Concerns about “gerontocracy”—rule by the old—are roiling American politics after President Biden’s disastrous performance in last week’s presidential debate. The negative connotations of the term notwithstanding, gerontocracy is the original form of human government, even if the reality it captures usually meant councils of elders before it could refer to monarchs or presidents. (Not that the United States lacks a vestige of the original gerontocracy: The Senate—derived from the Latin senex—is our collection of allegedly wise seniors, as its name suggests.)

The aged presidency is a relatively new phenomenon, however. While the US Constitution set a threshold of 35 years of age to hold the highest office—ruling out perhaps 80 percent of Americans at the founding, when the average life expectancy was 37.5—presidents have never necessarily been old. Nor have kings. Indeed, over its own long history, hereditary monarchy introduced an equal and opposite risk: impetuous young people in the highest offices. But America hasn’t had a young president in a while. 

No society has done well at controlling the risk that kings and presidents get old, to the point of losing their functions, and America clearly isn’t succeeding, either. The country is hostage to a failure to design our institutions to ward off the predictable risk of leaders aging beyond their capacities. (The Constitution has no age maximum.) And such political crises dramatize the politics of succession, which are doubly fraught when rulers lose their marbles. 

If only we had listened to William Shakespeare, whose King Lear is a parable about just this syndrome.

Composed in 1605 and 1606, it is a peculiarly modern play. It is set in the ancient past, but its action assumes that everyone, whatever their respect for authority, also understands that our political leaders are all too human, and all too mortal. “They told me I was everything; ’tis a lie,” Lear says.

The dogma that kings were gods on earth, if it was ever taken seriously, is gone—even if its legacies remain around. Centuries ago, people were in a position to reject the dogma and see their fictions as paper-thin. “The incessant, ritualized spectacles of sovereignty,” as the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt has put it, “have a nervous air, as if no one quite believed all the grand claims.” It is, he adds, “as if those who ruled both states and families secretly feared that the elaborate hierarchical structure could vanish like a mirage, exposing their shivering, defenseless bodies.” Or their doddering minds and raspy voices.

A few years ago, Greenblatt reread Shakespeare as a commentator on the Trump era and its populist ferment. The Bard turns out to be equally valuable for his insights into Biden, the #Resistance commander in chief. When political leaders have “endured so long,” as the Duke of Kent puts it in Shakespeare’s play, and their capacities evaporate, they can nevertheless hold on to power for a surprisingly and tragically long time.

Lear is about what unfolds when the fictions of kingship have weakened, but also when society has no particularly good way to deal with succession crises of aging and unfit men.

 For many centuries, primogeniture solved the problem of succession by identifying the oldest son as incumbent of power. But the real-life English case of Sir Brian Annesley—who, like Lear, only had daughters, and may have inspired the Bard—anticipated the crises that can erupt where there is no clear successor. 

“The bigger and more genuine problem is that the old man won’t leave.”

The conventional reading of the play is that Lear genuinely hopes to remove himself from power, but then inadvertently sets a train of events in motion that no one can control by disinheriting Cordelia, the daughter he loves most. But the play implies that the bigger and more genuine problem is that the old man won’t leave. 

It is hardly clear, to begin with, that Lear intends to honor the results of the opening auction of his kingdom to the highest bidder in the currency of daughterly love. As the critic A. C. Bradley argued, the scene may be more a matter of “gratify[ing] his love of absolute power and his hunger for assurances of devotion.” And whether Lear takes it as his sovereign prerogative to choose the moment of his departure—because there is no authoritative social mechanism for replacing him—his treatment of Cordelia is itself one of the earliest signs of his decline. Even Goneril and Regan, the daughters who themselves benefit most from his choice to disinherit their sister, comment that Lear makes it because of “the infirmities of old age.” “Nature in you stands on the very verge / Of his confine,” Regan adds.

Though over 80 years of age and constantly referred to as old (including by himself), Lear doesn’t entirely want to leave power. He hopes to keep the accouterments of his station while transferring its responsibilities, but the distinction between the two proves elusive. “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst / been wise,” the Fool comments in response to Lear’s grasping. But is aged wisdom really to be expected, the play seems to be asking, rather than the self-dealing of slow departures, and the retention of the remnants of power even amid showy retirements? One needn’t look far in contemporary politics, after all, for examples of powerful men and women feigning exit while keeping control. 

In arranging the plot of his masterpiece, Shakespeare decided against letting Cordelia inherit after a reconciliation, as in most earlier versions of the story. The resulting tragic end allows Shakespeare to emphasize how hostage we can become to the whimsy of aging men—even before their aging leads them, as it does Lear, to lose control of their faculties altogether.

“Shakespeare recognized the … costs of the untidy politics of succession of old men.”

We all know what happens as the play unfolds: death and destruction. What could have been a comedy in Shakespeare’s hands becomes one of the most depressing and terrifying denouements in all literature. It is tragic because Shakespeare recognized the human and social costs of the untidy politics of succession of old men.

The drama of succession unleashed by the decline of the old doesn’t provide a clean way of channeling the political ambitions of others angling for power, which they inevitably do. Old men like Lear make their fateful choices precisely when his decline activates the lust for power of everyone else, with cruel effects.

In the parallel succession tragedy, the plotting Edmund incites suspicion in his half-brother Edgar by alleging that he is a critic of “the oppression of aged tyranny”—when, in fact, Edmund is lying, hoping to secure Edgar’s inheritance, which eventually leads to his father’s untimely demise (and Edmund’s own). “The oldest hath borne most,” the play concludes, something hard to understand for those who “are young [and] / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” The dynamics unleashed by gerontocracy are also cruel to the old themselves, because of how younger people inevitably play into the untidiness of their succession.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the old don’t decline and should retain their stranglehold on power. It does mean that without a better social mechanism for transferring power, their old age raises the costs of their failure to leave in time.

Whatever the empathy Lear himself elicits by the end of his tragedy, he has been compelled to unleash horrors not merely for himself and his family, but for the entire kingdom. For Shakespeare, gerontocracy benefits no one. That is why, as King Lear proceeds, its constant message is that the toll of old age is real, and its consequences for the powerful are immense for that reason. Lear alternates between awareness of this fact and a lapse into madness that drives events forward, ultimately leading not just to his own demise—which would have happened anyway—but to political mayhem.

If the succession crises of doddering old men staying too long are by no means a thing of the historical past, the main question is how to stave them off. In the era of kings, no one ever came up with a good answer to this question; the same is true in families today. And the next few months will dramatize whether America can discover a serviceable answer on the fly, forced as it still so visibly is to live in the desperate world in which old men rule. If the current tragedy of American politics is like Lear’s, there is every reason to believe it could end badly, and every responsibility to face once and for all the gerontocratic form of rule that has condemned our politics to this story one more time. 

Some political leaders in steep decline ramble on debate stages. Others rave on heaths.

Samuel Moyn is Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and History at Yale University and the author, most recently, of Liberalism Against Itself.


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