Cheerful Girls and Willing Boys: Old and Young Bodies in Shakespeare's Sonnets
Ian MacInnes
Albion College

MacInnes, Ian. "Cheerful Girls and Willing Boys." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 1.1-26 <URL:

  1. Beginning in the year 1665, the English doctor Richard Lower conducted a series of experiments involving the transfusion of animal blood. In a few years he had developed an effective technique and began observing the effects of a series of transfusions, usually involving either two dogs or a dog and another domestic animal. His work excited international interest. Soon scholars in France and Italy began to report similar experiments, and for a moment it looked as though transfusion might offer extraordinary promise. This, at least, is how medical historians traditionally understand these events. For them, this work is invoked as the beginning of modern transfusion, a sign of the tremendous power of Harvey's earlier discovery of the circulatory system. [1] But like many of the scientific accounts of the seventeenth century, these experiments look as far backward as they do forward. Consider Lower's report of a fairly typical experiment conducted in 1668, not by himself but by colleagues in Italy, as recorded in the Philosophical Transactions of the soon-to-be Royal Society:

    At S. Griffoni's at Udine, the Blood of a Lamb was transfused into the Vein of a Spaniel, if a middle Size of that Kind, 13 years old, who had been altogether deaf for above three Years ... He walked very little, and was so feeble, that being unable to lift up his Feet, all he did was to trail his Body forward. After the Transfusion... leaping down, he went to find his Masters that were in other Chambers. Two Days after he went abroad, and ran up and down the Streets with other Dogs, without trailing his Feet, as he did before. His Stomach also returned to him, and he began to eat more, and more greedily than he had done before. But that which is more surprizing is, that from that time he gave Signs that he began to hear ... The thirteenth of June, he was almost quite cured of his Deafness, and he appear'd without comparison more jocund than he was before the Operation. (Lowthorp 1731 230)

    On the one hand, this account seems to reflect an intense desire that the new technique be helpful (at least to the recipient) rather than simply curious. To this extent it is a medical experiment and one that anticipates the development of later techniques applied to humans. On the other hand, like many of the experiments of the period, this one was not really conducted to see if transfusion was a viable surgical technique but rather to confirm existing notions about the body, in this case the ageing body. It is no accident that the recipient of the transfusion was an old dog and a dog whose symptoms are carefully represented as the traditional accidentia senectute of human life. The whole series of experiments reflects this interest in ageing. In one of his early experiments, Lower says, "I procured an Old Mungrel Cur all over-run with the Mange, of a middle Size ... Then I took a Young Land-Spaniel of about the same bigness and prepared his jugular vein, as is usually done..." (229, emphasis original). Soon after, he reports, his colleague Mr. Gayant "transfusd the Blood of a Young Dog into the Veins of an Old, which two Hours after did leap and frisk; whereas he was almost blind with Age, and could hardly stir before." French experimenters also focused on age: "Mr Denys writes from Paris, that they had lately transmitted the Blood of 4 Weathers into a Horse of 26 Years old, and that this Horse had thence received as much Strength, and more than ordinary Stomach" (230). Today we tend to think of transfusion as a kind of mechanical replacement, quickly restoring lost fluid to a system that would, given time, be able to repair itself. Lower and his colleagues, however, were operating on the classical notion of life as the union of "radical heat" and "radical moisture," substances whose gradual disappearance corresponded to the ageing and mortality of the body. It was natural for them to think of transfusion in terms of longevity. Youth, for them, was a physical substance contained within young bodies. Their very decision to pursue transfusion, while in hindsight it seems to herald a new kind of medicine, actually reflects traditional notions of the ageing humoral body.

  2. Lower's work also reflects an interest in the ageing body that had become particularly intense by the late sixteenth century. Youth itself served as something of a cultural locus in the period. As Phillippe Ariès has pointed out, every period has a "privileged age," and youth, rather than childhood or adolescence, is the privileged age of early modern Europe (Ariès 1979 29). But the privileging of youth has as its corollary an interest in avoiding or alleviating old age, and longevity was also something of an obsession in early modern Europe. As a result, the medical works of the period are frequently concerned with youth and age, and particularly with the physical contents of young bodies. [2] This concern is not a result of any changes in actual longevity. European demographics of the period indicate that the number of aged people was about as limited in the Renaissance as it was in the late Middle Ages (Russell 1990). Rather, the early modern discussions of longevity constituted a coherent pattern of thought, a way of theorizing the relationship between youth and age in the context of growing interest in the body itself.

  3. As in much of the medical theory of the period, the most characteristic feature of discussions of ageing is the tendency to combine mental and physical aspects of the subject. Discussions of longevity frequently merged with discussions of the passions, also a subject of equal interest in the period. In part the associations seem to be related to the popular iconography of the life cycle, which as Philippe Ariès points out, connected the "ages of man" with specific social functions (the young man is frequently a soldier, for instance) and hence with their associated passions (Ariès 1979 21). But the connection is often more explicit. Sometimes the passions are thought to affect the ageing process. Thus, Francis Bacon argues that excessive passions such as joy, grief and fear shorten life but that moderate passions extend life by restraining and strengthening the spirits (Bacon 222-3). Du Laurens warns old men in particular to beware of violent passions (Du Laurens 191). And many writers, including the entire "hygienic" tradition, agree that lust shortens life. Sometimes, on the other hand, the ageing process is thought to affect the passions. In fact, most discussions of youth and age include some reference to the characteristic passions of each. These discussion arise from the assumption that maturity, or what we could call middle age, is characterized by the ability to restrain the passions. Youth and age are unable to do so (Barclay 1631). But the discussions are frequently explicitly medical. Bacon argues that "The vices of old mens minds [have] some correspondence and [are] parallel to the putrefactions of their bodies" (Bacon 377). More broadly, the interest in youth and age seems to pervade works otherwise entirely devoted to the passions. Thomas Wright's The Passions of the Minde in General (1604) concludes with an appendix on the climactericall years, [3] ostensibly generated by the debate surrounding Elizabeth's death, but also based on the assumption that "those humors which alter the bodie, and dispose it to sicknesse, and death; the same bend the soul to take inordinate affections and passions" (Wright Appendix. 4).

  4. These patterns of thought, combining an obsession with age and a growing interest in the passions, can help us understand a literary work like Shakespeare's Sonnets, a work deeply concerned both with age and with the passions. The subject positions of the three main characters of the Sonnets (the young man, the dark lady, and the poet) have always presented problems for critics. In the past, scholars struggled to assign these roles to real people from the historical record. Even more recent criticism, although not as concerned with autobiography and ostensibly more interested in historical specificity, still often assumes that Shakespeare's depiction of the self is either unique or at least highly distinctive. [4] Such criticism often has difficulty confronting the role of the body in the poems, and its reliance on the poems' thematic material to explain the physical types results in potentially circular arguments. One cannot entirely explain the ageing Poet, for instance, by saying that the Sonnets are obsessed with mortality (or time) because the Poet's age is itself crucial to that theme. Only slightly less dissatisfying are arguments that explain the poet by pointing to the pose of superannuation as a petrarchan convention. This convention is rarely as emotionally or physically insistent as it is in Shakespeare's poems. The medical literature of the period, however, opens up another avenue of explanation, revealing the extent to which the subject positions of the three main characters of the Sonnets may be connected with the poems' representation of their humoral bodies. Early modern works on longevity suggest not only that the three-way drama of young man, young woman, and older poet would have been considered an appropriate subject for any early modern author interested in the passions, but also that what is often perceived as the poems' unique mental pathology is really an expression of the relationship between early modern physical regimes of health and the ageing body. What one finds if one looks at early modern medical and psychological works is that the three characters of the Sonnets - old man, young man, and woman (her age being, as we shall see, in crucial ways less important) - come up again and again, particularly in discussions of the passions and of the scholarly life. In humoral terms at least, the relationship that these poems appear to describe is not unique. It is not that lots of people engaged in exactly these kind of relationships, nor that Shakespeare was somehow directly influenced by the medical literature. Instead, I argue, the process by which early modern culture imagined the passions constantly called up the image of old man, young man, and woman. If one was interested in the passions, and Shakespeare's Sonnets certainly appear to be, then this trio would be a natural scenario for representing them. As a whole, these patterns of early modern thought help demystify subject positions that have frequently been perceived as either enigmatic or idiosyncratic.

  5. Although the triangular relationship between two men and a woman has been crucial to recent interpretations of the Sonnets, the way that critics have deployed erotic triangles has frequently obscured much of the early modern cultural context. Most notably, Eve Sedgwick, in Between Men, has argued that the homoerotic aspects of the Sonnets are set firmly within a structure of institutionalized social relations that are carried out via women: marriage, name, family, loyalty (Sedgwick 1985 35). Sedgwick's arguments resemble those of René Girard in Violence and the Sacred. When two men compete over a woman, desire circulates between them in a process that he calls "mimetic": one man's desire is imitated by the other. For Sedgwick, this desire is ultimately neither heterosexual nor homosexual but, as she so famously has put it, "homosocial." Sedgwick's arguments manage to unify the psychology of desire with a kind of Straussian anthropological approach that sees heterosexual relationships as a way of cementing power relationships between men. More recently, Jonathan Dollimore has extended Sedgwick's arguments to cover other aspects of early modern literature. In Sexual Dissidence, Dollimore uses drama to show that the man-man-woman triangle is evidence of "that always unstable disjunction between identification and desire upon which male bonding depends" (Dollimore 1991 304). Men are supposed to identify with other men but desire women. Drawing on Freud, Dollimore argues that such homoerotic passages are "not the eruption of repressed homosexual desire so much as the fantasized, fearful convergence of identification and desire" (305). When applied to Shakespeare's Sonnets, these kind of arguments are, of course, fundamentally ahistorical. Sedgwick comments directly on this problem, admitting that her arguments are "synchronic," "ahistorical," and "deracinated" (29). As license for this treatment, she argues that the Sonnets themselves obscure a specific context, as generations of diverse scholarship testify. Therefore, she implies, if the Sonnets don't demonstrate a highly particularized individuality, they do at least serve as a "pattern" for the broad phenomenon of male homosocial desire.

  6. Now it is possible that the Sonnets may serve as such a transcendent pattern, but the pattern seems to have a very specific place in early modern thought. The trio of characters that recent critics have explored in the Sonnets is not unique to them. In fact, this trio appears repeatedly in connection with discussions of the passions. One early and fairly popular work is Thomas Wright's The Passions of the Minde In Generall. This was reprinted several times after 1604. It is even possible (although not necessary for this argument) that Shakespeare may have known of Wright's work. [5] Wright's aim is both to define and to explain the passions. Of course, the passions here are not entirely the same as what we would call emotions, although they are close. Wright accepted the common view of the passions as largely external to the self. They were one of the six non-naturals, which included diet, air, exercise, sleep, and repletion. Ideally, one was supposed to be able to control one's passions much as one would control one's diet. But Wright also recognizes that people are naturally passionate and some more passionate than others. And he devotes an entire chapter to the topic of "What sort of persons be most passionate." His answer? Young men, old men, and women.

  7. Not only are Wright's categories strikingly reminiscent of the subject positions of the Sonnets, but the whole thrust of his work reflects a similar interest in identifying passions, both in others and in oneself, and ultimately in controlling these passions. In his introductory chapter, Wright argues that through his book "every man may ... come to a knowledge of himself, which ought to be preferred before all treasures and riches." At the same time, however, he advertises a knowledge of the passions as a means of exploiting others, both by recognizing their inclinations and by actively persuading them. Among the potential audience he lists lawyers, magistrates, orators, and "prudent politicians." This division is reflected in the kind of language Wright uses to talk about the passions themselves. At times they are simply that which must be controlled or suppressed. He calls them "thorny bryars sprung from the infected root of originall sine" (2) or " Serpents, and Basilisks, who suck out the sweet blood of [a man's] soule" (5). At other times, however, the passions are essential parts of the human fabric. After all, he asks, "Who would attend to eating or drinking, to the act of generation, if Nature had not joyned thereunto some delectation?" (13). To solve this dilemma Wright suggests that the passions are "not unlike the foure humours of our bodies." When out of balance, they cause disease, but if kept in due proportion they are "the preservative of health, & perhaps health itself" (17). His reliance on a specifically medical metaphor for the passions suggests the extent to which he wants them to be the object of a complex and active series of interventions. The passions were not something to be condemned or approved but something to be treated, modified, and employed for profitable ends. Given this attitude, it is understandable that one of Wright's main goals is to locate excessive passion in particular kinds of people.

  8. Wright's interests in the mutability of the passions are also part of a larger cultural pattern By his own admission, Wright's conclusions about old men, young men, and women are not unique. "Many thing more might be said of this matter," he remarks near the end of his chapter on particularly passionate people, "but I finde all bookes and commonplaces, so stuffed with these discourses, that I thought it superfluous to write any more" (41). Indeed, the connection between the extremes of passion and the extremes of age was conventional. It underlies works like Edward Calver's dialogue, Passion and Discretion in Youth and Age (1641), in which the two extremes are mirror images of potentially dangerous desire. Young men, seduced by their own beauty and strength, incontinently waste their bodily resources. Old men, conscious that they are about to leave the good things of the world, are grasping and miserly. This view of the arc of human life ultimately derives from humoral physiology, which sees balance as the source of health. Young bodies and old bodies, by virtue of being at the extremes, are necessarily more prone to excess. As for the third member of Wright's group, women, the connection between them and the passions in the early modern period has been well documented. Almost all medical writers attribute excessive passions to women. They were not necessarily thought to have such passions because of their constitutions which, supposedly tending to the cold and moist phlegm, would not be inclined to passion, but because of the weakness of their minds. According to Helkiah Crooke's Microcosmographia, for example,

    [That] Females are more wanton and petulant then Males, wee thinke hapneth because of the impotencie of their minds; for the imaginations of lustfull women are like the imaginations of bruite beastes which have no repugnancie or contradiction of reason to restraine them. (Crooke 1615 276)

    Women's passions, too, were perceived as slightly different than men's. Crooke tries to distinguish between anger (female) and wrath (male), between fierceness (female) and stoutness (male). For men, youth and age were the times of extreme passion, while women of all ages were liable to be stigmatized as excessively passionate.

  9. More unusual than Wright's categories themselves is the extent to which the qualities he attributes to old men, young men, and women mirror the attributes of the poet, the young man, and the dark lady in Shakespeare's Sonnets. According to Wright, for example, young men's hot blood makes them

    arrogant, proud, prodigall, incontinent, given to all sorts of pleasure. Their pride proceedeth from lacke of experience; for they will vaunt of their strength, beauty, and witts, because they have not yet tried sufficiently, how farre they reach, how fraile they are. Their prodigality is caused by confidence they have in their owne strength and ability, wherby they thinke they shall be able to get more. (Wright 1971 38)

    In the Sonnets, the poet begins by censuring the young man's prodigality and narcissism (as part of the attempt to convince him to marry). Although he moves to praise, he also faults him for his heedless and arrogant pursuit of pleasure, especially when this leads him to ignore the poet. The poet also recognizes that the young man's faults spring from age:

    Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits,
         When I am somtime absent from thy heart,
         Thy beauty and thy years full well befits,
         For still temptation follows where thou art. [6]

    Old men, on the other hand, according to Wright, are:

    subject to sadness, caused by coldnesse of blood: to suspect ill, by reason of long experience, wherein they have often been deceived; to lament, to be fastidious, teastie, froward, and never contented... Old age is a perpetuall sicknesse: wherefore, as sick men are ever whining, so old men are never satisfied. (39)

    Shakespeare's poet has almost all of these qualities, sometimes all at once, as in Sonnet 30 when the remembrance of things past makes him "sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, / And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste" (30.3-4). He is all too aware that he is "With what I most enjoy contented least" (29.8). As for women, like many of his contemporaries Wright attributes many passions to them, but primarily inconstancy. Needless to say, her inconstancy is one of the poet's primary objections to the dark lady in the Sonnets, particularly when she seduces the young man:

    ... all my honest faith in thee is lost,
    For I have sworn deep oaths of thy deep kindness,
    Oaths of thy love, thy truth, thy constancy. (152.8-10)

    Finally, inconstancy is also supposed to be typical of young men, and Wright says that it springs from the same root in both women and young men. In the Sonnets, the poet often perceives the dark lady and the young man as in league with one another or as sharing something that he is excluded from. This only increases the old man's suspicion. He may "suspect... yet not directly tell" whether the young man has really been seduced (144.10).

  10. This correspondence between Wright's categories and the characters of Shakespeare's Sonnets is neither coincidental nor the result of direct influence. Wright's three categories make a great deal of sense in a broad early modern context. They are inclusive rather than exclusive. Because women's bodies in the period were more likely to be defined and limited by sex while men's bodies were usually thought of as limited only by age, there were, one might say, only three kinds of bodies in early modern England: old bodies, young bodies, and female bodies. It is not that women's ages were unimportant (quite the contrary), but that their age could not be considered apart from their sex. ageing in men, on the other hand, was often treated as a gender-neutral topic, and ageing has frequently been one of the few events for which men are represented as limited or defined by their bodies (Spelman 109-131). This distinction is supported by a wide variety of early modern medical literature. Women's medicine most frequently concentrated on sex and reproduction; men's medicine concentrated on ageing. To some extent, therefore, Wright's categories of "most passionate" people cover everyone except the middle aged male. And his body, as we shall see in the medical literature, occupies a vanishingly small space at the intersection of youth and age.

  11. These attitudes are reflected in the Sonnets to some extent. A sonnet like 138, for example, hinges on the comparison of the poet's age with the dark lady's sexual infidelity: "When my love swears that she is made of truth," he says, "I do believe her, though I know she lies, / That she might think me some untutor'd youth." Later in the same sonnet the speaker asks, "wherefore says she not she is unjust? / And wherefore say not I that I am old?" The poet's fault is age; the dark lady's fault is inconstancy. If these faults do not seem to have the same ontological status, the reason is that the poet is setting up an opposition between an unlike pair. Inconstancy is frequently represented as a consequence of femininity in early modern medical literature, so the dark lady's infidelity is linked to her gender. But while we might see the two characters as neatly opposed: age/youth, man/woman, the poet is only partially representing the opposition. The result is more nearly age/woman. The poet has age; the dark lady has gender. Although the dark lady may be younger than the speaker, youth, in the Sonnets, is mostly reserved for the young man. To this extent, the trio of characters in the Sonnets fits well into wider conceptions about the kinds of bodies people can inhabit.

  12. The medical literature also helps make sense of the Sonnets' division of masculine identity into youth and age. As was the case for so many fields of philosophical endeavor in the Renaissance, prolongevity was obsessed with taxonomy. Treatises on ageing in the period frequently began by explaining the different ages. There were many different schemes. The most general medical works tended to put ages into four categories. Thomas Elyot, for example, in The Castell of Helth, designates the ages as "adolescenscie," the first 25 years, "juventute," to age 40, "senectute," to age 60, and "age decrepit," which lasts "until the last tyme of life (Elyot 1548-9 11). Although the names and chronology attached to the categories were variable, the fourfold pattern always mirrored the Galenic humors. Thomas Walkington's Optick Glasse of Humours (1607) begins with a diagram calling youth choleric, "adolescence" sanguine, "vergeus aetas" phlegmatic, and age melancholic (Walkington 1639(1607)). Actual treatises on ageing tended to be more detailed, allowing for five or more categories. Du Laurens describes five ages: infancy (age 0-13 months), adolescence (1-24), youth (24-40), manhood (40-50) and old age (50-80) (Du Laurens 1599 172-177). But old age was usually further divided into three parts, "green," middle, and "decrepit," so the number of separate categories was frequently seven, the number covered by Jaques in the famous passage from As You Like It. Two things stand out when one considers the ages in years attached to these various categories. First, simple adulthood or "manhood" seems to be vanishingly small, sometimes a mere decade sandwiched in among categories each of which, apart from infancy, is far longer. As a result, this medical taxonomy tends to reinforce the polarization between youth and age that dominates so much other discourse at the time. The simpler fourfold schemes made this polarization even more apparent. Second, the taxonomic interest in the category of old age itself, with its three subsidiary divisions, argues a greater medical interest in this age and in its complications (the accidentia senectute) than for some of the other ages. Consequently, it makes sense that representations of mortality should center on the opposition between youth and old age, and that old age should be the more important of the two.

  13. Even more fundamental to the old man-young man-woman triad is the connection between age and passion. Age is, above all, a process. Thus while medical theory of the period tended to taxonomize age, dividing it into ever more finely defined categories, medical writers were also acutely aware that the same person would, barring disease or accident, traverse all the categories, perhaps more or less quickly but nevertheless inevitably. And while older people may have been thought to be more susceptible to certain kinds of passion, the passions themselves were also thought to be dangerous to the aged. According to Du Laurens, older men should be particularly wary of violent passions:

    olde men more then any other must beware, both because they are ordinarily more subject to feare, taking of offence, and waywardness, because of their cold distemperature: as also because of the weaknes of their braine. And other men must indevour to take from them all occasion of feare and sadnes (191).

    Strong passions were also implicated in the ageing process itself. Among the various things that can accelerate ageing, Arnaldus de Villanova lists sorrow, desperation, and fear (Villanova 1540 8). The last two, he says, are particularly dangerous because they cause the humors to turn inward and become adust. These passions are all reflected in the poet's self-depiction in the Sonnets. Sorrow, of course, is traditional for a petrarchan poet, but this poet's sense of "how hard true sorrow hits" (120.10), seems to go beyond his resentment of the way he is treated in love. Fortune itself causes the poet sorrow, and he has cause to compare the "other petty griefs" caused by the rest of the world with the sorrow caused by his beloved's behavior (90.10). The poet also calls himself "desperate" (147.7). But it is fear which most dominates him: fear of offending the young man, fear of rivals, fear of dying, fear that the young man will die. And fear comes to seem basic to the poet's constitution. At one point he contrasts "mine own fears" with "the prophetic soul / Of the wide world dreaming on things to come" (107.1-2). Neither, he says, has the power to control the "lease" of his true love, but the juxtaposition gives his fear tremendous stature. Fear is constitutive of the personal, insofar as it looks to the future, just as the soul of the world constitutes the same attitude in its public manifestation. By the medical standards of the day, this poet's ageing body should be at risk, not just of sudden crises but of premature ageing.

  14. Now, the medical literature of the period shows that the Sonnets may be drawing on well-established traditions in describing the passions, or that for a writer interested in the passions, the trio of characters in the Sonnets would have seemed natural, but it doesn't explain why the poet should be an old man rather than one of the other two members of the trio. To understand the poet's age, it is necessary to look more closely at the prolongevitists, those who took the ageing (and usually male) body as their subject. The most famous of these is the Italian Marsilio Ficino, whose De Triplici Vita (Three Books on Life) is notable as the first health manual intended specifically for those interested in the scholarly life. Ficino devotes much of the book to treatments designed to extend life. Of these, the most remarkable is as follows. When one ages, one's vital moisture dries up and must be replenished:

    Immediately after the age of seventy and sometimes after sixty-three, since the moisture has gradually dried up, the tree of the human body often decays. Then for the first time this human treee must be moistened by a human youthful liquid in order that it may revive. (196)

    The old man has two options. First, "choose a young girl who is healthy, beautiful, cheerful, and temperate, and when you are hungry and the Moon is waxing, suck her milk; immediately eat a little powder of sweet fennel properly mixed with sugar." Second, Ficino asks, "Why shouldn't our old people [men]... likewise suck the blood of a youth? a youth, I say, who is willing, healthy, happy, and temperate, whose blood is of the best but perhaps too abundant. They will suck, therefore, like leeches, an ounce or two from a scarcely opened vein of the left arm" (197). It is characteristic of Ficino that while the youth in question must be willing, the woman need only be cheerful (although one doubts she would remain cheerful). Here is the trio once again in a more explicitly medical context, although also in more bizarre and predatory circumstances.

  15. These circumstances, however, are helpful because they make clear not only why old men, young men, and women are categories that belong together, but also how these categories might relate to each other. For authors like Wright, these types of people simply share a tendency to extreme passion. Someone like Ficino, however, imagines the potential for connecting young and old bodies. And as it happens, Ficino's De Triplici Vita systematically portrays the managment of the ageing male body in terms of its relationship with other kinds of bodies. To begin with, Ficino's exacting physical regime puts the ageing male scholar at the center of a network of unusually extensive care-giving, necessarily administered by others. Every aspect of the scholar's physical life, all the six non-naturals, are to be carefully orchestrated and controlled, yet the the scholar himself is to be left free to contemplate. He is to be kept free from such dangers as wakefulness, fasting, thirst, fatigue of body and mind, solitude, and grief. And intellectuals are by nature particularly needy:

    Their sharp and hot intelligence and the constant activity of their imagination seem to threaten them with resolution, but their body's inactivity and indigestion seem to threaten them with suffocation. Hence there is no case in which the physicians labor harder than in the care of such people. (169)

    The cheerful young mother presented at the precisely appropriate moment (astronomically and physically) is only one of the many people who must minister to the scholar's needs. But Ficino's language also implies a constant anxiety about the possibility of inappropriate ministration. While the mother's milk may seem happy enough, for example, women are elsewhere in Ficino's work a deadly threat. As sexual partners they represent another kind of predation. The problem, of course, is that the procreative functions are directed not to the preservation of the present body but to the creation of a future one. Hence Ficino speaks of "Venus," as someone who "drains her victim, little by little... as it were through a secret pipe, filling and procreating another thing with your fluid and leaving you finally as if you were an old skin of a cicada drained upon the ground." This colorful imagery helps us understand why Ficino's positive regimes sometimes involve another kind of predation. Youth and life are actually physical substances to be preserved if possible and obtained if not. Ficino also sees bodily fluids as intrisically communicable, a fact that makes the relationship between youth and age potentially dynamic. "There is a power in human blood to both attract and, in turn, to follow human blood," he says. Consequently "the blood of a youth drunk by an old person can be drawn to the veins and the bodily parts and can do a lot of good there" (199).

  16. With the exception of breast milk, a treatment widely recommended until the middle of the eighteenth century (Abbott 1996 139), Ficino's longevity treatments are not frequently repeated in other texts. But the principle behind them is. Such beliefs were made almost inevitable by the Galenic account of the ageing body, an account which saw both age and disease as potentials already contained within the body. As Ariès puts it "disease, old age, and death are merely eruptions out of the bodily envelope of the rottenness within" (Ariès 1991 121). Michael Neill has tracked these attitudes into Vesalian anatomy, arguing that the entire memento mori tradition depends upon a notion of inward corruption (Neill 1997 44ff). Above all, however, ageing was described as a dynamic process, not a sudden eruption but a progressive deterioration. Du Laurens, whose piece on ageing was widely repeated, describes the process as follows. The two mainsprings of life are radical heat and radical moisture. The first feeds upon the last. But because the body's imperfect concoction of food provides an imperfect moisture, the body ages, getting progressively colder and dryer (170). The process is speeded by the body's intrinsic humoral imbalances, the "jarre... in our complexion" which "is the principall cause of our old age" (169). If old men do not always appear dry, it is because they possess a superfluous moisture, not radical, but as Tobias Whitaker puts it in another work on ageing, "excrementitious" (Whitaker 1638 42). Such moisture was more dangerous than helpful. One of the explanations for memory loss in the aged is that an increase in phlegm blocks the necessary passages in the brain (Lessius 1743 76). Both Galen and Avicenna perceived the ageing process as both inevitable and normal, not pathological. Later writers, however, and the prolongevitists in particular, often proceeded from the assumption that old age is a disease even if, as for many, it is a disease the seeds of which we all have within us (Du Laurens 172). Consequently, ageing and death were not necessarily inevitable, although scholars disagreed on the question of how long one could prolong life and what the virtues of such preservation would be (Gruman 1966). The key, for these writers, is the replenishment either of radical moisture or of radical heat, and the problem is that these substances have an almost mystical quality. One school of theorists, dominated by the work of Luigi Cornaro, argued that one could never actually replace radical moisture, only retard its dissipation by regulating the six non-naturals, particularly diet. As Du Laurens says, "all the precious liquors that are, Aurum Potabile, conserves of rubies and emeralds, elixir vitae, or the fained and fabulous fountaine of restored youth cannot withstand but that our heate muste at length grow weake and feeble" (171). The metaphor of the old man as a fire burning low through natural causes had classical roots. Cicero likened the death of an old man to "the gradual, utterly gentle and spontaneous flickering out of a fire that has used up its fuel" (Cicero 1967 36), like the poet in the Sonnets who resembles "the glowing of such fire / That on the ashes of his youth doth lie" (73.9-10). Even those writers who thought ageing inevitable, however, thought bodily substances such as milk and blood might at least retard the process because they most closely resembled the innate moisture of the ageing patient. Wine, which Whitaker recommends above all else, was called "The old man's milk" and milk, of course, is blood "dealbated or thrice concocted" (Whitaker 30, Du Laurens 187). A strong red wine was preferable because it most resembled blood. When blood or substances resembling it were not directly available, foods that were thought to be blood-forming were recommended (Villanova 9ff).

  17. Others interested in prolongevity, however, like Ficino, thought that a substance could be found that would actually replace one's radical heat or moisture. Not surprisingly, the most likely place to find the perfect moisture and heat was in another human being. The oblique ways in which such writers describe these medicines betray their potentially scandalous nature. The medieval alchemist Roger Bacon, one of the earliest proponents of a medical cure for old age, is hesitant to name the actual substance. "I have read many volumes of the wise, he says, and I find few things in physick, which restore the natural heat, weakened by dissolution of the innate moisture, or increase of a foreign one." Nevertheless, he says, certain wise men have tacitly made mention of some medicine. This medicine is like "Youth itself" (Bacon 1683 99). Later, Roger Bacon argues that "the infirmity of a man passeth into man; and so doth Health because of likeness" and then suggests that this medicine "will very much recreate an Old Man, and change him to a kind of Youth." Further, he says, "There is such a heat in this thing, as is in Young men of a sound complexion." Although at this point the nature of the medicine seems obvious, Bacon insists on keeping its name secret "lest the Incontinent should offend their Creator" (102-3). Finally, in the subsequent chapter heading he acknowledges at least some of the reader's potential suspicions by denying that the medicine is derived from man's blood. [7] Instead he offers as an example of the treatment "more plainly which is here more obscurely described" the familiar story of the old king David (1 Kings, 1.2-4) in which close, but not sexual, contact with the body of a beautiful young virgin cures the king (temporarily) of age. Thus Bacon manages to obliquely offer the body of a young man as a kind of model apothecary shop and then, abruptly removing this body, replace it with the body of a young woman. The man-man-woman trio appears here in a kind of alchemical shell game.

  18. Sir Francis Bacon plays a similar game, and a central ambiguity pervades his History naturall and experimentall of life and death (1638), perhaps the best summation of prolongevitist tradition in the early modern period. On the one hand Bacon wants to discredit what he considers to be outlandish attempts to "cure" old age. He blames Cornaro, the hygienist who advocated a specific regime of diet and lifestyle, for requirements such as living in caves, constant baths in liquor, special clothing or painting of the body, or overprecise ordering of diet. Instead, Bacon, says, he wishes to have remedies that don't interfere with normal life (177). On the other hand, Bacon eventually returns to some of these same ideas more positively. He ends up recommending astringent baths and painting the skin in order to keep out the "predatory" air (242). Likewise he advocates exotic substances like nitre and opiates, which are supposed to help refrigerate and calm the spirits respectively. And of course Bacon has plenty to say about diets, which he divides into two types: "liberal" and "spare."

  19. Bacon's interest in comparative longevity also reveals the extent to which youth itself can be tied to substance. Drawing on the tradition by which longevity is associated with particular animals, such as stags, Bacon embarks on a list of the qualities that make an animal live long. In part their long life is represented as tied to their diet. Thus carnivores are supposed to live longer than herbivores and seed eaters longer than grass eaters. Bodily structure is also supposed to play a part. Because the head contains so many animal spirits (and Bacon, dismissing the tripartite division of spirits common in the period, calls the animal spirits the "all-in-all") and because the spirits "do most of all waste and prey upon the body" so animals with small heads live longer (76). But most important is the quality of an animal's flesh itself. Creatures with darker flesh, for example, live longer because "it showeth that the Juyce of the body is more firme, and lesse apt to dissipate" (79). To a great extent the "substance" of the body is a matter of ontogeny. Birds are long lived chiefly because they "are made more of the substance of the Mother, than of the Father; whereby their Spirit is not so eager and hot," and human children who spend longest in the womb or who resemble their mother (as does Shakespeare's Young Man, who is his "mother's glasse") partake most of her substance and so are longer lived (73-4). Youth, for Bacon, is clearly deeply material.

  20. Bacon's materialism pervades his analysis of ageing human bodies as well. At issue for him is not so much the accidentia of age (wrinkles, trembling, loss of eyesight and hearing, etc.) as its internal evidence. In comparing old and young men he frequently refers to the quality of their bodily fluids. "A young man's bowels are soft and succulent," he says, "an old mans salt, and parched." In a young man "the juyces of his bodie are more roscide [dewy], in an old man more crude and watrish" (371). Later, in explaining the existence of fat old men, an apparent contradiction given the supposed dessicating action of age, he argues that old men improve in fatness only because their bodies "doe neither Perspire well, nor assimilate well" (373). Their fluids therefore stagnate within them, building up an unhealthy mass.

  21. Bacon is also preoccupied with the connection between internal bodily fluids and the outside of the body. In surveying the traditional cures for old age, he clearly prefers those which can be applied externally over those which are taken internally (diet and medicines). Since old men's concoction (digestion) is supposed to be weak, Bacon reasons that the best nourishment would be from without, a nourishment that might even restore old men's ability to digest food properly (87). External remedies of course lead Bacon back to internal substances. He surveys traditional remedies such as the bath of infant's blood supposed to cure leprosy and putrefaction, the use of kittens' blood to cure St. Anthony's fire, and the external application of split pigeons (330-1). As Bacon's discussion nears the scandalous cures advocated by writers like Roger Bacon and Ficino, a significant ambiguity returns to his text. At one point he calls bloody baths " Sluttish and Odious" (332), but elsewhere he refers positively to "the warm cherishings of living bodies" (336). He approves Ficino's advice about the external application of a maid, adding only she should be annointed with Myrrh, and he mentions cases such as Barbarossa who "did continually apply young boys to his stomach and belly" and men who lay with whelps. Bacon eventually mentions Ficino's treatment directly, in the section of the book dealing with "mallasification" or the suppling of the body. At first he dismisses Ficino's ideas "Touching the Sucking of Bloud out of the Arme of a wholesome young Man" as "frivolous." But the reason he distrusts it hinges on the same distinction between internal and external medication. Internal nourishment should be achieved by "inferior" substances which can be converted to higher ones. External medicine, on the other hand, works by "consent" and requires substances as much like the patient as possible (329-30). So young men's blood is still a valuable medicine; it just needs different kind of labelling. Still hedging, Bacon disparages the legend of Artephius, the twelfth century alchemist, "who when hee found his spirit ready to depart, drew into his Body the Spirit of a certaine young Man; And thereby made him Breathlesse; But Himselfe lived many years by another man's spirit" (174). Later, however, he acknowledges the principle behind this legend:

    If any man could procure that a young mans spirits could be conveyed into an old mans body; it is not unlikely, but this great wheele of the spirits, might turne about the lesser wheele of the parts; And so the Course of Nature become Retrograde. (184)

  22. These early modern discussions of youth and age help us to understand why the speaker in the Sonnets is positioned as an ageing man. The Sonnets, of course, are equally obsessed with ageing. Initially, this concern feeds the poet's insistence that the young man marry. In the first sonnets he threatens the young man with age, asking him to imagine himself "When forty winters shall besiege thy brow, / And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field." The reference to "forty winters" here has sometimes puzzled critics since the phrase is frequently glossed as "when you reach the age of forty." Some critics use this interpretation as evidence that age in the Sonnets is the self-consciously subjective and conventional weariness of the petrarchan poet (Klause 1983). Others have wondered if at a time of low life expectancy, forty might not actually be old. The latter, as we have seen, is not supported by the medical literature of the period, nor is it necessarily true that life expectancy determines categories of ageing (Smith 1976 236). The former is probably true at least to some extent - certainly we know that the poet's age is fictional rather than autobiographical - but it is not the only way of explaining the passage. If the young man is already in his late teens or early twenties ("adolescent" in most contemporary taxonomies), then forty winters will certainly bring him well into old age by contemporary standards and even by modern standards. At this early stage in the sequence, the poet's advice is fairly conventional. In Calver's somewhat later Passion and Discretion in Youth and Age, Discretion advises Youth to think of the future, not to be seduced by his own beauty, strength, and to hold age before his eyes (Calver 1641 11). The solution in the Sonnets, at first, is a child who will mean new life. But the young man's imagined dotage eventually becomes a reflection of the poet's own state. In Sonnet 63, for instance, the poet also looks for an antidote,

    Against my love shall be, as I am now,
    With Time's injurious hand crush'd and o'erworn;
    When hours have drain'd his blood and fill'd his brow
    With lines and wrinkles. . . . (63.1-4)

    In this sonnet, of course, the solution to the young man's mortality turns out to be no longer a child but the literary work of the poet. But the image of age itself has focused on the poet and has become even more insistently bodily. As in contemporary medical accounts, age dries the body, draining its vital moisture and cooling its heat, here imagined, as so frequently in medical texts, as being located in the blood.

  23. The Sonnets also frequently depict the process of revitalization in terms of the exchange of blood. In one early passage, the poet describes the imagined child as containing the blood of the young man:

    As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow'st
    In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
    And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow'st
    Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest. (11.1-4)

    In part the word blood here is used in the sense of family relationship (OED 8), but the words "fresh" and "youngly" give it a more physical dimension. The child is fresh because it was created from fresh blood. The adverb "youngly" could mean simply vigorously, but in connection with fresh it also carries the implication that the blood transferred from a youth is more powerful than the blood that might be transferred from an old man. This passage also suggests that the blood of a youth will actually benefit an old man. The imagined child's blood will belong to the young man (he will call it his own) when he himself grows old. This imagined transference will make him grow as fast as he wanes.

  24. Throughout the Sonnets, Shakespeare flirts with the physical qualities of youth and age, and with the notion of an exchange between them. He alerts us to the possibility of a deeply embodied connection between the aged poet and the young man but never fully commits to the physical side. In Sonnet 22, for example, the poet begins by suggesting that the youth is an antidote to his own age: "My glass shall not persuade me I am old," the poet begins, "So long as youth and thou are of one date" (22.1-2). As the poem progresses, however, youth almost becomes a liability: so much depends on the young man not ageing. By the middle of the poem, the relationship becomes an exchange of hearts; the poet speaks of "my heart / Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me" (22.7). This image is fairly conventional. Yet lest we think that this exchange is entirely metaphorical, the poet reminds us of the connection between hearts and age. Since he has a young man's heart inside him, he asks, "How can I then be elder than thou art?" But the more insistently physical the exchange becomes, the more problematic it is. In the final lines, the poet is thinking of exchange mainly as a way of talking about the foreseen end to the relationship. "Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain, / Thou gav'st me thine not to give back again" (22.13-14). Here the exchange is final. What the poet has been given from the young man is now his forever, regardless of what happens to his own heart in the young man's possession. These lines manage to twist the question of ageing, which is the main threat to the hearts in the first part of the poem, into a question of disloyalty in love. Because the notion of moveable hearts is so conventional in love poetry of this period, however, the final couplet realigns the poem with the petrarchan tradition, suggesting that the whole exchange was only a poetic conceit. Like Roger Bacon's elliptical hints at the nature of the medicine that will cure old men, the Sonnets only hint that the young man's body is a source of youth for the poet.

  25. The sonnets to the dark lady complicate this situation. Into the early hints of literary anti-senescence she introduces a note of uncertainty. On the one hand, since she is younger than the poet she ought to be good for him. Like Ficino's young mother, cheerfully yielding up her milk for the old man, the dark lady ought to be potentially curative. Yet the closest the poet comes to representing such a cure is in Sonnet 138, where the dark lady flatters him by pretending not to notice his age even though she is perfectly aware of it. The poet is left in the dubious position of "vainly thinking that she thinks me young," willing to buy her flattery at the cost of not referring to her inconstancy. This humorous situation is far from the kind of physical transformation hinted at in the young man poems. It resembles only the milder kind of prophylaxis suggested by Du Laurens, who argues that to prevent accidents, "old men must be held up with such discourses as they like of; they must be praised, they must be flattered, they must not be gainsayd in anything" (192). The only transformation possible in the world of Sonnet 138 is through a willing suspension of disbelief. Longevity in Sonnet 138 is socially contingent. And as might be expected, age itself is not as prevalent a subject in this section of the Sonnets. Sonnet 138 is the only one in which the poet even mentions his advanced age. Thus while the contrast between speaker and beloved in the young man poems may be between youth and age, in the dark lady poems it is between man and woman. Yet the poet's physical anxieties and the interest in mortality do not vanish in the dark lady poems. The woman in the triangle just plays a very different role than the man. As in Ficino's account, she represents the kind of physical predation that can be summed up in the well known "expense of spirit in a waste of shame." Of course, these ideas about the danger of intercourse are extremely widespread in the period. Lust almost always shortens life. The health of the celebrated Thomas Parr, who was supposed to have lived more than 152 years, was attributed by one writer partly to diet, but more to his avoidance of any kind of lasciviousness (Taylor 1635 15). Consequently the less radical prolongevitists like Leonardus Lessius made sexual moderation one of the main ingredients in their "sober diet" (64). Ideally, such moderation was supposed to ensure that "malignant" passions themselves would be less likely to occur (Lessius 1743 74). In the dark lady sonnets such anxieties emerge from the conventions of lovesickness. In Sonnet 147 the poet calls his love a "fever" that feeds "on that which doth preserve the ill." Such an image has a long poetic history in the period, but this particular sonnet develops the conceit more literally than most, and the poet is left to contemplate how "Desire is death, which physic did except." The poet's self-representation in these sonnets is also tinged with a less abstract notion of the passage of time. He sees himself, in Sonnet 146, as using up his inner strength and resources in order to make his "fading mansion" appear fine. In the end, he wonders, "Shall worms, inheritors of this excess, / Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end?" (146.7-8). In this way, while the young man in the Sonnets holds out the possibility of amelioration for the poet's ageing body, the dark lady threatens that body with an obsession that will hasten mortality.

  26. These connections between the medical discourse of longevity and the subject positions of the Sonnets ultimately help explain some of the more puzzling features of the collection. The role of the body in Shakespeare's Sonnets has frequently created problems for critics. Certainly the age of the poet has always been a problem for those who wanted to see the Sonnets as autobiographical. Since they pre-date 1609, they must have been written before Shakespeare reached 45, an age which according to contemporary classification was the prime of life. To make sense of this, one would have to rely on arguments such as Du Lauren's warning that "there are very many which become old men at fortie," but of course he also says that " there are an infinit sort, which are young men at sixtie" (177). More recent critics, who are not as concerned with autobiography, can assume that the Poet's pose of extreme age is either part of a thematically appropriate persona or a reflection of lyric traditions. But even these critics have to confront what seems to be a peculiar combination of distinct physical types. An using thematic material to explain the physical types results in potentially circular arguments. Such arguments also have a tendency to take the fictional quality of age in the Sonnets as grounds for a claim that the poet is making an almost entirely abstract statement about the "human fate" (Marsh 1996 46). The medical literature opens up another possibility. Given the Sonnets' reliance on a trio of characters that appears so frequently in early modern medical discussions, it seems likely that the complex themes of Shakespeare's Sonnets emerge in part from a fairly conventional relationship between early modern physical regimes of health and the ageing body. Given the prominent role of the passions in the discourse of youth and age, it also seems likely that the passions are one of the underlying concerns of the poems and that the Sonnets can be seen as a literary commentary on this more ordinarily medical topic.


1. The most recent work from this perspective is Douglas Starr's Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce. New York: Knopf, 1998.

2. Gerald Gruman's useful monograph on the history of prolongevity records a growing fascination at the beginning of the sixteenth century. On the one hand the legendary and mythical traditions of eternal life found a place in the exploration of the new world. The most famous example is Ponce de León who is supposed by Oviedo and later Gomara to have set out on his voyage (resulting the "discovery" of Florida) in the hopes of finding the fountain of youth (Gruman 1966 24). Ponce de Leòn's interests were not unique. Others such as Peter Martyr d'Anghiera confirmed the existence of such a fountain, and the Pope himself was at least partially convinced. The fountain of youth also became a popular subject for art in the early and mid sixteenth century (Gruman 24-26). On the other hand, medical accounts of prolongevity also enjoyed tremendous popularity in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Some were part of the hygienic tradition, which thought a particular course of diet and self restraint was the best way of prolonging life. The late mediaeval Regimen Sanitatis Salernum was reprinted many times and in many languages (the earliest printed editions of the latin text date from the 1490s. It was first translated into English by Paynell in 1557). The works of hygienists like Luigi Cornaro and particularly Leonardus Lessius also were extremely popular. Within twenty years of its debut, Lessius' Hygiasticon had been translated into both French and English. Alchemy also played a part in the discussion of aging, mostly because one of the promises of the infamous philosopher's stone was eternal life. In part because he wrote so much on prolongevity, the Medieval alchemist Roger Bacon remained popular well into the seventeenth century, the first full English translation of his Cure of Old Age and the Preservation of Youth appearing in 1683. Ideas about youth and age also tended to appear in medical works on other topics, such as in André Du Laurens' A discourse of the preservation of the sight (English, 1599). Much of the work of both alchemists and physicians also found a place in the more synthetic approach of writers like Francis Bacon, whose History of Life and Death or Of the Prolongation of Life (1638) discussed both the prevailing medical attitudes toward the aging body and the possibility of a mystical cure based on the nature of youth.

3. Crisis years in the life of an individual in which accumulated humors can suddenly cause disease or death. They were presumed to occur in multiples of 7 or 9. Wright thought 49 and 81 were the most dangerous.

4. Of course, interest in the Sonnets as autobiography has never really gone away. I recently reviewed an article for the journal Cryptologia which proved mathematically that the young man must be Henry Wriothesley.

5. A.L. Rowse has argued that Shakespeare used Wright in creating Hamlet's melancholy (Rowse 1965 230).

6. (Shakespeare and Evans 1974 Sonnet 41, lines 41-4)(Sonnet 41, lines 1-4). All subsequent quotations from the Sonnets are drawn from this edition and will be noted by sonnet number and line number.

7. Drinking the blood of one's fellow man could certainly be construed as "offending the creator." Underneath this scandalous suggestion may lie the even more hidden and scandalous suggestion that the medicine is not human blood but semen, which was after all thought to be a more rarified essence of blood. Given the homoeroticism of the Sonnets such a suggestion would seem logical. To my knowledge, however, it is not supported by direct evidence from medical or alchemical traditions.

Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).