Monday, 15 June 2009

Shakespeare's England was no place for old men

William Shakespeare was 52 years old when he died in 1616. He was fortunate that, at that age he was still alive, since, high rates of death in infancy and early childhood meant that 40% of the population of England died before they reached their mid teens. This explains why the 'average' life span for a man was 47 years and for those who lived in London it was 35 years for the rich and 25 for the less affluent.

In his life he was apparently fortunate not to have succumbed to the smallpox, measles, malaria, typhus, diphtheria, scarlet fever, syphilis and plague which afflicted people at the time. The latest theory, from a German Professor, is that he died from lymph cancer. She came to this conclusion by studying his portraits which show a lump above his left eye which would have caused, around fifteen years of increasing pain, before it killed him.

If she is right it appeared around the time he was 35 years old and writing 'As You Like It' ? Was he losing his hair at that time too ? Certainly, he had a great understanding of the infirmities of coming old age, when through Jaques, in Act II, Scene VII, he said :

All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.......
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav'd, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans hair, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Now that I have reached the sixth age, I don't have long stockings which I now find baggy to wear, but I do have old jeans which are tight around the belly and lose around the thighs. However, my voice hasn't changed yet and doesn't 'pipe and whistle' when I speak.

As for the last age, I'm already half-way there, since I have little or no hair and my eyesight is poor. However, my sense of taste is good. So hopefully, I'll retain something with me when I enter the seventh age in the run up to the final state of 'sans everything'.

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