Paul Coombe is a psychiatrist and individual
and group psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice in
Melbourne, Australia. He was formerly Consultant Child
Psychiatrist at the Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne. He was
also the Overseas Senior Registrar in Psychotherapy at the Cassel
Hospital, London from 1990 to 1993. He is the Immediate Past
President of the Australian Association of Group Psychotherapists
and member of the Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Association of
The reason we are talking to Paul is that this
year marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of William
Shakespeare, and Paul has recently published an academic paper
entitled 'William Shakespeare as Psychotherapist' in the
International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies (Int. J.
Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 10(4): 334–348 (2013))
Dr Paul Coombe
One new review entitled,
'William Shakespeare as Psychotherapist',
suggests that this canon of work could even teach us how better to
Recently published in the 'International
Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies', the investigation
suggests that, as there was no counselling available
during Shakespeare's time, so in this especially troubled era,
these plays may have provided a kind of shared experience for the
audience, which could be the equivalent of modern
The author of the study, Paul Coombe, a
psychotherapist who worked in London, but who is now based in
Australia, argues that Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
spectators endured a great deal suffering, love and loss.
The plague, threat of sentence of death or imprisonment,
public executions, massive neonatal mortality rate
and wars, all meant life was
especially precarious at that time. Henry VIII came
to the throne of England in 1509, and some 80,000
people may have died on the gallows during his reign.
Modern stories, films and plays may also serve
to distract us in troubled times, but Shakespeare dug
deeper, and helped his audience confront their own unconscious.
Psychoanalysts, including Sigmund Freud
himself, have interpreted a great deal of hidden meaning and deep
insight into the human condition in Shakespeare's plays. For
example, some psychoanalysts see special significance in the title
of Hamlet, written in approximately 1601, given Shakespeare's
own son, named Hamnet, died in 1596.
At the heart of Shakespeare's plays
appear conflicts and torments that the central characters declare
publicly. In particular his tragedies seem to pose a key question
as to how much each of us is doomed to follow a destiny etched in
our personality, rather than freely to choose to reverse our
Coombe contends that the Bard understood how
flawed our characters could be. In the tragedies
people move inexorably in one direction, identifying
with just a single passion.
that Shakespeare himself seems to develop his
understanding of conflict: so that in
his earlier plays tension occurs between
characters or groups, while in later works, the key
intricacy becomes internal conﬂict within the
hero. Endings are contrived so that the audience
is struck by the tragic losses, because the
hero contributes profoundly to his own downfall.
Coombe contends that this kind of
perspective provided opportunities for the public of the
time to reﬂect
upon the relevance to their own lives. Coombe
also quotes Harold Bloom and Frank Kermode,
eminent Professors of Humanities and English in the
US and the UK, who contend that there is a
sense Shakespeare invents the modern human. His
characters over hear themselves, and reflect on their own thoughts.
Perhaps the way we can perceive and think about ourselves as
autonomous individuals today, first arrives with Shakespeare.
Maybe his contribution even paves the way for introspection and
Perhaps the acid test as to
whether Shakespeare can really counsel was when he was
performed at Broadmoor - a maximum security special hospital for
those with severe mental illnesses, who have committed serious
crimes, such as homicides.
The late Murray Cox, an eminent
psychotherapist, introduced Shakespeare to Broadmoor,
that dangerous emotions of desire, envy,
despair, insanity, homicide and suicide,
as portrayed in plays such as Hamlet, and Romeo
and Juliet, were performed before an audience which included some
who had murdered, and perpetrated other destructive
The plays were put on with no financial
benefit, by professional Shakespearean companies, and
performances were followed by a ‘therapeutic trialogue’
between actors, patients and clinicians. This is all described in
an editorial entitled, 'Psychotherapy, religion and drama: Dr
Murray Cox and his legacy for offender patients', published in
2007 in the academic journal, 'Criminal Behaviour and Mental
Health', by Harvey Gordon (a psychiatrist), Mark Rylance (an
eminent Shakespearian actor) and Geoffrey Rowell (a bishop).
But beyond being a kind of psychotherapist
before the profession was even invented, is it also possible
that Shakespeare might have been an early
Entitled, 'How Shakespeare tempests
the brain: Neuroimaging insights' using the latest brain scanning
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging - a new
study finds that a particular literary technique
elicitssignificant brain activation
beyond cerebral regions classically activated by
typical language tasks.
The authors of the study, James Keidel, Philip
Davis, Victorina Gonzalez-Diaz, Clara Martin and Guillaume Thierry,
argue that Shakespeare’s grammatical exploration
forces his audience's brains to take a more active role
in grasping the meaning of the dialogue.
The investigation from Bangor University,
Liverpool Moore University and Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona,
was partly inspired by the authors' observation
that beyond Shakespeare's formidable prowess
at 'illustrating the inner life of his
characters', through the way he expresses
their thoughts, his particular use of
language might also illustrate a special ability to
get inside the audience’s mind.
This study, recently published in the academic
journal 'Cortex', investigated
how Shakespeare exploits linguistic expectations,
such as how well-crafted poetry generates its effects by
lulling readers into a false sense of security. Rhythm
and rhyme feed fundamental needs for monotony,
symmetry and surprise. A feeling of knowing what is
coming next, only for these expectations to be
dashed with an unexpected word or phrase.
An example of this word play
is Shakespeare’s frequent use of 'functional shift'
- the use of an appropriate word in an inappropriate
role. For instance, when describing to Othello the
invented affair between Cassio and Desdemona, Iago
states: “O, tis the spite of hell... to lip a wanton
in a secure couch, and to suppose her chaste”.
This contains two examples of 'functional shift':
(a) the use of the noun ‘lip’ as a verb meaning to
kiss/copulate; and (b) the use of the adjective ‘wanton’ as a noun
to represent Desdemona.
Their finding of increased brain activity
beyond traditional brain language processing areas
by Shakespeare's literary technique, leads the authors to
conclude that lines such as,“To lip a wanton in a secure couch”
may be working at two levels.
Iago uses vivid language
to ferment the Moor’s
anger. But Shakespeare also
neurologically disturbs the audience,
by violating linguistic expectations.
From the standpoint of the listener,
the 'Functional Shift' is correct yet wrong. The
shifted word fits the overall meaning of the sentence, but
its 'syntactic illegality' jars. The authors of the
brain scanning research found this effect leads to widespread
increases in cerebral activity, compared to if a more
routine phrase was used.
As a result, the new study concludes
that Shakespeare achieves a kind of ‘neurological