Chances are you're familiar with Shakespeare's famous depressing views about aging, as expressed in As You Like It: “Last scene of all…Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” That's only one of a set of equally negative condemnations about old age from other plays which, when taken out of context, suggest that we all face decline, decay, and even dementia: “When the age is in, the wit is out” (Much Ado About Nothing), the “bare ruin’d choirs…in me” (Sonnet 73) and "Sir, I am too old to learn" (King Lear).
Although there are plenty of old and foolish characters throughout Shakespeare's plays, perhaps the oldest and most foolish is King Lear ("I am a very foolish fond old man"). Although it's easy to equate his age with his foolishness in banishing the one daughter of his three who truly loves him, you get the sense from the context of the play that his fatal error came not from age, but from a lifelong personality disorder of extreme narcissism. He expected only fawnish devotion from everyone, and when his daughter refused to flatter him, he decided that "Nothing shall come from nothing" renounced her as his offspring.
Shakespeare wrote King Lear when he was about 40 which, in Elizabethan England, was already 10 years past the average life expectancy. The word "old" is used more times in the play than in any other if his writings. Perhaps he was working through his own issues about aging as he developed a story that portrayed, in tragic detail, the king's slow descent into madness.Shakespeare was also a man of his time, and no doubt influenced by the fact that aging was a very different experience in the 1500s-1600s (he lived from 1564 to 1616). If they made it past the age of 40, they were considered lucky (and old). The plague struck every few years, and other diseases such as malaria, smallpox, and syphillis also took many lives. Ideas about medicine and health were primitive, with the view still prevalent from ancient Greece and Rome about the 4 bodily "humours" causing disease.
Reflecting on the topic of time, which is obviously closely related to aging, Shakespeare seemed equally pessimistic. He characterized life as creeping “in this petty pace from day to day…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth). He noted that “from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot” (As You Like It) and that “golden girls and lads all must, likely chimney sweepers, come to dust” (Cymbeline). We can relate these observations to the “tame” view of death of medieval culture (Aries, 1981). Though Shakespeare was to suffer from the tragedy of the death of one of his children (the twin Hamnet), it remains the case that unlike today’s “invisible” view of death, to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, death was a familiar and integral part of life.
However, Shakespeare wasn't locked into the simple view of time as a process that moved unrelentlessly forward, or what we now call the “linear” model of time or “time’s arrow.” In the late 16th and early 17th centires, clocks were a relatively new invention. Elizabethans didn’t keep track of the minutes, and different clocks in the same town announced completely different times of day. Until industrialization made the mechanical clock an integral feature of daily life, time was perceived in less absolute terms than it is now Shakespeare himself seemed fascinated with the idea that time could be measured, but he also allowed his characters to age according to the “logic of the dramatic action” (Charney, 2009). Shakespeare puts in Rosalind’s words (from As You Like It) the very psychological idea that “time travels in divers places with divers persons.”
Nevertheless, if Shakespeare were alive today, it’s likely that he would be writing very differently about the experience of aging, time, and death. People live longer and, at least in developed countries, are in far better mental and physical health than they were in Elizabethan England. The aging of the Baby Boomers is changing the landscape, as well as society’s views about what it means to grow old.
Shakespeare’s writings about aging in many ways contradict how he himself experienced aging. Like many aging artists, writers, and musicians, he became increasingly liberated in his later career from the conventions and restrictive rules that dominate the work of the young creator struggling to gain a reputation and acceptance. This old age style can only evolve over the decades as the creative mind seeks newer and more lasting forms of self-expression.
University of California Davis psychologist Dean Keith Simonton (2009), in his studies of aging and creativity, analyzed Shakespeare’s stylistic changes over his career investigating his use of (1) archaic vs. colloquial words and (2) deviation from standard rules of poetic meter and speech endings. Using both of these as variables in an equation, Simonton could predict, within a year or two, when each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays were written.
In other words, Shakespeare became liberated from conventional form, and linguistically more creative as he grew older. In the process, he also conveyed greater complexity of meaning as well as naturalness in the speeches of his characters. “As he experimented, borrowed, and revised, Shakespeare continuously revisited the sound of his characters’ speeches” (Pangallo, 2013).
The lifetime trajectory of Shakespeare’s 37 plays also reflect his evolution as a writer. His middle 12 plays are considered to be the most popular (with Hamlet outranking all others), but his late 13 plays ran a close second. In both periods, corresponding to ages 32 to 49, his works have withstood the test of time far more than the plays of his early years. From a linguistic analysis of Shakespeare’s works, Simonton concluded that “[Shakespeare] could not stay in one place, but rather had to move incessantly forward.”
What's particularly interesting and important about the aging quotes from Shakespeare's body of work are not just their content, but the fact that they have influenced centuries of both scholars and the public in general. We might even trace characters such as Grandpa Simpson to the old fools in Shakespeare's plays. When he wrote his plays, it's highly doubtful that Shakespeare realized his words and characters would persist in affecting the way we think about growing older.
However, it's important to recognize that as is true for his treatment of so many other universal themes, such as love, jealousy, ambition, and family relationships, Shakespeare's words on aging are nuanced and complex. Staying with us today are some of his most well-known quotes that reflect acceptance of age and particularly age combined with experience. These include 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 the encouraging words that: “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 (a late play) 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…”
Prospero, speaking in The Tempest (thought to be the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone), also provides us with a positive image of aging. Though he points out that "our little lives are rounded with a sleep" (again, that view of death as tame), his reflection on his career as it comes to an end suggests a man who is able to accept himself and his life, a concept very similar to Erikson's notion of ego integrity.
In summary, the study of Shakespeare and aging could occupy not only countless doctoral dissertations, but is a pursuit that reaps changing rewards in every new reading or performance of the Bard’s works. As we can see here, though, there’s nothing particularly simple about his characterization of aging, time, or death, and his own views evolved throughout his long and highly productive career. Perhaps, to quote a line from Hamlet, when it comes to aging Shakespeare shows us that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Aries, P. (1981). The hour of our death. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Charney, M. (2009). Wrinkled Deep in Time. New York: Columbia University Press.
Pangallo, M. (2013). Dramatic metre. In A. Kinney (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of Shakespeare. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199566105.013.0007
Simonton, D. (2009). The literary genius of William Shakespeare: Empirical studies of his dramatic and poetic creativity. In S. Kaufman, J. C. Kaufman (Eds.) , The psychology of creative writing (pp. 131-145). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511627101.010