A Poem That Tells A Story Usually With Four-Line Stanzas Shakespeare on Addiction: Sonnet 129

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Shakespeare on Addiction: Sonnet 129

Something interesting happens every time I teach Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. I’m reasonably certain the term “sex addiction” didn’t exist in his day – and neither did 12 step groups for it, with Elizabethans turning up in their flamboyant garb – but that doesn’t mean that the problem, and its attendant degradations, didn’t exist. Just ask Shakespeare about his Dark Lady.***

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had

Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Why am I thinking about sonnet 129? Shakespeare’s sonnets beg for interpretation, and it’s not just because they are formal masterpieces that we should, as intelligent folk, feel compelled to dissect for dissection’s sake. No, there’s more to them than that. His sonnets are relevant today and I’m going to show you why.

A few years ago, I came across an hour long documentary made about Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside. The area has been ravaged by an influx of drugs and its victims, earning it a reputation for being something of an elephants’ graveyard: it’s where addicts go to die. The film was called Through a Blue Lens and was shot, mostly, by two beat cops who wanted to portray the lives of the addicts living there. It’s not a warm and fuzzy film about drug addiction, but it’s not condemnatory either. Here’s an excerpt:

The plight of those living in that part of Vancouver became a minor cause célèbre in 1999, in part because The Globe and Mail published a photo essay of its denizens that left a lot of Canadians gasping. It made us aware, in a none-too-gentle way, that we had inner city problems just as bad as some cities south of the border. Vancouver’s port is a gateway for the drug trade and it seems at least some of these drugs don’t travel far: they form the lifeblood of those immiserated souls living in the downtown area.

So why look at Canada’s Skid Row when we’re talking about Shakespeare? It’s because his definition of addiction is one of the best I’ve ever read. It’s relevant today and that’s because when addicts talk about their suffering, they report (albeit less eloquently) many of the same things. And when I say things, I mean they report having many of the same feelings and experiences described by Shakespeare. Those haunting sounds of agony — the addict’s anguish — are distilled, painfully and thoroughly, in this poem.

It begins:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Shakespeare believes we forfeit our spirit – our soul – when we engage in addictive behaviour. The expense, or the price of the addiction, is paid with it. Waste here is used literally (implying that lives are wasted by addiction) and also symbolically to denote a place. This double meaning is made obvious by the use of the preposition in, as “in” a waste of shame. Waste as a place bookends neatly with that other inferno, hell, mentioned in the closing couplet.

Lust is Shakespeare’s drug of choice and the belief is that it was aimed at the infamous Dark Lady, that promiscuous creature that had Shakespeare, and others, utterly intoxicated.

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust

What are the signs of Shakespeare’s enslavement? The form of a sonnet is strictly prescribed: it is made up of three quatrains — three groups of four lines — and a closing couplet. The rhyme scheme tends to alternate lines, meaning the first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth, etc. The lines are usually made up of phrases that go towards forming sentences. However, in this quatrain, the last half is simply a list of adjectives or adjective phrases, enumerating Shakespeare’s agonies. And these agonies are stated strongly, with words like murderous, bloody, savage and extreme.

This is a man in the throes of an obsession, an obsession that won’t even allow him to form coherent thoughts; instead he spits out a list of adjectives to convey his feelings. Shakespeare the wordsmith created this list for a reason. It’s there to denote a burst of feeling that can’t be contained.

But does this fury of Shakespeare’s capture the state of those sad and emaciated souls wandering the downtown eastside? I would argue it does and the key word here is shame. Ask any active addict how they feel about their life and you are bound to discover, underneath the anger and street braggadocio, a deep and murky well of it. That shame is what keeps them using; it’s what keeps them from wanting to feel.

After Shakespeare establishes his narrative voice, he turns to the cyclical nature of his malady. In the second quatrain, he states:

Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had

Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Here we see the structural and thematic rendering of the cycle of addiction. Let me translate: the addict no sooner enjoys (uses) her drug when she starts to despise its consequences straight (right away). However, beyond all reason she continues to hunt for it, and again, as soon as she consumes it, she hates it beyond all reason because she can’t stop. Then Shakespeare expands the subtle animal imagery and lays blame on suppliers and enablers. Her drug is like a trap laid on purpose and it makes her, the taker, mad. Mad here is being used in the British sense of the word, meaning insane.

It’s usually at this point in my class that I stop and ask students to think of an activity, any activity, they do to excess. Do they spend too much time online? Eat too much of the wrong kind of food? Text incessantly? And it’s also here that I tell them my own little story of addiction, the one that had me frequently rushing to the neighbourhood corner store, in Toronto, when I was a student.

I had an addiction and it was to Swedish Berries, those soft red candies that taste heavenly but are of no nutritional value whatever. These darlings came in handy at midnight when I had an essay to finish and needed a sugar boost. However, the problem was that I didn’t know when to stop. The store sold them in bulk and I didn’t have the discipline to buy only a few. My reasoning, as I stood in front of that bin and ladled in scoop after scoop, was that I would save some for later.

Right.

So I would eat them until I felt sick and this process, over the last two years of my undergrad degree, repeated itself more times than I care to remember. But it was the sequence of events in this process that was important. I would come to the realization it was late. I knew I had to keep working but didn’t want coffee. Then I would think: Hey! Swedish Berries! Great idea! And I would haul myself off to the store, come back and eat way too many of them. Only afterwards would I say to myself: “Did I really have to scarf down that whole bag?” Or: “Good idea? What was I thinking?”

So too goes the cycle of addiction: there is the chase, the consummation and the aftermath. In other words, the anticipation, the imbibing and the remorse. This cycle will be expanded upon in the next quatrain.

Mad in pursuit and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

The first quatrain establishes, through the use of enumeration, Shakespeare’s loss of control. The second establishes the cyclical nature of his addiction. This last is significant because it does not provide new information. However, it does repeat the three part cycle and repetition in Shakespeare is always significant: he uses it to let us know we need to pay attention. Here we are told, again and with more emphasis, that an addict is mad while chasing the drug and mad while consuming it. And of course it is that madness — that inability to reason — that starts the cycle all over again.

But take a look at the second line. Shakespeare reverses the order of the cycle: he starts with the aftermath: had, moves to the consummation: having, and then moves to the first stage of the cycle, the chase: in quest to have. He does this to create the impression of a back-and-forth motion: the addict moves forward and backward, forward and backward, ad infinitum. Why? Because that’s what happens when one becomes addicted: life stalls.

At the start of this article, I said something interesting happens every time I teach this sonnet. Here it is: after I read it out loud, I tell my students to look closely at the panhandlers, especially the young ones, when they pass through the Atwater metro, the metro that services Dawson. I almost always get the same reaction: the class goes silent, the flow of air in the room stops, and these young people, with their futures ahead of them, pay closer attention. This suffering, rendered so poetically by Shakespeare, is only steps away.

And it happens elsewhere. When I drive home, I stop at a busy intersection leading onto the highway. That’s where I often see a young woman, her blonde hair in dreadlocks, holding up a sign asking for spare change. I always give her some and now she knows to come to me. If the traffic light permits, we may even exchange a few words.

I’ve been criticized for doing this — “she’ll just spend the money on drugs” is what I hear — but I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know how we can stop people from “committing suicide on the installment plan,” as a good friend of mine puts it.

Shakespeare didn’t know either, but luckily for us, that didn’t stop him from looking deeply into that darkness and writing about it anyway.

***I will be, for the sake of brevity and compression, be referring to the narrator as Shakespeare.

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