What is the symbolic meaning of "All the world's a stage" by Shakespeare in As You Like It?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The soliloquy of Jacques in As You Like It is not symbolic but metaphorical. The extended metaphor has two main parts. In the first part he is saying that everybody in the world is an actor on a gigantic stage all at the same time. It is one vast stage production. Then in the second part Jacques focuses on one individual actor and declares that he has to play seven parts during his lifetime. He describes each of the roles every man must play, if he lives long enough, beginning as an infant, gradually becoming a boy, and so on inexorably until he reaches the last stage of all as a very old man ready to die.

What is intriguing about this soliloquy is that we recognize the truth in it. We remember various "roles" we played in our past and how we somehow seemed to be assigned new roles and learned to play them after feeling a little awkward in them at first. We recognize how we are often "playing a part" when we are at work or at a social gathering, and we realize that other people must be doing the same thing.

These "roles" or "parts" are now called "personas" by psychologists, and the term has become part of the common language. When are we really ourselves? Probably only when we are alone--if then. The rest of the time, to use T. S. Eliot's words, we "put on a face to meet the faces that we meet." Shakespeare, through his character Jacques, is telling an important truth about mankind and human society. What does "All the world's a stage" mean? It means that all the world's a stage.


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