Associate Professor of English
Professor Martin’s new book, Constituting Old Age in Early Modern English Literature, from Queen Elizabeth to King Lear, is being published this year by University of Massachusetts Press. The study, researched and drafted during his tenures as NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor (2005-2008) and senior fellow at the BU Humanities Center (2009-2010), explores the way that Shakespeare and his contemporaries regarded and represented old age.
Where scholars have traditionally presumed that late life was then seen as little more than a time of withdrawal and preparation for death, Martin demonstrates that Elizabethan writers in fact repeatedly contested such prejudicial and dismissive social attitudes. Focusing chiefly on the last quarter-century of Elizabeth I’s reign (1578-1603), he establishes how competing definitions of and attitudes toward old age came to demarcate a deeply conflicted frontier between external, socially “constituted” beliefs and a developing sense of an individual’s discrete “constitution” or physical makeup, a usage that enters the language in the mid-1500s. Internal divisions within the opposing camps further complicated this space. On one side, reverence for the elder’s authority, rooted in religious and social convention, was persistently challenged by the discontents of an ambitious younger underclass. Simultaneously, the aging subject grounded an enduring social presence and dignity upon a bodily integrity that time inevitably threatens. In a historical setting that witnessed the extended reign of a kinetic, long-lived monarch and a resulting climate of acute generational strife, this network of competition and accommodation uniquely shapes literary imagination in the Tudor era’s own twilight years. From an extended assessment of the queen’s skilled management of her aging public persona to a close rereading of Shakespeare’s great tragedy of senescence composed in the immediate wake of her demise—with intervening discussions of the pastorals of Spenser and Sidney, and the lyric poems of Ralegh, Shakespeare, and Donne—the book offers a fresh look at some of the period’s signature works, genres, and figures, while redirecting critical attention to what remains a neglected corner of early modern studies.