Dr's Casebook: William Shakespeare knew about emotions

Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare. Photo: AdobeStockElizabethan playwright William Shakespeare. Photo: AdobeStock
Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare. Photo: AdobeStock
​​This year is the 400th anniversary of the printing of William Shakespeare’s First Folio of plays in 1623.

Dr Keith Souter writes: As a frustrated actor, a few years ago I was fortunate enough to play the part of Agamemnon in Troilus and Cressida with the British Touring Shakespeare Company at the British Museum. Since it is a play about the Trojan Wars and Agamemnon was the King of the Greeks, it seemed appropriate that we performed it in the room next to the Elgin Marbles.

It is the genius of William Shakespeare that we still see his plays performed four centuries after he died. His canon of plays cover every human emotion.

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Incredibly, he gave textbook psychiatric descriptions of conditions centuries before psychiatry as a medical discipline was even conceived.

In Troilus and Cressida, for example, he gives us a tale in which he describes arrogance, love, despair, betrayal, jealousy, hatred and vengaence. He wrote it in 1602, shortly after he wrote his magnificent play, Hamlet. In Hamlet we see one of the greatest depictions of depression.

His other plays give similarly detailed descriptions of other emotional states and conditions. In King Lear we see a character disintegration that is highly suggestive of the stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Othello is based upon the condition of morbid jealousy. Indeed, it is from that play that he coined the term the ‘green-eyed monster’, which is jealousy.

In the play Macbeth he gives a description of OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder in the repetitive hand-washing by Lady Macbeth. I saw the play at the RSC a fortnight ago, just before spending a few days in Scotland in the area where the play is set, including the heath where the three witches appear.

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Neuroscientists, using sophisticated imaging techniques have studied the way that different parts of the brain light up during different emotions. For example, music activates the same areas of the brain that are involved in generating feelings of pleasure. Shakespeare anticipated that in his romantic play Twelfth Night, when the lovesick Orsino, who has been rejected by Olivia says the immortal line, “If music be the food of love, play on.” It seems that the Bard actually knew how the brain worked, so it is right that we should be celebrating his genius four centuries later.