Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Paul Werstine


This dissertation examines the representation of old age in the textual representations of the centenarian Thomas Parr, including verse by John Taylor; in The Old Law by Thomas Middleton (and others); and in four plays by William Shakespeare, King Lear, As You Like It, and 1 and 2 Henry IV. This examination shows how old age in the early modern period exceeds chronological and numerical definitions and is instead a contested social construction. By historicizing the representation of early modern old age and also by tracking its changing representation throughout Shakespearean reception history, this dissertation argues that depictions of older people are contingent on a period’s cultural and political environment. It argues that old age in early modern drama is forged within relationships between older people and their family, community, and country, and shows how caregiving within these relationships is a central concern. I argue that the negotiation over where to locate care for older people—whether within the family or in the broader early modern network of affective relationships—unfolds in the plays’ reception histories, which reflect cultural preoccupations with notions of dependency, caregiving, the concept of old age as a “second childhood,” and the agency of older people. The chapters address the question of who is responsible for the support of older people, how old people are figured as ablebodied or as disabled by their state, how the older person’s voice and body are seen as either agentic or powerless, and how older people are symbolically linked to their country’s past and future.