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Shakespeare on Addiction: Sonnet 129

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

The expenditure of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action? and until action, lust

He is perjured, murderous, bloody, guilt-ridden,

Wild, extreme, rude, cruel, not to be trusted,

I enjoyed not sooner, but despised,

The previous reason chased, and he did not have it earlier

The past word was hated, like a swallow’s bait

Deliberately layered to drive the receiver crazy.

Crazy in pursuit and possession right?

Had, having, and in search of having, extreme;

A bliss in proof, and it turned out, a real shame.

Before, fine suggested; back, a dream.

The world knows all this well. but no one really knows

To avoid the heaven that leads people to this hell.

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

A few years ago, I came across an hour-long documentary made about Vancouver’s infamous downtown east side. The area has been ravaged by an influx of drugs and their victims, gaining a reputation as something of an elephant graveyard: where addicts go to die. The film was called Through a Blue Lens and was shot, for the most part, by two beat cops who wanted to portray the lives of the addicts who lived there. It’s not a warm and fuzzy movie about drug addiction, but it’s not damning either. Here’s an excerpt:

The plight of those living in this part of Vancouver became a minor cause in 1999, in part because The Globe and Mail published a photo essay of its residents that left many Canadians gasping. It made us realize, in a not-so-gentle way, that we had problems downtown just as bad as some cities south of the border. The Port of Vancouver is a gateway to the drug trade, and it seems that at least some of those drugs don’t travel far: they’re the lifeblood of these impoverished souls living in the inner city.

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 is relevant today, and this is because when addicts talk about their suffering they mention (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 that Shakespeare describes. These haunting sounds of anguish — the anguish of the addict — are distilled, poignantly and thoroughly, in this poem.

It begins:

The expenditure of spirit in a waste of shame

Shakespeare believes that we lose our spirit—our soul—when we engage in addictive behavior. The cost, or price of addiction, is paid with it. Waste here is used literally (implying that lives are lost to addiction) and also symbolically to denote a place. This double meaning is made apparent by the use of the preposition in, as ‘in’ a waste of shame. Waste as part closes neatly books with that other hell, hell, mentioned in the closing couplet.

Lust is Shakespeare’s drug of choice and it is believed that he was aiming for the infamous Dark Lady, that debauched creature who had Shakespeare and others completely drunk.

The expenditure of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action? and until action, lust

He is perjured, murderous, bloody, guilt-ridden,

Wild, extreme, rude, cruel, not to be trusted

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

This is a man in the throes of an obsession, an obsession that will not 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 is there to indicate an outburst of emotion that cannot be contained.

But does this Shakespearean frenzy capture the plight of those sad and emaciated souls who roam the inner city of the East? I would say it does and the key word here is shame. Ask any active addict how they feel about their life and you’re bound to discover, beneath the street anger and braggadocio, a deep and murky well of it. It is this shame that makes them use. it is what prevents them from wanting to feel.

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

I enjoyed not sooner, but despised,

The previous reason chased, and he did not have it earlier

The past word was hated, like a swallow’s bait

Deliberately layered to drive the receiver crazy.

Here we see the structural and thematic performance of the cycle of addiction. Let me translate: the addict does not enjoy (use) her drug when she begins to despise its consequences directly (immediately). However, beyond all reason he continues to hunt it, and again, once he consumes it, he hates it beyond reason because he cannot stop. Shakespeare then expands on the subtle animal imagery and lays the blame on purveyors and creators. Her drug is like a trap set on purpose and it drives her, the receiver, insane. Mad here is used in the British sense of the word, meaning mad.

Usually at this point in my class I stop and ask students to think of an activity, any activity, that they overdo. Do they spend a lot of time online? Are you eating too much of the wrong kind of food? Text incessantly? And it’s also here that I tell them my own little addiction story, the one that made me often rush to the neighborhood 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 have no nutritional value. These favorites came in handy at midnight when I had an essay to finish and needed a sugar rush. 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 just a few. My reasoning, as I stood in front of this bin and spooned in scoop after scoop, was that I would save some for later.

Correctly.

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

It’s the same with the cycle of addiction: there’s the chase, the consummation, and the aftermath. In other words, anticipation, hydration and regrets. This cycle will be extended into the next quatrain.

Crazy in pursuit and possession right?

Had, having, and in search of having, extreme;

A bliss in proof, and it turned out, a real shame.

Before, fine suggested; back, 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 one is important because it does not provide new information. However, he repeats the three-part cycle, and repetition in Shakespeare is always important: he uses it to let us know that we need to pay attention. Here we are told, again and with more emphasis, that an addict is crazy while chasing the drug and crazy when consuming it. And of course it is this madness — this 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 begins with after: had, moves to completion: having, and then moves to the first stage of the cycle, the hunt: in search of having. He does this to create the impression of a back and forth movement: the addict moves back and forth, back and forth, ad infinitum. Why; Because that’s what happens when someone gets addicted: life stops.

At the beginning of this article, I said that something interesting happens every time I teach this sonnet. Here it is: after reading it out loud, I tell my students to look carefully at operators, especially young ones, when they pass the Atwater subway, the subway that serves Dawson. I almost always have the same reaction: the class falls silent, the air flow in the room stops, and these young people, with their future 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 to the freeway. There I often see a young woman with blonde hair 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 it — “he’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 “killing themselves with doses” as a good friend of mine says.

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

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

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