Commonly regarded by scholars as one of the consummate portrayers of the human psyche in all of literature, Shakespeare's finely-drawn characterizations are distinguished by an abiding interest in the themes of self-delusion, psychological imbalance, and insanity. The accuracy of Shakespeare's insights into these phenomena has been credited by many as an anticipation of numerous findings of twentieth-century psychiatry.
Shakespearean scholarship of recent decades has evidenced an increasing historical interest in the Elizabethan conception of mental illness as a means of shedding new light on such plays as Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Several critics have focused in particular on correcting previous misreadings of key Shakespearean texts by articulating the distinctions between twentieth-century conceptions of the nature of insanity from those of the Elizabethan period. Carol Thomas Neely, for example, explores the ways in which madness during the early modern period "began to be secularized, medicalized, psychologized, and… gendered." Also concerned with a historical perspective are scholars including Winfred Overholser and Paolo Valesio, who elucidate the elements of Greco-Roman, medieval Christian, and folkloristic traditions contributing to Renaissance conception of insanity. Some commentators, including Jack D'Amico, have examined how Shakespeare illustrated connections between madness and politics through his characterization of the legendary Roman figure Junius Brutus. Similarly, Karin S. Coddon has read Hamlet in the light of the trial for treason of Robert Devereux Earl of Essex, arguing that the tragedy dramatizes the Elizabethan notion that political disobedience is a form of madness.
An interest in the relationship between gender and madness has also informed recent Shakespearean scholarship. Hamlet in particular has been the focus of gender analysis by modern feminist commentators such as Elaine Showalter, who articulates the historical importance of Ophelia's character to the "theoretical construction of female insanity." Also examining madness and gender in Shakespeare's plays are Maurice and Hanna Charney, who associate madness with a form of liberation for Shakespeare's female characters. Through their analysis of Elizabethan stage conventions, the critics conclude that the dramatic portrayal of feminine madness "allowed women an emotional intensity and scope not usually expected in conventional feminine roles."
Ruth Perry (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "Madness in Euripides, Shakespeare, and Kafka: An Examination of The Bacchae, Hamlet, King Lear, and The Castle," in The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 253-79.
[In the following essay, Perry examines Shakespeare's association of madness with family relationships, alienation, and self-dramatization in King Lear and Hamlet.]
Shakespeare … locates madness in family relations. His characters are locked up with the other members of their families in gloomy castles, where together they play through the progressive circumstances which lead to madness. Thus Hamlet is betrayed by the enmities and alliances among his parental figures, which leave him nowhere to turn and paralyze him with ambivalence. He is left alone, contemplating himself in the mirror of his consciousness, trying abstractedly to see what he feels. Ophelia, too, is trapped between loyalties, warned by each side about the other, until her trust in herself and others is destroyed and she is unable to relate to anyone and even "incapable of her own distress" (IV, vii). In King Lear the central image of madness is that of a deserted child, left alone to howl his rage into the storm, for the old man's age and abdication of power reverses his relation to his daughters and makes him their dependent child.…
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Relation To Elizabethan Culture
Winfred Overholser (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Psychiatry—And After," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 3, Summer, 1959, pp. 335-52.
[In the following essay originally presented at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1958, Overholser discusses how Shakespeare's characterizations of mental illness were informed by such aspects of the Renaissance worldview as astrology, witchcraft, and the bodily humors.]
We live in an age of psychology. Daily we read of mental mechanisms, of complexes, of the unconscious, of feelings of inferiority, of Freud and Jung, of psychosomatic medicine and of "tranquilizers". There is a growing public appreciation of the facts relating to mental disorder and to normal mental functioning, while the care of the mentally ill in hospitals and clinics receives much attention from legislative bodies and the general public. Today the mentally ill are looked upon as treatable, as sick, not of their own fault, and they are viewed with vastly greater compassion than was the case even seventy-five years ago.
In all ages men have been interested in human behavior and motivations, and have attempted in one way or another to explain mental peculiarities. We flatter our-selves that we understand much more about the vagaries of human behavior than we did even a quarter of a century ago, but there certainly are still many gaps in our...
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The Language Of Madness
Paolo Valesio (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: "The Language of Madness in the Renaissance," in Yearbook of Italian Studies, Vol. 2, 1971, pp. 199-230.
[In the following essay, Valesio discusses the Renaissance use of "the language of folklore" to characterize the language of madness.]
This study is the outline of a specific hypothesis, not a description of the status quaestionis and an evaluation of all its aspects.1 The hypothesis is that there is a connection between certain cultural phenomena which are not usually considered as being related, and that this connection can be explained. What follows presents this hypothesis in clearcut form not because, at the present stage, this is anything more than a hypothesis, but as a necessary beginning in order to pave way for future research and discussion.
If we look at the way in which mad persons (as characters in certain texts) behave and express themselves, we notice that in medieval literature the emphasis is mostly on the iconic aspect of their madness: they discard all the refinements of culture and civilization, especially clothes, and revert to a state of nature, wandering in the wilderness; they rarely talk, and when they do, there are no specific linguistic elements in their speeches which indicate an abnormal state of mind. This kind of representation continues well into the Renaissance (one of...
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Gender And Madness
Elaine Showalter (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, 1985, pp. 77-94.
[Here, Showalter traces the "iconography" of Shakespeare's Ophelia in a variety of art forms in order to reveal the representational connections between female sexuality and insanity.]
"As a sort of a come-on, I announced that I would speak today about that piece of bait named Ophelia, and I'll be as good as my word." These are the words which begin the psychoanalytic seminar on Hamlet presented in Paris in 1959 by Jacques Lacan. But despite his promising come-on, Lacan was not as good as his word. He goes on for some 41 pages to speak about Hamlet, and when he does mention Ophelia, she is merely what Lacan calls "the object Ophelia"—that is, the object of Hamlet's male desire. The etymology of Ophelia, Lacan asserts, is "O-phallus," and her role in the drama can only be to function as the exteriorized figuration of what Lacan predictably and, in view of his own early work with psychotic women, disappointingly suggests is the phallus as transcendental signifier.1 To play such a part obviously makes Ophelia "essential," as Lacan admits; but only because, in his words, "she is linked forever, for centuries, to the figure...
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Madness And Politics
Jack D'Amico (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "The Politics of Madness: Junius Brutus in Machiavelli and Shakespeare," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 405-22.
[In the following essay, D'Amico examines the relationship between political power and madness in Shakespeare's plays and Renaissance thought, focusing in particular on the political and dramatic figure of Junius Brutus.]
By this means, quoth he, nothing else will be brought to pass, but whiles that I go about to remedy the madness of others I should be even as mad as they.…
Wherefore Plato by a goodly similitude declareth why wise men refrain to meddle in the commonwealth. For when they see the people swarm into the streets, and daily wet to the skin with rain, and yet cannot persuade them to go out of the rain and to take their houses, knowing well that if they should go out to them they should nothing prevail nor win aught by it but with them be wet also in the rain, they do keep themselves within their houses, being content that they be safe themselves, seeing they cannot remedy the folly of the people.
Utopia, Book I; reference to Republic 6.496 D-E
From Plato to Sir Thomas More, it has long been considered a form of madness for a wise man to become involved in the real world of...
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Coddon, Karin S. '"Unreal Mockery': Unreason and the Problem of Spectacle in Macbeth." ELH 56, No. 3 (Fall 1989): 485-501.
Examines the links between "treason, madness, and the supernatural" in Macbeth.
DePorte, Michael. "Madness and Masquerade." Georgia Review 44, No. 4 (Winter 1990): 636-50.
Offers a general treatment of the concept of feigned madness in literature and social history with a brief discussion of King Lear.
Driscoll, James P. Identity in Shakespearean Drama. East Brunswick, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1983, 202 p.
Provides a detailed discussion of the psychology of Shakespeare's characterizations, including an analysis of the playwright's portrayal of madness.
Feder, Lillian. Madness in Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980, 331 p.
Presents a detailed study of the theme of insanity in literature from that of Ancient Greece through the twentieth century. Includes discussion of Renaissance theories of madness and of Shakespeare's King Lear.
Jorgensen, Paul A. "Hamlet's Therapy." The Huntington Library Quarterly XXVII, No. 3 (May 1969): 239-58.
Uses Renaissance treatises on madness to argue that Hamlet achieves tragic wisdom and sanity by becoming his own "psychotherapist."
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