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Monday, 25 August 2014

Shakespeare's Old Age

I am the first to admit that my knowledge of Shakespeare is spotty and even that may be overstating it.

Something like a hundred years ago, I read all 37 plays along with some learned commentary and have re-read or seen some of them performed since then but I am hardly conversant.

Nevertheless, even I know Shakespeare took a dim view of old people, right? His assessment is familiar to most of us with the “All the world's a stage” monologue from As You Like It that includes the bard's seven ages of man, the last two being:

The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered 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.

This aligns well with a few other age references in the plays or, anyway, that's what I thought until I read an essay by University of Massachusetts Amherst psychology professor, Susan Krauss Whitbourne last week.

Before I go further I must note that as so many otherwise educated people do, she gets life expectancy in Shakespeare's time wrong stating,

”Shakespeare lived to the age of 52 (he died on his birthday), which at that time was over 20 years past the life expectancy of 30.”

Actually, people in Shakespeare's time commonly lived well past his age of death.

As we have discussed here before, 30 would be life expectancy at birth in a time when it is estimated that around 30 percent of children did not live to adulthood. In fact, Shakespeare's father and mother lived to be 70 and 68 respectively, his sister Joan lived to 77, as did his daughter Judith.

Okay, I'll get off that hobby horse of mine now and move on to the more interesting part of Professor Whitbourne's essay in which she acknowledges that although many people, like me, assume Shakespeare's gloomy attitude toward age is common throughout his works,

”In fact, not all of the lines from Shakespeare that have stayed with us are as negative, including praise of an 'aging' Cleopatra: 'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety,' and the truly old servant Adam in As You Like It, who proclaims 'Though I look old, yet I am strong and lusty.'

“In The Merchant of Venice, we hear from Gratiano, 'With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.'

“Although tragic in the context of the play, on its own this line from the last act of Macbeth suggests that Shakespeare may have come to regard aging as more than just a phase of life to be mocked or feared: 'And that which should accompany old age, As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends...'”

So Shakespeare's judgment of old age was more nuanced and not nearly as negative as it is thought to be.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Vicki E. Jones: The Turtle That Looked Toward the East


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Wise and timely post today as I, a long-time lurker, sit on the patio enjoying the first real break of our long hot southern summer. It is truly a morning made for reflection and wonderment at the comfort of knowing the cycle continues...growing old is a part of that cycle as surely as the days begin to cool a bit this time of year.
Newly retired from my day job of 30+years, I must now figure out what comes next. Many mornings like this with good coffee, surviving hibiscus flowers opening to the sunshine, cool breeze hinting of the fall season to come and thoughtful reading like this sound like a good place to start!

You've chosen wisely Liz. This is a starting place for many of us each morning. Ronni's posts inspire many thought provoking comments, so you'll feel as though you've met a group of bright and funny friends for coffee each morning!

Susan Whitbourne makes a good point in her essay on Shakespeare when she says (elders are) "---in far better mental and physical health than they were in Elizabethan England." She is referring to today's baby boomers. And, indeed, modern medicine, better hygiene and a healthier lifestyle have enabled today's elders to live longer and be in better physical shape than those in medieval times.

So, in reality, we are not the frail and rotting elders that Shakespeare depicted. But I am sure he accurately describes many of the aged of his time. There were exceptions, such as Cleopatra, just as there are exceptions in our time. Think of the 91 year old who repeated his parachute jump over Normandy.

I do think that more people are living into their 90's now than ever before. In that context, we are living longer. I would like to see a study on the percentage of elders life spans that excludes the deaths of anyone under the age of 40. That would be a truer measure of our longevity.

Old Will was just full of quotes about aging. This one is slightly self deprecating.


"My comfort is, that old age, that ill layer-up of beauty, can do no more spoil upon my face."

...William Shakespeare

Shakespeare may have sounded disparaging of old age, he was also subtle and witty and many other things [see Bruce's quote above]. He also created a magnificent old man in Lear, just about my favorite play, I have seen Ian McKellen giving what might be a performance of a lifetime as Lear, sat on the second row, was totally won over - also Simon Russell Beale, a somewhat younger man who is just about the best Shakespearean actor alive -- and just recently, thanks to you, Ronni, I investigated John Lithgow's take on Lear - whom he sees as not horrible [as Bill Moyers seemed to think], but sad and depressed and tragic. I love the play, as always love the language. Am no good at being able to quote from memory, though. Never was.

Don't recall quoting much Shakespeare, but have read countless comments of such by others, along with various interpretations of timeless meanings.

My family does quote OFTEN - from Seinfeld. Verbatim!

Perhaps it's time to reenter the Shakespearean works left decades ago upon the desk littered with balled up papers, doodles galore and texts thrown to the floor in frustration. I hated it then. Maybe ready now.

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