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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: March ::
no country for old men?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0093  Thursday, 2 March 2006

From:         Frank Whigham <
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Date:         Wednesday, March 01, 2006 3:35 PM
Subject:     no country for old men?

I'm interested in thinking a bit further about impotent and bedrid old 
men, if only because of the signal importance of old men in Elizabethan 
culture generally. Greenblatt goes so far as to call the social order a 
gerontocracy, as by the 1590s it certainly was, if we take Elizabeth and 
Burghley as central figures, with what Helgerson calls the "aspiring 
minds" such as Essex and the others so cruelly (or at least 
frustratingly) shorted on what they thought proper advancement by the 
Elizabethan stage of Stone's "inflation of honors." The sulfuric mockery 
that Shakespeare and Hamlet alike dish out to Polonius (plum-tree gum, 
etc.) seems, like so much in this play, to be somewhat in excess of 
dramatic necessity.
 
Of course, Shakespeare is capable of somewhat other reactions: concern 
for "unregarded age in corners thrown," curiosity about the haunted and 
obscurely dis-eased fathers of Hal and Hotspur (though they're not 
guaranteed to be elderly), sympathy (and contempt) for the self/stripped 
old men in Lear, and so forth.
 
Nonetheless, I'm curious about the possibility of some kind of 
historically specific structure of feeling about old men: specifically 
here about male contempt for old men at the top of a gerontocracy during 
the final years of Elizabeth's possibly too-elongated reign, the stopper 
for advancement ever more fully corked in by a spiteful queen whose 
hatred of her own ageing must have had many imitators.
 
Gender plays some kind of differential role, no doubt, though Elizabeth 
was surely something of an honorary male, as I believe Lisa Jardine says 
somewhere. Nonetheless, in Ben Jonson's Conversations with Drummond of 
Hawthornden (1619) Jonson is reported to have said that "Queen Elizabeth 
never saw her self after she became old in a true Glas. they painted her 
& sometymes would vermilion her nose . . ." (Herford & Simpson 1.141-42: 
ll. 338-40). I assume "they" are her younger and unwillingly virginal 
ladies in waiting.
 
What's interesting to me among these gooey tales (though I guess Norway, 
unlike Claudius, has lost his goo) is the register of vengeful and cruel 
hostility, a parading of youthful vigor's contrast with the pathetic and 
pitiful features of ageing (notably front-loaded, I am told, in Ian 
Holm's extraordinarily full-naked Lear). These features must have been 
much more notable in Elizabethan physiology, lacking as they did our 
access to Oil of Olay and such. (The Ghost, for instance: prematurely 
and frightfully aged in his crust, an impotent and hammock-rid 
anti-Pyrrhus, oiled up rather than dried up?)
 
So: how specific is this matter (to cite Thersites) in Shakespeare? To 
the tragedies; to the hinge years, to a period before his own ageing, or 
at its outset; to particular kinds of characters; to the more 
spectacular examples of the gerontocracy (the old age of the queen and 
Burghley, or the queen and Claudius) -- to, in short, something historical?
 
Frank Whigham

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