Articles & Speeches

What Shakespeare Knew About Addiction, But We Have Forgotten:

A Review of Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England 

by Rebecca Lemon, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

Bruce Alexander

Early modern literary scholar Rebecca Lemon calls the word “addiction” a “semantic palimpsest.” I had to look it up. A “palimpsest” is either an erased parchment or a stone surface from which carved writing has been effaced. Although it has been written over, traces of the earlier writing show through. This metaphor works beautifully because the meanings of the English word “addiction” have been both diverse and changeable from the age of Shakespeare to the present. Can addiction professionals, like myself, fully understand the “addict” who appears before us in our office if we overlook the barely erased cultural meanings that are still legible beneath that label?

Dr. Rebecca Lemon’s research into early modern English texts beginning about 1550 disproves a heavily funded dogma of the 21st century: The dogma asserts that, prior to the current, medicalized understanding of “addiction”, addiction was understood simply as wilful crime or sin, warranting condemnation and punishment. According to this claim, the current medicalized understanding is all that stands between us and the consistently punitive moralism of earlier centuries. 

Dr. Lemon debunks this official dogma by documenting the great variety of meanings that can be found for the word “addiction” in early modern times, including virtuous addiction to religious faith. This debunking is important, because the medicalized understanding of addiction that now prevails has failed to bring addiction under control. Therefore, alternate ways of thinking about addiction are still much needed. Medicalizing or criminalizing addiction are not the only alternatives. 

As Dr. Lemon’s research shows, devotion or dedication were synonyms for addiction in early modern writing. In fact, definition 1a of addiction in today’s online Oxford English Dictionary reads: “The state or condition of being dedicated or devoted to a thing, esp. an activity or occupation; adherence or attachment, esp. of an immoderate or compulsive kind.”  

Other words also denote this central human fact: passion, faith, compulsion, love, commitment, focus, obsession. People have always committed or dedicated their lives, voluntarily or involuntarily or both, beneficially or harmfully or both, whether or not the word “addiction” is attached or not. 

Dr. Lemon argues that, whatever word we chose for it, we are talking about a fundamental human need as well as a danger. We need addictive commitment not just because it energizes faith, love, and companionship, but also because it is deeply and essentially human. 

I think that Dr. Lemon’s deepest point is that early modern writing on addiction can be a window that sheds light on the dual nature of the human soul, which needs both independence and devotion; both to be free and to be deeply committed. She sums this up beautifully on the last page of the book where she advocates understanding addictions as “forms of attachment that simultaneously shape and unravel identity, clarify and overcome the individual, without devolving into moralism or medicalization.” (p. 167) 

For me, the Epilogue (pp. 165-167) was the highlight of this otherwise heavy academic book. In it, Dr. Lemon steps out of her scholarly role and reflects on being a new mother. She argues that her addiction to her totally dependent infant is spiritually nourishing. But, does it really make sense to think of caring for a newborn baby as a satisfying and essential addiction? Read the book and see if it does. For me, viewing maternal attachment as addiction not only makes sense, but also expands my understanding of psychology. 

Although this is a book of literary history, it is also a psychology book because Dr. Lemon uses the history of the word “addiction” to broaden our grasp of deep human needs. For me, and perhaps for other addiction professionals, it raises an unexpected question: What if even the most dangerous and deplorable addictions that we strive to treat contain some elements of devotion and dedication? Would we need to know about these to help an addicted person?

It is a religious book too. Just as early modern writers viewed addiction to religion as a desirable state and a virtue (while acknowledging that it could be twisted too,) some people today speak of addiction to Jesus or to faith as a goal. Does this help us to plumb the depths of religious faith? Could religious faith be an addiction that we nurture with the aid of God’s grace? Is God an enabler who addicts people to religion? Jean Calvin himself thought so, according to Dr. Lemon. 

Dr. Lemon is a fine writer but she makes few concessions to non-specialist readers. The book’s academic vocabulary, assumptions of historical knowledge, and relentless marshalling of textual quotes presented with its indecipherable early modern spelling preserved are formidable. This book is exhaustive in a way good reference books frequently are, but its completeness plays hell with its narrative flow. It is a book for specialists. 

However, if and when Dr. Lemon decides to write a popular version, everybody should read it, because it could be a paradigm-changer.  I want to buy the popular version for my grandchildren, so that they can view the hazards of addiction during their young adulthood in the light of addiction’s deep and complex meanings in our culture, rather than “devolving into moralism or medicalization”.

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