Theatrum Mundi


This is invariably the sense in which Shakespeare cites it. Even at his most genial, the implication is negative. In As You Like It (“All the world’s a stage /And all men and women merely players…” 2.7.139-66), a gentler – more “natural” –  universality is achieved by grafting the Theatrum Mundi to another topos: the seven ages of man. But each of these ages is laughable. At no point in his life-cycle does man ever amount to much: each moment of his progress is ridiculous. Not for nothing is the speaker of these lines called “the melancholy Jacques”.

The pessimism darkens in Shakespeare’s tragedies. In a passage which devastatingly echoes Jacques’s vision of serial futility, Macbeth looks back in anguish:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.

Life’s but a waking 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. (5.5.18-27)

If the theatrum mundi is not so obvious here as in As You Like It, it is overwhelmingly present. The whole passage is drenched in theatrical imagery, every detail of which – the candles, the shadow (or actor), the player, the strutting and the fretting, the tale, the sound and the fury – radiates despair. It is also eerily reflexive. If Macbeth thinks of his life as “a tale /Told by an idiot” then what must a playwright feel after a bad day at the office: a man whose whole occupation is to concoct tales for professional tatlers otherwise known as “actors”? Such a passage warns us against taking the Theatrum Mundi commonplace as “merely” a commonplace. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries – especially the more deeply reflective among them, such as Montaigne – the thought was profoundly unsettling.

Its best known source was the Policraticus (or Statesman’s Book) by the twelfth century humanist, John of Salisbury. This text is thought to have been the origin of the sign of the Globe Theatre, which is itself thought to have been a picture of Hercules carrying a globe with the motto: Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem (or, “All the world’s a stage”). In the third book of the Policraticus, we read that “the life of man on earth is a comedy, where each forgetting his own plays another’s role” (Pike, 171). This means that “almost all the world is playing a part”, and that “the world is the stage on which this endless, marvelous, incomparable tragedy, or if you will comedy can be played; its area is in fact that of the whole world” (Pike, 175, 176).

The metaphor then is cosmic as well as global. If the earthly globe corresponds to the stage, then the heavens (or the celestial spheres which in the classical cosmos are imagined as encircling the earth like the semi-circular seating of a classical theatre) function as an auditorium where heavenly beings sit and laugh at the follies enacted before them on the earthly stage.

The architecture of John’s metaphor is drawn from Stoic writers such as Cicero and Seneca, perhaps most importantly from Cicero’s Dream of Scipio. Before his contest with Hannibal, the virtuous Scipio Africanus dreams that he has been rapt to the heavens from which vantage he looks back on the earth to remark its utter insignificance. Why should he even bother returning to this “pinpoint” as he calls it? The answer is that duty calls. Scipio returns to earth therefore as an elect soul, one of the very few whose life on earth will be spent in great and purposive action rather than in trivial pursuits. Such a man is not just another comedian, a compulsive player of parts that are not his own.  He is authentically himself.

The Ciceronian and stoic idea that one might be authentically oneself rather than playing a part was of great concern to Montaigne. As Jean Starobinski suggests, Montaigne’s retreat from the world to his library and his literary activity was specifically imagined as a disciplined avoidance of the madness of public life where role-play was compulsory. Life remained a theatre in the library, but a theatre that one might master through virtue and friendship with a virtuous friend. At the death of this friend, Etienne de la Boétie, Montaigne remarked that “the theatre of my acts is fallen”. If each man is the theatre of the other, then it behooves a man to have a small circle of friends – as small as possible. Ideally one should have just the one friend for the reason that virtue is extremely rare, and the added reason that human beings are more madly theatrical in proportion to their numbers. With a single virtuous friend – and finally his memory preserved in the form of La Boétie’s library that he had incorporated with his own – Montaigne’s chances of virtue were at about their optimum. That this most sane and decent of humanists was on the verge of what the century of Shaftesbury might have labeled a “misanthrope” was due to the pessimism of his contemplation of the theatrum mundi.

On the evidence of his tragedies, Shakespeare was even less optimistic than Montaigne. The two Shakespearean citations of the topos we have considered to this point are without the element of divine spectatorship. But it is specifically this element which is responsible for perhaps the most appalling citations of the topos in all Shakespeare. The madness of King Lear is in some sense due to a back-stage vision of a stage play world. To dis-accommodate man – to strip him of costume – is not to recall him to his senses but to derange him, to turn him into a cowering animal. There is no inner self to retreat to, just a hollowness. Justice itself is a stage set, behind which there is nothing to distinguish the justice from the thief. Such a vision is more than melancholy: “When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools” (4.5.174-75). If the gods find this funny, then what does that say about them? The question is answered by Gloucester: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; / They kill us for their sport” (4.1.36-37). The accusation of man has become an accusation of heaven. The theatrum mundi is a theatre of divine cruelty and/or juvenile sadism.

Shakespeare approaches the topos from another direction in Hamlet which can be read as the problem of how to establish of a true identity in opposition to the froth of theatrical identity. The hero stands at odds with his social world, with nothing more to sustain him than a consciousness of superior self-worth. The bitter lesson perhaps is that the self is no rock on which to build a higher criterion of truthfulness. It is too brittle, too hollow, too liable to theatrical subversion.

What finally strikes one about this ancient figure is its paradoxicality. On the one hand, the logic of the world-as-stage should strike us as obsolete, to the degree of depending on a theology which is no longer generally current. If the “early modern” was a spectrum, then the theatrum mundi should be at the early end not at the modern end. On the other hand however, its logic is eerily modern. At its most urgent and deeply evolved – in Montaigne and Hamlet  – the theatrum mundi looks forward to the existential theatre of Pirandello, Sartre and Beckett.

QUESTION: Could one read Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors in terms of the theatrum mundi?.....And what about the theatrum mundi in Hamlet anyway?


Starobinski, Jean, “Montaigne on Illusion: the Denunciation of Untruth”, Daedalus, 108, Summer 1979, 85-101.

The Theatrum Mundi is an early modern “commonplace” or topos (an article of wisdom based on ancient texts) wherein the world is likened to a stage.  The formula is always morally inflected. Its most usual sense is that human life is as vain and empty as a comedy.

Pageant stage for a Royal Entry into Antwerp, 1594, influenced by the Theatrum Mundi