Age-old questions

A few weeks back, I teased a paper I’ve written for the New Orleans Review regarding the use of time in Romeo and Juliet. In it, I go to great lengths to discuss how in that play we get some pretty specific age references, particularly in reference to the women in the Capulet household (Juliet is some 17 days away from her fourteenth birthday, Lady Capulet is probably 27 or 28 years old, and the Nurse lost her virginity at age 12). Romeo and Juliet is atypical in that regard. Usually in the Canon we get only oblique age references. And for the most part, that’s true for Othello.

For the most part…

Iago is 28 years old. He tells Roderigo, “I have looked upon the world for four times seven years” (I.iii.311-12). The math is pretty simple.

As for the other characters, well, here’s where supposition and conjecture reign supreme.

The first age reference comes from Iago as well, but this time about Othello, whom he calls an “old black ram” (I.i.87). This comes in a bestial allusion he makes to Brabantio, saying that this “old black ram” is having sex with Brabantio’s “white ewe” (I.i.88), Desdemona. Even if Iago doesn’t refer to this “white ewe” being young, Brabantio does: he calls her a “girl” (I.i.161), and refers to her “youth and maidhood” (I.i.170) and her “her delicate youth” (I.ii.74). Even a senator of Venice calls her a “young maid’ (I.iii.112).

Desdemona’s relative youth plays into Iago’s plans, as he tells Roderigo that Desdemona “must change for youth” (I.iii.348-9), ultimate casting Othello aside for someone who has more “sympathy in years…which the Moor is defective in” (II.i.227-8, 229). Obviously, there is an age difference. Additionally, Iago describes Desdemona as “so young” (III.iii.209). Of course, he says this to Othello, on whose insecurities Iago is preying. And age is one of his insecurities. Othello admits that he is “declined // Into the vale of years” (III.iii.265-6). Even if he wasn’t older in years, he feels old; he states that “the young affects // In [him are] defunct” (I.iii.263-4); in this case, Othello admits that he no longer has youthful desires.

So just how old is Othello? We don’t know for certain. Interestingly, he calls Brabantio an “old man” (I.iii.78) and mentions the Cyrprus governor Montano’s “youth” (II.iii.180). One might cast those roles accordingly and relatively. But then how old is Desdemona. She would need to be younger than Othello obviously, but does she have to be young? In the 1981 BBC Collected Works version, Penelope Wilton was 35 when playing the role. This adds an interesting subtext and dynamic. Could Desdemona’s marriage to Othello be one of desperation and escape? She had, according to her father, “shunned // The wealthy curled darlings of our nation” (I.ii.67-8). Wealthy but not necessarily young.

Just some thoughts to add to our age-old questions.

3 Replies to “Age-old questions”

  1. Bound for Cyprus, Othello declares he wants the company of Desdemona to suit just his mind. The body pleasures are faint at his age.

  2. Othello tells his age, but no one ever seems to have noticed it:

    For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith,
    Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
    Their dearest action in the tented field

    “‘Nine moons’ means that 9/12 or 3/4 of his life is gone. If we consider that Shakespeare often refers to the biblical three score and ten, this indicates that Othello is in his late 50s.

    I agree that Desdemona is very young, like Juliet.

    1. Sam,

      Interesting interpretation.

      I’ve always read that to mean, “Since I was seven years old, until nine months before now, I have been a soldier.”

      But yours is one to mull over…


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