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Elizabethan Drama and Its Mad Folk: The Harness Prize Essay for 1913

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
The jingling criticism of Dromio of Syracuse will ever recur to the essayist on an unconventional subject. Lest any therefore should claim of this essay that “in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason,” excuse shall come prologue to the theme, and its “wherefore” shall receive a moment’s merited attention. Of what utility, it may be asked, can the study of certain insane persons appearing in early modern drama be to the student of to-day? To this question let us give a double answer. The study has a distinct historical value, for from the mass of original documents which form the body of drama under consideration, we may gather much of the progress which has been made in the attitude of the country towards insanity, and hence the increasing tendency towards a humane and intelligent outlook upon disease in general. Our study is also of value from the point of view of literature—partly as shewing the varying accuracy of our dramatists and the art with which they portrayed their mad folk and introduced them into their plays, partly by selecting and exposing the chief types of the mad folk themselves, considering them on their own merits, as pieces of art of intrinsic literary value. This last will be the chief business of the present essay. We shall follow the order above indicated, regarding the presentation of madness successively from the standpoints of history and of literature. Under the latter head we shall consider several general questions before proceeding to isolate individual characters in turn. Lastly, we shall endeavour, from the matter furnished us by these plays, to extract some general conclusions. One proviso must be made before we can embark upon our subject. What, for the purposes of this essay, is to be the criterion of madness? In ordinary life, as we know, the border-land of the rational and the irrational is but ill-defined. We cannot always tell whether mental disease is actually present in a person whom we have known all our lives, much less can we say when the pronounced eccentricity of a stranger has passed the bourn which divides it from insanity. The medical profession itself has not always been too wise where madness is concerned; and where the profession is at fault, with every detail of the case before it, how can the layman aspire to success, with only a few pages of evidence before him of a “case” propounded by another layman of three centuries before? Were we to take the point of view of the physician we should be plunged into a medical dissertation for which we are both ill-equipped and ill-inclined. But there is another, and a far more serious objection, already hinted at, to the adoption in this essay of the medical point of view. The authors themselves were not physicians; in many cases, as will be seen, they appear to have had but an imperfect technical knowledge of insanity and its treatment; their ideas were based largely on the loose and popular medical ideas of the Elizabethan age. If we are to consider this subject as a department of literature we must adopt the point of view of the dramatist, not of the practical physician. We must, for the time, definitely break with those who enquire deeply and seriously into the state of mind of every character in Shakespeare. In dealing with “King Lear,” for example, we shall make no attempt to pry behind the curtain five minutes before the opening of the play for the purpose of detecting thus early some symptoms of approaching senile decay. Nor shall we follow those who endeavour to carry the history of Shylock beyond the limits of Shakespeare’s knowledge of him, in the hope of discovering whether he was true or false to the religion of his fathers. The critic who peeps behind the scenes at such times as these finds only the scene-shifters and the green room, where his nice offence will soon receive appropriate comments!