Description

The huge and encyclopaedic Anatomy of Melancholy was produced by the English clergyman Robert Burton (1577–1640). It explores a dizzying assortment of mental afflictions, including what might now be called depression. Burton considers melancholy to be an ‘inbred malady’ in all of us and admits that he is ‘not a little offended’ by it himself (p. 5).

What’s in The Anatomy of Melancholy?

This is the third edition (1628) of Burton’s increasingly comprehensive text, first published in 1621 and expanded from 1624 to 1651. The work is divided into three sections. The first considers the nature, symptoms and diverse causes of melancholy. These causes range from God to witches and devils, poverty and imprisonment, parents and ‘overmuch study’, ‘desire of revenge’, or ‘overmuch use of hot wines’. The second section discusses cures such as exercise and diet, purging, blood-letting and potions. The third focuses on two particular types – love melancholy and religious melancholy.

Burton’s work is richly varied and at times bewilderingly rambling. It shifts from sad to self-reflexive, from satirical to serious, including an eclectic mix of quotations (many in Latin) from literature, philosophy and science.

The engraved title page

This edition includes, for the first time, an elaborate title page engraved by Christian Le Blon, with portraits of Democritus (the laughing philosopher) and the author (in the persona of Democritus Junior). These are placed alongside symbols of melancholic types including a ‘madman’ who reminds us, ominously, that ‘twixt him and thee, ther’s no difference’.

Read a full online version of a later edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy 

Male and female melancholy: Hamlet and Ophelia

Many agree with Claudius’s claim that ‘there’s something in [Hamlet’s] soul’ which seems to be ruled by ‘melancholy’ (3.1.164–65). It was a common, even fashionable malady in Elizabethan England, associated with sadness and abnormal psychology, but also refinement and male intellect.

Yet, as Elaine Showalter has noted, female melancholy was considered to fall into a whole different category, connected not with genius but with sexuality and sexual frustration. Burton gives us an insight into how this might have been viewed in the early modern era. In the section on ‘Maides, Nunnes, and Widows’, he claims that ‘noble virgins’ are particularly affected by ‘vitious vapours which come from menstruous blood’ (p. 193). He reports shocking tales of nuns who rebel against their ‘enforced temperance’ and express their sexuality, leading to ‘frequent’ abortions and ‘murdering infants in their Nunneries’ (p. 196). For him, the ‘surest remedy’ is to see them ‘married to good husbands’ where they can fulfil their ‘desires’, and put out the ‘fire of lust’ (pp. 194–95).

Hamlet expresses the idea that ‘Frailty’ is particularly female (1.2.146). Ophelia, in Acts 4 and 5, is seen by her brother Laertes as a ‘document in madness’ (4.5.178). As in Burton’s Anatomy, her insanity is connected with both virginal innocence and explicit sexuality. Yet, contrary to Burton, Hamlet bitterly suggests that she should go to a nunnery (3.1.120).

Love melancholy: Benedick and Beatrice

Burton reveals a knowledge of Shakespeare, using the playwright’s characters as definitive examples of particular psychological types (as Sigmund Freud would do centuries later). For Burton, lovers who at first ‘cannot fancie or affect each other, but are harsh and ready to disagree’ are ‘like Benedict and Betteris in the comedy’, Much Ado About Nothing. He claims that the best solution is to push the couple into marriage, so that love will grow out of closeness: ‘by this living together in a house, conference, kissing, colling [or embracing], and such like allurements, [they will] begin at last to dote insensibly one upon another’ (p. 443). Burton seems to sidestep the idea that, in Shakespeare’s play, the couple might love each other even before their friends intervene; we might see their witty disagreements as a subtle sign that they already 'fancie' each other.

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