The Seven Ages of Man is an extract from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. In this extract, Shakespeare compares life to a drama in which a person plays different roles as he progresses through the various stages of life. He compares the world to a stage and human beings to players, who enact their roles from infancy to old age and then exit the world.
Human beings are mortal. The world is timeless. Each person plays a role assigned to him or her in the same way as an actor or an actress does in a drama on a stage in a theatre. We enter the world when we are born. We live in this world through various stages. We leave this stage when we retire from life i.e we die. Most people pass through these seven stages. However, only a few persons’ life makes any significant impact on the world.
The first stage is that of infancy when the infant is crying and puking in the nurse’s arm. The attitude of the poet is to strike a general truth about the infants. It is that infants generally cry and vomit in the nurse’s arm. The human infant is the weakest of all the infants of the other species. He has to be carried in arms and protected for over a year. The poet is also mocking those who sing praises of infants and call them images of God. The poet finds some faults and defects in every stage of life. He does not say anything positive or favourable because the speaker of these lines, Jacques is a melancholic and pessimistic person who finds nothing good or worthwhile in life.
The second stage is that of childhood — a bright-faced school-going child, who creeps like a snail and is unwilling to go to school. The school-going child has a shining face in the morning. Perhaps his mother has scrubbed it hard to make it glow. He is neat and tidy. He carries a bag of books. He goes to school quite unwillingly. He is creeping like a snail which indicates clearly that the boy is not interested in going to school. The poet is right in making generalizations about the schoolboys. All young schoolboys usually dread going to school.
The third stage represents a lover full of passion, who sighs and sings sad songs in praise of his beloved. He is infatuated with a beautiful face. He is impelled to sigh loudly due to his frustration in love. The dejected love sighs like a furnace. The simile may appear farfetched, but it drives home two points. First, the lover’s sighs are quite loud as the sounds of the bellow’s. Secondly, they are quite frequent and hot. The poet mocks not only the lover but the other poets of his age as well, who used to compose poems praising the various aspects of the beloved beautiful face.
The fourth stage follows the brave soldier who is ready to do and die, is jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel. He strives for a momentary reputation. He is full of oaths. He has picked them from the countries he has travelled to. He is bearded like the leopard. He doesn’t look handsome. He is ready to risk danger or death to uphold his self-respect. He is very conscious of the fair name, high fame, honour and glory. The reputation earned by the soldier’s sacrifice is transitory like a bubble. Facing a canon’s mouth invited sure death but it provides honour and glory to the brave soldier.
The next role that he plays is that of justice. He is a mature person in his middle age. He has severe eyes and a beard of fashionable cut. He looks well dressed. His fat round belly indicates his love for food. It is filled with fat chickens. He quotes many sayings and examples to show his wisdom. He cites these examples and sayings while hearing and deciding cases. Shakespeare seems to have a dig at the judges of his time. He directs our attention to their fair round belly lines with good capon. It is said that the judges of that era used to accept bribes – baskets of chicks and capons – and were known as basket judges. Though specimens of corrupt judges may be found in modern times as well, this generalization is too harsh comments on the judiciary.
The sixth stage is that of a lean, bespectacled, wrinkled wan, wearing loose hose. The hose, when the man was young fitted well but due to his age the shank muscles have shrunk and the hose is ill-fitted now. His baritone has changed into a shrill voice like that of a child. In his slippers and loose-fitting garments, he looks a funny man – Pantaloon – a comic figure in Italian comedy.
From here, he reaches the last stage and plays his last role, that of an extremely old man, a senile man, weak in body and mind. This marks the beginning of second childhood. He is once again in need of help and care. He is without teeth, without taste – without everything. His eyesight is quite weak and fails to recognize people. He forgets everything and is forgotten by everyone. And with this end the seven acts of a person’s life. He exits from the stage.