Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: On Aging
  • Authors: Anonymous, Montaigne, William Shakespeare
  • Editor: Michael Best
  • Coordinating editor: James D. Mardock

  • Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Editor: Michael Best
    Not Peer Reviewed

    On Aging


    1In a period well before the comforting relief provided by painkillers of varying strength, antibiotics, and year-round access to fresh food, the process of aging was painful and trying. Even for those who survived their early years, life expectancy was short; Shakespeare was (to us) a young fifty-two when he died. Lear's life was unusually long, lasting four score>(eighty) years (see TLN 2815), and it is clear that he is still physically active, heading off to hunt with his hundred knights as soon as he is officially retired (see TLN 514 ff.).

    This short anthology of pieces on aging makes clear the difficulty of dealing with failing faculties, both physical and mental. An anonymous medieval lyric lists the aches and pains the elderly suffer, Psalm 90 reminds us that our life is limited to "threescore years and ten" (seventy) and warns that a long life is rewarded by "labor and sorrow." One of the most interesting and intimate discussions of age from the period is that of a writer that Shakespeare read with close attention in his later years: Montaigne. His essay "Of the Affections of Fathers to Their Children" has some surprising echoes of the decision Lear makes when he passes his kingdom to his daughters. And Shakespeare himself, through his characters, records both the tribulations of aging and the positive qualities that older characters bring with their experience and loyalty.