That we have no real freedom, we are simply players; as in a game of chess. You may be lucky enough to play the queen, king or bishop, but more often than not, we are the pawns. We play along in our constant battle to be recognised and respected, to reach fulfilment – a quest on which we all embark. Not all of us win our battle; such is the game of life. However, Shakespeare has focused his speech on one man, who in his time plays many parts, his acts being shown as the following seven ages: The first part is the infant, a vital stage at which everyone begins the battle, the game.
Shakespeare shows his character in infancy by describing him as ‘mewling and puking in the nurse”s arms’. By including this statement in his speech, Shakespeare gives the impression that he dislikes babies. By saying that they are ‘mewling and puking’ he is saying that they vomit and cry, are messy and feeble. By making reference to a nurse, he is saying that the baby is helpless. Shakespeare considers infants in general to be a burden and a nuisance. He then goes on to describe ‘whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school’.
In this sentence, we can gather that the child is on his way to school, rather reluctantly; has a fresh clean face no doubt previously having had his face washed by his mother but is showing his reluctance by walking slowly to school. Nothing unusual there then? Well, nothing except the way Shakespeare describes the innocent young child as ‘whining’ and ‘creeping’, which would also suggest discomfort and distaste towards this young boy merely playing his part well. Next, comes the lover. Shakespeare is certain to have something good to say about the lover you might thinkâ€¦ wrong again.
Shakespeare describes the lover as ‘sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress” eyebrow’. I wonder why the lover is writing a poem about his mistresses’ eyebrow and not a more beautiful part of her body, of which I am sure there are plenty. Maybe Shakespeare was jealous? Jealous that this man has what many people would describe as the best part of all; maybe Shakespeare was envious of his youth, freedom and opportunities. It is possible that his odium for the lover is symbolic of Shakespeare’s own past, of which we know very little.
The lover is followed by the soldier, of whom Shakespeare again shows his revulsion. Shakespeare describes the soldier as being ‘full of strange oaths’, ‘jealous in honour’, ‘sudden and quick in quarrel’ and ‘seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon”s mouth’. This description would imply that Shakespeare’s interpretation of the soldier is that: the soldier in envious of his comrades, too quick to jump to conclusions, ignorant of the dangers facing them, eager to become a hero and most of all, unaware or indifferent to the realness and conviction of death itself. Not really a pretty picture is it?
We’ve found yet another player in the big game of life that Shakespeare is not altogether fond of- to say the least. However, on this rare occasion, I am inclined to agree with him, or at least share his view on the stupidity and futility of soldiers in general, although I do accept that as with all other things, there are exceptions to the rule. Moving on, we come to the fifth stage, which is described as “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 is infact the only age that Shakespeare is seen to approve of!
Shakespeare has a lot of good things to say about the justice, he describes him as fair in round belly, implying that he is well fed and has a taste for good old fashioned ale- a good manly tradition in Shakespeare’s time; ‘eyes severe’ could mean cruel or strict, which would imply status and importance; ‘full of wise saws and modern instances’ would obviously mean that he is wise, clever and has experience of life. It is fair to say that these are all positive comments about the fifth age.
I think that the reason that Shakespeare is so positive about the ‘justice’, is that because he himself was at the fifth stage when he wrote this speech. The sixth stage 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’.
Here, we have moved back into the negative comments, with a slightly positive hint about them. Lean and slipper’d’ would imply that he spends most of his life indoors, ‘spectacles on his nose’ is saying that his eyesight is poor, symbolic of deteriation due to age; ‘manly voice, turned again toward childish treble’, implying that this man is shrinking once more into childhood and dependency upon others. The seventh stage, the last of all, that ends this strange and eventful history, describes a descent into a ‘second childishness and into mere oblivion’, which sounds to me not like a life at all, but an existence, simply waiting for death to take away his misery.
It is interesting to note that death here is the saviour, the taking away of life’s problems, not adding to them. I think that an important part of this speech is the way Shakespeare frequently uses sounds and references to speaking, associating the voice with deteriation and generally creating negative connotations. All of the characters in Shakespeare’s stages of life are described some way or other in terms of speaking. For example, the lover ‘sighs’, the soldier is full of strange ‘oaths’, the old man loses his manly ‘voice’, and by the final stage the man cannot ‘speak’ at all having lost everything.