Thursday, May 8, 2014

Shakespeare: The Elderly and Madness

The use of madness in Shakespeare’s plays is not uncommon. There seems plenty of mental illness in Hamlet. The Melancholy Dane seems at first to feign madness, then does some pretty crazy things. Ophelia goes mad and commits suicide.

Shakespeare had some memorable quotes on madness.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.

Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.

Love is merely a madness.

In Titus Andronicus an elderly Roman general who spent his entire life in service of his country finds himself and his family persecuted through the vengeful manipulation of others. Pushed to a point beyond human endurance, Titus seems to go mad. It is difficult to tell whether Titus is indeed mad or only pretending to be so he may exact revenge against those who perpetrated terrible crimes on him and his daughter. In the final scenes Titus does things that most would consider to be the actions of a madman. Perhaps he is indeed mad, driven to it by intolerable cruelties.
The Canadian Mental Health Association states: It is estimated that the prevalence of mental health problems in adults over 65 years ranges from 17 to 30 percent. This report identifies services and supports needed for older adults at risk/or living with mental health conditions.
CMHA states on their website:
The consequences of loss, sorrow and grief as a result of life events affect many older adults, causing ongoing negative mental health consequences. Anxiety, depression and perhaps substance abuse are just some of the mental health problems that arise as people navigate these transitions in later life.
In King Lear we see an elderly king aware that age is creeping up on him, so he decides to divide up his kingdom but still wishes to be king. It doesn’t help the situation that two of his three daughters are scheming, selfish ... women. 
You see how full of changes his age is, says one.

'Tis the infirmity of his age, says the other.

When Lear is not shown the due respect of his age and position by his daughter, he begins to doubt who he is.

Doth any here know me? This is not Lear:
Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus?

He strikes his own head and says:
O Lear, Lear, Lear!
Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in,

When his other daughter treats him just as unkindly, Lear says:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!

Lear himself suspects he may be losing his faculties.

O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven;
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!

Perhaps the turning point in King Lear is when the king stands in the middle of the heath during a terrible storm and he rails at the elements.

Blow, winds ...! rage! blow!
...You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head!

It is heart-wrenching to see Lear sink deeper into madness. He does not get his revenge like Titus. Lear’s tale is one of extreme tragedy, for as Macbeth said: 
And that which should accompany old age,    
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,    
I must not look to have

I look forward to seeing this season's Stratford Festival production of King Lear staring Colm Feore.

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