Shakespeare…21st century style.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II Scene VII

This is one of Shakespeare’s many famous lines. It’s a rich source of ideas, and I’ve blogged on it before. Here’s an additional thought.

In the play, Shakespeare’s speaker – Jaques – goes on to monologue on the seven ages of man:

“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. As, first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And 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 and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, 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 lined,
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 saved, 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.”


Not an entirely pretty picture, especially for those of us who might prefer to see ourselves somewhere in the “justice” phase, but in the eyes of those who know us probably more in that penultimate “spectacles on nose [and worse!]” part.

But for present purposes, let’s go in a different direction. Let’s think in terms of different ages, not with respect to us as individuals, but to us as the world’s peoples. And let’s think as well about different ages in the relationship between the world’s population, taken as a whole, and our Real World stage.

You might well come up with your own candidate list (to be encouraged), but here’s one to start your thinking

1. Our human drama is played outdoors, in the open. Picture this as pre-civilization mankind. We were hunter-gatherers, nomads. We were, all of us, in intimate personal day-to-day contact with the real world as a source of everything we needed, and as a threat. We probably noticed we could do damage to the landscape and animals, but the solution was to move on. When we would come back, a season or a few years later, things would have returned to normal. Our stage and the real world were one and the same; our preoccupations and lives were very integrated with that real world.

2. An open but structured amphitheater. Picture this as early civilization; the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Those tents and huts from before had been replaced by sturdier, fixed structures. We’d set down roots. The plays were still very much preoccupied with gods and goddesses who ruled our real world and whose actions explained why things were.

3. The Globe Theater. This theater was built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. [Quite an interesting history and worth the read.] The audience was protected somewhat from the elements, but the theater featured an open roof. Some of the plays featured the elements (The Tempest comes to mind, but there were others), but for the most part, these were a backdrop. The real plays were about human relationships…about love, hate, revenge, despair, hope, envy, fear, courage, joy…

4. Completely enclosed, elegant, artificial space. Theaters were no longer open air, although some ceilings sported painted representations of the sky. Ceiling lights and chandeliers symbolize(d) the stars. The stage and the players were/are Isolated from direct experience of the outside world. The play is set on the stage, but has nothing to do with the stage. Generally, those preoccupied with the sets seek to transcend the stage’s limitations – either through elaborate constructs or stark simplicity. This relationship is very much a creature of the Industrial revolution. If civilization has imposed one degree of separation from direct experience with the real world, then the industrial revolution has imposed a second such degree. Only the merest few of us are directly engaged in farming or resource extraction.

5. The stage is growing more crowded with players. The world’s population is growing. Increasingly, we’re jostling each other, finding less room to move about, make changes, meet our needs. At the same time, we’ve introduced a third degree of separation between ourselves and our Real World. We are in that office or on that urbanized street, but that artificial world of walls and lighting and HVAC and all those shops etc., that are physically around us has receded into the background. We’re absorbed in a virtual environment…available to us through that computer or laptop or smartphone and the 4G world it brings to us.

6. The players are not just crowded on the stage; the play is about the stage. We look up from all our technological success to notice that the Real World, which was once so big as to essentially be limitless, is now returning to the center of our thinking. Where/how will we sustain the supplies of food, water and energy we require?  How do we slow down or possibly prevent the environmental deterioration all around us? Why do hazards increasingly intrude? More and more, these issues are becoming the subjects of discussion. Some of the discussion is about surrogates for these issues – the biggest being the 2008 meltdown of the financial sector; current problems with the United States budget, the fragile state of the Euro, and worldwide unemployment. But increasingly, the discussion on stage will be about the Real World challenges behind these abstractions.

Only six ages. What about any seventh age? That lies ahead! You and I are constructing this…in our work day to day, in our family lives, in our thoughts and meditation, our relationships and conversations with each other. We’re building the sets, writing the script. It’s not a bagatelle. It’s a serious drama. Our lives matter.

Perforce, we’re players. Let’s act our part well.

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2 Responses to Shakespeare…21st century style.

  1. Michael Cunningham says:

    All our interactions with the outside world take place at our sense doors. And all of these interactions are mediated by our internal world, our (so-called) conscious and (so-called) unconscious minds. What happens within determines what happens without, how we deal with other beings and our environment. A massive amount of attention is given to the outer, far too little to the inner. Unless we resolve our inner beings, we can’t deal properly with the external world.

    Whenever there is a contact with a sense door – a sound with the ear, a sight with the eye, etc – four processes begin. First, consciousness arises – we note that a sound has come. Second, a perception arises, filtered through our past experiences: we evaluate the sound: words of praise, good; words of abuse, bad. Third, a sensation arises on the body. These sensations arise continually and, whether we are awake or asleep, the so-called unconscious or subconscious mind which is always conscious), is always aware of them. A contact we assess as good gives a pleasant sensation, one assessed as bad gives an unpleasant sensation. The fourth part of the mind reacts to these sensations: we like pleasant sensations, and want more of them; we dislike pleasant sensations, and want to be free of them.

    These reactions lead to craving and aversion, to a conditioned mind: the balance of the mind is disturbed, we are not at peace, the quest to have pleasant sensations and be rid of unpleasant ones leads to disharmony, a disharmony which manifests in how we deal with ourselves and the rest of the world; a disharmony recognised and dealt with by Shakespeare.

    We need to be equanimous to see the world clearly and deal with it wisely. Equanimity at the surface level, in that small part of the mind called consciousness, is helpful but insufficient. To understand reality, we need to observe the processes within ourselves at the deepest level, the ever-changing sensations, with detachment, with equanimity. We can through direct experience of these sensations see that we are composed of particles which arise and pass away with great rapidity, no substance, no solidity; no self, nothing to cling to.

    Through this, we can be free of past conditionings, our egos are diminished, we can deal with the world as it is rather than through a veil of ignorance.

    How do we do this? The only way I know is the ancient practice of Vipassana meditation, a non-sectarian technique which trains the mind to observe reality directly, with detachment. In case that seems like a sales pitch, I would note that in the tradition of my teacher since 1972, S N Goenka, in which Vipassana is taught in residential courses, there is no charge for the courses, all teaching and other service is given on an unpaid voluntary basis.

    More info: .

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