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."