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An Ageless Voice on Aging

Shakespeare on time’s passage—and potency

March-April 2010


In the teeming universe of Shakespeare’s plays, you can find people of any and every age. There are young children like Mamillius, the king’s son in The Winter’s Tale; teenage lovers like Romeo and Juliet; and men in their prime, like Henry V. 

But as Maurice Charney, Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers and past president of the Shakespeare Association of America, reminds us in Wrinkled Deep in Time: Aging in Shakespeare,a surprising number of the plays’ most powerful characters are very old. There is King Lear, of course, “fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less,” who at the beginning of his play announces his intention to “unburdened crawl toward death,” and by the end seems cosmically ancient: “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long,” Edgar predicts. There is Falstaff, the fat old knight, who keeps flirting and boasting despite his gray hair: “Have you not a moist eye, a dry hand, a yellow cheek, a white beard, a decreasing leg, an increasing belly?” another character demands, to which Falstaff replies, “The truth is, I am only old in judgment and understanding.” Then there is Lady Capulet, who after learning of her daughter’s tragedy declares, “O me, this sight of death is as a bell/That warns my old age to a sepulcher.”

But wait—Lady Capulet, old? In the first act of Romeo and Juliet, we learn that Juliet is about to turn 14, and her mother, trying to convince her to marry Paris, reminds her: “by my count, I was your mother much upon these years /That you are now a maid.” In other words, Lady Capulet should be around 28 years old—a little early to be speaking about “my old age,” even in the sixteenth century, when life expectancy was much shorter than it is today. This is a dramatic example of the way Shakespeare manipulates our sense of time, and aging, in the plays. As Charney puts it, the plays make use of “double time” or “long and short time,” in which the passage of time from scene to scene appears much more rapid than the span from the first act to the last.

Another way of putting it is that aging, in Shakespeare, is not chronological but psychological: “characters seem to age in relation to the logic of the dramatic action rather than the logical progression of the narrative.” Perhaps the most famous example is Hamlet, which gives conflicting accounts of its hero’s age. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet has just been called home from the University of Wittenberg, suggesting that he is a young man, in his teens or early twenties. In the fifth act’s graveyard scene, however, we learn that Yorick—the jester who “hath borne me on his back a thousand times”—has been lying in the earth “three and twenty years,” which would seem to make Hamlet closer to 30. 


 

Such contradictions never trouble the audience, Charney notes. For one thing, when you are seeing the play instead of reading it, you don’t have time to do the math. Shakespeare wants us to pay attention not to the calendar, but to the inner growth Hamlet has undergone since the beginning of the play. We sense that “Hamlet now seems much older than he did when the play began,” not because he looks different, but because of the newfound maturity that allows him to look calmly on death: “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.” 

At other moments in the plays and poems, Charney shows, our sense of what it means to be old is unsettled by the very different way the Elizabethans thought about life and its stages. Not only did they not expect to live as long as we do, they did not expect to stay young as long. One of the major themes of Shakespeare’s sonnets is the poet’s advice to his friend to get married and have children before he gets too old and his beauty is destroyed. The prospect of wrinkles is especially terrifying in these poems: they “dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,” they are reminders of “mouthed graves” and “Time’s thievish progress,” they “[delve] the parallels in beauty’s brow.” Yet the deadline Shakespeare sets for this physical ruination, in Sonnet 2, is “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow.”

This foreshortened lifespan also helps to explain why love and lust, in characters whom we would see as not even middle-aged, appear to Shakespeare as a kind of affront to nature. This is especially true when the characters are women. In his chapter on “Powerful Older Women,” Charney examines the dreadful, proto-Freudian scene in which Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her bedroom. We never learn exactly how old Gertrude is meant to be, but since Hamlet tells her, “at your age/The heyday in the blood is tame,” Charney deduces that she is “beyond her childbearing years.” That such a woman can still feel sexual desire is shocking to her son: “Nay, but to live/In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,/Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty,” he rants. 

To be fair, however, it is not only middle-aged women whose sexuality is dangerous in Shakespeare. We tend to think of Othello as being in the prime of life, a warrior and lover whose passions are his undoing. But as Charney reminds us, he is actually meant to be on the cusp of old age. Othello describes himself as “declined/Into the vale of years,” and he specifically tells Desdemona’s father that he no longer feels lust: “I…beg it not/To please the palate of my appetite,/Nor to comply with heat—the young affects/In me defunct….” Once we see Othello as an aging man, perhaps in his sixties, to the twenty-something or even teenage Desdemona, the whole character of the play changes: it becomes a story of the tormenting loss of potency, a parable not just of jealousy but of aging. 

Wrinked Deep in Time, by reading the plays closely and thinking clearly about them, offers many such insights. “It seems to me now,” Charney writes in his introduction, “that Shakespeare was preoccupied with issues of aging that must have had an acute relation to his own sense of growing old.” Charney himself is “approaching Lear’s age,” he says, and “there is a certain autobiographical element” in his work; the match between Shakespeare’s preoccupations and his own has allowed him to produce a fine and useful book.