March was a big month for me – my first monograph, Beyond Melancholy, came out with Oxford University Press. The book focuses on the different ways in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood and thought about sadness, and how this influenced explorations of identity and self-experience. While my digital Shakespeare research is in many ways a world apart from this work on the history of emotions, there are some important connections in terms of how new technologies shape how we feel and how we experience our own sense of self. I wrote the short essay below for OUP’s blog last week, and while it’s mostly about Renaissance sadness, you’ll quickly see that 21st century digital technology has made its way in too…
In September 2013, the American comedian Louis C.K. talked to chat-show host Conan O’Brien about the value of sadness. His comments emerged from a discussion about mobile phones, and the way they may distract us from the reality of our emotions. ‘You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.’
For Louis C.K., a large part of that ‘being there’, of being a person, is about being sad. ‘[S]ometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car … it starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it.’ And the best response to this, he suggests, isn’t to dodge the feeling by picking up a mobile phone, but rather to look at it head on, ‘and let it hit you like a truck … Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.’
Four hundred or so years ago, around the time of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, John Donne, and King James I, people also talked about the meaning of sadness, and whether or not it brought any value to life. While few would have described the experience of sadness as ‘lucky’, many did suggest that, in the right contexts, the emotion could be seen as useful, productive, and even enlightening. Think of Shakespeare’s King Lear on the stormy heath, whose extraordinary sorrow helps him see life from a different point of view, to acknowledge the suffering of his impoverished subjects and ‘to feel what wretches feel’.
If we read much of the literature of this time – and perhaps any time – we discover a world of agonizing, and yet somehow also constructive, pain and sorrow. Emotion is repeatedly represented as an extension of the self, meaning that as characters start to know their feelings, they also start to understand themselves and the world that they’re a part of. At the same time, if we read much of the more formal and explanatory writing on emotion from this period, we get a rather different story. Here, writers frequently characterized emotion as a ‘malady’, a ‘perturbation’, and even a ‘disease of the soul.’ For emotion was believed to cause motion in the mind and body, which could destabilize rational thinking and jeopardize the harmony of the self.
This was nowhere truer than in the experience of sadness. Of all the emotions recognized and discussed at this time – or of all ‘the passions’, as they were called then – sadness or ‘grief’ was widely regarded as the most dangerous and damaging. Countless writers emphasized the physical ailments sad feelings could bring. ‘There is nothing more enemie to life, then sorrow’, the humanist and diplomat Thomas Elyot wrote in his best-selling medical regimen The Castell of Health, and the theologian Thomas Wright likewise advised readers in his The Passions of the Minde in Generall to ‘Expell sadnesse farre from thee; For sadnesse hath killed many, neither is there any profite in it.’
Medical physicians agreed, identifying the passions as one of the six ‘non-natural’ factors dramatically influencing health (the other five being diet, sleep, exercise, environment, and, to put it delicately, ‘evacuation’). Linked to the cold, dry humour of melancholy (literally meaning ‘black bile’ in Greek), sadness was seen as the harbinger of numerous bodily troubles, including stomach aches, light-headedness, heart palpitations, and wasting illnesses, which, in their most extreme forms, might even cause death.
Indeed, while we might now think that dying of sorrow is a rather sentimental idea fit only for the stage, in the seventeenth century ‘grief’ was regularly included as a cause of death in the London Bills of Mortality, which were one of the earliest forms of municipal record keeping. Though many of the Bills no longer survive, if we look through those that do remain, we can see that during the years 1629-1660 more than 350 people in the city of London were believed to have died from extreme sadness. Elyot and Wright’s comments, it seems, were not idle threats.
And yet, despite the palpable dangers posed by sadness at this time, many writers still suggested that it had important benefits, and even a kind of ‘poetry’, to harken back to Louis C.K.’s twenty-first-century observations. First and foremost, these writers insisted that there were different sorts of sadness, which had different effects on the mind, body, and soul. ‘Grief’ was not always identical to ‘melancholy’, which was certainly not the same as ‘godly sorrow’ or ‘despair’ – both of which had much more to do with theology and the immortal soul than physiology and the medical body.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, these different sorrows didn’t mean the same thing irrespective of the sufferer. Even a dangerous grief could be productive if the person experiencing it deemed it so. In the literature and historical records of the period we can find numerous instances of people defying the advice of doctors, priests, family, and friends, and persisting in sorrow due to a belief that it revealed something important to them about their own sense of self.
Many scholars have suggested that culture offers people ‘emotional scripts’ by which to make sense of and act out their feelings, but looking at responses to sadness in Renaissance England we can also see how people engaged in what I call ‘emotive improvisation.’ These wilful, and often defiant, responses took sufferers ‘off book’ and towards new ways of understanding emotional experience and self-discovery. They show us what happened when people ‘put the phone down’, as it were, and let life hit them like a truck.
The British Milton Seminar meets twice yearly to discuss papers on subjects relating to John Milton's life, work and times, together with his legacy and influence. The seminar is open to academic and academic-related staff and to postgraduate students.