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Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England

Rebecca Lemon shows how sixteenth-century writers, such as Marlowe and Shakespeare, depict addiction to many things, including to God, study, love, friendship, and drinking. Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England explores the fine line between devotion and pathology, revealing addiction's laudable as well as pejorative meanings.

Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England

Rebecca Lemon

2018 | 280 pages | Cloth $65.00
Literature / Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents


Introduction. Addiction in (Early) Modernity
Chapter 1. Scholarly Addiction in Doctor Faustus
Chapter 2. Addicted Love in Twelfth Night
Chapter 3. Addicted Fellowship in Henry IV
Chapter 4. Addiction and Possession in Othello
Chapter 5. Addictive Pledging from Shakespeare and Jonson to Cavalier Verse
Epilogue. Why Addiction?

Works Cited

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Addiction is, at its root, about pronouncing a sentence. This sentence might be, as its etymology suggests, an expression of an idea: ad + dīcere, "to speak, say." Or it might be, as in its legal definition, an assignment, such as sentencing someone to prison; following the term's origin in Roman contract law, an addict was an individual, usually a debtor, who had been sentenced or condemned. Addīctus is thus one assigned by decree, made over, bound, or—in one mode of such commitment—devoted.

What, then, does William Prynne mean when he warns against "those who addict themselves to Playes" or cautions readers to avoid those men who strive "earnestly to addict themselves to their trade of acting"? For modern readers he seems to view the theater as a drug, lulling its audiences into narcotic passivity. And indeed, the theater does at times stand as a site of addiction, which, Circe-like, has the power to entrap playgoers: plays are drugs, actors are drug peddlers, and audiences are unwitting victims or eager consumers. Yet this pejorative (even demonic) reading of the word "addict," while arguably at stake in Prynne's description, ignores the word's broader semantic and conceptual history. Eighteenth-century writers deploy the word in its modern signification—"the compulsion and need to continue taking a drug," a usage appearing in 1779 in the work of Samuel Johnson—but sixteenth-century writers instead drew largely on the concept of addiction from its Latin origins to designate service, debt, and dedication.

Unearthing this hidden history behind early modern invocations of addiction, this book offers two primary insights. First, and most important, it illuminates a previously buried conception of addiction as a form of devotion at once laudable, difficult, extraordinary, and even heroic. This view has been concealed by the persistent link of addiction to pathology and modernity: current understandings of, and scholarship on, addiction connect it to globalization, medicalization, and capitalism. Surveying sixteenth-century invocations reveals instead that one might be addicted to study, friendship, love, or God. Prynne cautions that one might addict oneself to stage plays, but his warning rings differently if addiction in the sixteenth century signals a form of pledged dedication. Within Prynne's caution lies the potential for sincere praise for the act of addiction itself. Rather than rebuking a mode of potentially excessive attachment (addiction), he instead cautions audiences against the wrong kind of addiction: to the false idol of the theater, where actors lure spectators into a form of devotion that should belong to God.

Second, this book uncovers an early modern understanding of addiction as a form of compulsion that resonates with modern scientific definitions. Specifically, the project traces how early modern medical tracts, legal rulings, and religious polemics stress the dangers of addiction to alcohol in terms of disease, compulsion, and enslavement. Early modern debates about tobacco, gambling, and sex also deploy, at times, the language of compulsion and vulnerability that comprises early modern addiction. But this book concentrates on alcohol for two reasons: first, the historical evidence on excessive, habitual drinking is more abundant than for other substances; and second, the scholarship on early modern drinking is well established, providing a critical framework for my own contribution. Certainly, the scholarship on good fellowship and the conviviality of sixteenth-century tavern culture contrasts with an emphasis on the compulsive nature of addicted drinking. Yet a host of early modern writers deploy a language of addiction to describe how the choice and inclination of good fellowship in drinking shifts, through habit and custom, into the necessity of habitual, excessive drunkenness.

The relationship between these two understandings of addiction is not solely oppositional nor can it be so easily mapped onto historical narratives, such as a shift from sixteenth-century devotion to eighteenth-century compulsion. Both meanings of addiction appear in the early modern period. What unites these apparently opposed discourses is a shared emphasis, both rhetorical and experiential, on addiction as an overthrow of the will. Being open to a form of strong inspiration, often described as ravishment, the addict is indeed breathed into by the spirit. This spirit might be God, it might be love, or it might be alcohol. But in an experience of ravishment, the addict is inhabited by another, be it a person, object, or idea.

Addiction is, in its spirituous potential, a form of devotion. Early modern lexicographers helped illuminate this relation by using the terms as synonyms. Glossing "addiction," dictionaries turn to the words "devotion" and "dedication," just as in defining "devotion" they deploy the terms "addict" and "addiction." Even as the word "devotion" is most immediately associated with religious worship, it also functioned—as its connection to addiction reveals—independently of a Christian framework. This is because devotion, like addiction, accounts for a position of loyalty to something or someone: one gives oneself up, as a devotee or addict, zealously and exclusively. Nonreligious use of the word draws on its Latin root: dēvovēre (to devote), designated an "earnest addiction or application" and a form of "enthusiastic attachment or loyalty." To be devoted is to be "zealously attached or addicted to a person or cause." One exhibits devotion to a king, to a beloved, to an action, or to a pastime. Both addiction and devotion are forms of service: to be devoted is to exhibit "attached service," to be at someone's command or disposal. Finally, devotion, like addiction, concerns speech: vowing in the case of devotion, and pledging in the case of addiction.

For if early modern addiction concerns an individual subsumed in relation to another, it also involves a dependence on declarative speech. Addiction not only designates a committed relationship of the addict to the substance, spirit, or person to whom he or she is devoted, but also hinges—as noted above—on a verbal contract or pledge. While modern definitions of addiction seem to bear little trace of the term's etymology and early definition, this project uncovers these historical origins, participating in what Jeffrey Masten has called a "renewed historical philology." In his appeal to attend to words and their histories, he writes, "We have not sufficiently attended to etymology—the history of words (the history in words)," urging scholars "to be more carefully attuned to the ways that etymologies, shorn of their associations with 'origin,' persist in a word and its surrounding discourse." In the case of the word "addict," its etymological connection to speaking and pledging, as well as its expression of devotion, might appear entirely buried in modern uses of the term. But this range of meanings persists in early modern usage. Drawing attention to addiction as an utterance uncovers how speaking forth is fundamental to the addictive process. It also reveals such pledging as a challenge to self-sovereignty, as the addict commits to another person or object. Forms of addictive speech—be they pledges, vows, or contracts—track this challenge in their divide between imperative and reflexive articulations: one is attached or compelled by an authority or, alternately and relatedly, one devotes oneself, as with Prynne's caution to those who "addict themselves" to plays or to acting. If Roman and modern invocations of addiction draw largely on the imperative form, in the sixteenth century the reflexive construction proves dominant: addiction represents an exercise of will even in the relinquishing of it, a form of speaking commitment and devotion out loud or in writing. Definitions of "addict" from the period chronicle this interplay. The addict is defined both as the person conscripted by an external authority into service to someone or something, and as the person who devotes and assigns himself or herself to such service.

The result—the layering of Roman, early modern, and modern uses of the term "addict"—is what Roland Greene deems "a semantic palimpsest," in which different meanings of a word appear "in different degrees of availability. Palimpsests suggest one fashion of meanings coexisting with one another, with older ones showing through what comes later." With its origin in contract law overwritten by its devotional invocations, which are then also overwritten by medical uses, the word "addict" offers one such semantic palimpsest, what Masten deems the history of and in a word. My emphasis on the semantic meanings of addiction—its definition as offered, for example, in a range of early modern dictionaries, and in Latin, French, and English—is coupled in this project with attention to the word's conceptual reach. I read, that is, "both the semantic integers that one finds in a dictionary" and "the concepts that shadow them," as Greene puts it in his study of key words.

Uncovering addiction both as devotional ravishment and as a form of speech helps account for the question that began this project: why is early modern drama so often preoccupied with addictive states? The answer comes, in part, in the parallel between the addict and the early modern actor. Transforming himself in gesture, speech, and dress and adopting the words of another, the actor is bound to his character, to other actors, to the playwright, and to the audience. The actor is, in precise accord with the definition of addiction, assigned and obligated. The apparently oppositional definitions of addiction—as devotion versus compulsion, an exercise of the will versus a relinquishment of it—come together onstage in the figure of the dramatic actor speaking to an audience. The actor at once commands his audience, while also being vulnerable before it. In being "abnormally exposed, abnormally dependent upon us," as Michael Goldman puts it, the actor enters a form of voluntary service that compels him to transform, erase, or shatter himself in relation to another. Dramatic performance is, in these terms, addicted relation: "The drama shapes and is shaped by its expressive instrument: the body, mind, and person of the actor," W. B. Worthen writes of this process.

This link between the actor and the addict has been anticipated by those scholars theorizing acting's relationship to inspiration. The actor, breathed into by the author's script, balances technique with inspiration; she at once releases herself to express passion and trains in her craft. This view of acting was made famous by Konstantin Stanislavsky, who counseled the actor to uncover "inspiration" and "creativity" in order to most fully inhabit the role. But the role of the passions and inspiration in acting predates this modern method. Early modern actors were imagined to release and transform themselves, not only through affect and gesture, but also through bodily comportment. In the process, they also transform the audience and the theater space, the scene of connection between the one and the many. The link between the body and spirit, the actor and audience—both inspired by the playwright and each other—results at times in the "unsettling resemblance between inspiration and disease," as Joseph Roach notes, citing seventeenth-century medical views. Transformation as intersubjective connection instead appears, particularly to a viewer like Prynne, as troubling infection. From this vantage point of acting as both inspiration and disease, the links between acting and addiction seem less unexpected than inevitable. Acting presents a "dramatic paradox" for the Renaissance audience, caught between the actor's creation and his potentially blasphemous deception, or infectious power. The actor, in the creative act, is "both divine and demonic," Worthen argues, "as a magical extension of human potentiality and as a monstrous deformity of it." The doubleness of the actor, like the doubleness of the addict, moves between devoted and compelled, inspired and diseased.

Ultimately addiction, like acting, offers a challenge to models of self-sovereignty, a through-line in this project's argument. If self-sovereignty is often posited as requisite for a life of health and well being, such self-possession eludes the addict. Free will, agency, self-care, and autonomy are given over, often by the addict's active choosing, much as the actor embraces a role or an audience is overtaken by it. Outside of the boundaries of the imagination, such a position of willed compulsion has been largely pathologized by medical experts. It has also been politicized by social theorists: at its extreme, such relinquishment of personal freedom can be taken to justify, as Mary Nyquist illuminates, enslavement on the grounds of the natural servility of some individuals or communities. Yet the valorization of individual autonomy and self-possession can also risk upholding isolation at the expense of community or connection. There is, legal theorist Jennifer Nedelsky writes, "something profoundly and I think irreducibly mysterious about the combination of individuality and 'enmeshedness,' integrity and integration that constitutes the human being." Early modern models of addiction offer one way of rethinking subjectivity through what has arguably proved the ideological and ethical impasse of self-sovereignty and individuality. Lauren Berlant describes the impasse in these terms: the "sovereignty described as the foundation of individual autonomy" overidentifies self-control with the "fantasy of sovereign performativity and state control over geographical boundaries. It thereby affords a militaristic and melodramatic view of individual agency by casting the human as most fully itself when assuming the spectacular posture of performative action." If, as Berlant suggests, we conceive of human agency in concert with militarized action, celebrating productivity and the exercise of control, then it is no wonder that scenes of being that challenge individual sovereignty might invite condemnation and medicalization. Deep attachment or devotion holds the potential to gesture beyond isolated and isolating modes of life. Addiction offers one such model. Drawing attention to addiction as utterance and ravishment, this project illuminates the fundamental dispersal of agency at the heart of addiction itself. In doing so, this project explores how the early modern mode of addictive release might be admired and imitated for offering a mode of related living based on connection rather than isolation and on community rather than individuality.

This book begins to tease out such philosophical and ethical resonances of addiction by turning, in the introduction, to the first uses of a word: "addict" and its derivations. The word's use clusters in three arenas: faith, love, and drinking. Analyzing addictions to faith and love, the first half of this project reveals how such addictions require dedication and an exceptional vulnerability that eludes many seekers. To be an addict demands the simultaneous exercise and relinquishment of the will, a paradoxical and challenging combination. One must consent to give up consent, and banish the will, to addict oneself fully. This form of addiction is at once laudable and dangerous, for the addict undergoes a transformation, a ravishment, in pursuit of the addictive object. Examining this process of self-shattering, the project's first chapters reveal how addictive release overtakes individuals, bringing them into deep relation with another.

As sixteenth-century audiences actively sought and embraced such addiction to God and love, however, they were also warned of addiction's danger for physical, spiritual, and communal integrity: exceptional attachment or commitment to improper forms exposed the threat of addiction. This book examines, in its second half, such allegedly dangerous addictions, turning to Berlant's theory of "cruel optimism" to understand how an object initially attracting attachment might impede an individual's flourishing. In its study of such cruel attachments, "those binding kinds of optimistic relation we call 'cruel,'" this portion of the project pays particular attention to alcohol as a secondary addiction. The turn from hopeful attachment in friendship, partnership, and community to a compulsive mode of addiction exposes alcohol as an available elixir, one that seems to offer the promise of community and the devotional attachment charted in this book's first half. Yet this study of drinking also anticipates modern notions of addiction. Early modern theological, medical, imaginative, and legal writing directly references habitual drunkenness as addiction, insisting on its link to disease and tyranny and resonating with the work of later medical researchers. Even, then, as my study of alcohol is yoked to this book's primary argument—uncovering early modern addiction's association with devotion and pledging—my work also contributes to the voluminous scholarship on modern addictions, demonstrating the relevance of the early modern period for more familiar notions of addiction as compulsive drug taking. My hope is that this book might help encourage future projects on other addictive relations from this period since, as suggested above, tobacco-taking, gambling, sex, witchcraft, and swearing appear, at times, as compulsive and ravishing activities. Beyond the necessary limits of this book, I am eager to see what studies my foray into the topic might help encourage.

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