Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England by Tanya Pollard

Drugs and TheatreOriginally published in 2005 ‘Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England’ is written by Tanya Pollard; review from the hardback 2008 Oxford University Press issue. This scholarly work is an exposition of the role of drugs in the theatre of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. At the time of writing, Pollard was the Assistant Professor of English Literature at Montclair State University. She had previously edited ‘Shakespeare’s Theatre: A Sourcebook’ (2004).

The cultural and intellectual life of late sixteenth century England was awash with newly imported ideas and, more importantly, plants and drugs. With the rise of the medical pharmacy at this time, which Pollard notes stems from the Greek word pharmakon, a word ostensibly meaning ‘drug’ but that was rife with ambiguity, concerns over the efficacy of new remedies were prevalent. Competing medical discourses, some ancient like that of the Greek Galen, and some modern like that of Paracelsus, gave the whole topic an uncertainty within the social and cultural forces of England. Moreover, poisoning was becoming something of a fashionable murder technique—at least in the popular mind.

While these medical debates, veiled by the ambiguity of the pharmakon, were fought, the art of theatre was itself going through comparable debates. In one sense, this was the golden age of English theatre; the age of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webber and Jonson. However, in another, such popularity led antitheatricalists to be prominent in their outspokenness. Moralists deemed the theatre to be debased, exercising a power over their audiences that led to sexual promiscuity and immoral ideas. A position, in light of the pharmakon, which brings to mind Plato’s argument in The Republic. Furthermore, playwrights were acutely aware of this and it featured prominently in their works. Therefore:

“This book argues that the medical, bodily, and pharmacy-steeped vocabulary of early modern plays and contemporary writings about the theatre not only demand our attention, but point to a crucial, and previously ignored, context for understanding the intense controversies surrounding the theatre in early modern England, controversies in which playwrights’ own complex and ambivalent conceptions of their medium play a significant role” (Pollard 2008, 3)

The opening chapter deals with the works of Ben Jonson and John Webster; primarily Volpone (1605) and Sejanus (1603) by the former and The White Devil (1612) by the latter. Pollard examines how drugs became powerful analogies for dangerous political-theatrical manipulation, and the use of medical symbolism generally, in order to contextualise the idea that theatre, and various models therein, have a physiological efficacy on audiences. In Sejanus, for example, the play-entitled protagonist uses his doctor to carry out various services—from murdering Drusus, to ‘wooing’ the murdered man’s his wife. In the great tradition of the pharmakon, or to the individual with the power and knowledge to use it, in this case the doctor Eudemus, the multiplicity of effects are utilized for the manipulation of power. While, not a central character, Eudemus’ part wields the forward thrust of the narrative—much like the invisible drug in the body. Politically, the drugs and players enact two roles; to make audiences unconscious of their role or, indeed, to poison them with words.

The great bard himself, William Shakespeare, is the concern of the second chapter. Specifically, the movement in his own explorations of drugs through the changes from Romeo and Juliet (1594-6) to Antony and Cleopatra (1606-7), which are very similar but that demonstrate a more sophisticated change in Shakespeare’s own discourse on the matter of drugs and theatre; there is a more self-conscious understanding of effects, primarily demonstrated by the leading female characters: “Juliet gains an unwitting power over her audiences when she is asleep, or apparently dead, whereas Cleopatra self-consciously manipulates this same power, both alive and in the act of dying” (Pollard 2008, 80). The soporific potions, for sleep and mimicking death, play on the audience’s emotional responses in such a way that the theatrical-pharmakon is invested through the playwright’s own self-conscious skills and aims.

Another important question, and one that relates directly to contemporary fears about poisoning and cosmetics, is about the nature of self and is dealt with in chapter three. Pollard cites a whole swathe of plays who utilise the motif of poisonous cosmetics from the era, including: George Chapman’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607), Thomas Kyd’s The Tragedye of Solyman and Perseda (1592) and Philip Massinger’s The Duke of Milan (1622). Interesting, the medical discourse on cosmetics had a point as they usually used mercury in the foundations. Moreover, however, face-paints were utilized in the theatre and this also reflected the fears of the moralists. There was a certain fear of ‘truth’ being covered up, hidden and warped, and this, for those opposed, reflected in both the theatre and the use of cosmetics. The playwrights themselves used this idea, through poisoned kisses for example, to a great and many effect.

“The worlds they [plays] represent, steeped in medicines, ointments, drugs, paints, and poisons, insist that words, plays and selves are all material, tangible, embodied presences. If we look at them as they ask to be looked at, we can still find that they have this virtuous property: to make us see as we were wont to see” (Pollard 2008, 148)

Historically speaking, Pollard’s Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England shines an acute light on some of the contemporary drug debates of the day; in both forms and perceptions. Not only does it succinctly highlight their use through the culture of theatre but also the very mode of English thought about drugs as a new era of social understanding was being embarked upon; from the new researches of science, wonders from the New World and even the still imposing thoughts of Ancient Greece. Ultimately, for theatre theoreticians this is an important work that brings to mind a plethora of ideas about the nature of theatre in this period, and for the drugs historian it is an important period in the formation of cultural understandings in England.

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1 Response

  1. Great review! Definitely going to check this book out!

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