Was Shakespeare a psychotherapist?

05 May 2014

Why was Shakespeare performed inside Broadmoor Hospital - a high-security psychiatric unit? Festivities on the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth celebrate the writer's literary and story-telling skills, but recent academic studies suggest the Bard may have anticipated Sigmund Freud, and even modern neuroscience.

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 Australia.

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))

One new review entitled, 'William Shakespeare as Psychotherapist', suggests that this canon of work could even teach us how better to understand ourselves.

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 psychotherapy.

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 fate.

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.

Coombe reports 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 psychotherapy.  

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, ensuring 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 acts.

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 neuroscientist?

Entitled, 'How Shakespeare tempests the brain: Neuroimaging insights' using the latest brain scanning techniques - Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging - a new study finds that a particular literary technique of Shakespeare's,  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 tempest’.

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