Shakespeare and Insane Asylums

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Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 9

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t." 
Hamlet (2.2.223)

Plenty of people today consider Shakespeare a literary genius, a pillar of theater history, a gifted writer of timeless love poems, and more. But even the most over-the-top contemporary admirer of Shakespeare is unlikely to consider him a pioneer of modern medical science... much less forensic psychiatry. Hard as it may be to believe, however, there was a strange period in American history when that's exactly how William Shakespeare was seen in both law and medicine.

Rebecca Sheir, host of the Shakespeare Unlimited series, interviews Benjamin Reiss, a professor in the English department at Emory University and the author of a book called Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture.

"From the mid-1840s through about the mid-1860s in the United States, during the first generation of American psychiatry, no figure was cited as an authority on insanity and mental functioning more frequently than William Shakespeare," says Reiss. Such citations were not just in medical journals, he adds, but in sworn legal testimony.

The reason, we learn in this podcast, was essentially this: Modern psychiatry was a fledgling field, regarded with distrust and little respect by many Americans. What it needed, above all, was authority—and what better, more respected authority than the great playwright? Join us to explore this curious yet fascinating intersection between civil society and William Shakespeare.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © August 27, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved.

Produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Recorded by Toby Schreiner.

 

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Want more? Browse our full list of Shakespeare Unlimited episodes. Listen on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, and NPR One.