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