Shakespeare on Aging and Dying
edited: Wednesday, October 17, 2007
By Gene Gordon
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Become a Fan
A talk given to the Unitarian Club at Rossmoor Retirement Community in Walnut Creek, CA
Hello everyone, and thanks for inviting me to speak again. I did give a talk here once before, in February of 2005. My subject then was “Is Shakespeare God?”
That was easy compared to the subject I have today. When I first told the guys in my Men’s Group that I would be giving a talk on Shakespeare and aging, one of them – Conrad – said “That’s a tough one. Shakespeare doesn’t have much good to say about aging.”
Nevertheless, I went ahead confidently and finished the paper in a few days. And I was happy with it. Then I read it to June up at the hot spring.
Wow! She gave me such a critique that I had to rethink and rewrite the whole darn thing – right there in the hot tub ‘cause I was really in hot water.
“Depressing,” June said again and again about my paper. What? I had to write a cheerful paper about aging and dying? And from Shakespeare’s perspective, the man who said that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?”
Well, I could take the easy way out. I could make Shakespeare out to be a religious writer. That’s been done before. Yes, religion is the easy answer! Easy that is if we can beat back, time and time again, those darn doubts. Is there really a life after death, eternal life in Heaven with God and angels and all that? If only it were true ! I want it so much to be true . If I believe and believe, if I have faith – faith against all evidence. If only I don’t think, because thinking throws me into all those damn doubts. Better not to think. Better to just accept without question, to believe, to have faith.
If only we didn’t have to think about death. The infinitesimal insect and the most brutish beasts are better off than we are: they don’t think about their deaths. But not even the social insects – the termites, ants, bees and wasps – can come up with a Shakespeare. No, only we – unique among all creatures on this planet Earth – create a literature. Only we have self-consciousness, our glory and our curse.
Human beings think. Ernest Hemmingway said that “Every thinking man is an atheist.” And Shakespeare is a man who did an awful lot of thinking. He wrote an entire play about a man who thinks, and thinks, and thinks too much. And what does he think about? Death! Hamlet is a long meditation on death – four hours long of words, words, words... And what are Hamlet’s last words? “The rest is silence.”
Very simple words... There is no talk of a life after death. “I die Horatio” he said, and “The rest is silence.” Prospero in The Tempest says “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” An eternity before our life, an eternity after... We are just a bubble, a dream in infinity.
How did Mark Twain put it? “I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit.” Mark Twain is great and he had a lot to say about Shakespeare. And Shakespeare had a lot to say about aging. What if William Shakespeare were sitting in this room with us now - what would he have to say about dying? Well, first we must ask: if Shakespeare were living here in Rossmoor would he be a member of this Unitarian club? Yes, I think he would. Shakespeare would feel very comfortable here with people so liberal, so politically aware and socially involved, so compassionate, and so sensitive to the arts.
I think he also would be a member of the Rossmoor Atheist/Agnostic Group. I really believe that and I have a paper I’d like to read to you on another day entitled “Was Shakespeare an Atheist?”
How about the Rossmoor Shakespeare Society? Would he be a member of that organization? Naw, Shakespeare would be embarrassed to be the subject of so much adulation. I think William Shakespeare would go to the Administration Office at Gateway and take out a charter to found a new club. (We don’t have enough organizations here already – 240 of them!) But I think Shakespeare would be the founder of the Rossmoor Ovid Society.
Yes, we all admire Shakespeare. But who did Shakespeare admire? Who was his favorite writer, his best-loved poet? There is no question but that the Roman poet Ovid was Shakespeare’s favorite poet and one who exerted a tremendous influence over all of Shakespeare’s work. (Show picture.) And what is the essence of Ovid? Can we characterize Ovid in just one word? Yes, that word is CHANGE. “All things change,” said Ovid. “Nothing perishes.” Everything in the world – the entire universe – is constantly changing, transforming from one thing to another. Change is the only absolute.
When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment...
...says Shakespeare in his Sonnets. Change is both growth and decay.
Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage:
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, 'fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract, and look another way:
Growth and decay... Or here we have the same idea in humor. In As You Like It there is a clown Touchstone who...
...drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, “It is ten o'clock;
Thus we may see, how the world wags;
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine;
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.”
Yes, the tale is that we grow, get stronger and stronger until we reach a zenith. Then we turn downward, decline, decay, and die. Over and over in his poems and plays – following his idol Ovid – Shakespeare plays upon this theme:
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer's honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
Time decays. In all of nature this is true . And it is true of us too. Change is absolute. To change is to grow strong, but also to grow weak, to grow old.
There is an old Chinese proverb: “Men grow old. Pearls grow yellow. There is no cure for it.” And Shakespeare would agree with that one-hundred percent. For Shakespeare was one-hundred percent a realist. He was not a sentimentalist, but one with eyes fully open to the facts of life, of nature. He held the mirror up to nature, we say. He is the greatest poet because he is the poet most true to nature. He is as honest as the day is long. Absolutely honest: he just could not help it.
He was a realist, a naturalist, and a humanist, a secular humanist - a Unitarian/Universalist we might say! Yes, universal!
And so now let’s turn to Shakespeare’s most universal play, King Lear. It’s also his major statement on old age.
You all know King Lear. It’s the most pitiful play, the most tragic of all tragedies. We first see King Lear as an old father, a king – almost a god – with awesome authority, absolute power. We see him terribly demanding. Which of his daughters loves him most, he demands to know. His two older daughters profess to love him “dearer than eyesight.” His youngest daughter – and his favorite – Cordelia, “cannot heave her heart into her mouth.” She can say nothing. In awful anger Lear thunders “Nothing can come of nothing.” He curses her and disowns her. “Better thou hadst not been born than not t’ have pleas’d me better.”
We all know that the two older sisters act horribly toward their father, and actually throw him out in a terrible storm.
Lear, now “a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man,” rages “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”
“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst
been wise,” Lear’s Fool tells him.
In the dreadful storm Lear does get wise. His arrogance turns to humility, his anger to patience. “When we are born, we cry that we are come
to this great stage of fools.”
When he is reunited with his daughter Cordelia he begs her forgiveness. But Lear and Cordelia are captured by the armies of Goneril and Regan. Cordelia is hanged.
In the most pathetic scene in all literature Lear walks in with his dead daughter in his arms. “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life and thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never!”
The king comes to have compassion for the poor. Lear loses his sanity but finds his humanity. A terrible tragedy unlike anything we’ve seen or heard. But in a sense every old man is a King Lear and every elderly person – man and woman – should read this play and study it.
“Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither; Ripeness is all.”
King Lear is partly about forgiveness as are so many of Shakespeare’s other plays – Othello, The Tempest, As You Like It, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Winter’s Tale... Forgiveness and reconciliation, mercy and love, Shakespeare seems to say, are the supreme qualities in life we must strive to realize.
I confess that for me forgiveness is the most difficult thing in the world. Much as I love Shakespeare I find forgiveness the, the... – well, perhaps that’s why I need Shakespeare so much.
Yes, forgiveness. Friendship too is an ultimate virtue in life according to Shakespeare. And in this we at Rossmoor are very fortunate. We live in a community with so many fine organizations. And as we are active in these clubs we form very close friendships. People who are involved in this Unitarian Club, the Rossmoor Democrats, the Shakespeare Society, the Atheist/Agnostic Group, the Grandparents for Peace... – how can they be anything but good friends?
Residents who stand together every Friday on the peace vigil will of course forge strong bonds of friendship. Yes, we live in a very special community full of friendship.
And so when one of us in this special community does die, there is a tremendous outpouring of affection and respect. I’m thinking, for example, of the memorial service for Janet Olman when hundreds of us filled the Fireside Room.
Janet was active, I believe, in all the Rossmoor clubs I named plus an additional one: PFLAG - Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays. This is a club I need to get closer to, and I wish we would invite one of their members here to address us some day.
So we live a good life and hope to leave behind a good name. Though die we must, we live much longer than... – do you realize that Shakespeare died before he was old enough to move into Rossmoor? He died at 52, and he was an old man when he died, for the average life expectancy at Shakespeare’s time was 42. We live a full two generations longer than did Shakespeare!
But Shakespeare, of course, lives forever. And he tells us that we can have immortality too. Through our children we achieve immortality of a sort.
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
And, of course, through love:
Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger's jaws,
And burn the long-liv'd phoenix, in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet'st,
And do whate'er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O! carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty's pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
Through love and through art - immortality in art! Notice that Shakespeare is writing this poem to another man. Was Shakespeare gay? That’s another topic for a talk I’d like to give here some day. And another reason to get close to the PFLAG group here at Rossmoor.
Also notice that Shakespeare still stresses the ravages of time: unavoidable aging and inescapable death. But he leaves us with this thought:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
That’s the best I can do – at this time anyway – on the difficult subject of Shakespeare on aging and dying.
Thank you very much...