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

Christopher Martin

Publication Year: 2012

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, long-lived 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 mid-1500s. 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.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Massachusetts Studies in Early Modern Culture


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. xi-xii

Over the course of this project’s leisurely evolution, I have enjoyed numerous opportunities to air my ideas as they took shape. My thanks to the various organizing committees of the 2003 “Elizabeth R” quatercentenary conference, the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, the John Donne Society conference, and the Boston University Lectures in...

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1. Age, Agency, and Early Modern Constitutions

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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...

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2: Elizabeth I's Politics of Longevity

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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...

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3. Out to Pasture: The Bucolic Elder in Spenser, Sidney, and Their Heirs

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pp. 64-99

When he comes to prescribe a regimen of care for the elderly in the second book of his De 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...

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4. Sexuality and Senescence in Late Elizabethan Poetry: "Old Strange Thinges"

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pp. 100-136

When crafting his Affectionate Shepheard, Richard Barnfield drew upon no less popular a text than Geffrey Whitney’s Choice of Emblems of 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...

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5. "Confin'd to Exhibition": King Lear through the Spectacles of Age

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pp. 137-175

As a folkloric topos, the provider’s reversion to the status of ptōchós or “beggar” takes many forms. One of these, the pseudo-historical narrative of the British King Leir, lent the Sonnets’ author raw material for what we often regard as his greatest tragedy. Acutely sensitive to this threat of diminution, Shakespeare’s royal character reflexively stages...

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Epilogue: Figures of Retire

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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 study The Coming of Age: “Whether we like it or not, in the end we submit to the outsider’s point of view...


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pp. 185-213


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pp. 215-221

About the Author, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613762196
E-ISBN-10: 1613762194
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499720
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499725

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 3 illus.
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Massachusetts Studies in Early Modern Culture
Series Editor Byline: Arthur Kinney See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 830022789
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Constituting Old Age in Early Modern English Literature, from Queen Elizabeth to King Lear

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English literature -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism.
  • Old age in literature.
  • Aging in literature.
  • Intergenerational relations in literature.
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