William Shakespeare's "Seven Stages of Life," also known as the "Seven Ages of Man," is a monologue from Act 2 Scene 7 of his play "As You Like It." The speech is made by Jaques, a nobleman to the Duke Senior of England. The duke has been exiled to the forest and Jaques is forced to serve him, despite his contempt for the duke and the uncomfortable living conditions. Jaques is a philosopher and has a melancholy, pessimistic view of the world. The Duke Senior is the only one present when Jaques gives his monologue.
Stages 1 Through 3
Stages 1 through 3 of "The Seven Stages of Life" deal with man's life before adulthood. Stage 1 is infancy and represents helplessness; Jaques refers to a baby as "puking in a nurse's arms." Stage 2 is a schoolboy who whines because he doesn't want to go to school. His mother washes his faces and gets him ready for school, and then he slowly and reluctantly walks there. Stage 3 is a girl-crazy teenage boy who spends most of his time trying to amuse, impress and woo her. Jaques is cynical in his descriptions and doesn't appear to have enjoyed going through those stages himself.
Stages 4 Through 7
Stages 4 through 7 deal with a more mature state of manhood, but the stages are full of challenges, weaknesses and character flaws. Jaques sees life as pointless and futile. Stage 4 is young adulthood, when man must serve his country as a soldier, struggling to prove his worth and make a name for himself. Stage 5 is middle age when man is wise, prosperous and respected, but inevitably becomes vain. Stage 6 is an old man who loses his influence and begins to act and dress old. Jaques says, "Spectacles on nose and pouch on side ... For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, turning again toward childish treble." Stage 7 is senility and death -- man loses his teeth and his ability to see and taste.
Backstory and Purpose of the Monologue
Backstory in the play reveals reasons why Jaques utters his cynical, depressing monologue about the stages of life. Jaques is bitterly frustrated about his exile to the forest and has pessimistic views of life -- especially about his present condition and his irresponsible leader. Other servants who were exiled to the forest, and friends of the duke who weren't exiled but long to be with him -- including his beautiful daughter, Rosalind -- want to make the best of the situation and build a productive, close-knit community. Jaques hates the idea of building a new community and constantly reminds the duke of how selfish, mean and hateful people are.
Shakespeare didn't invent the idea of the seven ages of man or the seven stages of life. Philosophers such as Aristotle had been discussing the various stages for centuries before Shakespeare's time. As a result, Shakespeare knew that his audience would understand and relate to the concepts presented by Jaques in his monologue. Shakespeare's cynical voice and melancholy tone -- expressed through Jaques -- force the audience to consider deeper themes, such as self-awareness, inescapable truths and the nature of man.
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