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.…
The imaginative conceptions of madness during the English Renaissance were very different from those of the ancient world. For one thing, madmen were no longer conceived of as effectively dangerous....
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