We've all come to believe that Shakespeare was down on old age, particularly as judged by one of his most famous quotes about the last stage of life (from As You Like It): "Last scene of all... Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." There are a number of equally negative quotes about old age from other plays which, when taken out of context, seem to condemn all of us to equally horrific endings: "As they say, when the age is in, the wit is out" (Much Ado About Nothing), and the "bare ruin'd choirs... in me" he talks about in Sonnet 73. There are plenty of old and foolish characters including Polonius (Hamlet), Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV), and of course Lear (King Lear), who very foolishly believes his insincere daughters rather than his one true daughter, ultimately resulting in his own degrading and tragic end.
Because these quotes about aging have endured over the centuries, we still carry many of these negative attitudes with us today. Think about the character of Grandpa Simpson, who surely fits Shakespearean criteria for the "old fool." To what extent can we trace these negative depictions about aging in the media to the longlasting impact of Shakespeare's words and characters?
In addition to depicting older characters as fools, Shakespeare also 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 a child, 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 also played with what we might now call the "linear" model of time or "time's arrow." At the time of his writings, clocks were a relatively new invention. Elizabethans didn't keep track of 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. 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."
Influencing Shakespeare's views on aging was, no doubt, the reality of life in Elizabethan England. 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. Outliving so many of his contemporaries, or even one of his own children, he would have experienced death as a prominent feature of everyday life. This contrasts sharply with our current "sanitized" treatment of death in which it takes place in hospitals. In the framework of Phillipe Aries (1981), the Elizabethans viewed death as "tame," or as a natural part of life.
On the other hand, when death or illness occurred, it was not exactly pleasant. Medicine was at best primitive, and ideas about the causes of disease were not far advanced from the notion of the four bodily humors advanced in ancient Greece and Rome.
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.
A Pew Survey (2009) comparing people's expectations about aging with their actual experiences showed that adults under 64 years old had far more negative ideas about how older adults feel than do people who are actually 65 and older. Indeed, the same Pew Survey reports relatively high levels of happiness throughout the later decades of adulthood, with 71% stating that they are "very" or "pretty" happy. We now talk about "active" or "successful" aging, both in terms of personality and cognition, and it's known that mental and physical activity help to promote both.
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), who studies 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 variables, 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. Instead of reciting speeches, they engaged in dialog (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."
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..."
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 "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
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
Pew Research Center. (2009). Growing old in America: Expectations vs. reality
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