How Old Is Your Favorite Character

How old is Romeo? remains the most popular post on this site, by a long shot.  Every day I land hundreds upon hundreds of people looking for the answer to this question.  (The answer, by the way, is “Despite saying that Juliet is 13, Shakespeare never specifically says how old Romeo is so it’s up to your own interpretation.”)

How old is Hamlet? is also a big search result.  He’s either 30 or 16, depending on how you prefer to interpret the gravedigger’s speech.  I think the evidence is stronger for 30, myself, but I don’t think the character behaves like a 30yr old.
Pick another one.  For which other character in which other play do you think that pinning down an exact age is a big part of understanding that character?  I saw an As You Like It once where I felt that Rosalind, an otherwise strong character who ties the entire play together, was reduced to (literally) a giggling school girl who was too much with the “OMG! Orlando looked at me!!!” stuff.  I never thought of her as *that* young, but I never really tried to pin an age on her, either.  Late teens, early 20’s?
(For the pedants out there I’m obviously not trying to an *exact* age.  I don’t think that it matters if Romeo is 18 or 19, but I do think there’s a difference if he’s 13 or 18.  I don’t worry about whether Polonius is 65 or 66, but you could probably make a case for different behaviors depending on whether he’s 55 or 85.  Like that.)

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12 thoughts on “How Old Is Your Favorite Character

  1. Sometimes it isn't the age of the character as much as the age of the reader. When I was 28 I thought King Lear was much older than I do now that I'm 58.

  2. Mr. Geek, a question for another day: If you were on your deathbed, sir, and had a choice of a line from Shakespeare as the last words you would ever hear, what line would it be? I haven't decided yet myself. But I've already ruled out this one: "Go! Get him surgeons."

  3. On the how-old-are-various-characters topic, I also find the Hamlet question quite interesting. I was getting makeup done for a performance of Hamlet yesterday (I'm Ophelia), and the makeup artist said, "It's amazing what this makeup can do in the way of making all you actors look much older. We're trying to make you look like you're twenty-something." (You see, this is a kids' production, with an abridged script.)
    Then I started talking about character ages, and how Ophelia would only be twenty-something if you're going with the Hamlet being 30 theory, and that it's quite possible that Ophelia is only 15 is Hamlet is 16. I think I lost her upon using the word "folio".

  4. I honestly and truly don't know, good sir. I hope to have a few more decades in me that could change my opinion on many things. Right now my feeling would be "Oh sh*t I'd better have my favorite last words memorized so that I don't eff up the quote in my big moment." 🙂 🙂 🙂

    It'd be easy to go with something out of Hamlet, and I certainly went through my emo/goth phase in college where I wrote a play about a guy who learned he was going to die and then spent all his time reciting Hamlet to his friends because now he *got* every word. But dang if that wouldn't be too cliche, you know?

  5. The gravedigger would have us believe Hamlet is 30. With all due respect I must disagree. The prince is a teenager. If he is older, the play does not work on many levels. But this is merely a personal opinion and Larry T's no scholar.

  6. Iago says he is "four times seven years" but I don't believe him. Not to mention I don't trust him. I side with those who argue that he is in his early 40s and was screwing with the mind of the young and gullible Roderigo. He was, after all, a master manipulator with a cruel streak. Iago I mean.

  7. Richard Burbage, for whom the role of Hamlet was written, was thirty two. I wonder, then, if it makes sense to assume that Shakespeare intended Hamlet to be a teenager, regardless of possible inaccuracies in the calculations of the Gravedigger–or, that he saw the behavior of the character he wrote to be *like* that of a teenager.

  8. The great actor Sir Henry Irving
    was still playing Hamlet in his
    late 40's, and Gielgud also
    played Hamlet when in his 20's
    and 40's.
    It would be interesting to know if
    Burbage got away with playing the
    student Hamlet in his later years.

  9. Just a thought. Burbage had become the leading actor of his day by his early twenties. Burbage would have been in his mid- late twenties if he played the lead in R&J, which is very possible.
    A clue to the "How old is Romeo?" mystery ?

  10. By Jingo! Burbage bested by
    brilliant Betterton!

    As you say, Joe, people
    were in some ways less prone
    to typecast back in the days
    when you had to be far more
    of a jack-of-all-trades as
    an actor.
    Besides, coming from the
    other end of the scale, the
    celebrated child player
    Salomon Pavey played old men
    so well as to recieve an
    epitaph from Ben Jonson.
    Being unsuited age-wise to
    a role requires even greater
    talent to carry it off.

  11. I don't think they had our penchant for type-casting, Sean. I'm sure you know what Burbage looked like. Nor did they have our need for modernistic literal relevance; no "emo" Hamlets needed. I think, from all accounts, the acting carried the day. (how "quaint") 😉
    I'd be willing to bet that Burbage, having originated the role, more than got away with it. Betterton (1635-1710) , beloved as Hamlet, played it into his late sixties.

  12. Iago's a dirty liar, but I can buy him being twenty-eight. It's clear in the drinking scene in Act 2 that he's popular with Cassio and the lads, and it would make sense to have him close in age to Cassio, a peer he feels superior to.

    I've always liked that Iago's generally quite young, and I like the suggestion that regardless of who he was prior to the play he is new to carrying out evil acts. That makes me wonder what triggered this change in him–a question he gives about a dozen answers to, which only creates more questions.

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