Smoking with Shakespeare

I really do not understand it. I don’t mean to say anything disrespectful in this post, but why on earth do people smoke? Everybody knows–even smokers themselves know, or at least ought to know–that smoking is harmful, so why do people do it anyway? 

Packs of cigarettes include warning labels like this one:


The picture is a bit hard to read, but it says, in all caps, “SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Empysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.” 

Not only do cigarettes damage the smoker’s health, but they also negatively influence other people’s health as well. According to the American Medical Association, secondhand smoke is even more harmful than firsthand smoke. 

In Australia, people who buy cigarettes can see signs next to the cigarettes saying “Smoking kills”:




Am I missing something? Or is there something bigger at issue here? Why do cigarettes even exist?

Perhaps it is because of the social aspect of smoking. People smoke because others smoke, too, and people smoke because of peer pressure. But why is there peer pressure to smoke? Why is there any pressure whatsoever to smoke? If smoking kills, shouldn’t there be overwhelming pressure not to smoke?

I have never smoked and never will. Some people have told me that smoking gives them a sort of high, but the same question is still relevant: why give yourself a brief high if it means a sooner death and a more miserable–or at least lower quality–life? Besides–there are other ways to get an even higher quality feeling of euphoria.

Shakespeare asks these same questions:

What win I, if I gain the thing I seek? 

. . .

Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week? 

Or sells eternity to get a toy? 

For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy?

All of these questions get me thinking about an even bigger question: What kinds of things do we do to ourselves, and why do we do them? And since an underlying assumption in this entire post seems to have be that health is more important than sickness and that life is better than death, why not focus on the most important and best things in life? Why do things that are harmful? Does this not also include things like consuming certain kinds of foods or drinks? 

Music and Its Influence According to Shakespeare’s Lorenzo

On a calm evening with a bright moon, “When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees / and they did make no noise” (Merchant of Venice, 5.1.1-2), Lorenzo sends for musicians, who come and begin to play for him and Jessica. 

Title page from Wikipedia Commons.


Then Lorenzo begins to comment on the influence of music on its listeners. He says that when a herd of wild colts, whose natural tendency is to pretty much just go crazy, neigh loudly, and anxiously race about, whenever they hear “any air of music,” they immediately stop to listen, and their nature is changed by its sweetness. Indeed, Lorenzo continues, the poet Ovid once wrote a fictional story about the legendary musician Orpheus who had such musical power that he could allure trees, rocks, and waters. Here is the passage:


For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood,
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods,
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature. (70-81)

But it gets even more interesting. Lorenzo then concludes with the famous statement that the person who has no appreciation for good music and cannot feel its harmonic melodies must therefore have affections as dark the place of shadow between the earth and Hades, the Greek Erebus:

The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music. (82-87)

For Lorenzo in these passages (which are actually just two parts of the same passage) music has a massive amount of influence on humans and on animals. Could we translate this into modern speech? Let’s try to do it.

First, what exactly does Lorenzo mean by music? Well, his statement in line 82, “The man that hath no music in himself,” is repeated in different words in line 83, “Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds.” In other words, to have music in oneself means something like having a capacity to be “moved with concord of sweet sounds.” So, just hearing music, what Lorenzo is calling the “concord of sweet sounds” is not enough. The word moved is important. One must be moved by music. 

Next, what does it mean to be moved? To move is to go from one place or state to another. In this particular case, I think we are not talking about moving in the physical sense, but moving in a symbolic sense, where symbolic, could mean emotional or spiritual. I use the word spiritual because Lorenzo uses the word spirit in line 85 when he says that the person that isn’t moved by music has a spirit whose motions are “dull as night.” And I use the word emotional here because Lorenzo says that this person who isn’t moved by music has “affections dark as Erebus” (86 emphasis added). 

Let’s also briefly discuss “concord of sweet sounds.” Concord means harmony. So “concord of sweet sounds” would become something like “harmonious or melodic sweetness.” We left out the word sound just now, but the word melodic denotes sound, so we’re good. Harmony is the one in the many and the many in the one.

While we’re talking about harmony, let’s cite Paul Woodruff, who teaches philosophy and ethics at the University of Texas at Austin. In his book First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea he writes that harmony is the agreement that human beings make to live together even though all of us are not exactly the same. In terms of music, “Harmony,” he says, “is not singing one note; it is singing different notes in a way that makes one texture of music” (99). Musical harmony is symbolic (or synecdochic) of political harmony. 

So, we can now translate Lorenzo’s Elizabethian iambic pentameter to modern day speech this way: “The person that is not emotionally moved by harmonious or melodic sweetness is dangerous to society because that person cannot feel–and thus cannot understand–the necessary political principle of harmony.” That person is hence “not to be trusted” and is thus “fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.” Furthermore, if we recall the herd of wild colts that Lorenzo mentioned earlier, we note that the herd is actually better off than this person who has no capacity to be moved by music because the wild colts, though their natural condition includes a savage gaze and untamed craziness, at least understand–and submit to–the principle of harmony. 

Words, Emotions, Meat Markets, Philosophy, and Hamlet

Does language have anything to do with emotions? Well, we certainly do feel something when particular words are used, both when we use them and when we hear them. (It’s not just the words themselves, of course, but also how they are said that can incite or influence emotion. But let’s stick to words for this post.) 

Butcher Shop–or whatever you want to call it.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For example, a butcher shop could also be called a meat store, a premium deli, a meat market, or even a slaughterhouse. Each of these words makes us feel a certain way. The words connote something different, and my own acts of naming, as well as the store owner’s acts of naming, would reveal an attitude or an emotion towards the subject in question or the thing being defined. Depending on how we feel towards the subject we’ll use a different word to describe it. If I’m a meat-lover, I’ll call it one thing (“Paradise” or perhaps even “Heaven”), but if I’m a vegetarian who’s interested in animal rights, I’ll call it something quite different (perhaps “Hell”). The same strategic name-calling is true from the perspective of the owner. The owner wants people to come to the store, so of course he or she is not going to call it a slaughterhouse, unless of course it’s October and Halloween is just around the corner–because the word slaughterhouse is attractive to certain kinds of people at that time of year.

So what I’m curious about is, is there really a non-emotional language, a language free from passion and attitude? Or does all language necessarily have some kind of emotional baggage? And isn’t this one of the things Solomon was getting at in The Joy of Philosophy, especially in his “Afterthought” at the end of the book when he talks about the “non-emotional” philosophical jargon of contemporary analytic philosophy?
Solomon’s metaphors at the beginning of his essay “On the Passivity of the Passions”  in his book Not Passion’s Slave make me wonder about another related idea. After asking several questions about the nature of emotion, Solomon offers a few questions of his own:

[I]s controlling an emotion like controlling one’s thoughts, one’s speech, one’s arguments, putting them into shape, choosing one’s mode of expression as well as one’s timing? . . . Or is it like coordinating one’s actions through practice, like riding a bike, which may be “mindless” . . . but is nevertheless wholly voluntary and both very much within one’s control and a matter of continuous choice? (195)

Is learning to “use” emotions similar to using certain words? Well, it can’t be that easy, but words and emotions have a metonymic relationship to one another? Might one be a type or shadow of the other? I mean, what about actors in movies and television? How do they train themselves to have particular emotions at particular times if emotions merely happen to us?

Interestingly enough, at the end of his The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin quotes the following passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where an actor has just wept while quoting a passage from a play. Hamlet wonders how it is possible, if the play is just a play and the actor is just an actor:

A classic scene from the classic play.
Art by Eugène Delacroix, 1839.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Is it not monstrous, that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage waned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in ‘s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing! (Hamlet 2.2.522-528)

Solomon ends his “On the Passivity of the Passions” with these words: “The truth is, we are adults. We must take responsibility for what we do and what we feel. And in our taking responsibility we learn to recognize the responsibilities we have, including responsibility for our own emotions” (232). Part of being responsible adults (or “Big Babies,” as Mark Johnson calls us in his book The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding) includes what we do with language, both when we speak and when we listen.