Seminar Paper, 2002
6 Pages, Grade: 1,0
2. All the World’s a Stage
“All the world’s a stage” is a phrase we usually associate with Shakespeare and his plays. Did Shakespeare coin this phrase, was it used by his contemporaries or do its origins in fact go back further? In how far was this concept of ‘the world being a stage’ taken up in post-Shakespearean times?
This paper is an attempt to find out the actual origins of this phrase and point out how it was used throughout the centuries.
The phrase “all the world’s a stage” appears in Shakespeare’s play As you like it (written between 1598 and 1600) in Jaques’ famous soliloquy about the Seven Ages of Man. (Busch 218). Jaques describes the world as a stage where “all the men and women (are) merely players / who have their exits and their entrances” (II vii 140-41). Every man plays several parts, “His acts being seven ages” (143): the infant, the school boy, the lover, the soldier, the justice, the silly old man and the oblivion.
The idea is also taken up in Macbeth, probably written between 1604 and 1610, when he finds out that his wife has just died. He doesn’t grieve because he feels his life is meaningless. He thinks “Life’s but a walking shadow” (V v 24) and he himself nothing but “a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” (24-25). The same idea, though not developed, is expressed in the Merchant Of Venice (1596) when Antonio explains the reason for his depression to a friend named Gratiano: “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano / A stage where every man must play a part, And mine a sad one” (l i 78-79). The famous phrase associated with Shakespeare’s plays became the motto of the Globe theatre built in 1599, the sign of the house being a globe representing the world, supported by Hercules. (The Complete Shakespeare). The statement describes the stage as being the world, the players on the stage being necessary to show the ways of life to the audience.
However, the concept of the world being a stage is not restricted to Shakespeare’s plays. It actually occurs in widely different literatures but really no author is able to lay claim to it.
For instance in the old Greek play of Damon and Pythias we can find: “Pythagoras said that this world was like a stage / where many play their parts” (Irving 331).
The Legend of Orpheus and Euridice (1597) contains a passage where this concept is also expressed: “Unhappy man…/ Whose life a sad continual tragedy / Himself the actor, in the world, the stage / While as the acts are measured by his age” (Irving 331).
Furthermore, according to William E. Miller, T. W. Baldwin noticed a parallel between Jaques soliloquy and two lines that appeared in the 1584 edition of Withals Dictionarie: “This life is a certaine enterlude or playe, the world is a stage ful of change euery way, Euerye man is a player, and therein a dealer.” The phrase translated from Latin is a quotation from Marcellus Palingenius Stellatus’ Zodiacus Vitae (1566). It was inferred that Shakespeare took his phrasing directly from Palingenius. (Miller 99). It has been suggested that Shakespeare could have been inspired by his contemporary Abraham Fleming as well. In Fleming’s drama The Diamond of Deution (1581) the playwright wrote the following: “Heere we walke like plaiers vpon a stage, one representing the person of a King, another of a Lord (…) for what other thing is the compass of this world (…) but an ample and large Theatre” (Miller 100).
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