Shakespeare and The Madness of Sin

‘Oh that way madness lies; let me shun that’ – King Lear

William Shakespeare was undoubtedly a literary genius. His plays are full of beauty, profundity, and charm. He can also be described as a genius in psychology. He understood people and he had great insights into the workings of the human mind.  His plays have lasted the test of time not just due to the eloquence and beauty of his writing, but mainly due to how they describe the realities of life, especially the sorrows, tragedies, and moral dilemmas inherent in it.  They shine a spotlight on the inner workings of the human mind, with Shakespeare skilfully showing his central characters grappling with their conscience in many of his plays.  Modern audiences today are still fascinated and entertained by the fantastic artistry and sheer depth of Shakespeare’s plays. However, it appears that the lessons that Shakespeare tries to teach us through his plays are often missed by modern men. This is particularly true when it comes to the intimate relationship between madness and sin.

                     Take, for example, one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, ‘MacBeth’, and particularly act five, scene three.  Here, Shakespeare provides a vivid image of the relationship between madness and sin. Previous to this scene, MacBeth and Lady MacBeth have been installed as King and Queen of Scotland after they have plotted and committed the murder of the previous king, Duncan. They have also murdered a nobleman of Scotland who suspected their crime and the wife and child of another nobleman they suspect of disloyalty. Lady MacBeth has been observed by a doctor sleepwalking. While sleepwalking she has been trying to wash her hands of blood that she imagines is on them.  The doctor is giving MacBeth his assessment of his wife:

DOCTOR

Not so sick, my lord,

As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies

That keep her from her rest.

MACBETH

Cure her of that.

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?

DOCTOR

Therein the patient

Must minister to himself.

                      MacBeth goes on to ask the doctor to try to cure his country of the disease that has come upon it, which has culminated in the English, led by Duncan’s son, Malcolm, invading Scotland:

MACBETH

Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it…

If thou couldst, doctor, cast

The water of my land, find her disease,

And purge it to a sound and pristine health,

I would applaud thee to the very echo,

That should applaud again…

What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug,

Would scour these English hence? Hear’st thou of them?

                      Like MacBeth we are often desperately searching for a solution to the madness and disorder that besets our minds or that of family members or that of our country. The doctor makes MacBeth aware that there is no medical cure for Lady MacBeth’s madness as he suspects that it is caused by a guilty conscience. Like those today who want an easy fix and a ‘pill for every ill’ MacBeth is annoyed by the doctor’s response when he provides no medical solution (‘Throw physic, i.e. medicine, to the dogs’). In an earlier scene the doctor acknowledges that Lady MacBeth’s condition needs to be treated by a priest, i.e. ‘a divine’, not a doctor.  ‘Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles. Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets. More needs she the divine than the physician.’ This is exactly what we do not want to hear today. Yet, there is a deep sense within us that the cleansing of one’s conscience through divine means is the only cure. For example, it does not shock the audience that Lady MacBeth is experiencing distress as we know she has encouraged and collaborated in murders. This reaction resonates with and makes sense to us. We also see it as madness and vicious folly on MacBeth’s part not to acknowledge and take responsibility for bringing the English invasion to Scotland. We know that actions have consequences. Shakespeare masterfully outlines the madness of trying to run from one’s conscience and justice. Amidst the entertainment of Shakespeare’s plays, these lessons are there for all to see.

                       In another of Shakespeare’s plays, ‘King Lear’, we find another example of this relationship between sin and madness. It is found in Edgar, who fleeing for his life, has disguised himself as a homeless mad man.  This is his answer to King Lear’s question to Edgar, ‘what hast thou been?’:

EDGAR:

A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair,

wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress’ heart

and did the act of darkness with her,

swore as many oaths as I spake words

and broke them in the sweet face of heaven

—one that slept in the contriving of lust

and waked to do it. Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly,

and in woman outparamoured the Turk.

False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand

—hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness,

dog in madness, lion in prey. Let not the creaking of shoes

nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman.

Keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets,

thy pen from lenders’ books, and defy the foul fiend.

Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind, says, “Suum, mun, nonny.”

Dauphin my boy, my boy, cessez. Let him trot by.’

                            Edgar says that he used to be an honourable man (‘a servingman, proud in heart and mind’) but he went mad after committing all sorts of sins. For example, he was slothful (‘hog in sloth’), sneaky (‘fox in stealth’), lecherous (‘in woman outparamoured the Turk’), and was hooked on wine and gambling (‘wine loved I deeply, dice dearly’).  Eventually he says that he went mad and he now ends up pretending to talk to an imaginary horse! – ‘Suum, mun, nonny.’  King Lear and others believe Edgar’s story as it is logical. King Lear is aware that rash and foolish behaviour has bad effects, which he tragically learns more deeply as the play progresses. The audience, whether in Shakespeare’s time or our own, also know that actions must have consequences, e.g. if the passions are let loose madness ensues, one cannot run from a guilty conscience, etc. Shakespeare’s plays are masterpieces displaying one of the fundamental rules of life, i.e. actions have consequences. It is the skilful, rich and brilliant imagery and stories built around this simple and fundamental truth that makes Shakespeare so satisfying and ageless.   

                              Shakespeare clearly understood the consequences of leading a life of sin or committing grievously sinful acts.  This intimate relationship between madness and sin was also clear to his audience. This understanding still resonates with us today. Anyone with a half sensitive conscience understands why the doctor cannot treat Lady MacBeth and how letting one’s passions get the upper hand on you, like Edgar’s story, can lead to madness and lunacy.  It only appears just to us that guilty blood cannot be washed so easily from one’s hands and that a life of lust and treachery leads to one’s demise.  Yet, it appears that, for the vast majority of us, these vivid and powerful representations are mere light entertainment.  We do not think on them deeply or apply them to our own lives. While the words may resonate with us for a few brief moments the lesson Shakespeare is trying to portray passes quickly from our mind.  This is clear when one looks at the current treatments we reach out for when we experience distress. 

‘Some sweet oblivious antidote…’

                               Take a look at the poor souls who go to medical doctors to ‘pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart’.  Some of these people are trying to run from a restless conscience while others genuinely believe that their problems are caused by a supposed chemical imbalance. Unlike the wise doctor in Shakespeare’s play who clearly recognises the limitations of medicine and understands that problems of conscience are not within his field of expertise, many doctors today, particularly psychiatrists, believe that their drugs can treat almost all problems of the mind.

                                 It is also clear that most psychological professionals today do not heed Edgar’s advice to ‘defy the foul fiend’, i.e. resist the devil, but rather encourage their clients to embrace the devil and his evil temptations, e.g. homosexuality, abortion, as I have written about elsewhere (see here and here). Many even mistake the cure, i.e. the Truth/Catholic Faith, as the disease and would try to purge it from Ireland’s shores so as to bring it back to what they imagine would be ‘clean and pristine health’.  Like MacBeth who ignores his own guilty conscience in searching for a disease and the cure for it outside of himself, the vast majority of psychological professionals today ignore the root cause of all disease, i.e. Original Sin and their own actual sins, and precede to launch war on the cure itself.  What mad and tragic folly these ‘professionals’ persist in!

‘The patient must minister to himself’

                                Thankfully, to cure ourselves of madness or to avoid madness in the first place, much of the work is down to ourselves. Many professionals claim to be able to fix your problems, but they are often the ones diseased themselves. They have failed to remove the beams from their own eyes before trying to fix the eyesight of others. As the doctor says in Lady MacBeth’s case, ‘the patient must minister to himself’. This involves looking in the mirror so that we see ourselves clearly. In addition to this, it involves finding the right physician. In the vast majority of cases of psychological disease these physicians are physicians of the soul, i.e. ‘divines’/priests, who can administer the necessary remedy, i.e. absolution after a contrite Confession (See footnote). Good and holy priests can also give the guidance needed and they can encourage us to maintain a strong sacramental and prayer life to help us ‘defy the foul fiend’. These remedies are also what our lands need if we are ‘to purge [them] to a sound and pristine health’.

                                 So, let us learn from that genius who was William Shakespeare. Let us not look for medical solutions when it is obviously not a medical issue but a matter of one’s conscience. Let us not search for answers from those who are more blind than ourselves and would advise us to befriend the devil. Let us not look for solutions to our country’s ills that ignore or attack the truth. Instead, let us humbly pray to God to cure us and our lands of the madness of sin and direct us toward the wise experts and curative remedies we need.

God bless

Footnote: It is important to find a priest who knows the faith, loves virtue, detests sin, and understands the dangers of psychiatry and modern psychology.  These are hard to find today as the vast majority of priests have gotten with the world or ‘with the times’ and many have lost the Faith or, at the very least, have lost confidence in the importance of their vocation and do not understand its significance. Reliable priests are generally found amongst those who only offer the Traditional Latin Mass. I have touched on this previously, see here, but please contact me here if you want more information on where to find a priest who understands the Faith and the current crisis in the Church.