03:12am Tuesday 21 January 2020

The enduring popularity of madness in drama

Dr Ian McClure, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh and also a playwright, said the greatest dramatists produced plays with complex characters who fall into various states of madness.

He told delegates at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ International Congress in Edinburgh that Shakespeare had explored the dramatic potential of madness more than any other playwrigh

Hamlet, a textbook example of bipolar disorder, swung from depression to mania. The bloody duel at the end of the play is fuelled by Hamlet’s manic intensity, as he seeks flight from his depressive insight into the rottenness of the world.

King Lear, who splits his kingdom into three and becomes an outcast, is cleansed of pride and stubbornness by his madness, and Othello’s obsessional jealousy brings about his downfall.

Madness is a calamity to befall any human being, said Dr McClure, and as such is a proper subject for a dramatist to explore. It is a method by which drama became “turbocharged, unpredictable, dangerous, irrational”.

Dramatists often used “neurotic” madness in their works. Lady Macbeth, said Dr McClure, with her continual hand washing to wipe off any trace of the blood of the murdered king, was an example of obsessional disorder. Othello was such a perfect example of obsessive jealousy that the term “Othello Syndrome” is used in psychiatry to describe jealous husbands.

Madness was and is used as a vehicle for change, the driving force in the play with the main protagonist achieving, even in death, an insight into how things really are, delegates heard. Audiences learn what it means to be human through the portrayal of madness – hence its fascination for theatregoers, a fascination all the more powerful because most people are terrified of it, said Dr McClure.

 He said that while mental illness affected 1 in 4 people, it has always been a subject of shame and stigma – despite 100 recent years of active scientific progress in uncovering secrets of the brain.

Dr McClure concluded: “There is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health. There is something unique about madness and the fear of it is greater even that the fear of cancer. At the end of the day it’s about somebody losing their mind and people are absolutely terrified about that. We can accept the exploration of madness on the stage, and that is why dramatists turn to it. If you see the portrayal of madness in a very real way, but at one remove, that is a fantastic way to explore the very thing you are terrified of.”

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International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Edinburgh, 21-24 June 2010.

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