Shakespeare and Insane Asylums

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 9

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.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © August 27, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, "Though This Be Madness, Yet There Is Method In 't," was produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Recorded by Toby Schreiner.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called "Though This be Madness, Yet There Is Method in 't."

It's a look at perhaps one of the oddest appropriations of Shakespeare imaginable. Shakespeare certainly wrote about characters who suffered from various forms of mental illness. Certainly, Ophelia, and, for a time, King Lear. Arguably, Hamlet and Macbeth, too. But none of them is real. They're just characters in plays, sprung from the mind of a writer. Certainly, there's nothing you can learn from Shakespeare's insane characters that will tell you something about actual insanity, right? Well, that's actually what we're going to be talking about in this podcast.

Ben Reiss is 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. He's found out some startling things about insanity and Shakespeare in 19th century America.

BEN REISS: 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.

WITMORE: Everything we need to know about insanity we learn from Shakespeare. Crazy, right? Have a listen. Ben Reiss is interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

REBECCA SHEIR: So, Ben, you write that this fixation on Shakespeare can be found mainly among the superintendents of insane asylums. Tell us who these people were.

REISS: The asylum superintendents were all medical doctors, but the profession of medicine was not nearly as highly regulated as it is today. Many of the superintendents hadn't been to medical school. Often you could join the ranks of medicine by apprenticing with another medical doctor, and, of course, there was no specialized training in psychiatry. They were the first generation of psychiatrists, and they were sort of inventing it on the fly. There was also very little in the way of experimental science that would establish the kinds of scientific authority that they were trying to claim for themselves. So, what they had was authority over these institutions and a kind of void in terms of scientific authority, legitimacy in the public's eyes.

SHEIR: Well, you mentioned the word "authority," and I'm fascinated by your thoughts on how the authority of these superintendents really clashed with the anti-elitist philosophy of Jacksonian America. Can you expand on that a little?

REISS: Right. From the reign of Andrew Jackson, through the 1850s, the United States culture increasingly emphasized democracy as an ideal. Anybody who was presuming to claim authority for themselves that other people couldn't understand or didn't have access to was considered suspect.

Of course, this was a period in which all white men were granted the vote for the first time in American history. Prior to the late 1820s, early 1830s, there were always property restrictions on the vote, and so, for the first time you had this kind of inclusive sense of American democracy. Of course, all non-whites and women were still excluded from it, but the sense, the culture's sense of itself, was one of openness and inclusion.

And so, the challenge that these asylum superintendents had was, how do you govern over an institution which explicitly takes away individual liberties from people, from white people, at a time when individual liberties, social mobility are the hallmarks of the culture's sense of itself. And, of course, the kind of authority that they have over people is the authority to take away individual liberties. Their patients can't write wills, they can't vote, they often can't hold property, and they're given no physical freedom of mobility. And so, they're looking for a kind of authority that would seem to say, yes, there are certain principles that allow us to make decisions to revoke liberties that people will not question, and this is part of what they turn to in Shakespeare.

SHEIR: So you're saying they turn to Shakespeare to give them authority?

REISS: They turned to figures who would seem to give them that authority. There was a tremendous suspicion of anybody who tried to make claims to authority, to professional authority, in the 19th century. It was seen as anti-democratic. And so, in turning to Shakespeare, they turn to a figure who was assumed widely in the 19th century to have a kind of legitimacy. He was the world’s leading genius, and since his genius was based in an understanding of human nature, they wanted to claim that mantle for themselves.

SHEIR: All right. So, he was the world's leading genius, but can you talk about how the superintendents applied that then to psychiatry? I mean, what was it about Shakespeare that they felt fit in with their area of expertise?

REISS: Yes. Shakespeare's power, his unrivaled power, was understood largely in the 19th century as his ability to portray human nature accurately in all of its manifestations. He was understood as a kind of a naturalist, and scientists, medical figures generally, were drawn to him in part because he didn't offer supernatural explanations for why people behaved the way they did. He offered naturalistic, almost empirical, kind of descriptions of human behavior and accounts for why people behaved as they did. He was presumed to be the one who understood, more fully than any person who had ever lived, why people act the way they do.

SHEIR: Ben, there's something you've written about that I'd like you to talk about. Do I have it right that there were people who saw this period as a time of rising insanity?

REISS: Yes. The period in which the early American psychiatrists really turn to Shakespeare was a period in which they perceived a great increase in the amount of insanity. They saw it as a kind of epidemic. And part of the explanation for this epidemic was that modern democracy and early capitalism—they didn't often call it by those terms, they would say "modern civilization" or something like this—it created strains. People had too many choices. They could choose jobs. They had ambitions to rise in the world. And they were often cast loose, as they moved into cities, where there were a great number of strangers, who they had to interact with on a daily level. And so, people made bad choices, and these produced strains, mental strains on them, which often led them to nervous breakdowns, in their view. And so, if part of the problem was that society had gone wrong, or that society was presenting these new mental strains for people, they tried to correct that in the institutions that they governed over. Part of the correction was controlling the culture, creating a stable environment, both medically and socially, and that includes the cultural lives of patients, in which patients would not be exposed to things that would send them over the edge.

SHEIR: When you say, “cultural lives,” what exactly are you talking about? Are we speaking of, I don't know, the kind of plays they went to, and things like that? So, what do you mean when you say controlling their cultural lives?

REISS: One of the problems of modern civilization, in the superintendents' view, was that it threw up new forms of entertainment that were often destabilizing or that over-excited the brain. So, there are cheap newspapers, cheap and tawdry novels, stage performances that are sometimes lewd or wild and rambunctious and led people into modes of thinking and modes of responding that were dangerous for them. And so, in the asylum, they tried to regulate culture. They tried to present patients with opportunities to participate in a more orderly kind of cultural activity. And Shakespeare was not something that they exposed patients to, in terms of having them act in plays or watch stage performances, but they turned to Shakespeare as a guide for a sort of model of what correct cultural behavior is like.

SHEIR: Ben, one of the things you wrote that's so amazing to me, is that this theorizing about Shakespeare wasn't just limited to articles in medical journals. You gave some examples of these early psychiatrists invoking Shakespeare in court cases.

REISS: In the 19th century, psychiatrists were often called to testify in legal cases and this could take several forms. One, they could be testifying to somebody's mental status, somebody who had been accused of committing a crime. Was this person truly competent to stand trial or was the person even culpable for his or her actions?

Another instance in which they would be called to trial would be if somebody had written a will, which was disputed on the grounds that the person was not in possession of his or her full faculties. Isaac Ray, who is the superintendent, first at a state-run asylum in Maine and then a private asylum in Rhode Island, was considered the foremost expert on psychiatric matters as they pertain to law, and he counseled other psychiatrists to turn frequently to great literature, and specifically to Shakespeare, to give examples of the kinds of problems that people who came before the law might face.

So, for instance, if they wanted to establish that somebody had only recently become fully insane, somebody, say, an older person, who had never manifested any signs of mental illness until the past year or two, at which point this person wrote a will that was contested, the psychiatrists were enjoined to explain to the jurors or to the judge that King Lear himself had shown no signs of insanity or shown very few signs of insanity until late in life, but that if you read the play very carefully, you could see in those early conversations he has with his daughters, that something was beginning to go amiss and it was only an environmental trigger...

SHEIR: The storm?

REISS: That led him to go fully over the edge. Another famous case that they referred to was the case of Hamlet, and for generations, there had been debate within literary critical circles about whether Hamlet was really mad, or whether he was feigning madness in order to hide his plot against the king. The asylum superintendents agreed almost unanimously that Hamlet really was mad. But the point they wanted to make, and it was a very important one for them, was that he had a partial madness, that it was possible to be completely sane in the majority of one's behaviors and dealings with others, and to have a mental illness that was isolated to either a certain part of the brain or to certain realms of experience and thought, and that this explained why so many people considered Hamlet not really to be mad, because he only acted crazy part of the time.

SHEIR: Okay, so we have this diagnosis of partial madness. What was the advantage of having that? What did it allow them to do?

REISS: They tried to show, they tried to widen the definition of what "insanity" meant. So that, in other words, somebody might be able to get off on a charge of murder or some other serious crime, on cause of insanity or mental incompetence, and it wasn't just that the person had to act like a beast, or the previous test had been, you had to have the mental capacity of somebody younger than 14 years old, in order to get off on a crime for reason of mental incompetence. The psychiatrists were gradually widening this definition of insanity, so that it included all kinds of mental illness, which didn't appear to the public to be full-blown, and they turned to Hamlet to indicate this.

SHEIR: So, Ben, you make a point about how these scientific people seized on Shakespeare as an authority at this time, because a lot of religions were blossoming in America and they were looking for something other than the Bible to turn to for answers. Can you explain that for us?

REISS: Mid-19th-century America was a time of tremendous religious upheaval. There were all kinds of new religious sects being developed. It was the time where Joseph Smith started his westward trek out toward Utah, and there were great religious revival movements that were sweeping across the country. People would go out and camp out for several days and listen to charismatic preachers. They would often speak in tongues. They would become convinced that they were possessed by divinity, and that they had to announce the world their new faith, their new visions.

This was seen by many as being tremendously destabilizing and it often caused a great deal of tension within families. This was considered to be something quite dangerous, and was often taken to be either evidence of, or cause of, and sometimes both, insanity. So, asylums housed great numbers of religious enthusiasts, eccentrics. And religious enthusiasm was generally near the top of the list of causes of insanity, when psychiatrists began to tabulate these things. So, there was a great deal of pressure within the asylum to sort of clean up people's religious behavior, to make them more orderly, to behave in ways that weren't so wild and full of this kind of excessive enthusiasm that was thought to be infecting the nation. There were some asylums that even explicitly restricted giving the Bible to patients. And so, the asylum authorities were left with, again, a question of what is going to replace the Bible as our authority, as our repository of knowledge and truth about how the world works and how humans behave? And again, they turned to Shakespeare, who had this kind of near-biblical authority in 19th-century America, the preeminent world genius, who almost couldn't be explained by natural means. He functioned nearly as a god, in their vision.

SHEIR: So let me put to you a question that you've written about. What explains the fact that no one before the asylum superintendents was able to dig the science out of the Bard?

REISS: The asylum superintendents had a real problem on their hands and that was, that they were claiming that Shakespeare licensed all of their theories of mental illness, and even almost all of the practices of treating people in asylums, that he had predicted them. And the question that they had was, “Why has nobody noticed this before? Why is it suddenly we who understand how what Shakespeare intended in his treatment of mad characters?”

And the explanations that they gave were typically quite contorted. The reason that nobody in Shakespeare's day understood him was that there wasn't adequate scientific basis to really understand his plays. In other words, Shakespeare had this sort of prevision of ultra-modern science and medicine that leapt out of the early modern period and placed him smack in the middle of the 19th century, in terms of his being up to date with scientific progress. And so, nobody during his own day, or even in the intervening centuries, could really have been expected to get him right.

So science was what allowed them to see him correctly, but strangely enough, he was the one who validated the science. So there was this sort of feedback loop of reinforcing legitimation. Shakespeare validates the psychiatrist; the psychiatrists validate Shakespeare. And once you establish that, there's no possibility that anybody could be wrong.

SHEIR: Benjamin Reiss is the author of Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture and a professor in the department of English at Emory University. Thank you so much for talking with us.

REISS: Okay. Thank you.


WITMORE: Ben Reiss’s interview was with Rebecca Sheir. His book Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture, is available from the University of Chicago Press.

"Though This Be Madness, Yet There is Method In 't," was recorded by Tobey Schreiner and edited by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is our associate producer. It's part of the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series, which comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find out more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.