Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Like most of Shakespeare’s comedies, this one has a happy ending. It also has a familiar theme: boy meets girl, loses her, goes through several trials, but gets her back by the end of the play. And like most of his plays this one has some memorable lines. One poses this question: I do not know what poetical is: is it Honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing? Let’s try to find out.

In this play there’s a monologue that’s one of the most famous in all of English literature. Shakespeare traces in rough outline the lives of us all. It begins with the well-known adage that All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players… That sounds nice. That’s why it’s famous. But is it true? Is “all the world” really a stage? Are we really “merely players?” That leads to further questions. Do we get to pick the parts we play or do we have them thrust upon us by some invisible Director? Who knows? Shakespeare goes on: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts… This sounds like we’re not stuck in one role but get to play several roles during the course of our lives. We have our entrances; we have our exits. Anyone who’s lived long enough goes through several life changes. But Shakespeare breaks our roles down into distinct “acts.” Just as there are distinct acts in a play so there are distinct acts in our own lives: His acts being seven ages.

So according to this theory we all go through seven distinct stages of life. What are they? Like a good playwright Shakespeare starts at the beginning: At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms. We don’t remember starting out this way but this is the way we all started out in life. What’s the second stage? And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. Shakespeare has just captured the whole essence of childhood in one sentence. Through school we learn the discipline of showing up on time, working math problems, getting along with other kids, dealing with bullies. No wonder the little lad was creeping along like a snail. School is hard. The third phase is also hard, but in a different kind of way: And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Here’s where we learn how to deal with love and broken hearts. It’s the kind of stuff that country music songs are made of. Eventually most of us recover and get on with a fourth phase of life, that of being young adults: 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. These days our entry-level jobs may not be working as soldiers but Shakespeare has again captured the essence of young adulthood. Many young adults are “full of strange oaths” and get jealous and are quick to quarrel and seek that elusive bubble called “reputation.” As we mature many of us mellow into positions with more authority: 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. By now years have passed and many people have taken on definite roles within their organizations and communities. But is this mere role-playing or is this what people have actually become? Is he playing the role of judge, or is he really a judge? More time passes and 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. These are our golden years. We’ve saved up for retirement and start taking it easy. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. We end where we began. These are poetic lines. But are they true? Maybe it’s just “as you like it.”


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