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    Not Peer Reviewed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

    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)