So what are these ages of life? Most of us have heard Shakespeare's "seven ages of man" monologue from As You Like It, which begins:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Shakespeare’s ages are very decidedly gendered, except for the first (the mewling infant) and the last (second childishness…sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”) Between those endpoints, the schoolboy becomes the lover, then the soldier and the judge. Decline begins in the sixth stage, “lean and slippered pantaloon”, which is not a garment but a comic character from Italian commedia dell'arte, an aging man clinging in vain to the last vestiges of youth. Shakespeare did not invent these images; there are earlier examples dating back to ancient Greece, although sometimes the number of ages are fewer. By medieval times, the number seven was commonplace.
There are also many versions of the “seven ages of woman”, which helpfully reveal the interplay between age and gender. For example, Hans Baldung’s 1545 painting (above) portrays the middle five stages in the nude, only their hair and headdresses hinting at social status. The baby girl is clothed, and the oldest woman is hidden behind another figure. It is a study in the physical changes in a woman’s body over the life course. In the centuries since Shakespeare and Baldung’s time, not much has changed. Men’s lives are delineated by occupations (and they get to wear clothes!); women’s journeys are marked by biological events: puberty, motherhood, menopause. One author points it rather pointedly: Instead of "government or commerce, war or exploration, science or even the arts", woman's fulfillment...her eagerness, her interest has always been directed toward...the perfection of her femininity". (My marginal note is simply, “Wow!”) Only two characteristics of their stories are similar. First, the least gendered stages of life are the same: infancy and very old age. Second, The first through the fifth ages are described in progressive or positive terms, with the decline narrative beginning in the sixth. Apparently, men and women begin to go “over the hill” at about the same points in their lives.
Which leads me to ponder: Where am I in this journey? Definitely sixth age, with the seventh hidden in the fog, or perhaps crouching like a stripper in my next birthday cake. Where are you? What are the markers that you noticed along the way that told you that an age border had been crossed?