Troubled Speech: The Representation of Madness in Renaissance Drama


  • A.P. Riemer


Shakespeare's world believed that grief could send you mad. Its plays are filled, accordingly, with startling images of distraction. Men and women, young and old, rave, rant, and suffer, revile God, gods or the fates, at times in stately verse, at others in febrile prose. Mad-scenes became a staple item in the list of delights tragedies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries offered for•their audiences. Some of the lesser, perhaps more risible tragedies of the time, such as James Shirley's The Maid's Revenge (1625/6), seem to have been designed largely to allow their central characters as many opportunities to display distraction as possible. In what is perhaps the last undisputed masterpiece of Renaissance drama, Ford's The Broken Heart (c.1630), the heroine goes mad with quiet dignity. But that was at the end of an era, a time when refinement was perhaps the only quality left to exploit in a drama which had exhausted most of its possibilities in the previous three quarters of a century. In earlier, more lively plays madness was nowhere near so reticent: it sparkled and blazed, roared and groaned. Observing the different ways in which dramatists presented their images of distraction, at different times within the tradition of drama that arose in the 1570s and came to an abrupt end in 1642, provides one perspective on the changing principles of mimesis that were brought to bear on it. Madness, because it is so vivid, and because it is at the same time an intensely personal experience and one beyond the individual's control, inevitably raises questions about how societies regard the representation of emotions and actions within the dramatic illusion. The great madscenes of Shakespeare's age provide, indeed, a topography of that large and difficult topic.