Thursday, May 1, 2014

What Drugs Did Shakespeare Do?

Here's a Mayday Shakespeare question. Was Shakespeare on drugs? And here's a response. Which time? You mean when he he sent a boy actor on stage to write Ovidian verses in the stage-dust, with a stick clutched between wrists bound and bloodied to look like he had no hands? Or when he gave Desdemona a few more lines to say after she'd been strangled to death? Or when he authored the worst lines in the canon, namely Laertes' after he hears of Ophelia's drowning: "Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, and therefore I forbid my tears"? Certainly these textual instances constitute internal evidence of a mind gone haywire. But are they enough to convict the Bard of drug abuse?

Did Shakespeare over-indulge? Some have speculated that his death at a mere 52 suggests he did too much of something. But there were plenty of ways to die young in 1616, and, alas, though for centuries readers have attempted to extract
knowledge of "Shakespeare the man" from what he wrote in his plays (not to mention his sonnets), that method of biography is fundamentally flawed. Plays are works of the imagination, and we know Shakespeare had one. So we can't judge from the man's work whether he was gay or straight, Protestant or Catholic, pro-woman or misogynistic, chaste or libertine, or given to sobriety or to psychotropic chemical experimentation.

Still, we can mark his attention to mind- and mood-altering substances in the plays. Evidently he was interested in drugs, as in most things. A brief look at "Drugs in Shakespeare"  may tell us what early-modern audiences would have thought of Prozac.

Or not.

But let me start by arguing that, despite superficial appearances, and whatever he did in his few minutes of spare time, Shakespeare was stone cold sober when he wrote even his craziest scenes. Yes, his subject matter was sometimes bizarre (though the stump-stick-writing maiden and the undead Desdemona were no stranger than many of his rival playwrights' dramatic apparitions). But crazy subjects do not a crazy author make. In all his plays' construction, "such a frame of sense, a dependency of thing on thing" implies a highly rational mind at work, as Duke Vincentio says of Isabella in Measure for Measure. There's a method to Shakespeare's madness, even if it occasionally seems perverse (e.g., Lavinia the handless Ovidian sand-scribe. Not that I'm obsessed with her. By the way, her tongue's been cut out, too).

Now that I've proved this, let's look at the things that go on with drugs within the plays, as well as the things that don't. First, why do none of Shakespeare's characters smoke? I don't get it. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, tobacco was being floated into London by the boatload, thanks to the Virginia Company and also Sir Walter Raleigh. (He was such a stupid get.) Anthony Burgess's brilliant novel about Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, A Dead Man in Deptford, has its hero addicted to the stuff, and yes, that's fiction, but we have the long clay pipes and the arguments against tobacco, made by everyone from the Puritans to King James, to show us smoking was a definite thing in early-modern London. One of Ben Jonson's characters complains of "filthy, roguish tobacco," and a play by Middleton and Dekker places a tobacco shop right on stage. But there isn't a single tobacco reference or pipe-smoker in Shakespeare's plays. Tobacco-weed was evidently not his drug of choice, or even one that "sparked" his interest (sorry). We can't say he and his fellow actors were worried that an ember from a lit pipe might burn their thatch-roofed playhouse down, because, had that been the case, they wouldn't have fired off a cannon in a triumphal scene of Henry VIII in 1613 and burned their thatch-roofed playhouse down.

I think the absence of tobacco in Shakespeare's plays is an extraordinary omission, and someone ought to write a book about it, because there aren't enough books about Shakespeare. It seems tobacco was the only thing Shakespeare wasn't interested in. (This makes it odd that Shakespeare has been chosen as unofficial spokes-playwright for Ontario's Stratford Tobacco Company, as we see here:

Alcohol was a different story. Drinking is an important subject in Shakespeare's plays. That means in Shakespeare, characters don't just drink, they also talk about drinking. They're meta-drinkers. (Though that's probably not quite right, because it would mean they drank about drinking.) Most of what Shakespeare's characters say about alcohol is not nice. Hamlet complains that Denmark is a nation of alcoholics; that Danes are well-known "drunkards." In Othello, Cassio calls alcohol an "enemy" that men "put in their mouths to steal away their brains." The drunk characters in Othello and in other plays suggest he's right. Christopher Sly, the well-lit tinker of The Taming of the Shrew, passes out on stage before the play even starts. Falstaff and Twelfth Night's Toby Belch are wittier than Sly in their cups, but the money they spend on sack gets them both deep into debt. To his later regret, Cassio joins a "flock of drunkards" in Othello, gets into a stupid fight which he later can't remember, and loses his lieutenancy for his error. Stephano, the drunken butler of The Tempest, careens around the magic island voicing delusions of grandeur, then falls into a puddle of horse piss. And so on. Iago calls drink "a good, familiar creature, if it be well used," but no one in Shakespeare uses alcohol well (and also, he's Iago, so he's a big liar). "In vino veritas," Erasmus wrote, quoting Alcaeus, but the truth wine reveals in Shakespeare is that drinking leads to dumb behavior.

So, Shakespeare's plays are broadly wary of alcohol, in all its early modern varieties: canary wine, ale, small beer, sack, Rhenish, muscadel. (Only Scotsmen drank hard liquor; Shakespeare probably never tasted the stuff.) What substances capable of being abused are thus left? The ones best known to Shakespeare were mild hallucinogenic downers, taken to induce sleep. Juliet and Imogen take sleeping drugs. Iago refers to "poppy" -- Turkish opium -- and "mandragora," or powdered mandrake, as "drowsy syrups." Yet Shakespeare shows most interest in drowsy-drugs not as themselves, but as symbols of the theater. He uses their action as a metaphor for the way theater-magic involves playgoers in a pleasurable dream. In A Midsummer Night's Dream,  the sprite Puck puts magic druggy drops into the eyes of two Athenians, and of the fairy queen Titania, so that when these folks awake, they'll fall in love with whoever (or whatever) they see. It's what Shakespeare hopes his audience will do. Theater, like a drug, releases actors and audience from the strict realm of the rational, into a domain of dreamy receptiveness. Also like drugs and like dreams, plays open a trapdoor on the subconscious mind, and release wild thoughts. Banquo asks Macbeth, who's brooding about regicide, whether the pair of them have "eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner." The thanes have just met the Witches, and are hob-nobbing with the dark side, the tragic power of theatrical "dreaming," which, however it torments them, is yet pleasurable and compelling for their watchers, who also feel its force.

The early-modern theater drug was not only strong, it was addictive. Lots of Elizabethan apprentices got chastised for sneaking away repeatedly to the plays, and Puritan pastors inveighed against the seductiveness of those "chapels of Satan," the playhouses. The open-roofed Renaissance theaters channeled a frightening, mind-altering energy.

That's why I think the Doctor Who episode, "The Shakespeare Code," in which the Globe Playhouse sucks in an interplanetary force summoned by Macbeth's witches (ancient aliens in disguise), is a legitimate piece of Shakespeare criticism.

So. What drugs would I wish for Shakespeare? That's easy. I would wish him caffeine. Sadly for him, coffee, though well known in Ethiopia and drunk by the Turks in Shakespeare's time, wasn't known and widely available to Europeans until late in the seventeenth century, fifty years after Shakespeare was dead and gone. Do you get this? Are you listening? Shakespeare had no coffee. How he managed to write and adapt 37 plays, rewrite other guys' plays, scribble a hundred-some sonnets, act parts, and co-run a theater company without it I will never know. Why was there a Red Bull playhouse, but no Red Bull? How were there Turkish rugs, but no Turkish coffee? In 1610, the English didn't even drink tea yet. We can only imagine what Shakespeare's output would have been on a daily double espresso.

Scary thought.

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