Insanity Within the Plays of William Shakespeare

Category: Psychology
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William Shakespeare in his many plays and other pieces of literature created some of the most well thought out characters of all time. The characters often had reasons for what they did or what they thought, shedding new light on what it meant to actually be “insane”. The characters’ motives were often shown during his stories, Because of that, Shakespeare, through his use of literature and understanding of the human mind, shaped western culture’s perception of insanity from negative feelings to something that could be understood. It should be understood that a person is insane when he or she undergoes some form of mental condition during one point of his or her life. These impairments, while occurring in the mind, could be evident in a person’s actions as well, such as physical harm, questionable decision making etc.

Insanity could, in this case, be something that is a natural part of life. Before Shakespeare made the change in perception that led to the treatment of the insane, the Renaissance would be full of outdated treatments for it. “Every description, diagnosis, and therapy that happened before that period [1820s] has been considered ‘pre-scientific’ or out-dated,” shows that during the time, uncertainty was prevalent.(Aleksandar Dimitrijevic). With such little knowledge at the time, some of these methods would be wrong. Even today, methods of treating psychological English will not be what they are in a hundred years. To elaborate, some of these methods were even quite severe. Approaches to people considered crazy included emetics, laxatives, and bleeding (Diane Dreher Ph.D.). Such treatments show not only the ludicrous ideas of the time but also show the unnecessary cruelty of those same people. It shows the many misconceptions about people who were insane and reveals that the people who held those misconceptions also held many fears of those people. Later in time, the perception of mental illness would be treated and conceived of in a different manner. It is during this time that Shakespeare writes some of the most well-known plays of all time.

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These plays contain some of the most well developed, insane characters of the time. One of these characters is the well-known King Lear. King Lear’s delve into Insanity started with his foolish decision making, and continued to worsen. It starts when he decides to Divided the kingdom between his three daughters based on their acts of flattery towards him. It’s when, “Cordelia, tells him she loves him no more than a daughter should love her father and that her actions should speak for her he, instead of giving her the share he promised her, banishes her for speaking truthfully.” (Amber Harret, Julie Nethercott, Keni Voermans, Mackenzie Chaytor). It’s this questionable decision that will conflict him throughout the play and will also make him quite rash in his treatment of people. Despite his mistake, the reader still feels sympathy for him because he does not want this to be happening to him. Specifically, King Lear says, “ O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!” (Act 1, Scene 5, 44-45). The reader’s perspective on King Lear has turned from a bitter, reproachful way, and becomes a more understanding view. Shakespeare shows the reader that while insanity can be influenced by internal factors, it is also contributed to by a number of external factors. He also makes it evident that if a leader feels this way, they need to be removed from his or her office. Before Shakespeare’s time, there were several leaders who, similar to King Lear, were also insane. For instance, the Roman Emperor Caligula, “…has been synonymous madness and infamy, sadism and perversion.” (A. T. SANDISON, B.Sc., M.D.). It stands to reason that this is probably a result of something that happened to Caligula at one point or another in his life. Despite this, many people would not be that sympathetic towards him. The dislike for him was shown by his being “…murdered by members of the Praetorian Guard.”(Donald L. Walsson).

The Praetorian Guard being the emperor of Rome’s personal bodyguards, it would seem highly likely that they would actually have some sympathy for Caligula’s insanity. Surely they would know some reason for him being so perverted, mad, and sadistic. The lack of sympathy is seen here very well before Shakespeare’s time. After Shakespeare’s time, there were also a lot of great yet insane leaders. Perhaps one of the most well-known was Adolphus Hitler, leader of Germany from 1934-1945. Before Hitler even the became leader of Germany in 1934, he, “…had Röhm, former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and hundreds of other problematic members of his own party murdered…” (HISTORY-Adolf Hitler). His insanity would continue, as he tried to wipe out other nations for the benefit of the Aryan race. Hitler’s insanity, like King Lear and Caligula, was caused by some external factor which was uncontrollable to him. Actually, in his case, there were two factors, being his failing art school, and then returning home to find, “…his beloved mother was dying from cancer…” ( The HIstory Place- The Rise of Adolf Hitler) Again, there is this sympathy people feel now for Hitler because of what happened to him. Not only are there feelings of remorse for Hitler, but there are also questions being asked of “what if?” If he had gone to art school, it is likely he never would have become a politician, and would have had a more positive view of life, acquired when he was actually able to achieve his dreams. That is when the viewer realizes that maybe he was not the horrible person he was considered to be. Returning to Shakespeare and more well-known, mad characters, Ophelia definitely has her issues. Similar to King Lear Ophelia is driven mad by the external factors that she has to deal with.

However, the difference between Ophelia’s insanity and those mentioned previously is that, “…Ophelia is merely a convenient tool to be exploited and manipulated.” (Yi-Chi Chen). It is when Ophelia comes to realize this that she begins to deteriorate into someone else. She then, later, has an “accident” The ironic part is, she was, at the start of the play, a quiet and even referred to as “Polonius’ timid daughter who lacks the will of her own…” (Yi-Chi Chen). The transition from “good girl” to “bad girl” is all seen in the objectification of her. When someone is objectified, they are dehumanized. So as the reader watches an innocent Ophelia being used as a tool, the reader once again feels sympathy for the suffering of the unknowing character. This concept of people being seen as objects rather than people is fairly common in all societies. One example of this would be portraying a prostitute as someone who is just a bad person. Pope Sixtus V even mandated the death penalty in 1586 for this crime (Tom Head). After all, when people think of prostitutes, they tend to think of people who are just all around bad people. However, the idea of prostitutes being dirty people is not entirely true. Sabrinna Valisce had an extremely emotional childhood. Her father died when she was twelve years old, and, “My stepfather was violent, and there was no-one to talk to.” (Sabrinna Valisce). She later became a prostitute in order to fight for the money necessary to survive. It’s when she realized that the reason she had not been feeling well that entire time she began to feel better. She quit prostitution and now actively tries to prevent it. It’s when humans are objectified that they begin to feel uncomfortable and may lead us to make rash decisions.

Another of Shakespeare’s insane characters would be Othello and his feelings of jealousy. However, “Othello is not jealous by nature. However, the cunning Iago makes him extremely jealous and mad.” (Dr. Himadri Sekhar Roy and Md. Ziaul Haque). Iago does so by making Othello believe that his own wife had an affair with Cassio. When Othello discovers this, he takes away his own life, as well as the innocent life of his wife’s. Othello’s madness differentiates from King Lear’s and Ophelia’s because Iago was out to specifically make his life miserable. As has already been discussed, Othello is not a naturally jealous person. The problem, however, lies with “ Othello might love Desdemona with every speck of his human soul, but he does not trust her, and thus, Iago is able to create a foothold within their love which will allow him to destroy both characters.” (Pam Mcelbran) So while Iago is mostly to blame for the tragedies occurring in the play, Othello allowed his own mind to be warped by his mistrust for his wife. Similar to Othello is actually the Salem Witch Trials. While this does not apply to the distrust between two partners, it does apply to the wave of panic felt when there is very little evidence to prove the theory right or wrong. It all started when “ A group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft” ( editors).

This theory spread thoroughly, and a wave of hysteria passed over the land. As a result of this hysteria, over 150 people fell victim to these trials. Shakespeare understood that this sort of fear could encapsulate a person and make such a person turn on the people they depend on. The townspeople of Salem were having to endure during this time, “ … the after-effects of a British War on France…a recent smallpox epidemic, fears of attacks from neighboring Native American tribes,and a longstanding rivalry with the more affluent community of Salem Town.” All of these would have combined to create a wave of panic and fear for not only the security of oneself but the security of the people around them. In present-day times, the sort of fear that Othello felt about losing his wife has been named after him-Othello syndrome. Othello syndrome is defined as, “… a rare psychiatric condition marked by morbid, pathological, or delusional jealousy” (The Neurocritic). Because he was named after a common disorder, it would seem likely that Othello was an accurate representation of someone who experienced enough jealousy to make them anxious. There have been several cases in which Othello syndrome has become extremely violent. For instance, “A 63-year-old man, who had long accused his wife of having affairs, strangled her to death and then hanged himself because he could no longer cope with his obsessive suspicions” (Dale Hartley Ph.D., MBA). It’s these cases in which Othello’s actions, while illogical, are actually relatable to the events occurring today. It forces the realization that these people do not want to do this, but rather, are controlled by their disorder.

Compared to the Elizabethan Era, treatments for the mentally ill are much more sound today than they were then. Such treatments include “ Psychotherapy… medication…case management… hospitalization…support group…self-help plan… peer support…” (Mental Health America). These treatments actually deal with the problem at hand rather than just compounding it with a physical problem. While the treatments first used may have been necessary to first experiment with the human mind, they were simply a cruel way to deal with people during that period. Shakespeare was not a psychologist; he was a writer with a knowledge of the way people act. In his plays, he used these realistic depictions of characters to create some of the most well-written literature of all time. This literature would influence our entire way of living. In conclusion, Shakespeare contributed to the change in perception of mental illness from not being understood to being understood.

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Insanity Within the Plays of William Shakespeare. (2021, Mar 01). Retrieved from