All the World’s a Stage: Cynicism and Joy in As You Like It

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” It is a shame that this phrase from Jaques’ famous soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It is too often taken at face value and misattributed to Shakespeare himself. One need only read the ensuing lines to realize that Jaques’ speech does not describe the sentiments of the playwright, but the antithesis of what lies at the heart of this mirthful comedy: the possibility of joy in a world where people are open to the goodness in each other, despite whatever reasons they may have not to be.

The heroine of this play is the spirited Rosalind, who has been persecuted by her Uncle, Duke Frederick, the usurper of the throne of his brother and her father, Duke Senior. She flees with her cousin Celia to the forest of Arden, where she meets the hero of the play: gallant Orlando, who has suffered the ill treatment of Oliver, his older brother and the sole inheritor of his father’s estate. While the melancholic Jaques sees only sin and suffering, Rosalind, Duke Senior, Orlando, and the true friends who accompany them are open to the reality of a world that is marred by sin, but not without goodness and grace.

As Jaques weeps over the death of a deer while likening its poor state to that of humanity, the Duke Senior and his men—his hunting buddies—have fun in each other’s company. As Jaques complains of love poems marring the trees to which they are nailed, giddy lovers glow while thinking of their beloveds. “All the world’s a stage,” muses Jaques, “And all the men and women merely players.” Jaques goes on to describe the lifetime of a man, who pukes as an infant, whines as a schoolboy, sighs as a lover, and fights merely for his reputation as a soldier. He grows middle-aged and fat before he shrinks into a feeble, bespectacled old man whose vigorous voice has returned to the weak and “childish treble” of a young boy. Finally, he loses his teeth, his eyesight, his taste, and then his very breath.

This satirical view of man might be taken to heart were it not for a very old man who then enters the scene. He can barely speak, for he has been wandering about in a cold wood with his master Orlando, who has flown to the forest of Arden to escape the death that his brother has planned for him. The old man has insisted on accompanying Orlando even as he knows that freezing temperatures, hunger, and fatigue may kill him. The old man’s name is Adam—an indication, perhaps, that he represents something universally human. His very presence weakens the effect of Jaques’ claims against mankind.

Duke Senior, who has also been banished from his court, welcomes Orlando and Adam to his camp in the forest. He urges them to rest, and eat, and enjoy some music. He then plays a song which warns of the heartlessness of man: it sings of the cold winter wind, which is “not so unkind as man’s ingratitude”; the freezing bitter sky, which “does not bite as benefits forgot”; and the sting of cold waters, which is “not so sharp as a friend remembered not.” The duke recognizes Orlando as the son of the good Sir Rowland; he treats him and Adam accordingly, with the love of an old friend.

Duke Senior is not cold and ungracious—neither is Orlando, who places Adam’s needs before his own; nor is Adam, who has given his very last for the sake of Orlando. Adam is at the end of his life, and he does not long for the last material successes or goods available to him, as Jaques says all men do. Instead, he has given his very self in a last and loving act of sacrifice. Jaques is not wrong to think that men are selfish: the very song that is played by the duke confirms the fact of man’s ingratitude and love of self. But the characters themselves show us that Jaques’ speech is insufficient to describe the human condition: while there is darkness, there is still light. The lighthearted narrative of the play reinforces this truth in ways that are too numerous to list, as Duke Senior, Orlando, Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone meet, in an atmosphere of conviviality and romance, true friends and lovers in the middle of a dark and wintry wood.

The only person incapable of mirth is Jaques. In the second scene of the third act, Jaques derides Orlando for being in love before expressing his frustration at having to converse with him instead of the fool, Touchstone, whom he had been searching for. Orlando tells Jaques to look in the river—for there, like Narcissus, he shall find a fool in himself, for his melancholy is buffered by pride, and his heart is closed to those around him. If the world is really so distressing, why be open to it?

Jaques is so absorbed in his ideas that he neither delights in the company of others nor demonstrates the unselfish and sacrificial love of Celia and Adam. He feels a kind of pity for dying deer, but would he, like Orlando, save his brother Oliver—the brother that purposed to murder him—from a wild beast about to devour his sleeping self? Would he give the grace that leads to the conversion of men like Oliver or the Duke Frederick, who finally returns his usurped estate to the Duke Senior? While Jaques wallows in anguish over human frailty, Rosalind, Celia, Duke Senior, Orlando, and many other characters show that there is more to human nature than sin, suffering, and selfishness.

It isn’t until the end of the play that Jaques finally admits that “out of these convertites there is much matter to be heard and learn’d.” Ever the melancholic, he refuses the Duke Senior’s invitation to join him at court, but decides instead to join the repentant Duke Frederick in the religious life he has begun. As Jaques commends Duke Senior to the former honor that is deserved of his patience and virtue, Orlando to the love that “his true faith doth merit,” Oliver to his land and love and great allies, Silvius to a long and well-deserved bed, and Touchstone to his wrangling, it seems that there is hope for him still—Jaques has softened, and the story ends on a happy note.

Shakespeare lived in a land that was swept of its Catholic heritage. England had removed Christ from her tabernacles; deposed of her heavenly and earthly queens; and broke from apostolic succession through the removal, in her rites of ordination, of all references to Christ in the Eucharist. Catholic priests were martyred, and those who lived said Mass in secret closets called “priest holes.” Strains of Reformation theology entered the land and made their rounds. These false doctrines failed to account for the goodness with which God created man, and his plan to not merely “cover” the wickedness of the predestined as snow covers a dunghill (so the famous saying goes), but through his grace and our active cooperation with it, to truly transform our whole nature into his likeness. This was the kind of fatalism which Jaques may have believed and Shakespeare, much like Erasmus, did not accept.

Shakespeare never lapsed into cynicism, skepticism, or sentimentalism. Instead, he would have sided—albeit inconspicuously—with other Counter-Reformation Catholics. It was during the age of the Counter-Reformation, which began in Shakespeare’s time and continued through the eighteenth century, that churches like Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola in Rome were built. This Baroque church and the Rococo piazza that encloses it are designed to resemble a stage, but not the kind of stage that Jaques describes in his soliloquy. It is lively, persuasive, and rhetorical. It moves one to believe, as he leaves Mass and heads toward the bustling area of the Pantheon, that life is a drama. We are all given parts: God assigns the cast, but we must accept the grace that he gives us to play our parts well and joyously. Christ himself said to St. Faustina, “Know that you are on a great stage where all Heaven and Earth are watching you.” The world is a stage, but we are not merely players, fated to perform meaningless acts for the sake of arbitrary ends. For now, we must suffer our own frailties and those of others, but one day the meaning of all our good works will be made clear when we join the company of saints who have been freed from all self- love and united to Christ in Heaven. Till then, we need not succumb to the coldness of a world that forgets what it means to delight in, forgive, and give of oneself for the good of the other— what it means, in short, to love.

Love our Articles? Spread the word!

Liberating the Liberal Arts

Sign up to receive new Magnus Articles

Responses