Column: What Shakespeare has to say about the drama of our lives

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​Have you ever felt that you are taking part in a play, and that your life is one long performance in which you are adopting a series of roles? The world’s greatest playwright certainly understood that feeling, writes Laurence Coupe.

​Everyone knows the opening of the famous speech by his character Jaques in As You Like It (1599): ‘All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players.’

In that speech, life is presented as having seven phases, culminating in old age. ‘Last scene of all,/That ends this strange eventful history,/ Is second childishness and mere oblivion…’

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The intriguing thing about ‘All the world’s a stage’ is that it occurs in the middle of one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies. So the melancholy speech stands in tension with the life-affirming action of the play.

Guest columnist Laurence Coupe.Guest columnist Laurence Coupe.
Guest columnist Laurence Coupe.

For thoroughgoing pessimism about the human drama we must turn to the tragedies, notably Macbeth (1606). The murderous main character, realising his ambitions have been thwarted and that his end is nigh, can only conclude: ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.’

The tragic action of the play certainly confirms this judgement.

Shakespeare’s last great plays are called ‘romances’, as they are full of mysteries and marvels. In Act Four of The Tempest (1611), Prospero – magician and sage – stages a masque (a drama within the drama) for his daughter and her suitor.

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Bringing it to an end, he tells them that the characters ‘were all spirits and/Are melted into air, into thin air’. Similarly, the world we know, with its ‘cloud-capp’d towers’, its ‘gorgeous palaces’, its ‘solemn temples, shall ‘dissolve/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,/Leave not a rack behind.’

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​”The intriguing thing about ‘All the world’s a stage’ is that it occurs in the middle of one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies. So the melancholy speech stands in tension with the life-affirming action of the play”, says writer Laurence Coupe.​”The intriguing thing about ‘All the world’s a stage’ is that it occurs in the middle of one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies. So the melancholy speech stands in tension with the life-affirming action of the play”, says writer Laurence Coupe.
​”The intriguing thing about ‘All the world’s a stage’ is that it occurs in the middle of one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies. So the melancholy speech stands in tension with the life-affirming action of the play”, says writer Laurence Coupe.

As for us: ‘We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep’.

Is this vision tragic or comic? Neither. It represents a wise acceptance of our impermanence and a corrective to our arrogance. So let’s play the parts that life demands without getting attached to any – and then be ready to leave the stage once we have heard ‘the chimes at midnight’ (Henry IV Part 2).

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