Exploring ecstasy in Shakespeare’s work
Ahead of our These are the Youths that Thunder event, we look at portrayals of pleasure in Early Modern Drama
Each year, we open our playhouse doors to two rising stars of Shakespeare studies to offer up new thoughts, musings and revelations on Shakespearean times and text as part of These are the Youths that Thunder.
This November sees our very own Lecturer and Research co-ordinator Dr Jen Edwards explore the portrayals of ecstasy in Early Modern Drama. Here, Jen touches on the risks and rewards of ecstasy in Shakespeare’s works…
‘Blasted with ecstasy’
Ecstasy. It’s a word that we use to describe a feeling of intense happiness, excitement, or pleasure. It’s also a psychedelic. Ecstasy, in one form or another, is something that lots of us have experienced. As we’ll see, Shakespeare’s characters are no different.
Ecstasy has always had a dark side. It’s a word that comes from the Greek ekstasis (ἔκστασις), meaning to ‘stand outside’ or ‘put out of place’, and signals an experience of ‘losing one’s mind’. In the Renaissance, it was most often used to refer to religious out-of-body experiences, where temporarily losing yourself could lead to finding God. In these moments, the soul was thought to leave the body and catch a glimpse of something divine. While this might sound wholly positive, the ecstatic experience could also be dangerous and intensely painful. You might say or do things in ecstasy that you wouldn’t dream of in your right mind (Ovid gives us plenty of examples of this in his Metamorphoses). What’s more, the temporary feeling of bliss could be outweighed by the ‘come down’ of returning to everyday life.
While Shakespeare would have been aware of the religious connotations of ecstasy, this doesn’t seem to be the version of ecstasy that he’s interested in. Instead, Shakespeare uses ‘ecstasy’ as an umbrella term for a range of more common experiences and emotions: from falling in love to feelings of intense grief, anger, or mania. Tracing the word through Shakespeare’s work, we find that it’s something to be feared in The Tempest– ‘hinder them from what this ecstasy may now provoke them to’ – and something to be desired and wary of in Hamlet: ‘this is the very ecstasy of love’. Macbeth uses the word to describe his feeling of ‘restless’ torture, while Portia in The Merchant of Venice associates it with the ‘blessing’ of loving excess. Ecstasy is something that Iago links to Othello’s ‘epilepsy’, a passion that Hamlet is reportedly ‘blasted with’. For us, ecstasy may be a feeling of delight, but for Ross in Macbeth it’s a ‘violent sorrow’, just as the speaker of Shakespeare’s poem ‘A Lover’s Complaint’, beside herself with misery, is described as ‘suffering ecstasy’. There is, very simply, agony in ecstasy.
‘Better be with the dead…than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy’
— Macbeth, Macbeth
This experience of ecstatically losing oneself, of standing outside or beside oneself, can be found throughout Shakespeare’s plays. We hear it, for example, in Romeo’s lovesick claim that ‘I have lost myself’; in Antipholus of Syracuse’s assertion that ‘I will go lose myself’ as he searches for his twin in The Comedy of Errors; in Viola’s claim that ‘I am not what I am’ as she takes on a new, disguised identity as Cesario. Losing control can be painful, dangerous, sometimes tragic. But Shakespeare also presents moments where losing yourself, just for a little bit, can be rewarding – it might be an experience of falling in love, finding a long lost sibling, feeling more connected to others and the world around you, or understanding yourself a little better than you did before. It’s not too dissimilar to our modern sense that going on a trip and leaving your everyday self behind might allow you to ‘find yourself’ in some way.
‘O love, be moderate! Allay thy ecstasy…I feel too much thy blessing!’
— Portia, The Merchant of Venice
Ecstasy, when returned to its etymological meaning of standing outside of oneself or putting oneself out of place, seems to be a risk worth taking. Renaissance religious writer Richard Sibbes whole-heartedly agreed: ‘we are never ourselves perfectly’, he suggested, ‘till we have wholly put off ourselves’. Perhaps, as the late French philosopher Michel Serres put it, ‘no-one who has not experienced ecstasy can know what being together means’.