Shakespeare’s View on Madness

One of my readers responded to a recent post about collective insanity with the observation that “we are all crazy but some are crazier than others.” And Shakespeare certainly felt this was so, describing life as a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

I have studied and taught history and practiced as a mental health counselor. These experiences have given me an opportunity to utilize my Enneagram 6 “observer” skills and I often pine, “Why do they do what they are doing? Why don’t they see they are making such poor choices and simply ‘stop it’”! But fortunately I have always been self-reflective and turn the same focus on my own self and see that I too am my own worst enemy and, when practicing as a therapist, should have taken the advice of Jesus who told us, “Physician, health thyself.” But I knew that I couldn’t and that I, like my clients, was doing what W. H. Auden said we would do, spend our life, “Waging the war that we are.”

I, like you and the rest of our brothers and sisters, are driven by forces that we can never truly understand and we are often merely “the toy of some great pain.” This subterranean energy that pulsates through our lives at its deepest level contains a dimension of sheer insanity. But, most of us are lucky and are able to sublimate this madness into mere neurosis and muddle through our lives and keep this “idiotic tale” under way. We seem to follow the mantra, “The show must go on!”

I have come to realize that Shakespeare understood madness so well because he had a “tad” of it himself. “You spot it, you got it!” Hamlet noted, “What’s mad but to be nothing else but mad.” Shakespeare knew that to be truly mad there was only madness without the “pauser reason” which could check thoughts and impulses that are beyond the pale. He knew all of us are mad but some of us have that gift of that “pauser reason”, that neo-cortical capacity to self-monitor and give consideration to other people. Without it we are “nothing else but mad.” And to be “nothing else but mad” is really very comfortable; for those ensconced in that self-imposed prison are cut off from concern for external reference. Criticizing them is, to borrow an expression from my dear mother, “like pouring water off a duck’s back.”


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