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To be or not to be sad?

23 Jun, 2011

Causes of Melancholy: Interior of a tavern, villagers playing games and drinking. 16th century woodcut.

“Throw my heart against the flint and hardness of my fault, which, being dried with grief, will break to powder, and finish all foul thoughts”.

With these anguished words, Enobarbus expresses his regret at betraying his friend, Anthony, in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra.

Regret, shame and guilt are painful emotions we can all identify with, and we can accept his assertion that his heart is ‘dried with grief’ as a metaphor for those difficult feelings. What is harder for modern audiences today, however, is that following this declaration, Enobarbus then does, literally, die from grief onstage.

“That scene with Enobarbus has proved to be pretty hard for modern directors to stage, because it doesn’t really make sense to us,” says Dr Erin Sullivan at the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham. “If someone is very old and their life partner dies, and they die shortly afterwards, people might say they ‘died of a broken heart’, or they ‘lost the will to live’. We can maybe accept that, but for a relatively young, healthy soldier to say that he’s dying of sadness, and then actually die is a little bit harder to understand.”

In 2006 she won a Wellcome Trust-funded Roy Porter Memorial PhD Studentship in the history of medicine to study understandings of sadness in a range of writings from Shakesepeare’s time at UCL.

Enobarbus isn’t the only one of Shakespeare’s characters to die of grief. In Romeo and Juliet Romeo’s father says that his wife has died from grief at news of her son’s banishment, and in Othello, we learn that Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, has died from sorrow at her elopement. The deaths of numerous other characters in his plays are linked to sorrowful events (Lady Macbeth, Ophelia , Falstaff), and others are said to be physically weakened by sadness and care (Henry IV, Titus Andronicus, Richard II and Juliet’s Nurse).

The physically devastating effects of sadness are described not only in the dramas, ballads, poetry of Shakespeare’s time but in medical writings too. “I found many medical records from the period that indicated that people had died of sadness. People did really believe that you could die of excessive emotion.”

In academic spheres, she says, there has long been a question as to why sadness featured so predominantly in writings from the Renaissance and early modern England, and why there was such verve for this emotion or ‘passion’, as the emotions were then called.

To address this question, for her PhD thesis (completed in 2010), Dr Sullivan explored descriptions of sadness in a range of different kinds of narratives. She scoured medical handbooks, doctors casebooks and municipal death records, to religious treatises, ballads, drama, poetry, as well as diaries and other life writings, to get an insight into how sadness was understood, interpreted (and experienced) at the time.

Body, mind and soul

Then as now, prevailing ideas – medical, moral and religious – influenced both the narratives of sadness, and the ways in which body, mind and soul were understood at the time.

In some respects the conceptions of Renaissance philosophers – the scientists of their day – resonate with what science tells us today. Today most scientists believe that the ‘mind’ developed as a latter part of the evolution of the brain, endowing us with self awareness and the ability to reason. Emotions – and even religious experience – are also located in specific areas, chemicals and functions of the brain.

In medieval and renaissance writings, natural philosophers likewise identify the mind as the point of intersection of thought and feeling and locate these functions in the body – in the brain (or the heart, for emotion). However, in early philosophical and medical works, ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ are often used interchangeably, both signifying a form of inner life that is incorporeal and immortal. Instead of arising from the body (or brain), the mind was a divine force that occupies, animates, and eventually leaves it. The body and its organs were instruments of this all-powerful mind or soul.

Such beliefs reflect the role of religion in the period: it was deeply embedded in society, and people were required to go to church by law. They also profoundly influence the meaning, value and experience of emotion such as sadness.

“I looked at different categories of sadness, or different ways of framing it, which you can draw from the writings,” says Dr Sullivan. “The category or frame affects the value of sadness, which helps explain why interpretations were so contradictory. From a medical and moral point of view, intense sadness was seen as bad, but through a religious lens, it was seen as very good”.

During the Renaissance events such as the death of a loved one, financial ruin or loss of reputation – all things we think of as serious life events – were described as ‘worldly losses’. While they were very painful and very serious, they were sorrows associated with the mortal world, as opposed to someone’s religious life. Excessive sadness for these worldly losses was seen as self obsessive and morally bad.

It was also considered extremely detrimental, even fatal, to physical health. “There are medical writings that explain the physiology of what happens when you’re sad. It draws all of the heat and moisture out of your heart, your bones start to dry up, and you start to age prematurely. That is what can potentially make you very ill and maybe even kill you if sorrow is very excessive.” Hence the misfortune of Enobarbus and many other Shakespearean characters afflicted by ‘grief’.

Predestination of Souls

Luther, Melanchthon, Pomeranus and Crucicer. Credit: Wellcome Images

In the religious writings of the day, by contrast, sorrow is something to be cultivated.

Shakespeare’s time was also the time of the Reformation: Calvinistic thought was prevalent throughout England, dominating religious writings and sermons of the time.

The Calvinist protestants believed that people are born into the world as sinful. “That’s what original sin is, it doesn’t matter how innocent you seem to be, if you’re a baby, you’re born a sinner. And then inevitably you accrue more sins through your life.

“And you can’t do penance for those sins as you can in the Catholic system. You couldn’t do good work to clear your record and earn your way to heaven. God had already decided before any of us were born, who would be saved. So it was a system of pre-destination of souls. You had no free will at all, there was nothing you could do about it.”

Since you were damned or saved before birth – and there was little you could do about it – it might have seemed reasonable to live life as you chose and give God little thought.

Not so, says Dr Sullivan. “It’s hard to understand today, but people were still very compelled to live very pious, righteous lives. This is the system out of which you get puritans, who make very strong judgments about how people should live their life. You had to live your life as if you were one of the saved. The idea was that you were chosen for heaven and therefore you would do good works – rather than the Catholic system of atoning for sin through good works.”

People were also exhorted to attempt to atone for sin through prayer and through trying to establish a relationship with God. They were encouraged to do this through extemporary prayer, coming from their heart in their own words, rather than through the rote learning of prayers such as the Lord’s prayer. “If you’re reciting it, you’re not really communicating with God. You’re just going through the motions.” Zealous or ‘godly’ protestants believed they could communicate directly with God through prayer – and that through an authentic relationship with God they might be able to see signs from him – an indication of what would happen to them after death.

The authenticity of this relationship with God – and the strength of a person’s faith and religious commitment – were demonstrated through the sadness that people showed in their religious life. This was known as ‘godly sorrow’ as opposed to worldly sorrow – and the more the ‘merrier’. “If you read sermons from the time, you get these really amazing descriptions of the preacher saying things like, if everyone in here had eyes covering all of their body, and each of those eyes cried non-stop for all of your life, you would still never cry enough, or sorrow enough, for the sins you’ve committed against God.”

Through these very different ideas about sadness (and the other ‘passions’) and its meanings and value, Dr Sullivan says, people of the day created stories about themselves – whether they were good or bad, saved or damned.

“There was a lot of variation, not everyone was so religious, I don’t think everyone believed in that system. They grappled with these different ideas. They took bits from different aspects of this kind of cultural system and ignored other parts to create their own sense of what it meant for them when they were feeling sad”.

Although medicine and religion were compatible in many ways, she adds, they do pose a lot of challenges for individuals in the period, often offering drastically different ways of interpreting emotion. “People were forced to explore it in different ways. There was a necessity to figure out what that means for you, and where that puts you. Because of both the health and the religious implications.”

The result was a very interesting and rich proliferation of writing on the subject, in part precisely because there were so many different possible ways to interpret sadness. “There was a lot of space for artistic interpretation and creativity.”

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