- Age in Love: Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Court by Jacqueline Vanhoutte
Shakespeare, Sonnets, aging, early modern England, Elizabethan England, Renaissance, masculinity, identity, love
This work persuasively demonstrates the close analogies between the aging men in love in Shakespeare's late-Elizabethan plays and the aging councilors with whom Elizabeth I surrounded herself, such as Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, and Christopher Hatton, Lord Chancellor of England (1587–1591). In doing so, Jacqueline Vanhoutte paints a more comprehensive picture than New Historicists to date have done about the construction of masculinity, masculine desire, and aging during Elizabeth's reign. For the men of Elizabethan England, erotic desire was to be indulged in through early adulthood and to be restrained in old age. During the same period, as New Historicists have presented it, notions of masculinity came under threat by virtue of having a woman in power—especially one who, as she aged, appeared would never marry or produce an heir. In Vanhoutte's words, her work "supplements" (22) these historicist readings by illustrating how "masculinity" and "masculine desire" became much more capacious categories over the course of Elizabeth's reign than scholarship on the topic has led us to believe—in part because of the men of Elizabeth's court, who transgressed norms of masculine behavior to rise in political station and to gain the Queen's favor.
To make this argument, Vanhoutte tracks the development of the "age in love" trope—a term she draws from Sonnet 138, in which an aging male lover pretends to be an "untutored youth" (138.3)—from John Lyly's Endymion through a range of Shakespeare's late-Elizabethan plays. In the first chapter, Vanhoutte argues that Lyly's Endymion, first performed for Elizabeth in 1588, presents "superannuated male sexuality as a form of generational cross-dressing" (37), whereby old men participate in "a kind of acting against type" (75) by engaging in the kinds of desire at the time considered acceptable only [End Page 205] among younger men. The remaining chapters turn to Shakespeare, whom Vanhoutte sees as writing in the legacy of Endymion in his portrayal of "lusty old men" (14) on stage—namely, Falstaff in the Henriad and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Malvolio and Orsino in Twelfth Night, and Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. According to Vanhoutte, while Lyly's play primarily reflects the Elizabethan public's anxiety about the ways in which Elizabeth's favorite courtiers deviated from norms of masculine behavior, Shakespeare's plays create a more accepting and accommodating space for this transgressive behavior. In turn, Vanhoutte suggests, these plays prompted a shift in the theatre-going public's perception of this behavior from one of outright unease to something more mixed in nature.
Vanhoutte's second chapter centers on Falstaff. As an aging man subject to intense public criticism, Falstaff serves as a "vehicle" (78), in her view, for understanding public concerns about the transgressive behavior displayed by Elizabeth's favorite courtiers. In the third chapter, Vanhoutte argues that Falstaff's presence "haunts" (126) Twelfth Night since the play is filled with aging men who "are all old boys, aging usurpers of youthful privileges" (140), orbiting the "stationary planet" (129) that is Olivia, a stand-in for Elizabeth herself. In making this argument, Vanhoutte offers a new twist on Twelfth Night: she frames it as a "generation-bending" play, not just a "gender-bending" (140) one. Vanhoutte's final chapter turns our attention to Antony, who becomes an ideal model for the aging courtier-lover. Not only does he resist all attempts to contain his sexual desire, but he is also praised for it. Moreover, in doing so, Antony engages in the "submissive performance" that, Vanhoutte argues, Elizabeth would have needed to "elicit" (175) from her male courtiers to secure her rule.
Although Vanhoutte's main points are, at times, buried under a vast amount of source material, the careful attention Vanhoutte gives to her source material is admirable and...