Science and Shakespeare

I had the privilege of seeing Hamlet last night at Shakespeare in the Park. I say the privilege because the production was as usual excellent. For those of you who don't know, it is a New York tradition for the Public Theater to host plays by Shakespeare -- usually two -- over the summer free to the public. The production attract competent and relatively famous actors. This year, they decided to do Hamlet which they apparently haven't done for more than 30 years when Sam Waterston played the lead. Sam Waterston is back as Polonius. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the lead, and Lauren Ambrose -- the woman from Six Feet Under -- plays an exquisite Ophelia. The scenery and directing is excellent. Actually my only complaint was that Laertes was a bit over the top, but that is to be expected: Hamlet did kill his father.

Anyway, while watching, I remembered the absolute wealth of science and particularly neuroscience related lines in Shakespeare. Take Hamlet in Act III, Sc. IV as he confronts his mother:

Ham. Assume a virtue, if you have it not. 180

That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,

Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,

That to the use of actions fair and good

He likewise gives a frock or livery, 184

That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night;

And that shall lend a kind of easiness

To the next abstinence: the next more easy;

For use almost can change the stamp of nature, 188

And master ev'n the devil or throw him out

With wondrous potency.

A perfect description of habit learning if I ever heard one and good advice for anyone attempting to amend their own vices.

This one in Act. V Sc. II made me think even more. Hamlet attempts to make amends with Laertes before they fight with rapiers:

Ham. Give me your pardon, sir; I've done you wrong;

But pardon 't, as you are a gentleman.

This presence knows, 152

And you must needs have heard, how I am punish'd

With sore distraction. What I have done,

That might your nature, honour and exception

Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness. 156

Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet:

If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,

And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,

Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it. 160

Who does it then? His madness. If 't be so,

Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd;

His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.

Sir, in this audience, 164

Let my disclaiming from a purpos'd evil

Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,

That I have shot mine arrow o'er the house,

And hurt my brother.

This is the essential problem of agency in psychiatry. On the one hand, we label those with mental illness as dis-eased -- separated from normal. Their acts are not their own. We recognize that there is such as a thing as criminal insanity. On the other hand, how do we respond to the middle cases? Cases of mental "illness" in which the patient clearly has something wrong with them but is not completely devoid of sanity abound: consider depression or bipolar disorder. There are lucid moments. Where do they end and the disease begins? And if they do something wrong, was it the disease or was it them or was it both?

Hamlet abdicates responsibility for killing Polonius and pushes that responsibility on madness, but we know that this is a half-truth. He wasn't entirely mad; it could have very well been Claudius behind the arras. I think this passage really gets at the ambiguity of assigning agency in mental illness. It also gets to the problem of Hamlet. Hamlet accomplishes his revenge, but he also drags several innocents down with him. He breaks Ophelia, kills Polonius, and drives Laertes to treachery. Is he culpable for these acts? Does the fact that he was wronged excuse them?

Interestingly, there is another passage that deals with this issue: the ambiguity about whether Ophelia's death was suicide or an accident. Here is Act V, Sc. I:

Laer. What ceremony else?

First Priest. Her obsequies have been as far enlarg'd 104

As we have warrantise: her death was doubtful,

And, but that great command o'ersways the order,

She should in ground unsanctified have lodg'd

Till the last trumpet; for charitable prayers, 108

Shards, flints, and pebbles should be thrown on her;

Yet here she is allow'd her virgin crants,

Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home

Of bell and burial. 112

Laer. Must there no more be done?

First Priest. No more be done:

We should profane the service of the dead,

To sing a requiem, and such rest to her 116

As to peace-parted souls.

Given the Christian obsession with distinguishing suicide from accidental death -- so as better to stamp one's grave as hell- or heaven-bound, I suppose...I have never really understood why the priest thought this was his job -- establishing agency is equally important.

So here's the weekend challenge for the more literary among you. I am looking for quotes from Shakespeare with direct reference to science or medicine. Any play will do. Try to avoid those passage dealing with the human condition; we've all heard plenty of those. Feel free to add in the comments any interpretive discussions you feel those passages require.

Cheerio and have fun!

More like this

I've been hankering for Hamlet: The Game for a long time now. Imagine the possibilities: a first-person-shooter (FPS) that lets you inhabit some of the most famous characters of all time. I'd be Hamlet, but I wouldn't stab Polonius. Or mabye I'd be King Lear, and decide that Cordelia isn't so bad…
Donohue is also an amazing fellow, always able to top himself in serial excuses for the crimes of the church. His latest escapade is to pardon a priestly abuser because his victims were over some magical age. The head of the influential Catholic League says that the priest who allegedly sexually…
Hedges has been totally nuts for the last few years: he's got this crazy irrational hysteria about atheists that makes him utterly unhinged whenever he writes about us. His latest is of a piece with his mania: The gravest threat we face from terrorism, as the killings in Norway by Anders Behring…
In regional news, the Catholic church is getting sued. Two hundred bishops have been named in a lawsuit filed by a Wisconsin family. I suspect you won't even need to read the article to guess what it's about. That's right: a conspiracy by the church hierarchy to protect a pedophile priest. This…

From Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, lines 251-254:
Cassius But soft, I pray you. What, did Caesar swoon?
Casca He fell down in the market-place, and foamed at the mouth, and was speechless.
Brutus 'Tis very like: he hath the falling sickness.

The "falling sickness" was a Renaissance euphemism for epilepsy. Casca's description of what happened to Caesar is, as Brutus notes, clearly a seizure.

Whether or not Shakespeare was expressing his own opinion, I'm fond of Edmund's dismissal of astrology in Act I, Scene 2 of King Lear:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the dragon's tail; and my nativity was under Ursa major; so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.