Summary and Analysis of The Seven Ages of Man by William Shakespeare

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Brief: This Seven Ages of Man summary is a poetic endeavor to understand the deep philosophical truth that deeply informs the central idea of this poem – the rather stoic stance that right from our entry to exit on this stage of life, a man’s mortal bearings have been pre-determined by the universal creator by means of seven neat division or ‘Acts’ that define our worldly duration. This explanation seeks to ask some critical questions about free will or the lack of thereof, and the guiding force of destiny that reduces us all to mere actors who are but following a script in our pursuit to add meaning to life.


Since the Elizabethan age, William Shakespeare has been an undying brand in himself in the realm of English literature, with his 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and long narrative poems and other verses comprising the chief mainstays of literature as we know, read, and enjoy it today. Commonly revered in academia as the ‘Bard of Avon’ and recognized universally as the national poet of England, Shakespeare’s prolific pieces have outgrown its time to have assumed immense literary and philosophical significance in today’s time.

Below, we provide The Seven Ages of Man summary – a poem that is an excerpt from the Act 2, Scene 7 of Shakespeare’s ‘As you Like it.’ This piece, which is originally a monologue by Jaques, outlines the maturation and life of a typical male individual by dividing his earthly existence into seven stages – all within the ambit of the overarching comparison that equates life with a grand play crafted by the universal creator, with the men being mere actors in this pre-destined scheme, complete with their unique qualities and roles assigned for each stage of life. This comparison is the guiding framework of the poem, with each stage carrying valuable insights into the life of an ordinary man and the qualities he shows and roles he undertakes in each part.

The Seven Ages of Man Summary; Line-by-Line Explanation

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.

This first sentence presents the guiding framework of the poem, the central idea that the world is but a stage where all the men and women enter when they are born and exit at death. However, this play is not a bland monotonous one, but one with seven distinct parts that are compartmentalized according to age and the maturity that comes with it. And within each age-defined part, a man shows certain stock qualities and features and undertakes certain worldly responsibilities, which go on to add flesh to the skeleton of their life, which has already been pre-decided by Destiny. Next, this poem goes in detail about each act or stage of life.

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.

The second line of the poem elucidates on the first stage where a man is a crying puking infant assigned to the care of a nurse, unable to look after himself. From this infancy stage, the man then grows into a whining schoolboy, reluctantly holding on to his satchel and unwilling to go to school, which defines the learning phase of a man’s life. During the second stage, the man has the brightness of the morning sun (reference to childhood) but the pace of a snail that is creeping. This slow tiresome pace comes from the lack of willingness to fulfil the responsibility of a student and learner, which is common to most young boys.

And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. 

The third line draws an allusion to the teenage stage of a man’s life where he dutifully plays the role of an impassioned lover, who sighs in love as if he were a furnace. Young love is commonly associated with love letters written by a man to impress his object of love. These love letters are full of passion but often lack weightage, something that Shakespeare has hinted at by mentioning that such ‘ballads’ (which is an exaggeration to ironically indicate the futility of such young love) are written to the mistress’ eyebrows (choosing eyebrows as the topic of poetry indicates that there is no depth to this love).

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.

This fourth line sheds light upon the spirited and aggressive stage of life (jealous in honor) when the young lover evolves into a short-tempered soldier (sudden and quick in quarrel), who dedicates this particular ‘act’ of his life to chasing the bubble, i.e., short-lived reputation of a soldier who lives by the cannon’s mouth, the cannon being an allusion to the battle-informed life of a typical soldier. In this stage, the man is buoyed up through strange oaths of loyalty and honor that a country employs to bind its soldiers. The man’s facial features also mature during this stage, and he goes on to grow a beard that has been compared to the ‘pard,’ i.e., a leopard’s whiskers, indicating the fire that the youth carry, especially when they are fighting for their country as soldiers.

And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

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Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. 

The fifth line is where the young impassioned soldier grows into a middle-aged adult who has settled in the professional role of high-ranking judge, which could probably be the reward for having paid his dues as an adept committed soldier. From having a short-tempered demeanour, this once-young man has settled into mid life with a fair round belly, which is an allusion to wealth and prosperity. However, there is indication that this wealth and prosperity have not come through honour and the fire that the man emulated as a solider, but it is the product of ‘capon,’ which means bribe. His eyes are no more burning with motivation and drive but have become severe, having learnt the ways of the world; and his beard that once carried leopard whiskers has now been fashioned into a formal professional cut to suit his age and professional role. From being a reluctant schoolboy to a hopeless lover and a spirited soldier, now the man lives a life of ‘wise saws,’ which translates to old sayings, that he neatly applies to the modern life as deemed fit by him. The man’s maturation into a worldly being reaches a climactic point in this fifth stage.

The sixth age shifts

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.

In the sixth line of the poem, the man enters the elderly act of life, as an old man requiring spectacles to aid his vision made weak with age, with the schoolboy satchel now replaced with a small pouch that is enough to carry all his humble old daily necessities. In this stage, Shakespeare calls the man a slipper-wearing pantaloon, which means a fool, which strikes a contrast with his old role as a judge where he only dealt with wise sayings. The man’s fat belly has been transformed with age into a shrunk frame, his big manly voice that could once be associated with the cannon’s mouth has now reduced to childish treble, with his voice interjected with whistles and pipes, indicating shortness of breath. It is through this fifth stage, signifying old age, that Shakespeare has shown how age dissipates the fire of youth and the grandeur amassed through adult life.

Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

The final line signifies the final stage of a man’s life, i.e., when he is on his deathbed at the fag end of his eventful personal history. Shakespeare has likened this seventh stage to the first stage, calling it a ‘second childishness,’ for during this last stage of a life, a man becomes senile, encapsulated within oblivion, signifying memory loss. During this time, the man indeed becomes as incapacitated as an infant, having lost his teeth, vision, eyes, and just about everything, as he once was in his nurse’s arm.

Now that the Seven Ages of Man explanation has been provided to you, let us discuss the deeper significance of the poem and the larger message it holds for modern-day readers. Take a look at the seven ages of man analysis in details

The Seven Ages of Man Analysis

At the very outset, this poem appears to be a running commentary on the various qualities, features, and roles that characterize each stage of a man’s life. However, a deeper analysis into this poem reveals that through these stoic words, Shakespeare is urging his readers to ask certain uncomfortable questions, investigating into existential concepts such as free will and our meaning and purpose in life, which is the overarching theme of the poem. He has represented a man’s life as a theater script, wherein all ups and downs that we take so seriously are shown as pre-determined elements of a cosmic script. This highlights the sub-theme of destiny and fate, accentuating how we all just enter the earthly domain with our mortal responsibilities cut out for us from the moment we are born and all the way to our death. Stoicism and worldliness are other aspects that define the poem. It is through the poet’s stoic stance that we understand that at the start we have the choice to be reluctant when we are forced to play the traditional role of a school-going pupil; however, as we grow older, the world manipulates us by strange promises and oaths, to the point that we become wise in the worldly sense of the term, completely consumed in the ways of the materialistic objective-driven world. And in the end, we go back to our dependent stage as an infant with no sense and agency, awaiting oblivion. This outlining of our lives in seven sentences also makes one question the purpose of life, while highlighting the futility of our scripted efforts because no matter what we do and how well we do it, in the end we are all meant to go back to the start in our cyclical existence of life and death.

Conclusion

Through this Seven Ages of Man analysis, we hope we have been able to show to you the wonders that seven sentences can hold, offering to readers across time and ages the stoic cynicism through which Shakespeare viewed life. While this poem is an over-generalization for the most part, shaking some of our existential cores by talking about life in a simple straight-forward fashion, the questions raised by this poem are definitely worth an intellectual discussion. Art is but a reflection of life, and we would love to know what your thoughts are on the different stages of your life. To study English literature is to study life, so let us know how much you agree or disagree with the stance forwarded in the poem in the comments section below. Additionally, keep checking our website for more nuanced and technical explanations revolving around the intricacies of poetry. We will soon be posting a more in-depth study of this poem. Hope this detailed write-up on the seven ages of man summary and analysis was helpful to you! Feel free to head over to Beamingnotes Youtube channel for an audio-visual version of the same!

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Suggested Reading: Summary of The Seven Ages of Man in Hindi

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