All the World can’t seem to get this quote right.
While not Shakespeare’s most famous work, As You Like It contains one of his most famous speeches – or at the very least, his most quoted. You’ve heard it before, whether you were aware of the source or not. Say it with me: All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. There’s quite a bit more to it, but the first bit is the most you’ll usually catch on TV. You’ve heard it in everything from SNL to Star Trek, Deadwood to Ducktails (twice in separate episodes). Authors love to twist it around – Oscar Wilde wrote “The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.” Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta includes the line “All the world’s a stage, and everything else is vaudeville.” It’s the name of a live Rush album. All The World’s A Stage is even the name of Tom Cruise’s officially licensed biography (yes, really).
The rest of the monologue is moody, to say the least. Jaques – the guy philosophizing and moping through the speech – goes through The Seven Stages of Life and then proceeds to crap on each one. His words: when you’re a baby you throw up a lot, when you’re a little kid you hate going to school, et cetera et cetera until you literally die and decay. It’s a grim look at fate – if we are merely players, then someone else has already written the script. Then nothing we do matters! Every act of the play is a tragedy unto itself! How can we go on living like this?! It’s horribly depressing, almost comically so.
It’s a favorite speech to quote for people who want to appear cultured – meaning it’s a bit of an easy crutch for writers who want to create characters that appear so. There’s a bit of irony to this, though. While the “All The World” speech is frequently quoted as “poetry” by Shakespeare, that’s a bit misleading. While it has poetic tone – just like anything else he wrote in verse –it’s actually a monologue. The distinction is an important one, and is key to understanding the ultimate irony of the speech’s use in pop culture. Poetry is representative of the ideas and feelings of the author, while a monologue is representative of the character.
And the character, I will argue, is an inflated, self-important windbag who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Shakespeare is so well remembered for his brooding, tragic characters that people tend to forget that the other half of his work is made up of Farce and Sex Comedies. That’s right, the guy who wrote “To be, or not to be…” also wrote the Elizabethan American Pie. People also tend to forget that Jaques is in one of those comedies making remarks about everyday tragedy. Hamlet is bummed because his father got murdered and his uncle is sleeping with his mom. Macbeth gets sad when his wife goes mad and dies, and it all might be his own fault. Jaques cries woe-is-me just to sound cool.
Let’s take a look at his first few lines. Jacques comes in with Ameins, another lord, listening to Ameins sing a sad song. Jacques wants to hear more but Ameins refuses:
It will make you melancholy, Monsieur Jaques
I thank it. More, I prithee, more. I can suck
melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs.
More, I prithee, more.
This our first taste of Jaques unique worldview, and the closest modern approximation is the kid sitting in the back of class in all black listening to Death Cab For Cutie and thinking this band GETS me. He’s just imitating the tortured hero – a character with very little backstory to prove that he’s got any particular sad stories to back up his inflated miserable speeches. So consider the following: Maybe we’re not supposed to take the guy who compares himself to an egg-sucking weasel seriously.
Jaques presents no new ideas, though he carries himself like he’s God’s gift to philosophy. The ideas of fate controlling life just like it controls man is a theme as old as theater itself. That’s practically what every piece of Greek theater is about. Shakespeare didn’t intend his audiences to say “oh wow, how deep;” he intended a roll of the eyes as the audience cried “not this crap again!” Though modern performances usually take Jacques straight and at face value, he is actually a sort of sad clown, equivocating about things he doesn’t fully understand. His speech is, ironically, a performance. It has the aura of something he’s practiced in the mirror, thinking “all the kids at school are gonna think I’m so cool when I drop this one.” The whole thing is a joke, with each description of life defying the expectation of a positive depiction of each stage of life by presenting one that is so bleak it becomes funny. Jaques is a character we’re supposed to laugh at!
Not to mention that the first line is already a joke – albeit one that would only make sense to Shakespeare’s audience. The stage Shakespeare’s original troop performed on was called The Globe. All The World’s a stage – in this case, literally.
The ultimate irony? The modern audience buys it. When we see depictions of this speech in modern media, it’s usually by a character with an inflated ego, huffing about in an attempt to prove how smart they are. That’s right, they’re doing exactly the same thing Jaques was doing. In a way, Shakespeare’s most famous line has also become one of his most misunderstood. All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women should deeply analyze four hundred year old works more closely to make sure that they aren’t just taking things at the surface level of interpretation.
Tyler Kubat is an actor and playwright currently residing in Orange County California with a BFA in Theater Performance from Southern Oregon University. He is the former Artistic Director of the Oregon Fringe Festival, and has performed with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Island Shakespeare Festival.