All entries for Thursday 07 May 2009

May 07, 2009

Drinking Habits in Shakespeare

Fascinating lunchtime paper yesterday, given by Rebecca Lemon of the University of Southern California. Concerned with the scenes of drinking and representations of alcohol in Shakespeare's plays, Lemon believes there is a prevailing view of these scenes as essentially convivial and celebratory. While there are naturally dark elements attached to them, performance and criticism revels in the communality of these scenes, the festival atmosphere, the joyous challenges to authority and the nostalgia of freedom and relaxation.

Lemon's paper posed a counter-argument to this reading, positioning herself (reluctantly!) as a "critical Malvolio". Her belief is that the idea that these scenes promote merry drinking is untenable, and instead finds them almost invariably to pose warnings about the tyranny and dangers of drink, and the people who employ it.

The prevailing view makes the critical examination of drink difficult. To question merriment is, in Lemon's view, to question art and inspiration, to come in from the position of 'official' culture and criticise 'folk' culture. However, Lemon feels that Shakespeare's drinking scenes similarly critique conviviality and the loss of control that drinking entails.

Lemon's key text was Othello 2.3. In Lemon's reading, the threat to Cassio is conviviality itself. To refuse to drink, to engage in the rituals of pledge-drinking, can be seen as unsociable and even disloyal. Despite his "unhappy brains for drinking", social custom overrules his acknowledged infirmity and therefore leaves him vulnerable to Iago's schemes. Social law tyrannically governs necessity and sense.

There is also a large meta-critique going on, which I found particularly interesting: the idea that audiences themselves are drawn into these scenes and swept along. The drinking scene in Othello provides a perfect example, if we imagine early audiences (themselves very possibly drinking) being swept along by the festival atmosphere of the scene and themselves becoming Iago's dupes, buying into the celebration and allowing themselves to forget that Iago is only pretending to be drunk, that the festivities are carefully orchestrated.

In this, I was reminded heavily of Filter Theatre's recent Twelfth Night, which turned that play's drinking scene into an epic party that included the whole theatre. To less sinister effect, Lemon's theory was played out for real in that environment - the audience, having rolled in from the pub for this late performance, bought into the party and were happy to put the play on hold, revelling in the celebrations and forgetting that we were supposed to be quiet, that this was an illicit party, that there was a play going on at all. No surprise, then, that when Malvolio entered he was booed by the entire auditorium. Here, the scene of festivity was used to deliberately draw along an audience to great dramatic effect.

I found Lemon's thesis convincing, though I have to admit I'd never particularly thought of the drinking scenes as being mere festivity. In particular, as I raised in the seminar, Antony and Cleopatra quite overtly criticises drinking: as the three pillars of the world topple under the influence, tensions rise, murder plots are hatched, latent homosexuality becomes (arguably) overt and the relationships between the rulers of the known world begin their inevitable collapse. However, investigating the ways in which Shakespeare uses and manipulates alcohol theatrically seems to me to be a useful and productive line of inquiry, and I look forward to seeing more of Lemon's research into this.


I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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