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The Seven Ages of Women

by Julia Sneden

An eon or two ago, one of my English teachers required us to memorize Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” speech from As You Like It by William Shakespeare. It begins:

“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.”

It’s a brilliant metaphor, from England’s greatest dramatist. The Bard goes on to enumerate those acts, beginning with “... the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.” Anyone who has ever held an unhappy, colicky baby knows the image to be true.

Next comes “... the whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like a snail unwillingly to school.” In our house, he’d have had to include the missing left sneaker, the forgotten lunch bag, the cardboard Social Studies project that was drooping before it even got out the door, and the missed bus.

The third age, Shakespeare calls “... the lover, sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow.” These days any mother of a college student worries less about the “woeful ballad” and more about rap music, since its misogynistic lyrics are plenty full of woe for humankind, male or female. The furnace, however, still sighs, which bodes well for the future of the species.

After that we have a soldier, “full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard (leopard), jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the canon’s mouth.” (Would that our soldiers at My Lai or Abu Ghraib had considered reputation).

“And then the justice, in fair round belly ... eyes severe ... full of wise saws and modern instances ...” as fine a description of middle-aged pomposity as has ever been written down.

“The sixth age shifts into the lean and slippered pantaloon (16th century slang for geezer) with spectacles on nose...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.”

And last of all, “... is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Shakespeare was, God knows, a fine describer, but it seems to me that he missed a couple of things: in the first place, the description notes what the world sees, but I’d bet my arthritic knees that his man still, on the inside, felt continuously like himself. Age brings changes of body and points of view, but the self, the essential me-ness, doesn’t change, just as it doesn’t when a fine actor takes on a role in a play or movie.

And while “man” in the 16th century stood for both man and woman, I suspect that seven ages of the distaff side would have been quite differently described had Mr. S. taken on that challenge. He did, at the beginning, refer to “... all the men and women on it (the stage) ...” but seems to have left off the ladies when he got to the seven stages, which is too bad, since the female characters in his plays are amazingly complex and interesting, leading us to suspect he knew a lot about women.

In the interests of parity, and with profound apologies to William Shakespeare, here’s my take on the seven ages of women, 21 st century:

  1. Okay, mewling and puking still, but anyone who has ever really looked at a baby can tell that she (like her infant male counterpart), is also working hard to catalogue and make sense of her surroundings, and is discovering what works to help her get what she wants.

  2. Our schoolgirl has a shining morning face, but it’s also a sleepy one, since her school district mandates class attendance by 7:30 a.m. Her backpack includes her clothes for after-school gymnastics, followed by music for piano lesson, and 2 nd grade homework that takes over an hour to complete.

  3. Act three finds our girl dealing with pimples; sanitary pads; instant messages; what to do about her hair, and taking SAT prep classes for three long years before the actual event. Sighing and singing, however, are still de rigeur.

  4. Dressed for success, she hunts for that first job. Over and over, she hears: “You’re over-educated and under-experienced. Come back when you’ve built a good resumé.” Job as intern (unpaid), or trainee, or assistant to assistant finally obtained, she works three times as hard as everyone around her, with good effect. That’s when suspicions that “biology is destiny” begin to knock at the back door of her brain.

  5. She interrupts her career in order to bear children, and then re-starts it (with difficulty) to save for their college tuitions. Or, if motherhood was not her choice, she worries that her career may be threatened by cute young things who are willing to work for almost nothing (as she once did). Success in her career has taught her a great deal, however, and she finds herself serving as mentor to younger workers, which, it turns out, is a great way to keep an eye on their ambitions.

  6. She deals with the empty nest syndrome, although it seems unfair that it often strikes in conjunction with menopause. She is given to sudden tears, angers, and hot flashes. She throws out her birth control gear with a smile on her face. She ups the schedule of appointments with her hair colorist. She considers the merits of Lasik versus reading glasses. She deals with the death of loved ones, and begins to think of retirement and possibly relocation. She welcomes grandchildren or great nieces and nephews with a grateful heart. She weighs the expense and discomfort of plastic surgery against saying “what the hell,” and decides to embrace looking like her grandmother (whom she loved and thought beautiful).

  7. She once hoped never to reach the age where it all falls apart, but now that she’s there, she fights like the devil to transcend it. She may be sans eyes, sans ears, and worst of all, sans car, but her sense of humor is as lively as ever. She seeks pleasure in the attentions of her family. Her sense of smell and taste and touch remain, and she is fond of stroking smooth objects (an old comforter; the bowl of a sterling silver spoon; the cat). She sniffs appreciatively at the smell of supper in the oven, although she will eat almost none of it, and the crumbs of that none will be spilled all over her. She savors her breakfast toast and bacon, something her figure-conscious younger self never allowed her to eat. And almost the last thing she says to her daughter is: “Inside, I still feel like me.”

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