In the poem "Seven Ages" (an extract from As You Like It), why does the poet, Shakespeare, call life an eventful history?
This speech in Act II, Scene 4 of "Shakespeare's As You Like It is also often referred to by its first line, "All the world’s a stage..." The character who speaks it, Jacques, is somewhat of a misanthrope, albeit with a philosophical bent. The content of the speech is based on the traditional notion of the "ages of man." One of our earliest preserved poems on this topic is the seminal one by the archaic Greek sage Solon.
Jacques' speech is intended as a parody or satire. Normally, poems in this genre praise how humans grow from newborn infants, gradually gaining physical prowess and knowledge, and eventually, as their bodies weaken with age, gaining wisdom. Rather than emphasizing the strengths of each period in our lives, Jacques emphasizes the negatives.
The term "eventful" literally means full of events or occurrences, but rather than being used in a positive sense, emphasizing how lives are filled with interesting actions, it emphasizes that our lives actually consist of playing a series of stereotyped, age-appropriate roles.
The phrase "strange eventful history," as it was used in the Renaissance, suggests a melodrama, such as a revenge tragedy or a traveler's tall tale, but instead of being strange and wondrous, as a good play might be, this history sounds trivial and mundane. The phrase is thus used ironically, as seen in light of the descriptions of the ages. Thus our ordinary lives are being compared not to something sublime or profound but to a rather dull play.
It’s important to remember that when reading a play the ideas and thoughts of the characters aren’t necessarily the playwright’s own. In poetry, often the poet herself is narrating thoughts and feelings, but in drama that is rarely the case. So in this case, Shakespeare himself doesn’t call life an “eventful history”, Jaques does. It’s not clear that Shakespeare agrees with Jaques’s summary of life; in fact, the speech about the seven ages of man is extremely bleak in its articulation of all of life ultimately ending in decay and uselessness. Life seems pretty pointless to Jaques in that speech. Maybe Shakespeare felt that way too, but we don’t know. Jaques calls life an “eventful history” ironically: “eventful history” makes it sound like a true-life adventure story, when actually what he’s just described is a series of life stages, predictable and boring, adding up to nothing much and ending in hopeless nothingness. It’s as if he described this inevitable march to the grave as an “epic saga”, coldly funny in its overstatement.