How old are Beatrice and Benedick?

BEATRICE: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick, nobody marks you.

BENEDICK: What my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?

Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing never meet but there is a skirmish of wit between them. The merry war has been raging since 1598.

They were the first of the witty lovers who would dominate British theatre, the direct ancestors of William Congreve's Millamant and Mirabell in The Way of the World (1700), Bernard Shaw's Ann Whitfield and John Tanner in Man and Superman (1905), and Noel Coward's Amanda and Elyot in Private Lives (1936). All of them, without exception, are far too wise to woo peaceably.

Beatrice and Benedick have always been popular with audiences and actors. In the latest revival at the Old Vic they are played by Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones.

Redgrave’s Rosalind in As You Like It was the finest Rosalind in the 20th Century and her Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew was one of the great Kates. Jones was superb in Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope and he has given many fine performances in Shakespeare’s plays.

But, at 76 and 82 respectively, they are simply too old to be playing Shakespeare’s lovers. Their casting makes nonsense of the text. The oldest couple I had seen before them was Brian Bedford when he was 63 and Martha Henry when she was 60 in a production at Stratford, Ontario, Canada, and that was pushing it.

If you go back to the 18th century, David Garrick was 49 and Mrs Pritchard was 37 when they played the lovers in 1748. If you go back to the 19th century, Henry Irving was 44 and Ellen Terry was 35 when they first played the lovers in 1882.

I decided to do some research into how old the actors were in a major production in each decade in Britain since the 1950s.

The major production of the 1950s was John Gielgud's Renaissance production for the Stratford Memorial Theatre in which he played Benedick opposite three different leading ladies. He was 46. Diana Wynyard was 46. Peggy Ashcroft was 43. Margaret Leighton was 37.

In the 1960s it was Franco Zeffireili's Sicilian production with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens at the National Theatre when it was at the Old Vic. She was 31. He was 36.

In the 1970s it was Judi Dench and Donald Sinden in John Barton's production for the RSC set in Victoria's India. She was 42. He was 53.

In the 1980s it was Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack in Terry Hands's Caroline production for the RSC. They were both 44.

In the 1990s it was Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in the Branagh’s film. He was 33. She was 34.

In the 2000s it was Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker in Nicholas Hytner’s swimming pool production at the National Theatre. He was 46. She was 58.

The most recent actors were David Tennant (40) and Catherine Tate (43) in the West End and Charles Edwards (40) and Eve Best (40) at Shakespeare’s Globe.

In the Elizabethan Age if you lived to 21 you could expect to live until you were 64. So it would be reasonable to guess that Shakespeare (who died when he was 52) would have imagined Beatrice and Benedick to be in their late twenties.

Incidentally, Mark Rylance, who directs James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave at the Old Vic, was 33 when he played Benedick in the West End 20 years ago.