunity for Rosalind to display uncommon independence and wisdom (as did the uncommonly independent Katherine Hepburn in a 1950 film version).
"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." Recklessness and passion dominate man as he tries to make his mark in the world.
"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." Man, having acquired wisdom, prosperity and social standing through experience, begins enjoying life.
"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." Derived from Pantalone, an important, recognisable character in commedia del arte, man begins losing physical and mental capacities, as well as his charm. Adam, played by Shakespeare in early productions, stands in stark contrast to Jaques's claim.
"Last scene of all/That ends this strange eventful history/Is second childishness and mere oblivion." Dementia and death loom; like a child or infant, he is again dependent on others.
Attempts to explain Shakespeare's seven ages of man by astrological means are mostly a modern endeavour, although Elizabethans recognised astrology as a fledgling science and precursor to astronomy. Claims, such as that the "Seven Ages of Man" refers to how the seven classical planets were placed in William Shakespeare's horoscope, are rife, yet there's no empirical evidence that Shakespeare held such views, or intended to promote them.