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Shakespeare And Insanity Essay

3340 words - 14 pages

For centuries, Shakespeare's tragedies have swept audiences up in dramatic intensity, achieving what Aristotle described as catharsis, the purging of emotional tension through drama. They draw us into the psyche of the protagonist--the angst of Hamlet, the guilt-ridden soul of the Macbeths, and the torment of Lear--with an evocative language of feeling and Shakespeare's use of a most powerful image: the human mind in a state of madness.What drove Shakespeare's characters into insanity? Certainly, it can be argued that outside influences played their part. In the case of Othello, the scheming Iago used his cunning and manipulation to lead his victim into self-doubt and despair. The same could ...view middle of the document...

These qualities were closely related to the conditions of the seasons. Thus yellow bile was thought of as hot and dry like summer. Its opposite, phlegm was cold and moist like winter. Black Bile was cold and dry, while its opposite, blood, was hot and moist, like their counterparts, autumn and spring. (http://www.planetpapers.com/Assets/2722.php)The humors, according to medics and physiologists such as Robert Burton, are fluent throughout the body and work to maintain a sense of bodily homeostasis (or equilibrium), preserving one's life and ability to function as such. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, possibly the first major treatise on psychological problems, ever to be published, Burton identifies the humors and their purposes and origins (Burton, 139)."Blood, is a hot, sweet, temperate, red humor, prepared in the meseraicke veins, and made of the most temperate parts of the Chylus in the liver, whose office is to nourish the whole body, to give it strength and colour, being dispersed by the veins, through every part of it. And from it Spirits are first begotten in the heart, which afterwards by the Arteries, are communicated to other parts" (Burton 140)."Pituita, or Fleagme, is a cold and moist humour, begotten of the colder part of the Chylus, (or white juyce coming of the meat digested in the stomacke) in the Liver; his office to nourish, and moisten the members of the body, which as the tongue, are moved, that they may not be over dry "(Burton 140)."Choler, is hot and dry, bitter, begotten of the hotter parts of the Chylus, and gathered to the Gall: it helps the natural heat and senses, and serves to the expelling of excrements" (Burton 141)."Melancholy, cold and drie, thicke, blacke, and sowre, begotten of the more faeculent part of nourishment, and purged from the spleene, is a bridle to the other two hot humors, Blood and Choler, preserving them in the Blood, and nourishing the bones" (Burton, 141).Thus, the humors can control the personality and temperament of human beings: a predominance of the humor Blood results in passionate emotions that emanate from the spleen (the source of this particular humor); an excess of Choler would result in anger and irritability and the like; dryness, or lack of Pituita results in a variety of physical ailments including madness and insanity; and the presence of Melancholy results in various forms of depression (Burton 136).The imbalance of humors and their subsequent conditions were controlled in numerous ways. The most popular (and least painful) method of humor regulation was changing a person's dietary habits. In accordance with the seasons, physicians in Shakespeare's time prescribed additional servings of certain meats, breads, vegetables (carrots cabbages and onions) and herbs. Ales, which were typically low in alcohol were also recommended. Wine was used for a drink, but primarily reserved for the upper-class. In addition, there were butter and cheeses (typically made from sheep's milk), hen and...

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