Shakespeare and madness
‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact’
Antonio, the eponymous trader in The Merchant of Venice, begins the play in a mysterious, fatiguing melancholy:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you,
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn. (1.1.1–5)
Antonio might have been baffled by his depression, but by the late 16th century, doctors and clerics were making advances in the study of mental illness. Drawing on the theories of the 1st-century Greek physician Galen, who taught that physical and mental health was determined by the correct balance in the body of four different fluids known as humours, medical writers such as Thomas Bright in his Treatise on Melancholy (1586) helped Shakespeare to understand the causes and treatment of melancholy and madness as his contemporaries understood the conditions.
Woodcuts showing the four humours and marriage in Peacham's Minerva Britanna
Melancholy is depicted as a solitary old man, in Henry Peacham’s book of emblems, 1612. Melancholy was one of the four humours which were thought to define the character in Shakespeare’s day.View images from this item (7)
Madness held a curious fascination for Shakespeare. Rejected or unsatisfied lovers were thought to be at risk of mental collapse, and melancholy in particular was an ailment to which writers and intellectuals were prone. As a dramatist concerned with relationships and sexuality, Shakespeare was aware that infatuation could be readily confused with madness. This was a contemporary truism, expressed by Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a conventional piece of wisdom:
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact. (5.1.4–8)
Rosalind, in As You Like It, runs on the same lines with a rather less poetic sentiment: ‘Love is merely a madness, and … deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do’ (3.2.359–60). In Hamlet, the advisor Polonius, misreading the causes of the Prince’s apparent lunacy as romantic rejection, offers a neat analysis of his illness that makes the relationship between love and madness very clear. After being refused by Ophelia, Polonius explains that Hamlet:
Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and by this declension,
Into the madness wherein he now raves. (2.2.146–50)
Polonius is wrong in this instance, but Shakespeare took seriously the view that excessive or unrequited love could lead to mental distraction. We might laugh at Polonius’s poor diagnosis of Hamlet, but there is nothing funny about his daughter Ophelia’s subsequent descent into madness and suicidal despair. Cruelly treated by Hamlet and shaken by her father’s death, Ophelia later appears on stage as a model of what early modern people understood to be a ‘distracted’ woman pushed into insanity by love, her seemingly meaningless chatter suggestive of disturbing sexual obsession.
Tile showing Mrs Lessingham as Ophelia
Decorative tile showing another 18th-century actress, Jane Lessingham, in the role of Ophelia.View images from this item (1)
It wasn’t just soured romance that was believed to cause madness in Shakespeare’s England. A person could lose their reason through mischance or trauma, overwork or excessive intellectual stimulation, shock or religious torment. In one of the Elizabethan stage’s first smash-hits, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (late 1580s), Hieronimo and his wife Isabella are both sent mad by the horror of their son’s murder. The hero’s anguish was evidently affecting: when the play was reissued in 1615, it was sub-titled ‘Hieronimo is mad again’. But distressing events didn’t have to hit home so brutally to destabilise someone’s mental equilibrium. Robert Burton, whose Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) drew on his own experience of severe depression, gave a list of triggers for melancholy, some of them highly traumatic. But he also argued that the grim state of world affairs in general – ‘those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken [and] cities besieged’ – was enough to drive him to maddened despair.
Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, 1615
In Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie, both the hero and his wife are sent mad by their son’s murder.View images from this item (89)
Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, 1628
Robert Burton considers a huge range of triggers for melancholy, from massacres and comets to excessive wine. This is the third edition of the book, printed in 1628.View images from this item (17)
In King Lear, Shakespeare explored one of the most frequently occurring forms of mental deterioration, age-related dementia. Early modern people understood that the elderly often became ‘frantic’ with age, or quietly decayed into the ‘mere oblivion’ of ‘second childishness’ (As You Like It, 2.4.165), although medical theory offered no answer as to why aged brains began to fail. Shakespeare’s Lear suffers both from the ‘unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them’ (1.2.293–95), as his unsympathetic daughter Goneril puts it, and from the terrifying realisation of encroaching senility. Lear admits in his moment of greatest vulnerability,
I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Fourscore and upward,
Not an hour more nor less; and to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind. (4.7.59–62)
It is at this lowest of points, when he struggles to recognise his kindly youngest daughter, that Lear’s mental capacity begins to rally, and as he confides to another character, ‘I think this lady / To be my child, Cordelia’ (4.7.68–69).
The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709
Lear rants in the storm on the heath; the frontispiece for King Lear in Rowe’s illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s plays, 1709.View images from this item (74)
Sharing the stage with Lear is another stock figure of madness, the ‘Bedlam beggar’. This is the guise adopted by Edgar, the banished son of the Earl of Gloucester, who begrimes his face and tears his clothes to pass as ‘poor Tom’, ‘the basest and most poorest shape / That ever penury in contempt of man / Brought near to beast’ (2.2.164–66). It’s a canny disguise for a man who has decided to take to the streets: in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, it was only the infirm and the mentally ill who were permitted to beg; those deemed ‘sturdy’ (or physically able) beggars were subject to punishment as illegal vagrants. As he plans his performance, Edgar provides a glimpse of the real pain and confusion experienced by the homeless and disturbed:
The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars who with roaring voices
Strike in their numbed and mortified arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary. (2.2.169–73)
Edgar of course is only pretending to be mad when he impersonates ‘Tom O’Bedlam’ (a common term for mad or seemingly mad beggars), but his characterisation draws on established early modern tropes about disorderly mad people whose destitute lives attracted ridicule and mistrust.
Broadside ballad on Tom of Bedlam
This popular broadside ballad (c. 1670) tells the well-known tale of a poor naked beggar, ‘Mad Tom of Bedlam’.View images from this item (1)
Asylums and care
In fact, educated opinion frowned on the mockery of the unwell. Historian of performance Bridget Escolme has argued that Elizabethans and Jacobeans were well aware of the distinction between laughter at inconsequential fooleries and ridicule of the truly unfortunate. The poet and courtier Philip Sidney, writing in the late 1570s, reproved those who laughed at ‘miserable things … which are rather to be pitied than scorned’. ‘For what is it,’ he asked in The Defence of Poesie, ‘to make folks gape at a beggarly clown [a homeless mentally-ill person]? What do we learn?’ The French physician Laurent Joubert acknowledged in his Treatise on Laughter (1579) that our first instinct might be to laugh at a man ‘who became frenzied or maniacal’, but our laughter must be stifled when ‘we think about the great loss of his senses and understanding he has suffered’. Then, Joubert explained, ‘we experience compassion because of the misery, and more still if this misfortune does not come through his own fault’.
This principle prevailed, in theory at least, in London’s main mental health institution, the Bethlehem Hospital on Bishopsgate Street just to the west of Moorfields. Known popularly as Bethlem or Bedlam (from where Edgar draws his nickname), the hospital had been dedicated to the care of mentally ill people since the early 16th century (although its role as a charitable hospice went back to its foundation as the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem in 1247). Frequently overcrowded and perennially underfunded, Bedlam was to become a byword for callous neglect and exploitation. But as the cultural historian Carol Neely has shown, while therapeutic regimens may have been crude and ineffective, Bethlem was conceived as a treatment centre. The governors of the Hospital limited admission to patients who stood a chance of recovery, which meant that in practice only ‘madmen’ (people suffering a ‘curable’ mental illness) could seek help. Those deemed ‘fools’ (people with learning difficulties or congenital mental disorders) were not supposed to be admitted.
However well-intentioned the care at Bethlem, the reality for many patients was indifferent neglect or institutional abuse. The popular conception of ‘treatment’ for mental illness drew on a medieval understanding of madness as demonic possession, in which the evil spirit possessing a victim had to be forced out with violence. The origin of Rosalind’s flippant observation that lovers, like madmen, deserve ‘a dark house and a whip’ (As You Like It, 3.2.401) is ‘therapy’ of this sort, as recommended by the ineffectual exorcist Dr Pinch in The Comedy of Errors who misdiagnoses Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus as possessed: ‘I know it by their pale and deadly looks[;] / They must be bound and laid in some dark room’ (4.4.88–89). Intellectuals and doctors may have promoted a kindly and therapeutic response to mental illness, but for most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, madness was a condition of darkness and fear.
 Bridget Escolme, Emotional Excess on the Shakespearean Stage: Passion’s Slaves (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 60.
 Carol Thomas Neely, Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), p. 175.
The contributor has asked for the following credit: Will Tosh, 'Shakespeare and madness' (2016)
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