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Medicine, Melancholy and the Mystical

The writers who challenged the relationship between mental illness and the mystical in Shakespeare's England.

Holly Kelsey

In Shakespeare’s England, mental illness was closely tied to the mystical, and was often believed to be caused by falling victim to witchcraft or demonic possession. However, an increasing number of writers began to challenge this relationship and attempt to disentangle the two.

In his dagger soliloquy, Macbeth wonders if his vision is not actually caused by the supernatural, but rather his ill mind. He questions whether excess ‘heat’, thought by Jacobeans to be a fluid, is pressing on his brain to cause delirium:

‘art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?’

(Act 2.1, lines 38-40)

Medical explanations of the time asserted that illnesses were a product of imbalances in the body, corresponding to the four humours: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm.  This could extend to mental illness - melancholy, or what we would now call depression, was believed to be caused by an excess of black bile.

In a time when witch-hunting and exorcisms were rife, belief in the supernatural was evidently strong, but some began to question whether those involved with witchcraft and demonic possession were instead afflicted with mental illness. The physician Sir Thomas Browne concluded that ‘the devil doth really possess some men; the spirit of melancholy others; the spirit of delusion others’, whilst physician Edward Jorden gained fame for arguing that those considered possessed were actually suffering from ‘suffocation of the mother’ (hysteria).

Discoverie of Witchcraft
SR - OS - 90.12 , The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, 1665 edition from the SBT Library

Earlier, in 1584, Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (a highly sceptical book and the first book on witchcraft published in England) had been deeply influenced by the Dutch physician Johann Weyer. Weyer argued that those who confessed to the impossible crime of witchcraft did so because they were deluded and suffering from melancholy. Weyer was also interested in the fact that most of the accused were women, who were believed to be disproportionately affected by mental illness.

Although physicians made advances in their understanding, treatment options remained limited. One involved putting the patient a dark environment, picked up on by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors in which characters are prescribed confinement in a dark room. Robert Burton’s reasoning in his The Anatomy of Melancholy (which Shakespeare may have known and used to inform the character of Hamlet) explains this, as he suggested melancholics ‘cannot indure companie [or] light’. Out of all contemporary treatments, however, the advice of Timothy Bright in 1586 might seem the most sympathetic and progressive to us today: his advice for treating depression was nothing more than a good diet, ‘exercise’, ‘rest and sleep’, and friendship.


Secondary sources:

  • Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons (Oxford, 1997)
  • Michael Macdonald, Witchcraft and Hysteria in Elizabethan London (London, 1991)
  • Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 1997)
  • Karen Kay,  EarlyModern Attitudes to Madness with Reference to Hamlet and King Lear
  • Carol Thomas Neely, ‘"Documents in Madness": Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare's Tragedies and Early Modern Culture’, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991)