"All The World's a Stage" - Quote Meaning

Performance and Gender in 'As You Like It'

As You Like It
As You Like It. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The most famous speech in As You Like It is Jaques’ “All the world’s a stage”. But what does it really mean?

Our analysis below reveals what this phrase says about performance, change and gender in As You Like It.

“All The World’s a Stage”

Jaques’ famous speech compares life with theatre, are we just living to a script preordained by a higher order (perhaps God or the playwright himself).

He also muses on the ‘stages’ of a man’s life as in; when he is a boy, when he is a man and when he is old.

This is a different interpretation of ‘stage’ (stages of life) but is also compared to scenes in a play.

This self referential speech reflects the scenes and scenery changes in the play itself but also to Jaques’ preoccupation with the meaning of life. It is no coincidence that, at the end of the play, he goes off to join Duke Frederick in religious contemplation to further explore the subject.

The speech also draws attention to the way we act and present ourselves differently when we are with different people thus different audiences. This is also reflected in Rosalind’s disguising herself as Ganymede in order to be accepted in forest society.

The Ability to Change

As Jaques’s famous speech suggests, man is defined by his ability to change and many of the characters in the play have physical, emotional, political or spiritual changes. These transformations are presented with ease and as such, Shakespeare suggests that man’s ability to change is one of his strengths and choices in life.

Personal change also leads to political change in the play as Duke Frederick’s change of heart leads to a new leadership at court. Some of the transformations can be attributed to the magical elements of the forest but man’s ability to change himself is also advocated.

Sexuality and Gender

The concepts behind “All the world’s a stage”, social performance and change, are particularly interesting when viewed from a sexuality and gender perspective.

Much of the comedy in the play is derived from Rosalind being disguised as a man and trying to pass herself off as a man and then as Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind; a woman.

This of course would be further intensified in Shakespeare’s time when the part would have been played by a man, dressed as a woman disguised as a man. There is an element of ‘Pantomime’ in camping up the role and playing with the idea of gender.

There is the part where Rosalind faints at the sight of blood and threatens to cry, which reflects her stereotypically feminine side and threatens to ‘give her away’. Comedy is derived from her having to explain this away as ‘acting’ like Rosalind (a girl) when she is dressed as Ganymede.

Her epilogue again plays with the idea of gender – it was unusual for a woman to have an epilogue but Rosalind is given this privilege because she has an excuse – she spent a lot of the play in the guise of a man.

Rosalind had more freedom as Ganymede and would not have been able to do so much if she had been a woman in the forest. This allows her character to have more fun and play a more active role in the plot. She is quite forward with Orlando in her manly guise, prompting the marriage ceremony and organising all of the characters destinies at the end of the play.

Her epilogue further explores gender in that she offers to kiss the men with fresh breath – reminiscent of the pantomime tradition – Rosalind would be played by a young man on Shakespeare’s stage and therefore in offering to kiss male members of the audience, she is further playing with the tradition of camp and homoeroticism.

The intense love between Celia and Rosalind could also have a homoerotic interpretation, as could Phoebe’s infatuation with Ganymede – Phoebe prefers the feminine Ganymede to the real man Silvius.

Orlando enjoys his flirtation with Ganymede (who is as far as Orlando knows – male). This preoccupation with homoeroticism is drawn from the pastoral tradition but does not eliminate heterosexuality as one might assume today, more it is just an extension of someone’s sexuality.

This suggests that it is possible to have it As You Like It.