Associate 1992-93

Carol T Neely


Did Madness Have a Renaissance?

Professor Neely plans to complete research for a and write a book that will examine how theories, therapies, institutions, and representations of madness in Early Modern England (1580-1640) reconceptualized mental disorder. Through this process, the period mapped a newly unified, secular, psychological, and gendered human subject: the self we have inherited. It has long been recognized that England in the period was fascinated with madness, as evidenced in medical treatises like Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, drama like Shakespeare's Hamlet and King Lear, and the widespread use of Bedlam—short for Bethlehem Hospital—as a code word for madness. But no one has asked why or with what consequences. The only historian who examines the treatment of mental disorder in this period does not discuss literary texts, and the literary critics who do so disregard social history, gender, and the cultural functions of literary representation.

Professor Neely's book brings these strands together. The first three chapters  look at how dramatic representation and medical texts rethink madness. They will delineate emerging contrasts between melancholy, a fashionable, aristocratic, male disease of the head and the suffocation of the mother (a forerunner of hysteria), an unruly, sometimes lower class, female disease of the eroticized body, contrasts apparent in the representations of Hamlet and Ophelia. The last three chapters will focus on institutional practices, analyzing how witchcraft, bewitchment, and exorcism—conditions formerly considered supernatural—begin to be diagnosed as natural madness, and how institutional confinement becomes widespread in the drama before it does so in the culture. The book will fill a gap in the history of medicine, contribute new interpretations of particular plays, and reveal their larger cultural functions.