- Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England by Rebecca Lemon
In Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England, Rebecca Lemon succeeds in her primary purpose: to recover the idea of addiction as an admirable act of selfless devotion. She starts this provocative intervention by drawing attention to the etymology of addiction: “ad + dicere, ‘to speak, or say’” (ix). In early modern parlance, Lemon argues, the addict is not only someone who has been sentenced or condemned for compulsive behavior but also, non-pejoratively, someone who has pledged devotion to a person, object, or idea. Even in the best of cases, addiction poses challenges. Not every person has the “natural disposition” to become an addict (9), and not every addict will be able to sustain the commitment or surrender that comes from giving the self over to a higher power or aim. But whatever the outcome, importantly and originally here, addiction can signal a positive: an act of sacrifice and service undertaken by subjects who choose to dedicate themselves to some other and who, by forming a “deep” attachment to that other (xiv), undergo a transformative “shattering” of self (163).
Lemon grounds her revisionary approach most persuasively when discussing nonfictional texts from the classical period through the Restoration, effectively rebuffing a “broad consensus” that understands addiction as a “modern discovery” (4). The concept of addiction, she demonstrates, is actually rooted in Reformation theology, which encourages the faithful to “wholy addict themselves” (29) to Christ, the church, and “the meaneynge of the scripture” (7). For Calvinists, in fact, addiction implies a state of grace. Addiction’s dark side appears there too—to condemn those (Catholics) who are “addict [sic] to their supersticyons” (7). Outside the church, early modern scholastic, legal, medical, political, historical, and lexicographical writers take up both sides of the issue, “wrestl[ing] with addiction”—as the book itself does—“in relation to devotion, compulsion, agency, and authority” (19) and weighing its advantages and dangers.
To open up this extensive discourse, each chapter zeros in on a particular addictive drive and its representation in an early modern play: study in Doctor Faustus; melancholy and love in Twelfth Night; love and possession in Othello; and drinking and fellowship in Henry IV. If this compartmentalization leads to occasional repetition and confusion, it nonetheless shows how widespread and wide-ranging the preoccupation with addiction was in this period. A final, “methodologically distinct” chapter on “health drinking” in drama and poetry from 1580 to 1660 provides a slightly redundant recap as it picks up the opposition introduced in earlier chapters: the condemnation of addictive drinking as a form of enslavement, tyranny, and disease and the celebration of its potential to foster constancy, unity, and fellowship. Still, by surveying these volatile opinions across eighty years, Lemon is able to demonstrate how persistently the era’s “buoyant embrace” of addiction’s transformative power offsets the censure of its debilitating effects (139).
Speaking of addiction in early modern drama is, of course, complicated by the fact that the words addict and addiction are far less prominent there than they are in the broader cultural discourse. As Lemon herself acknowledges, while The English Faust Book describes Faustus as “addicted,” in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus the operative term is “ravish’d” (22, 36). And while a message from Othello invokes “addiction” to encourage the revelry that his troops might pursue after just having escaped a life-threatening tempest and encounter with the Turks (103), he deems his own addictive love for Desdemona a chosen “circumscription” (123) and for Iago, a “compulsive course” (131); Iago, in turn, describes him as “enfettered” (127). I would like to hear more about the implications of these shifts in nomenclature: (why) are characters [End Page 577] reluctant to name these habits as addictions? Still, despite the infrequent invocation of the word, the plays that Lemon addresses do feature the kind of “converting, transforming devotion” that cultural authorities celebrate and fear—giving her space to look at the “broader philosophical issues” that are their passion and their cue (54, 19).