Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Shakespeare and Psychiatry



I came across an older editorial examining Shakespeare’s insight into schizophrenia. “Bark has proposed that in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar, in his guise as Poor Tom, had chronic schizophrenia.”

The original article references one author who argues “nowhere in Shakespeare’s works is schizophrenia to be found…” I am not versed in either Shakespeare or the details of schizophrenia so do not feel qualified to comment on how much of his character’s personality was simply inventive (or lazy) characterisation.

A 1986 article: “…a review of that behaviour in the light of DSM-III suggests a high degree of clinical accuracy…”

A 2006 study found references to melancholy, delusions and hallucinations, but did not find any clinical evidence in Shakespeare’s works of schizophrenia. This study only examined five of Shakespeare’s characters.

The author of a German article says, “Shakespeare's idea of epilepsy is closer to popular stereotypes than has hitherto been assumed.”

This paper highlights King Lear's use of the term ‘epileptic’ which is supposedly the first written form of the word (though Shakespeare probably referenced the word from other texts), but it appears to refer to the pock-marks of syphilis.

I also found a newer article saying, “In the first three decades of American psychiatry, no figure was cited as an authority on insanity and mental functioning more frequently than William Shakespeare.” The article claims he was cited very frequently in the Journal of Insanity. "There is scarcely a form of mental disorder," wrote Amariah Brigham (superintendent of the New York State Lunatic Asylum and the first editor of AJI) in the lead article of the journal's first issue, that Shakespeare "has not alluded to, and pointed out the causes and method of treatment."

One book states Shakespeare would often visit madhouses and “Hamlet shows many characteristics of manic-depressive illness…”

A 2009 essay: “It could be argued that Lear’s mental state is brought about by his daughter’s actions and exposure to the elements…However, although it is clear that his condition is exacerbated through the course of the play, there is evidence to suggest that he is not of sound mind from the outset.”

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