To Make Much of Time

New year’s day is the perfect moment to meditate on time for obvious reasons, but especially in lieu of the opening two chapters of Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: the Biography.

He presents us with mortality figures from Shakespeare’s age that boggle the contemporary mind. For example, that the average lifespan was 47 years!

Think on this a moment. Reflect on how your priorities would change if you knew this in advance. Not only would you have to be lucky or rich (or both) to survive childhood, but the odds of making it to old age were slim and next to none.

Throw in the hazards of childbirth, the absence of labor laws, the lack of social safety nets, the lack of scientific research and what you end up with is a pretty grim backdrop for everyday life in 16th century Britain.

The shock to my system comes from how much I take for granted here and now. Forty seven seems young and certainly sounds so when a celebrity (or anyone) dies around that age.

Forty seven is the age of football coaches or young presidents and ambitious CEO and actors entering the prime of their careers. I mean, Brad Pitt just turned 50 for crying out loud. U2 just recently hit 50 and those guys are about to drop a new album and launch an ambitious world tour.

What would YOU do if you could only reasonably expect 50 years out of life? Would you make the same decisions? Take each day at the same pace?

No wonder the globe was not teeming with nearly 7 billion people! How could it, when few survived childhood and those who did rarely achieved old age?

What effect does this have on our understanding of Shakespeare and his works? And how will knowing this affect mine???

Shakespeare was born in 1564. How many of you were born around 1964?

Shakespeare died in 1616. Now think on that and make much use of time.

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2 Responses to “To Make Much of Time”

  1. Oof. This post hit me a bit hard. At first, I was thinking that 47 was a mere 17 years away from me…but the truth is, I’m forgetting my own age, and it’s actually closer to 15 years–a significant difference when we’re talking about the final countdown.

    While we live in a privileged time when the average human lifespan (in the United States) is roughly 77 years, there’s absolutely no guarantee that we’ll all meet that mark. My mother passed away at the age of 54, a fact of which I’m always acutely aware. There is a possibility that I am presently middle-aged at best. I often find myself struggling to keep up with our society, which so often requires that we *sacrifice* our time (rather than making the most of it). I try not to panic as I listen to the second hand tick. After all, genetic predispositions aside, none of us have any guarantee as to how much time we’ve got. Fretting over it is only a waste of valuable time and energy.

    What I find particularly astounding in regard to Shakespeare is just how much he managed to accomplish in his four-and-a-half decades on Earth. Here we are, reading and discussing his works, watching productions of his plays almost 400 years after his death. It’s hard not to be at least a little intimidated by that!

    • Thanks for that thoughtful post!

      I had three powerful reactions after absorbing the average lifespan (47) for the period and Shakespeare’s age when he died (on his 52nd birthday):

      1) Only 47? Maybe that explains why teenagers are courting and marrying in Romeo & Juliet. We make such a big deal about it (oh, wow, only 14?) but when you’ve only got 47 years on average to live your whole life, you’ve got to get going quickly. We also have to factor in wars, disease, childbirth, sanitation — the whole nine yards. Escaping childhood was one victory. Finding a career and evading poverty another. Living to ripe old age could hardly be taken for granted. We must always keep this in perspective when looking back.

      2) Shakespeare was only 52? Crap. It’s almost unbelievable how high his batting average was. I mean, we have many writers who crank out material – Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oats come to mind – but how many produce such works of staggering significance? As remembered by time, Homer had two, Virgil one, Dante three, Chaucer one, Cervantes one (I’m being brutal, sure, and we can quibble, but it’s a broad point) — only to arrive at Shakespeare and grapple with Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, the Tempest and on and on and on. Sure they were plays. But then he died on his 52nd birthday. That’s stupendous output and quality no matter how you choose to think about it.

      I’m not discounting the importance of Dante or Milton or Homer or Virgil or anybody for that matter. I’m just saying it’s hard to find anybody in the annals of history who can match Shakespeare for output, quality, consistency, popularity and endurance. He’s genius in every conceivable direction.

      3) I wonder how this awareness of death, the ever-presence of bodily functions, failures, foibles and fragility seeped into Shakespeare’s everyday awareness. Sure, we live longer lives today – but how much of that time is spent dulled by passive entertainment, sitting on the couch? Without the constant bombardment of television, radio, the internet, all those modern conveniences that allegedly make our lives healthier and happier today, I’m convinced people were forced to be more intimate and creative.

      The ultimate Buddhist awareness of course that now is all there really is, that we might go at any moment, and to make the most of where we are and what we’ve got — that’s a higher-level state of consciousness that few achieve at any point in history. As Thoreau said, the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. And he died at 44. Thomas Wolfe was only 38. Mozart was 35. Schubert, 31.

      I know, get busy, right?

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