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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: March 2013

2 - Individuals in society, 1450–1600

from Part I


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 the nurse’s arms;

Then the whining school-boy, 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, 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 lin’d,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age 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. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(Jacques, in William Shakespeare’sAs You Like It (1599), Act 2, scene 7)

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, western scholars had debated about how many stages made up a man’s life. Some argued for four, corresponding to the four seasons, some twelve, corresponding to the months and the signs of the zodiac, and some three, five, six, eight, or ten. The most common number was seven, corresponding to the seven known planets (the planets out to Saturn plus the moon), and identified by St. Ambrose in the fourth century as infancy, boyhood, adolescence, young manhood, mature manhood, older manhood, and old age. The “ages of man” show up textually in philosophical discussions, essays, and poetry, verbally in songs, plays, and sermons, and visually in manuscript illuminations, stained-glass windows, wall paintings, and cathedral floors, so that everyone was familiar with them.

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Burckhardt, Jacob, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), vol. I, p. 143.
Heseler, Baldasar, Andreas Vesalius’ First Public Anatomy at Bologna 1540: An Eyewitness Report, ed. Ruben Eriksson (Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksells, 1959), p. 181.
Hajnal, John, “European Marriage Patterns in Perspective,” in D. V. Glass and D. E. C. Eversley, eds., Population in History (London: Edward Arnold, 1965), 101–43.
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