The English poet and playwright William Shakespeare was acutely aware of our passage through time. This theme interpenetrates virtually all of his work. In Sonnet 60 he writes: “Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore/So do our minutes hasten to their end.” In Sonnet 64 he writes: “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d/The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age…” In MacBeth (V, v, 19), he has his eponymous hero saying: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/To the last syllable of recorded time;/And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death.” But it is in his play As You Like It (II, VII, 139-166), that Shakespeare reaches his height in articulating a vision of the human life cycle, when the melancholy Jacques delivers one of the most famous speeches in western literature:
“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;
Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
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
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.”
Shakespeare was profoundly influenced by the Roman poet Ovid’s classic work Metamorphoses, and may possibly have been inspired by a section in Book XV called “The Philosopher” that includes verses on the stages of life (Jacques’ soliloquy has seven stages, Ovid draws upon the Greek model of four stages based on the seasons). Here is an excerpt of this section from a 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that Shakespeare may well have studied as a schoolboy:
“What? Seest thou not how that the yeere as representing playne
The age of man, departes itself in quarters fowre? First bayne
And tender in the spring it is, even like a sucking babe.
Then greene, and voyd of strength, and lush, and foggye, is the blade,
And cheeres the husbandman with hope. Then all things florish gay.
The earth with flowres of sundry hew then seemeth for to play,
And vertue small or none to herbes there dooth as yit belong.
The yeere from springtyde passing foorth to sommer, wexeth strong,
Becommeth lyke a lusty youth. For in our lyfe through out
There is no tyme more plentifull, more lusty, hote and stout. … [XV.230]
Then followeth Harvest when the heate of youth growes sumwhat cold,
Rype, meeld, disposed meane betwixt a yoongman and an old,
And sumwhat sprent with grayish heare. Then ugly winter last
Like age steales on with trembling steppes, all bald, or overcast
With shirle thinne heare as whyght as snowe. Our bodies also ay
Doo alter still from tyme to tyme, and never stand at stay.
Wee shall not bee the same wee were today or yisterday.
The day hath beene wee were but seede and only hope of men,
And in our moothers womb wee had our dwelling place as then:
Dame Nature put to conning hand and suffred not that wee … [XV.240]
Within our moothers streyned womb should ay distressed bee,
But brought us out to aire, and from our prison set us free.
The chyld newborne lyes voyd of strength. Within a season tho
He wexing fowerfooted lernes like savage beastes to go.
Then sumwhat foltring, and as yit not firme of foote, he standes
By getting sumwhat for to helpe his sinewes in his handes.
From that tyme growing strong and swift, he passeth foorth the space
Of youth: and also wearing out his middle age apace,
Through drooping ages steepye path he ronneth out his race.
This age dooth undermyne the strength of former yeares, and throwes … [XV.250]
It downe. Which thing old Milo by example playnely showes.
For when he sawe those armes of his (which heeretofore had beene
As strong as ever Hercules in woorking deadly teene
Of biggest beastes) hang flapping downe, and nought but empty skin,
He wept. And Helen when shee saw her aged wrincles in
A glasse wept also: musing in herself what men had seene,
That by two noble princes sonnes shee twyce had ravisht beene.
Thou tyme the eater up of things, and age of spyghtfull teene,
Destroy all things. And when that long continuance hath them bit,
You leysurely by lingring death consume them every whit. … [XV.260]
- For more information about the stages of life in different cultures and traditions, see Thomas Armstrong , The Human Odyssey: Navigating the 12 Stages of Life (to order from Amazon, click here)