Bats in the high culture belfry : presentations of madness in Euripidean and Shakespearean tragedy
Crazy is a word that is taken lightly and tossed around in everyday conversation. You call a parent breaking out in screaming fits over a youth soccer game crazy. You call the elderly woman single-handedly causing a standstill in traffic crazy. These examples of real-world crazy are endless, and everyone who has spent time being human has plenty of firsthand stories involving the craziness of people. However, this is not the crazy I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is the more real implication of the word, being reserved for the truly afflicted individuals on a psychological level, what we might refer to as mental illness or madness. More specifically, I am interested in the presentation of madness in two periods in time we have decidedly deemed important in regards to the advancement of knowledge and artistic expression. I’ve chosen to look at the presentation of madness in theater in Ancient Greece and the English Renaissance. These time periods stand out in the timeline of humanity because of the levels of high thinking and inspiration that are derived from them. When looking at these periods, I wanted to choose a champion from each period. Someone who was respected in their times and history books, and rely on specific works of these champions to analyze how they present madness. For this, I have chosen two of the most influential and important playwrights in all of history, with Euripides representing Ancient Greece, and William Shakespeare to stand in for the English Renaissance. When looking at these two poets in tandem, although coming from wildly different times and cultures, their presentation of madness in their tragedies shows remarkable parallels. Having vastly different primary religions and knowledge of science, these two playwrights had every opportunity to be worlds apart in their depictions of madness, but the nature of humans seems to be too dominant to be diluted by differing societies. In this analysis, I will pair Euripides’s Heracles with Shakespeare’s Othello to show these similarities in the madness and mindset of the tragic hero in both plays. I will also pair Euripides’s Orestes with Shakespeare’s Hamlet to show that the form of madness these two princes are afflicted by are similar situations and mental illnesses despite the contradictory worlds and cultures they live in.
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