Family Politics and Age in Early Modern England
Early modern England had a heavy social and psychological investment in hierarchies of age, which interacted with other hierarchies—notably those of gender, nationality and class—to structure the politics of both family and state. Age was both a source of authority—parents govern their children in part because they are older and more experienced—and a process that might undermine that authority through the physical or mental weakness caused by an individual’s increasing age. This chapter explores the interaction between the politics of the family and what Paul Griffiths has termed a ‘politics of age’, focusing on three plays in which the family’s hierarchies of age are transformed, exploited or disrupted: Nathan Field, John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s The Queen of Corinth (c. 1617), Fletcher’s The Humorous Lieutenant (King’s Men, c. 1619) and Richard Brome and Thomas Heywood’s The Late Lancashire Witches (1634). In depicting relationships in which children take on the authority of parents, guardians abuse their authority, and fathers attempt to take the place of their sons, these plays not only explore the social and emotional impact of dysfunction within the family, but also acknowledge the contingent aspects of kinship bonds, the instability of age-related hierarchies, and the capacity of family relationships to shape the destiny of the state.