“The Seven Ages of Man” develops a theme of the futility of age milestones. It is well known to Shakespearean and Greek philosophy scholars that these age milestones correspond to the Greek concept of the seven stages of life. Some Greek philosophers, such as Diogenes, named only four stages of life that corresponded with the seasons: childhood (spring), youth (summer), adulthood (fall), and aging (winter). The seven stages were similar but created two categories for childhood (young child and child on the cusp of puberty) and two categories for young adulthood adolescent (think just able to grow a sparse beard) and young man (shining with youthful vitality, but a completed adult in bodily form, perhaps a warrior). The “man” stage was commonly thought of as the prime of life, an ideal time for man to function as a leader. Meriting respect and physical signs of aging defined the next tier in the seven stages (elderly man), and the final stage (old man) implied a need for protection and care.
Shakespeare puts a more artful emphasis on what each of these stages is meant to achieve in his poem. As is not surprising for the theatrically minded, he uses descriptions that would signify a life stage if they were costumes, props, or actions on a literal stage. This is why the poem begins with “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (lines 1–6). He is setting his audience up to read the hyperbolic descriptions as they would read the cues of a scene to understand characters and motives.
The first stage Shakespeare mentions is the “young child,” which hyperbole turns to a “mewling and puking infant” (lines 6-7). Here Shakespeare compares young children with cats, who do not meow or “mewl” when no humans are around, but who have learned to imitate human tones akin to infant cries to communicate with their human stewards. He is emphasizing that the objective of young children is to be cared for and to get what they want. Indeed, the fact that infants “puke” and cannot clean up after themselves shows that the aim of this stage of life is warranted.
The second stage Shakespeare mentions is the “whining schoolboy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like snail / Unwillingly to school” (lines 7–9). The representation of the second stage of man carries a tone of disdain in the description. The schoolboy, having progressed beyond a complete need to be taken care of, still whines to get his way; he has not outgrown what has become a habit. His “shining morning face,” vibrant with the carefree hue of childhood, is set in resistance against the societal attempt to harness and shape his young mind. In other words, the aim of childhood is to stay young and naïve and innocent as long as possible. This aim may annoy the adults of his world who are charged to educate him so that he can become independent and contribute to society; hence the disdainful tone.
The third stage Shakespeare addresses is that of an adolescent. Shakespeare’s youth is hormone-driven, and the proof is in the passionate poetry he writes: “And then the lover / sighing like furnace, / with a woeful ballad / made to his mistress’ eyebrow” (lines 9–11). The youth sighs like a furnace because of the burning passion (or lust) within him, and he writes “woeful” poetry because his lust is not yet fulfilled. His mistress’s eyebrow is raised, probably because she doubts his love is anything beyond superficial. The milestone of this stage of youth is sexual maturity.
The fourth and fifth stages reflect milestones related to citizenship. The young man is eager to build a reputation of bravery and honor, so he becomes a soldier. He is so zealous for these milestones that he unflinchingly faces “the cannon’s mouth” with the singular aim of obtaining them (lines 10–14). The “man” stage reflects that the ends of the young man were achieved, but his experiences in war have given him wiser judgment. He is the “justice” to show that his objective is to discern and live wisely, and he contributes to society by offering these “wise saws” to youths as foolish as he used to be (line 18).
Lines 22–24 show that the “elderly stage” is one of regression. The elderly man’s body is shrinking in frame and muscle mass. He no longer maintains the same strength as he had in the prime of his life. His eyes are weak and require spectacles, or glasses, but he keeps the “youthful hose” of his glory days. This means he remembers how impressive he used to be and probably spends much of his time remembering these days and telling stories about his former glory to others.
The final stage is “a second childishness” in that all the education of childhood, the lust of youth, the glory and wisdom of manhood, and the sentimentality of the later years are forgotten because they are irrelevant. The old man can no longer uses his education for independence—he requires care. The glory and wisdom of manhood can no longer earn him respect, for he must humble himself to be at the mercy of others in order to survive as long as possible. In a way, the poem is saying all the milestones are ultimately sought in vain, because the man ends up right back where he begins.