Wrinkled Deep in Time: Aging in Shakespeare

April 8, 2010

An overheard conversation in the corridor last week between two (young - aged about 19?) female undergraduates: "But how could you go out with him? I mean, he's so old!" "Yes, but he's sweet and very wealthy and he's quite fit." "I think it's gross: I mean, he's 31!" I have not yet decided whether my immediate deluge of tears was induced by outraged laughter at the callow stupidity of a world view that regards the over-thirties as Struldbruggs or by the mournful realisation that, as I approach 50, the rift between my academic Methuselahdom and the students I am supposed to be inspiring is widening ineluctably every day. In the words of The Passionate Pilgrim: "Crabbed age and youth cannot live together:/Youth is full of pleasance, age is full of care".

Maurice Charney disarmingly confesses in the opening sentence of this meditation on ageing, maturing, mellowing, declining and deteriorating: "There is a certain autobiographical element in this project." The melancholic Jaques reports the tragically profound declaration of Touchstone, one of Shakespeare's mordant fools: "And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,/And then from hour to hour we rot and rot". It is the first-person pronoun in Touchstone's formulation - Charney's "autobiographical element" - that makes thinking about ageing so potent and familiar. Not many of us have killed the King of Scotland or had to confront the horror of our mothers sleeping with our uncles, but we have all experienced the shocking recognition that policemen look so much younger nowadays.

Wrinkled Deep in Time imputes the personal dimension of this dreadful insight to the playwright himself: "One thing ... is certain. The fact that aging is such a significant theme in Shakespeare is proof of his own anxieties about growing old." This assertion is typical of the book more generally - it is, after all, plausible but far from "certain". May it not be equally true that Shakespeare's repeated interest in the subject of growing old demonstrates the serenity with which he faced the prospect? Indeed, in a period in which ageing and death were imminent and ubiquitous, might their proximity to the diurnal round not have made them more rather than less quotidian, "as it were an after-dinner's sleep"?

Charney's critical style is allusive and fluent. Marked by an easy familiarity with Shakespeare's canon, he frequently forges knowing parallels between unlikely plays. The melting of the clouds in Antony and Cleopatra, "As water is in water", prompts him to cite the separated twins of The Comedy of Errors seeking each other "like a drop of water/That in the ocean seeks another drop". But his predilection for citing Shakespeare leads too frequently to description rather than analysis. Indeed, much of the book comprises undigested quotation, in spite of the fact that Charney concedes that the material is both well known "and oft-quoted".

When they do come, the assertions are hardly momentous: Duncan's "murder overhangs the action"; "The potion (Friar Laurence) provides Juliet is obviously well meant, but it all turns out tragically"; "Although in A Midsummer Night's Dream all the perturbations are resolved in a happy ending, this is not the case in the tragic outcome of Othello." Too frequently, chapters merely stop in mid-flow with nothing like a conclusion, and the one dealing with the Sonnets and The Rape of Lucrece has just 16 lines on the narrative poem.

For the general reader, Charney's study eloquently demonstrates the various ways in which the topic of ageing crops up throughout the complete works, but there is little here that is unfamiliar to the "time-honoured" Shakespearean.

Wrinkled Deep in Time: Aging in Shakespeare.

By Maurice Charney. Columbia University Press 192pp, £20.50. ISBN 9780231142304. Published 18 December 2009

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