The Seven Ages of Man in Shakespeare’s As You Like It
In the famous speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It that begins “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players,” the melancholic Jaques laments the passage of time in the human pilgrimage as a series of sad events that perpetuate the same mood of life’s dreariness that persists from birth to death. Jaques’ discourse depicts the infant “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms,” the schoolboy “creeping like snail unwillingly to school,” the lover “sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad/ Made to his mistress’ eyebrow,” and the choleric soldier quarrelling for honor. For Jaques the malady of melancholy continues without relief. The justice of the peace looks dour and grim “with eyes severe.” The old man grows weak and tired as he loses his vigor, “his big manly voice, /Turning again toward childish treble.” And the senile man dwells in “second childishness and mere oblivion, /Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Jacques, in short, views the disease of melancholy as an incurable sickness with no medicine or cure.
While Jaques’ cynical philosophy envisions the ages of man as the bleak future of a repetitious cycle, the good fortune and surprising reversals in the play prove as antidotes to the anatomy of melancholy. While Jaques views the seven ages as the mere chronological passage of time with no new beginnings, turning points, or dramatic changes that punctuate the progression of time, the entire play with its comic vision, robust mirth, and happy marriages refutes his dark worldview. As Jaques mourns, “And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, /And then from hour to hour we rot and rot,” blooming and blossoming around him in the Forest of Arden flourishes the joy of happy romantic love. As Jaques grieves at the sight of wounded deer hunted for venison, mirthful men revel in the sport whom Jaques labels as “mere usurpers, tyrants, . . . / To fright the animals and to kill them up/ In their assigned place and native dwelling place.” As Jaques complains of love poems marring the trees in the forest, the happiness of joyful romantic lovers fills the air as Orlando posts these long songs everywhere in the forest in praise of his beloved Rosalind whose lighthearted banter and irrepressible wit recall the spirit of laughter-loving Aphrodite.
Banished by his usurping brother Duke Frederick from the “envious court,” Duke Senior retreats to the Forest of Arden where he forms his own band of stouthearted men living in exile like Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest in the days of merry old England: “They say many young men flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.” Duke Senior welcomes all who flee the artful, duplicitous court with old-world hospitality. When Orlando, also abandoning the court because of his brother Oliver’s plot to murder him, enters the forest with his faithful servant Adam, they use force to demand food. Accosting Duke Senior and brandishing his sword, Orlando assumed he was among hostile savages he needed to fight to prevent starvation, only to hear the words, “Your gentleness shall force/More than your force move us to gentleness.” “Sit down, and welcome to our table,” the kindhearted Duke Senior invites his guests. The Forest of Arden, then, banishes melancholy. In its convivial revelry, bonds of friendship, love of sport, and gracious hospitality it provides relief from the devious court with its flatterers and traitors aspiring to political ambitions at any cost.
In addition to Duke Senior’s and Orlando’s escape into the Forest of Arden, Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone the court jester also depart from Duke Frederick’s court—Rosalind banished because she is the daughter of Duke Senior whose presence troubles the guilty conscience of the usurping brother, Celia (the daughter of Duke Frederick) because she cannot part from her beloved cousin and delightful companion, and Touchstone because his comic spirit provides for the women “comfort to our travel.” As the two cousins enter the Forest of Arden in male disguise (Rosalind as Ganymede and Celia as Aliena), Rosalind encounters two lovers quarreling about love, the shepherd Silvius pleading his love suit to the shepherdess Phebe in the fawning manner of the pining courtly lover suffering from the unrequited love of his disdainful lady. In her male clothing Rosalind mocks the convention of unhappy courtly love and ridicules Silvius for allowing the scornful woman to afflict him with the sadness of love: “You foolish shepherd, wherefore do you follow her,/ Like foggy south puffing with wind and rain?” Rosalind also mocks the pretentious airs of a simple shepherdess posing as a courtly lady bound by the code of courtly love: “Down on your knees/ And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love.” Rosalind brings into the somber mood of the lovers her fun-loving wit and playful sense of humor, playing a practical joke on Phebe that uses laughter as the cure to the melancholy of the lovers.
Love does not need to continue in the oppressive mood of Silvius in the manner of “sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad/ Made to his mistress’ eyebrow” when a simple remedy eliminates the whole problem and transforms grief into joy. When the giddy Phebe imagines herself to be in love at first sight with Rosalind in male attire (Ganymede), Rosalind’s irresistible mirth relishes the game of love she will play to restore common sense to the shepherds and banish the melancholy of their courtly love. She cajoles Phebe into the agreement that the shepherdess will marry Silvius if she decides not to marry Ganymede: “But if you do refuse to marry me, / You’ll give yourself to this most faithful shepherd?” When Ganymede unveils her true identity as Rosalind, Silvius and Phebe gain the self-knowledge of their nature as shepherds and renounce the poses of artificial courtly love. The melancholy of love is unnatural, for Aphrodite, as C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves, is not only “laughter-loving” but also “a partly comic spirit,” and “She is herself a mocking, mischievous spirit, far more elf than deity, and makes game of us.”
The mischievous Rosalind also makes game with Orlando who writes love poems in praise of Rosalind on the trees everywhere in the forest. He cannot stop marveling at all her beautiful features: “Therefore heaven nature charged/ That one body should be filled/With all graces wide-enlarged.” Again using her disguise as Ganymede, Rosalind pretends to be Orlando’s beloved to test his courtship to her. He is to profess his love, and Ganymede is to determine his qualifications as a lover, claiming that an uncle taught her all the signs of love which Orlando lacks: “A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not; an unquestionable spirit, which you have not; a beard neglected, which you have not.” In other words, Orlando is happily and joyfully in love and untrammeled by the artifices of the courtly conventions that plague the courtship of Silvius and Phebe. As Ganymede, Rosalind boasts of her powers to cure the madness and folly of lovers stricken with melancholy, but Orlando is not suffering: “I would not be cured, youth.” They agree to meet for Orlando to declare his love and Rosalind to test the sincerity of his heart.
As they play their game, Rosalind plays the part of the courtly lady and rejects the pleas of the ardent lover begging for her pity. When Rosalind refuses and Orlando cries, “I die,” Rosalind ridicules his affectation: “The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in the cause of love.” Although Rosalind confesses her love for Orlando privately to Celia, she continues to demand more evidence of Orlando’s love for her to purge it of any silliness or cant until he proves himself worthy and serious. In their banter as Ganymede and Orlando in their mock nuptials, Orlando finally proposes marriage and vows “I will,” and Rosalind unreservedly accepts his offer, affirming “Give me your hand, Orlando” and “I do take thee, Orlando, for my husband.” The playfulness of their courtship in this game hints of the real happiness that follows when the disguise is unmasked. Rosalind’s joy, mirth, banter, wit, and laughter dispel all melancholy from the Forest of Arden where Jaques sees only wounded deer, carved trees, and the monotony of unrelieved misery.
As the play ends in the marriages of Silvius and Phebe, Orlando and Rosalind, and Touchstone the court jester and Audrey the country lass, Shakespeare celebrates the blessing of married love as balm for the soul, mirth for the spirit, and life-giving joy for the happy couples cured of sorrow by the surprises of romance and the wonder of a world where cures attend illnesses and effect miraculous healing to lift the heart and transcend the anatomy of melancholy. The love songs and lyrics of Orlando in the forest replace the sonnets of courtly love when Aphrodite and Juno influence the course of love to follow its natural course:
Wedding is great Juno’s crown,
O blessed bond of board and bed.
‘Tis Hymen peoples every town.
High wedlock then be honored,
Honor, high honor, and renown
To Hymen, god of every town.
For each of the seven ages of man, then, the medicine coexists with the ailment to provide the cure that restores health and sanity. The gravity of a Jaques requires a dose of Duke Senior’s mirth, the sad poems of sonneteers about bleeding lovers and cruel ladies need lyrical love songs to counteract them, and the stylized conventions of stilted courtly love demand the spontaneity of love’s surprises and the joie de vivre of a Rosalind and Orlando.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a scene from “As You Like It” by Walter Howell Deverell. Here, Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) and Celia meet Orlando in Arden Forest.