The portrayal of madness in drama gives the
audience a deep insight into what it means to be human – and is
such a powerful dramatic device that playwrights return to it time
and time again, a leading psychiatrist has claimed.
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
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
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
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
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.