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This poem is an excerpt from William Shakespeare’s celebrated comedy, As You Like It. It narrates the life cycle of a man by comparing it to a play. The different stages of a man’s life from infancy to death become the different acts that make up this play. The poem is 28 lines long. It does not have a rhyme scheme, but it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that every line has a rhythm of five beats.
Line 1 – 8
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
The whole world is a stage, and all men and women are merely players. The poet says that the world is a stage on which the play of life is to be acted out. All men and women are simply actors in this play. All people have their exits and their entrances. Here, exits and entrances refer to deaths and births. One man in his life plays many parts or roles.
The different acts of the play are the seven ages or periods of man’s life. First, the man is the infant who cries and vomits in the nurse’s arms. The next part is that of the petulant schoolboy, with his shoulder bag and shining morning face, walking slowly like a snail, unwilling to go to school. Thus, childhood and adolescence are the first two acts of man’s life.
Line 9 – 19
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 lin’d, 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
Then comes the lover, sighing constantly like the sounds of a furnace, and dedicating sad ballads to his mistress’s eyebrow. The lover is a youth full of fanciful desires. The next role is that of a soldier full of strange oaths who has a beard like a leopard. The soldier is eager to maintain his honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, and seeks short lived glory even in the face of death. So, man seeks glory and honour in this stage of life.
Although an adult, he is still full of the energy and temper of youth. Then the man becomes the justice. The respected judge has a fair round belly from eating good chicken, severe eyes and a beard of formal cut. He is full of wise sayings and modern instances and he too plays his part. The justice marks the man becoming mature with knowledge of the world around him.
Line 20 – 28
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side; His youthful hose, well sav’d, 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.
In the sixth age, man shifts into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, or a thin old man. He has spectacles on his nose and a pouch on his side. The pants from his youth are way too wide for his legs that have grown thin with age. His big manly voice is turning back into the high-pitched voice of a child, he sounds like pipes and whistles.
Therefore, old age has set in. We already see the man’s voice becoming childlike, an indicator of the next stage that is coming. The last scene of all that ends this strange eventful history of the life of man is second childishness and simple oblivion. The poet implies that just before man dies and returns to oblivion or nothingness, he becomes a child again because he has no teeth, no eyes and no taste. He loses everything to become a child again and then face his death.
This poem gives us a brief summary of the cycle that every man’s life must follow. According to the poet, the seven parts that a man plays in his life are- infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, old man, and finally a child again at the time of death. The poem describes the world as a stage where all people are actors who must act out these seven acts or stages of life.