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Shakespeare and Psychiatry: A Personal Meditation

Shakespeare and Psychiatry: A Personal Meditation

The ancient Greek dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides gave Western civilization its foundational myths: Prometheus, Oedipus, Antigone, and the Oresteia. Two thousand years passed until Shakespeare arrived and, according to literary critics, achieved something perhaps more important: he “invented the human!”1 I think of this invention as the secular conception of the human condition. Yes secular! it is a vision of the moral adventure of life constrained by no religious orthodoxy.

Scholars debate whether Shakespeare was Catholic or Protestant. He often draws on both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, but God is missing from his greatest plays. Nonetheless, to paraphrase Simon Russell Beale, the great British actor, to perform in those plays is to experience “redemption and transcendence.” Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition miraculously transcends his culture, time, and place.

The Rosalind of As You Like It is an empowered woman; Othello, a blackamoor, commands the fleets of Venice; and Shylock, Shakespeare’s Jew, bleeds like a Christian when he is pricked. Even today in our era of cultural diversity, Shakespeare (the dead white male) remains the greatest figure of world literature, performed on every continent, surviving translation. During the recent London Olympics, Shakespeare’s 37 plays were performed by casts from around the world in 37 languages. The Bard’s “vitality seems to be impervious to adaptation.”2

These are the pronouncements of Shakespeare scholars, but they are not alone in these judgments. American psychiatrists have enthused about Shakespeare from the very beginning of their profession. The early issues of the American Journal of Insanity (predecessor of The American Journal of Psychiatry) contain more than a dozen articles on Shakespeare.3 Isaac Ray, a president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) who pioneered forensic psychiatry in America, thought Shakespeare was essential professional education: “few men [I add women] . . . are so familiar with those adversities of mental character that are in any degree the result of disease, as not to find the spheres of their ideas on this subject somewhat enlarged by the careful study of Shakespeare.”4 I emphasize the enthusiasm of Ray and his colleagues, but I agree with medical historians that their psychiatric readings of the Bard were almost totally mistaken.5

British psychiatrists, as one might expect, had long been interested in the plays of Shakespeare, and particularly Hamlet. A school of Shakespeare criticism that began in the 18th century looked at the characters in the plays as though they were real people. Physicians, many of them learned in literature as well as the psychiatry of their day, joined the dialogue. The first medical commentator in this tradition was Mark Akenside (1721-1770), a physician and a poet. He was asked about the character of Hamlet. George Steevens (1736-1800), then editing the plays, had questioned Hamlet’s heroic stature, pointing out what he took to be immoral tendencies, eg, his get thee to a nunnery rejection of Ophelia and his sending his schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their death without a pang of conscience.

Akenside made no precise diagnosis, but he thought Hamlet could be forgiven because he “was impaired by his own misfortunes: by the death of his father, the loss of expected sovereignty, and a sense of shame resulting from the hasty and incestuous marriage of his mother.”4 Akenside’s compassionate understanding of the Prince of Denmark’s emotional devastation and his perilous personal and political situation was unrivaled by succeeding psychiatric commentators who were so intent on finding a diagnosis for Hamlet that they lifted the character out of context.

Perhaps the most important intervention in Hamlet dramaturgy was made by the physician to George III. The learned Sir Henry Halford (1776-1844) was “lost in astonishment” at Shakespeare’s knowledge of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy “so exactly did he portray in Hamlet the symptoms described by Burton.”4 Many subsequent productions down through the ages have emphasized Halford’s Burton connection and made Hamlet a “melancholic” figure. It was Winfred Overholser,6 an APA president, who pointed out in 1959 that Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy had not been published until 5 years after Shakespeare’s death and long after Hamlet was written. Actually, Hamlet describes himself as melancholic, but whether Halford got it right or wrong, he stands as an example of the profound influence medical commentators have had on directors and literary critics of Shakespeare.


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