The madness of Hamlet and King Lear: When psychiatrists used Shakespeare to argue legal definitions of insanity in the courtroom

King Lear, shown here in the middle of a storm, is a Shakespeare character associated with madness.
King Lear, III, 2. Johann Heinrich Ramberg. 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Well-known Shakespeare characters such as King Lear and Hamlet suffer (or appear to suffer) from madness — and early American psychiatrists took note. Observations drawn from literature began to bleed into courtroom testimony regarding insanity pleas.

“From the mid-1840s through about the mid-1860s in the United States, during the first generation of American psychiatry, no figure was cited as an authority on insanity and mental functioning more frequently than William Shakespeare,” according to Benjamin Reiss, the author of a book called Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture.

Reiss, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of English at Emory University, was interviewed for the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast by Rebecca Sheir for an episode about Shakespeare and insane asylums. See an excerpt from the interview below, with Sheir’s interjections and questions in bold.

“In the 19th century, psychiatrists were often called to testify in legal cases and this could take several forms. One, they could be testifying to somebody’s mental status, somebody who had been accused of committing a crime. Was this person truly competent to stand trial or was the person even culpable for his or her actions?

Another instance in which they would be called to trial would be if somebody had written a will, which was disputed on the grounds that the person was not in possession of his or her full faculties. Isaac Ray, who is the superintendent, first at a state-run asylum in Maine and then a private asylum in Rhode Island, was considered the foremost expert on psychiatric matters as they pertain to law, and he counseled other psychiatrists to turn frequently to great literature, and specifically to Shakespeare, to give examples of the kinds of problems that people who came before the law might face.

So, for instance, if they wanted to establish that somebody had only recently become fully insane, somebody, say, an older person, who had never manifested any signs of mental illness until the past year or two, at which point this person wrote a will that was contested, the psychiatrists were enjoined to explain to the jurors or to the judge that King Lear himself had shown no signs of insanity or shown very few signs of insanity until late in life, but that if you read the play very carefully, you could see in those early conversations he has with his daughters, that something was beginning to go amiss and it was only an environmental trigger…

The storm?

That led him to go fully over the edge. Another famous case that they referred to was the case of Hamlet, and for generations, there had been debate within literary critical circles about whether Hamlet was really mad, or whether he was feigning madness in order to hide his plot against the king. The asylum superintendents agreed almost unanimously that Hamlet really was mad. But the point they wanted to make, and it was a very important one for them, was that he had a partial madness, that it was possible to be completely sane in the majority of one’s behaviors and dealings with others, and to have a mental illness that was isolated to either a certain part of the brain or to certain realms of experience and thought, and that this explained why so many people considered Hamlet not really to be mad, because he only acted crazy part of the time.

Okay, so we have this diagnosis of partial madness. What was the advantage of having that? What did it allow them to do?

They tried to show, they tried to widen the definition of what “insanity” meant. So that, in other words, somebody might be able to get off on a charge of murder or some other serious crime, on cause of insanity or mental incompetence, and it wasn’t just that the person had to act like a beast, or the previous test had been, you had to have the mental capacity of somebody younger than 14 years old, in order to get off on a crime for reason of mental incompetence. The psychiatrists were gradually widening this definition of insanity, so that it included all kinds of mental illness, which didn’t appear to the public to be full-blown, and they turned to Hamlet to indicate this.

Listen to the full podcast episode or read the transcript