King Lear: ages

This upcoming weekend, as part of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company celebration of the 400th deathiversary, I’ll be delivering a presentation on the concept of time in Romeo and Juliet. Great, you say… but, Bill, what does this have to do with King Lear?

Well, in Romeo and Juliet, we know, with amazing specificity, that Juliet is just over two weeks away from her 14th birthday. Amazing specificity. In our last play, we know that Iago is 28 years old (“I have looked upon the world for four times seven years” [Othello, I.iii.311-12]). We also know that in The Winter’s Tale–in the second half of the play–that Perdita is “sixteen years” (The Winter’s Tale, IV.i.6) old. And in our play, Kent says to Lear, “I have years on my back forty-eight” (I.iv.39).

Of the plays I’ve read thus far, these are the most specific age references I can remember.

With apologies to the Joker in The Dark Knight, “Why so specific?”

Lear, too, refers to his own age: “Fourscore and upward, // not an hour more nor less” (IV.vii.58). This is self-contradictory, however: both “not an hour more nor less” … and yet “upward” of 80. If the statement itself is contradictory in its relativity, then can we even believe the number of 80? I think there are a couple of issues working against its veracity here: “Fourscore and upward” as a five-syllable phrase sits in its own poetic line, forcing either a huge pause either before it (it begins its own sentence) or after it (as a caesura of ridiculous pregnancy following its line-ending comma). Is the pause caused by some reaction by his audience (Cordelia–who would most definitely know better–and Kent) or by Lear’s realization of his own lack of certainty? And if the latter is the case, is that confusion building to a point where here must concede–two lines later–when he admits, “I fear I am not in my perfect mind” (IV.vii.60)? Regardless, I personally doubt that he is 80 years old.

Why? (you mean other than the fact that the average life expectancy for Elizabethan England was just over 40 years of age–and would have been even lower for the historical period of Leir [but more on that in a few days]…)

Well, because I have questions regarding the unstated but obviously important ages of his three daughters.

Goneril is the eldest. Lear says of the portion of the kingdom he leaves to her: “To thine and Albany’s issues // Be this perpetual” (I.i.65-6), but no children are referenced. In fact, when Lear curses Goneril for chastising him and his followers for their actions, he speaks of her lack of children:

Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility.
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her. If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child.
  • I.iv.257-271

This curse of future sterility implies that she is still within her childbearing years (there’s no need to curse a postmenopausal woman with sterility). So how old is Goneril? I’d say that 40 is probably the edge of her probable age.

Then what of Regan? When dispensing her portion of the kingdom, Lear also references possible children (her “hereditary ever” [I.i.78]), but that is the only maternal mention he makes regarding the middle daughter. She’s younger than Goneril, and therefore must–if the older daughter is within her fecundity–also be in her fertile years.

[unless, of course, all of Lear’s anti-fertility curses are either super-cruel mockery or early-senility confusion…]

And Cordelia? How old is she?

She’s old enough to be married, and both Burgundy and France are vying for that. I cannot imagine that she is Juliet-young, though, as Lear had foreseen “set[ting his] rest // On her kind nursery” (I.i.121-22). A child barely into her own adolescence would not be a fitting nurse for an aging king (at least not immediately). And what of that word choice? Her kind nursery…this is a young woman ready to become a mother, not one whose maternal aspects are either ignored (like Regan) or cursed (like Goneril).

I find it interesting that we get such a specific year reference for a seemingly irrelevant character (irrelevant in relative age at least), but contradiction or ambiguity in the characters for whom age is much more crucial.

Why so specific? indeed…

2 Replies to “King Lear: ages”

  1. So it sounds like you are setting him in his mid-60s. I’d say that’s the youngest he can be and still be credible as an old man. Average lifespan may have been 40 in Shakespeare’s day but that number misleads because of the high infant and child morality rates. People who make it to adulthood were likely to live into their 50s and Kent’s vigor proves that a 48 year old man was not considered old or “in his dotage”. Those lucky few who lived into their sixties and seventies were the old men and women of Shakespeare’s time as well, And behaved accordingly. The idea that a 50-year old in Shakespeare’s day looked or behaved like a 70 year old today is not borne out by the historical record.
    I like this post but you should stop dithering and hazard an age placement for Lear.

  2. I am reading the play right now…. I agree with the other commenter’s statements around not falling into the trap of thinking that you can transpose ages from past periods into a modern setting (“their 50 was our 70” kind of thing)…. but disagree about the need to hazard a guess…. The text is vague…. you are pointing that out…
    Some things about Kent I want to bring out (the specificity of his age reference is what brought me here): 1- He says that he has been like a son to Lear, which if he is 48 means Lear should be at least pushing 70 and makes older quite possible. 2- On the flipside should we trust his “48” given that he tells Lear he’s 48 while in disguise as someone lear has never met? Is the 48 an easter egg for Lear? (in more textual terms- a daringly specific self reveal for the audience to appreciate.) Or is it part of the disguise?….. To your point about the vagueness of ages- it reminds me of my work with Homers Odyssey where I think the poem dances between realism (Odysseus is mid-late 40’s, Penelope end of ’30s, Telemachus 20) and a kind of magical stretching of time where Peneolope is perpetually still young and beautiful, Odysseus, only disguised as old and really in his end of his 30s experienced prime and Telemachus and adult in a magical child chrysalis ….. Here, in Lear it feels like it would confuse and in some way dilute the story if his elder daughters were well past barring already (or at least you would think it would come up more)…. At the same time- Lear’s extreme, almost perverse, age seems important….. so the story keeps us in limbo…. His daughters are an ambiguous ‘well into adulthood”….. Lear ambiguously (almost magically) ancient without putting numbers to things that might distract.

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