“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.”
So penned English playwright William Shakespeare in the 1599 comedy “As You Like It.” But the notion that social order is structured like a theatrical performance is much older. Likewise, the concept that we humans follow a tight pattern of progress from infancy to aged decline is seen in art and literature long before being reinforced by this play.
Of course, on the most specific level, we are all individual thinkers, liberated by our own free will to live as we see fit. Still, a child of five is unlikely to paint a masterwork, teach a graduate class or lead a platoon into battle. She is held to the constraints of the parts available to her as dictated by her then position. Once past, she may not return to reprise the roles again. A childhood squandered cannot be regained without regard to the number of toys that we might, as later adults, gather around us. And in our advancing years, we move from expressions of the passion of middle life to the wisdom earned in twilight times. Some resist this natural progression, while others embrace it.
Even if we aspire to take a lead, can we hope to escape our assigned parts, be it understudy or bit player? Disguising our features behind a Kabuki mask, would the audience accept us against type? Even more, if all the world is a stage, are we better as its actors or as its patrons, simply paying to observe as others perform? Could we be destined to contribute in each role and position on the stage and in the audience?