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  • 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
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    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.

    Youth and age

    Modernized from Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century, ed. Carleton Brown. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939, 233-236). Of 96 lines, the selection includes lines 1-4 and 25-36.

    From the time that we were bore
    Our youth passeth from day to day,
    And age increaseth more and more;
    And so doth it now, the sooth to say.
    Our body will itch, our bones will ache,
    Our own flesh will be our foe,
    Our head, our hands then will shake,
    Our legs will tremble when we go,
    Our bones will dry as doth a stake,
    And in our body we shall be woe;
    Our nose, our cheeks, will wax all black,
    And our glad cheer will vade us fro;
    And then our teeth be gone also,
    Our tongue shall lose his fair language.
    Pray we for us self and other mo,
    That god send us patience in our old age.

    From Psalm 90

    This passage is taken from the Geneva Bible, the version Shakespeare used. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized. Chapter numbers are given in superscript.

    54 For a thousand years in thy sight are as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
    5 Thou hast overflowed them, they are as a sleep; in the morning he groweth like the grass;
    6 In the morning it flourisheth and groweth, but in the evening it is cut down and withereth.
    7 For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
    8 Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, and our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
    9 For all our days are past in thine anger; we have spent our years as a thought.
    10 The time of our life is threescore years and ten, and if they be of strength, fourscore years; yet their strength is but labor and sorrow, for it is cut off quickly, and we flee away.
    11 Who knoweth the power of thy wrath? For according to thy fear is thine anger.
    12 Teach us so to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom

    Montaigne on aging parents

    Montaigne's Essais were profoundly original and influential. In them, Shakespeare found a writer who explored his personal life with breathtaking honesty. In this brief selection, for example, he admits that he is really not interested in small children at all, even his own. At the same time he makes clear his belief in the importance of educating children without excessive discipline, avoiding the use of the "rod" (cane) altogether. His own education was experimental and eccentric—all those around him, even the servants, were required to speak nothing but Latin to him, so that it became, in effect, his first language; French, learned later, his second. Montaigne was acutely aware of the trials of ageing; from the age of 45 he suffered painful attacks of kidney stones, eventually dying, at the age of 59 from an infection of the throat, quinsy, brought on by the affliction.

    Shakespeare read Montaigne in the translation by his contemporary, John Florio. When, in The Tempest, Gonzago <ilink component="text" href="Tmp/M#tln-824"}}{{/id}}describes his idea of the perfect society</ilink>, his language draws extensively on Florio's translation of Montaigne's essay "Of the Cannibals." In this essay, "Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children," Montaigne argues that when children reach the age that they are ready to take on the responsibility of administering their estates, parents should pass their affairs on to them, retiring to a quiet corner of their houses. In King Lear, Edmund falsely reports that his brother Edgar has voiced similar opinions.

    The translation used here is by John Florio, with spelling and punctuation modernized. The full essay comes from book 2, chapter 8 of the Essais.

    Of the Affections of Fathers to Their Children.

    [Love of one's children is natural, the child's love for the parent less so; admiration of a child's cuteness undesirable.]

    If there be any truly natural law, that is to say any instinct universally and perpetually imprinted both in beasts and us (which is not without controversy) I may, according to mine opinion, say that next to the care which each living creature hath to his preservation and to fly what doth hurt him, the affection which the engenderer beareth his offspring holds the second place in this rank. And forasmuch as nature seemeth to have recommended the same unto us, aiming to extend, increase, and advance the successive parts or parcels of this her frame, it is no wonder if back again it is not so great from children unto fathers. This other Aristotelian consideration remembered: that he who doth benefit another loveth him better than he is beloved of him again; and he to whom a debt is owing loveth better than he that oweth. And every workman loveth his work better than he should be beloved of it again, if it had sense or feeling. Forasmuch as we love to be, and being consisteth in moving and action, therefore is every man in some sort or other in his own workmanship.

    10Whosoever doth a good deed exerciseth a fair and honest action; whosoever receiveth exerciseth only a profitable action. And profit is nothing so much to be esteemed or loved as honesty. Honesty is firm and permanent, affording him that did it a constant gratification. Profit is very slippery and easily lost, nor is the memory of it so sweet or so fresh. Such things are dearest unto us that have cost us most; and to give is of more cost that to take. Since it hath pleased god to endow us with some capacity of discourse that as beasts we should not servilely be subjected to common laws, but rather with judgement and voluntary liberty apply ourselves unto them, we ought somewhat to yield unto the simple authority of nature, but not suffer her tyranny to carry us away; only reason ought to have the conduct of our inclinations. As for me, my taste is strangely distasted to its propensions which in us are produced without the ordinance and direction of our judgement.

    As upon this subject I speak of, I cannot receive this passion wherewith some embrace children scarcely born, having neither motion in the soul nor form well to be distinguished in the body whereby they might make themselves lovely or amiable. And I could never well endure to have them brought up or nursed near about me. A true and well ordered affection ought to be borne and augmented with the knowledge they owe us of themselves; and then, if they deserve it (natural inclination marching hand in hand with reason), to cherish and make much of them with a perfect fatherly love and loving friendship, and conformably to judge of them if they be otherwise, always yielding ourselves unto reason, notwithstanding natural power. For the most part it goeth clean contrary, and commonly we feel our selves more moved with the sports, idlenesses, wantonness, and infant-trifles of our children than afterward we do with all their actions when they be men; as if we had loved them for our pastimes as we do apes, monkeys or parakeets and not as man.

    And some that liberally furnish them with sporting baubles while they be children will miserably pinch it in the least expense for necessaries when they grow men. Nay, it seemeth that the jealousy we have to see them appear into and enjoy the world when we are ready to leave them makes us more sparing and close-handed toward them. It vexeth and grieveth us when we see them following us at our heels, supposing they solicit us to be gone hence. And if we were to fear that since the order of things beareth that they cannot, indeed, neither be, nor live but by our being and life, we should not meddle to be fathers. As for me, I deem it a kind of cruelty and injustice not to receive them into the share and society of our goods, and to admit them as partners in the understanding of our domestical affairs if they be once capable of it, and not to cut off and shut up our commodities to provide for theirs, since we have engendered them to that purpose. It is mere injustice to see an old, crazed, sinew-shrunken and nigh dead father sitting alone in a chimney corner, to enjoy so many goods as would suffice for the preferment and entertainment of many children, and in the mean while, for want of means to suffer them to lose their best days and years without thrusting them into public service and knowledge of men; whereby they are often cast into despair to seek, by some way how unlawful soever, to provide for their necessaries. And in my days, I have seen divers young men of good houses so given to stealing and filching that no correction could divert them from it. . . .

    [Miserliness in old age; the ideal education of children.]

    And if any shall answer me, as did once a gentleman of good worth and understanding, that he thriftily endeavored to hoard up riches to no other purpose, nor to have any use and commodity of them, than to be honored, respected and suingly sought unto by his friends and kinsfolk, and that age, having bereaved him of all other forces, it was the only remedy he had left to maintain himself in authority with his household and keep him from falling into contempt and disdain of all the world. And truly, according to Aristotle, not only old age but each imbecility is the promoter and motive of covetousness. That is something, but it is a remedy for an evil whereof the birth should have been hindered and breeding avoided. That father may truly be said miserable that holdeth the affection of his children tied unto him by no other means than by the need they have of his help, or want of his assistance, if that may be termed affection. A man should yield himself respectable by virtue and sufficiency, and amiable by his goodness and gentleness of manners. The very cinders of so rich a matter have their value; so have the bones and relics of honorable men, whom we hold in respect and reverence. No age can be so crazed and drooping in a man that hath lived honorably but must needs prove venerable, and especially unto his children, whose minds ought so to be directed by the parents that reason and wisdom, not necessity and need nor rudeness and compulsion, may make them know and perform their duty.

    — et errat longe, mea quidem sententia,
    Qui imperium credat esse gravius aut stabilius,
    Vi quod fit, quam illud quod amicitia adjungitur.>
    —Terence, Adelph I.39.

    In mine opinion he doth much mistake,
    Who, that command more grave, more firm doth take,
    Which force doth get, than that which friendships make.

    I utterly condemn all manner of violence in the education of a young spirit brought up to honor and liberty. There is a kind of slavishness in churlish rigor, and servility in compulsion; and I hold that that which cannot be compassed by reason, wisdom, and discretion can never be attained by force and constraint. So was I brought up. They tell me that in all my youth I never felt rod but twice, and that very lightly. And what education I have had myself, the same have I given my children. But such is my ill hap that they die all very young; yet hath Leonora, my only daughter, escaped this misfortune and attained to the age of six years and somewhat more, for the conduct of whose youth and punishment [of] childish faults (the indulgence of her mother applying itself very mildly unto it) was never other means used but gentle words. And were my desire frustrate there are divers other causes to take hold of without reproving my discipline, which I know to be just and natural. I would also have been much more religious in that towards male children, not born to serve as women, and of a freer condition. I should have loved to have stored their mind with ingenuity and liberty. I have seen no other effects in rods but to make childrens' minds more remiss, or more maliciously headstrong.

    15Desire we to be loved of our children? Will we remove all occasions from them to wish our death? Although no occasion of so horrible and unnatural wishes can either be just or excusable: nullum scelus rationem habet, no ill deed hath a good reason. . . .

    [Passing control of affairs to the younger generation]

    The worthiest action that ever the Emperor Charles the Fifth performed was this, in imitation of some ancients of his quality, that he had the discretion to know that reason commanded us to strip or shift ourselves when our clothes trouble and are too heavy for us, and that it is high time to go to bed when our legs fail us. He resigned his means, his greatness and kingdom to his son at what time he found his former undaunted resolution to decay, and force to conduct his affairs to droop in himself, together with the glory he had thereby acquired.

    Solve senescentem m ature sanus equum ne
    Peccet ad extremum ridentus, et ilia ducat.
    — Horace i. Ep. i. 8.

    If you be wise, the horse grown old betimes cast off,
    Lest he at last fall lame, falter, and breed a scoff.

    This fault for a man not to be able to know himself betimes, and not to feel the impuissance and extreme alteration that age doth naturally bring both to the body and the mind (which in my opinion is equal if the mind hath but one half), hath lost the reputation of the most part of the great men in the world. I have in my days both seen and familiarly known some men of great authority whom a man might easily discern to be strangely fallen from that ancient sufficiency which I know by the reputation they had thereby attained unto in their best years. I could willingly for their honors' sake have wished them at home about their own business, discharged from all negotiations of the commonwealth and employments of war that were no longer fit for them. I have sometimes been familiar in a gentleman's house who was both an old man and a widower, yet lusty of his age. This man had many daughters marriageable, and a son grown to man's state and ready to appear in the world, a thing that drew on and was the cause of great charges and many visitations wherein he took but little pleasure, not only for the continual care he had to save but more [that] by reason of his age he had betoken himself to a manner of life far different from ours. I chanced one day to tell him somewhat boldly (as my custom is) that it would better beseem him to give us place and resign his chief house to his son, for he had no other manor house conveniently well furnished, and quietly retire himself to some farm of his where no man might trouble him or disturb his rest since he could not otherwise avoid our importunity, seeing the condition of his children; who afterward followed my counsel and found great ease by it.

    It is not to be said that they hate any thing given them by such a way of obligation which a man may not recall again. I, that am ready to play such a part, would give over unto them the full possession of my house and enjoying of my good and limited condition as if they should give me occasion I might repent myself of my gift and revoke my deed. I would leave the use and fruition of all unto them, the rather because it were no longer fit for me to wield the same. And touching the disposing of all matters in gross, I would reserve what I pleased unto myself. Having ever judged that it must be a great contentment to an aged father himself to direct his children in the government of his household affairs and to be able whilst himself liveth to check and control their demeanors, storing them with instruction and advised counsel according to the experience he hath had of them; and himself to address the ancient honor and order of his house in the hands of his successors, and that way warrant himself of the hope he may conceive of their future conduct and success. And to this effect I would not shun their company. I would not be far from them, but, as much as the condition of my age would permit, enjoy and be a partner of their sports, mirths, and feasts. If I did not continually live amongst them—as I could not well without offending their meetings and hindering their recreation by reason of the peevish forwardness of my age and the trouble of my infirmities, and also without forcing their rules and resisting the form of life I should then follow—I would at least live near them in some corner of my house, not the best and fairest in show, but the most easeful and commodious.

    Shakespeare and old age

    1. From The Passionate Pilgrim, poem XII

    The Passionate Pilgrim is a collection of poems published in 1599, attributed to Shakespeare on its title page, though only a handful are certainly by him. Number twelve, "Crabbed age and youth cannot live together," may be by Thomas Deloney or by Shakespeare. The poem neatly encapsulates traditional attitudes to the joys of youth and the aches and pains of age.

    20Crabbèd age and youth cannot live together:
    Youth is full of pleasance, age is full of care;
    Youth like summer morn, age like winter weather;
    Youth like summer brave, age like winter bare.
    Youth is full of sport, age's breath is short;
    Youth is nimble, age is lame;
    Youth is hot and bold, age is weak and cold;
    Youth is wild, and age is tame.

    Age, I do abhor thee, youth, I do adore thee,
    O my love, my love is young.
    Age, I do defy thee. O, sweet shepherd, hie thee,
    For methinks thou stays too long.

    (PP TLN 158-169)

    2. The ages of man, from As You Like It

    Jaques, the melancholy observer and satirist in As You Like It, delivers one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches as he anatomizes the various stages in a man's life. And it is indeed the life of men rather than humankind; though the opening period of the "infant" and the final age of "second childishness" are ungendered, the remaining periods are all specifically those of the male as he ages, from schoolboy to the comic Commedia dell'arte character Pantaloon. Jaques's vision of life is, as may be expected from a satirist, uncompromisingly ironical; the sixth and seventh ages are especially bleak.

    Shakespeare the dramatist brings a further layer of irony to Jaques's pessimistic view of men; immediately after the speech, Orlando enters carrying his old servant, Adam, on his back. Adam is in at least his sixth age, but he has been a stalwart supporter of Orlando against his scheming brother Oliver, and is in person a reminder of the potential of the aged to preserve the positive qualities of loyalty and experience. In a strikingly similar fashion, the Old Man who does his best to help the blinded Gloucester in King Lear is of a similar age and offers the same heartfelt loyalty: "I have been your tenant, / And your father's tenant, these fourscore years" (TLN 2193-2194).

    All the world's a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players.
    They have their exits and their entrances,
    And one man in his time plays many parts,
    His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
    Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
    Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
    And shining morning face, creeping like snail
    Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
    Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
    Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
    Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
    Jealous in honor, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
    Seeking the bubble reputation
    Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
    In fair round belly with good capon lined,
    With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
    Full of wise saws and modern instances;
    And so he plays his part. 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.

    Enter Orlando with Adam.

    Welcome. Set down your venerable burden,
    And let him feed.

    I thank you most for him.

    So had you need;
    I scarce can speak to thank you for myself.

    (TLN 1118-1151)

    3. Hamlet

    Hamlet, like Jacques, is melancholic; at this point in the play he is feigning madness (or at least violent eccentricity), and takes advantage of this to sharpen his satirical thrusts at those he distrusts. Ophelia's father, Polonius, comes across him reading, apparently a book about the physical decline of age, though Hamlet may be making this up in order to tease Polonius, who is often cast as an older character. . . .

    What do you read, my lord?

    Words, words, words.

    What is the matter, my lord?

    Between who?

    I mean the matter that you read, my lord.

    Slanders sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plumtree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams — all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down; for you yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if, like a crab, you could go backward.

    [Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.

    (TLN 1227-1243)