The Ages of Man Game

Here’s a subject I’ve often given thought to here and there, and it clicked with me today that it would make an interesting topic of discussion. Sometimes Shakespeare tells us exactly how old a character is – Juliet being 13 coming immediately to mind. But what about when he doesn’t? “How old is Romeo?” and “How old is Hamlet?” are two of the most popular queries on the site.
So, here’s the game. Pick a character whose age is undetermined, and discuss how a change in age would effect the play. Macbeth, for instance. Is he a 20-something up and comer who is immediately thrust into the King’s good graces, and cracks under the pressure? It’s apparent that the Macbeth’s have had and lost a child, after all – something that coul be indicative of a new, young marriage. Or is he a 40 or 50 something who’s been toiling away for the decades, who finally worked his way so close to the top that it takes only a little nudge from the witches to make him think he can have it all? (I know, if we assume Macbeth is supposed to be a real person we can figure out what age he’s supposed to be. But I don’t recall any specific evidence from Shakespeare where he tells us how old the man is?)
Once upon a time I asked this question about King Lear’s Kent, because I thought that an age difference there would be fascinating — is Kent a young man standing up to the king, or is he the king’s lifelong faithful servant who can’t stand by and let such an injustice pass? Unfortunately, as show in the original post, Shakespeare does tell us how old he wants Kent to be. So we’re not allowed to muck too much with that one.
Any takers?

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8 thoughts on “The Ages of Man Game

  1. Nice question. I'll bite.

    The Patrick Stewart production played with a large age difference between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. He was an aging general, his career probably not going to rise higher under a Stalin look-a-like Duncan. She was a seductive trophy wife, spurring her husband to crime by questioning his manhood. All in all, it was a very interesting dynamic, and the actors pulled it off really well.

    In my production, however, the actors picked younger ages (33 and 31). It seems to make their relationship more honest and less manipulative, at least at the beginning. I made my other actors pick ages for each of their roles as well, with some interesting results. For example Banquo will be 40, which is older than most of the other characters. It makes him almost an elder brother figure to Macbeth. Another actor who is playing all the child characters has assigned them each different ages to distinguish them: Young Macduff is 8, Fleance 13, Donalbain 15, Young Siward 17.

    But really, there are plenty of valid choices in this play, since the only age given is the Old Man's: "Fourscore and ten I can remember well…"

  2. A concept I've always wanted to try would be a younger Macbeth (25-ish) with an older Lady M (early 30's.)Patrick Stewart is amazing, but I actually had a bit of a disconnect with his production. Perhaps I usually think of ambition as more of a younger man's game. I feel like an older Macbeth would lose some of the hastiness of the subsequent murders.
    I know from an acting standpoint, character age has a huge impact. I'm used to playing characters older than myself (early to mid 30's.) In a recent production of Romeo and Juliet I just worked on, I played the Prince, but the director wanted me to play it at my actual age (22.) Characterization wise, that had a huge impact on how I played it. Instead of being firmly set in power, being younger allowed me to play with the instability of the state in R&J. That is what is great about directing Shakespeare, it's a perfect framework for a million different ideas, so no two productions are ever alike.

  3. You know, when I thought of the question I was thinking entirely in terms of thought experiment – it's not like any given production is going to get an infinite combination of actors to choose from in order to depict the desired age. The idea of "an actor aged X who is *playing* it as if he were age Y" is something that's an obvious reality (not too many 13yr olds playing Juliet), but just hadn't really leapt out at me.

  4. Ah, but that covers just about every role I've ever played in Shakespeare, since I've never been a character who could realistically BE a teenager (except Biondello, but I played him when I was twelve.)

    So here's a thought experiment. Prospero is usually an elderly Gandalf look-a-like. But what if you played him as in his late 30's or early 40's? Just because he's magical doesn't mean he has to be ancient. If he has half of his life ahead of him, it may mean more for him to give up magic powers. Food for thought.

  5. Actually, now that you mention it, a younger Prospero would make a lot of sense. Especially considering that Miranda is usually considered somewhere between Juliet and Desdemona in age. (Juliet 13, Desdemona 18, so maybe 15-16 for Miranda). I'm directing the show coming up, I'll have to keep that in mind.

  6. Ooh, that's very cool. I like Tempest a lot but I feel like what I see it in on the page often gets overwhelmed by spectacle onstage. Yeah, I think it would be cool to have a younger Prospero. Also, I think there's a dynamic of a dysfunctional family going on with Prospero, Ariel, Miranda, and Caliban. Caliban wasn't always a slave, I think, but initially a pupil and protegee. His is the story of a failed adoption, but it seems he may get a second chance ("This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine"). And Ariel is really interesting because it seems Prospero is the only one who really sees him/her. Even Ariel and Claiban seem unaware of Prospero's other servant. Does Ariel have to remain invisible to other characters (outside of harpy form), or is it a choice? Or perhaps a command of Prospero? SO many juicy decisions.

  7. "His spirits hear me
    And yet I needs must curse. But they'll nor pinch,
    Fright me with urchin–shows, pitch me i' the mire,
    Nor lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark
    Out of my way, unless he bid 'em; but
    For every trifle are they set upon me;"

    Caliban certainly knows of Prospero's spirits, though whether he knows of Arial specifically, and/or can see them, I'm not sure.

    I wonder why the whole only-Prospero-can-see-Arial thing is so crucial? So Prospero's kept Arial a secret from his daughter for 12 years?

  8. I'm not sure, Duane, but those are the kinds of questions I'd ask if directing the play.

    Anybody else who's age is interesting in Tempest? Gonzalo's called old: how old? Older than Alonso? Older than Prospero? And I guess Caliban age is a good question too. Ariel's age? Probably not measurable in human years, but could be a fun thing to consider all the same.

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