Constituting Old Age in Early Modern English Literature, from Queen Elizabeth to King Lear

Constituting Old Age in Early Modern English Literature, from Queen Elizabeth to King Lear

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 240
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    Constituting Old Age in Early Modern English Literature, from Queen Elizabeth to King Lear
    Book Description:

    How did Shakespeare and his contemporaries, whose works mark the last quarter century of Elizabeth I’s reign as one of the richest moments in all of English literature, regard and represent old age? Was late life seen primarily as a time of withdrawal and preparation for death, as scholars and historians have traditionally maintained? In this book, Christopher Martin examines how, contrary to received impressions, writers and thinkers of the era—working in the shadow of the kinetic, longlived queen herself—contested such prejudicial and dismissive social attitudes. In late Tudor England, Martin argues, competing definitions of and regard for old age established a deeply conflicted frontier between external, socially “constituted” beliefs and a developing sense of an individual’s “constitution” or physical makeup, a usage that entered the language in the mid1500s. This space was further complicated by internal divisions within the opposing camps. On one side, reverence for the elder’s authority, rooted in religious and social convention, was persistently challenged by the discontents of an ambitious younger underclass. Simultaneously, the aging subject grounded an enduring social presence and dignity on a bodily integrity that time inevitably threatened. In a historical setting that saw both the extended reign of an aging monarch and a resulting climate of acute generational strife, this network of competition and accommodation uniquely shaped late Elizabethan literary imagination. Through fresh readings of signature works, genres, and figures, Martin redirects critical attention to this neglected aspect of early modern studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-219-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Age, Agency, and Early Modern Constitutions
    (pp. 1-29)

    This book explores the radical, perhaps unparalleled, experience of subjectivity that old age obliges, through a survey of literary and political expression during roughly the last quarter-century of Elizabeth I’s reign. At root, the complex psychological tensions that this material discloses are themselves encapsulated in the folk wisdom driving Timothe Kendall’s epigram of 1577 on the peculiar attitude we harbor toward late life:

    Eche one doeth seeke and wishe for age, all while it is awaie:

    And fewe doe come for to be olde, whiche for olde age doe praie.

    When age yet comes, eche doeth it lothe, and all...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Elizabeth I’s Politics of Longevity
    (pp. 30-63)

    Robert Devereux’s execution for high treason in February 1601 marked the culmination—for better or for worse—of a grand generational conflict that had taken shape over the 1590s. However questionable Essex’s capabilities or designs may appear in historical hindsight, the thirty-three-year-old earl embodied the restlessness of a social stratum impatient for promotion before the attenuated but lingering gerontocracy concentrated in the person of the aging queen herself.¹ In the view of this youthful constituency, the English court—bemoaned by the Spanish envoy Feria at the time of Elizabeth’s accession over four decades earlier as “entirely in the hands of...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Out to Pasture: The Bucolic Elder in Spenser, Sidney, and Their Heirs
    (pp. 64-99)

    When he comes to prescribe a regimen of care for the elderly in the second book of hisDe vita,Marsilio Ficino prefaces his instructions with an advisory. “Those who have already completed their forty-ninth year and are nearing their fiftieth,” he suggests, “should reflect that young people are signified by Venus, while old people are signified by Saturn, and that according to astronomers these stars are the most hostile of all to each other.” Several chapters later, his remarks about optimal environments for the aged betray an odd mingling of consideration and condescension that figures their innate plight: “In...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Sexuality and Senescence in Late Elizabethan Poetry: “Old Strange Thinges”
    (pp. 100-136)

    When crafting hisAffectionate Shepheard,Richard Barnfield drew upon no less popular a text than Geffrey Whitney’sChoice of Emblemsof 1586 as a source for his interpolated account of how, when Death and Cupid unwittingly take up one another’s quivers, youth begins to die as old men “dote.” Although Barnfield’s application gives the myth a more vituperative turn, Whitney’s poeticized tag to his emblem “De morte, & amore: Iocosum” (see fig. 1)—adapted in turn from Andrea Alciato’sEmblematum liber(1531)—takes a sanguine, “joking” look at the theory that, amid this cosmic confusion, “aged men, whome deathe woulde...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE “Confin’d to Exhibition”: King Lear through the Spectacles of Age
    (pp. 137-175)

    Of all the lyric meditations on the plight of old age to survive from antiquity, none confronts anxieties over dependency in a more stark fashion than the brief fragment attributed to Theognis:

    Men get a fair share, from the gods, of youth

    And horrid age and many another thing.

    But one thing’s worst of all, more terrible

    Than death or any sickness: when you raise

    Children and give them all the tools of life,

    And suffer greatly getting wealth for them,

    And then they hate their father, pray he’ll die

    And loathe him as a beggar in their midst.¹


  9. EPILOGUE: Figures of Retire
    (pp. 176-184)

    From a certain vantage point, Shakespeare’s great tragedy of old age can be (and largely has been) seen as bearing out the grim conclusion drawn by Simone de Beauvoir at one turn in her pathbreaking studyThe Coming of Age:“Whether we like it or not, in the end we submit to the outsider’s point of view.”¹King Lear’s elders find themselves subject to the pervasive adjudicating gaze of an ascendant younger generation that regards them with either violent, self-serving disdain or a piteous “nursery,” each threatening its own brand of confinement. As I have argued, however, the play simultaneously...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 185-214)
  11. Index
    (pp. 215-222)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 223-226)