Understanding Shakespeare's 'Seven Ages of Man' in Today's World

From Medieval to Modern

man of every age
(Michel-Tcherevkoff/Getty Images)

The poem The Seven Ages of Man is a part of the play As You Like It, where Jacques makes a dramatic speech in the presence of the Duke in Act II, Scene VII. Through the voice of Jacques, Shakespeare sends out a profound message about life and our role in it.

How the Seven Ages of Man Has Changed Over Time

This article presents Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man with a comparative analysis of the stages of life in the medieval society to the modern society.

Through this article, you can see how the Seven Ages of Man have advanced or changed for the average man.

Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and 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 schoolboy 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 towards 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."

Comparison of Each Stage of Man During Medieval Times and Modern Age

In this drama of life, each one of us plays seven distinct roles. This, the author says, are the Seven Ages of Man. These seven roles begin at birth and end with death.

Stage 1: Infancy

Birth marks the entry of man in the first stage of life.

An infant in the caretaker's arms is just a helpless child learning to survive. Babies communicate with us through their cries. Having been nourished in the womb of the mother, the baby learns to accept breast milk as its first food. Vomiting is common among all babies. Once a baby is breastfed, you need to burp the baby. In the process, babies throw up some milk. Since babies do nothing most of the day, other than crying and puking after feeding, Shakespeare says that the first stage of life is marked with these two activities.

Between these two activities, they also cry. A lot. Young parents know the drill even before they become parents. While babies continue to be puking and mewling little adorable beings, the difference between then and now is that raising babies is a concerted effort between the parents.

Stage 2: Schoolboy

At this stage of life, the child is introduced to the world of discipline, order, and routine. The carefree days of infancy are over, and schooling brings about a regimen in the life of a child. Naturally, the child takes to whining and complaining against the forced routine.

The concept of schooling has seen a great change since the time of Shakespeare. In Shakespeare's time, school was a forced practice usually overseen by the church.

Depending on the status of the parents, a child went to either a grammar school or a monastic school. Schools began at sunrise and lasted the whole day. Punishments were common, and often harsh. 

Modern schools are quite unlike their ancient counterparts. While some kids still whine and complain about going to school, many actually love school because of the "play while you learn" approach to schooling. Modern day schools have taken a holistic approach towards education. Children are taught through role plays, visual presentations, demonstrations, and games. Home schooling is another option that some parents prefer to formal schooling. Also, with the abundance of online resources, modern education has extended the boundaries of learning.

Stage 3: Teenager

Teenagers in the medieval times were accustomed to social etiquettes of wooing a lady.

The teenager during Shakespeare's time pined for his lover, wrote elaborate verses of love ballads, and mooned over his object of desire. The Romeo and Juliet story is an icon of romance during Shakespeare's time. Love was sensual, deep, romantic, and full of grace and beauty.

Compare this love to the teen love of today. The modern age teen is technologically savvy, well-informed, and romantically astute. They don't express their love in amorous love letters. Who does that in the age of texting and social media? Relationships are not as elaborate or romantic as they were for the medieval teenager. The youth of today is far more self-centered and independent than those in Shakespeare's time. Back in those days, relationships were nurtured towards matrimony. Nowadays, marriage is not necessarily the goal of every romantic affiliation. There is more sexual expression and less adherence to social structures such as monogamy.

However, despite all these differences, the teenager of today is as angsty as the medieval teenager. They have to deal with unrequited love, heartbreak, and depression just as those in the ancient times.

Stage 4: Youth

The next stage Shakespeare talks about in the poem is that of a young soldier. In old England, young men were trained for combat. The young soldier developed an attitude of brash courage, raw passion mixed with an impetuous temper that is characterized by unwarranted rebellion.

The youth of today have the same zeal and energy for rebellion. They are far more expressive, vocal, and assertive about their rights. Though the youth of today would not necessarily be enlisted for service in the army, they have enough avenues to form social groups to fight for a political or social cause. With social media platforms and global reach of mass media, the young can reach their voice to the far corners of the world. Widespread reaction is almost instantaneous because of the global reach and effectiveness of propaganda. 

Stage 5: Middle Age

The middle age has hardly changed over the centuries.

Middle age is the time when men have settled down. Kids, family, and career have taken precedence over personal indulgences. Age brings wisdom and a sense of peaceful acceptance of the realities of life. Idealistic values get pushed behind, while practical considerations become important. While the middle-aged man of today has more options to further his personal or professional interests, perhaps the medieval middle-aged man had fewer of such options.

Stage 6: Old Age

In the medieval times, life expectancy hovered around 40, and a man of 50 would consider himself lucky to be alive. Depending on the social or economic class of the person, old age could be harsh or, at best, ambivalent. Though the old were respected for their wisdom and experience, most old people suffered due to neglect and degeneration of physical and mental faculties.

Today, life is alive and vibrant for a 40-year-old. Old age usually sets in around 70s. Many old people in the modern era are actively involved in social activities, secondary occupations, or hobbies. Also, there are good retirement plans and financial devices available to make old age comfortable. It is not uncommon for the "youthful" senior citizens to go on a trip around the world, or pursue gardening or golf, or simply start their own business in their backyard.​​

Stage 7: Extreme Old Age

What Shakespeare talks about in this stage of man is an extreme form of aging, where the person is no longer able to perform basic tasks such as bathing, eating, and going to the toilet. Physical frailty and incapacity no longer allow them the freedom to live unassisted. During Shakespeare's time, it was quite okay to treat old people as "senile." In fact, in the Elizabethan era, where slavery and discrimination against women were highly prevalent, ageism was hardly considered a problem. Old people were treated as "little children," and as Shakespeare describes this stage as second childhood, it was socially acceptable to treat the old with disdain.

Today's modern society is more humane and sensitive towards seniors. Though ageism still exists and is prevalent in many spheres, with growing awareness, seniors "sans teeth, sans eyes, and sans taste" still live with dignity that ought to be afforded to the elderly.