Volume > Issue > The Seven Sad Ages of Modern Man

The Seven Sad Ages of Modern Man


By Mitchell Kalpakgian | May 2000
Mitchell Kalpakgian is Professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa.

Students of literature and readers of Shakespeare recall the famous passage from As You Like It (II.vii) that depicts the seven ages of man. According to the pessimistic Jaques, every age is afflicted with the melancholy that defines the human condition. In Jaques’s view human life is repetitious, tedious, and predictable, lacking in adventure, romance, and mystery:

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 his nurse’s arms.

And 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 lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age slips

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well saved, 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

But this famously morose speech occurs in a play that is more full of wonder than of melancholy. In As You Like It (as also notably in The Winter’s Tale) Shakespeare portrays life not as a series of sad occasions but as a sequence of events that constantly renew the human spirit and rejuvenate the world through the wonder of love, the magic of luck, and the mirth of laughter. Jaques considers love “woeful,” but the lovers in the play, Orlando and Rosalind, exude mirth, wit, playfulness, and joy. Although Jaques characterizes old age as dullness and decline, the older characters in the play are robust and vigorous, the old servant Adam representing “the constant service of the antique world,” and Duke Senior epitomizing a man in love with life who practices hospitality and cherishes friendship. In short, Shakespeare counters Jaques’s sour Siren song by showing an intrinsic goodness in each phase of human life.

Enjoyed reading this?



You May Also Enjoy

Is There Such a Thing as Catholic Feminism?

Kristin Lavransdatter’s story shows that following our own desires brings pain but also that God remains with us and draws us into His love and service.

A Movie Masterpiece

Kurosawa dramatizes the truth that the sins of the parents are visited on their children. The harm Ran has done has returned to haunt his old age.

Jack Kerouac’s Creedal Moment

Jack Kerouac should be remembered as an artist, specifically a Catholic artist. This is what he asked of us in front of Bill Buckley and the world, a year before his death.