Science blog

18 May 2016

Shakespeare on the couch: The bard and psychology

To celebrate the opening of the British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition, Paul Allchin explores Shakespeare’s perceptive understanding of human psychology.   

 “What makes Shakespeare eternal is his grasp of psychology. He knew how to nail stuff” Martin Freeman (Actor) 

Shakespeare -The Chandos portrait
The Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.


As far back as the ancient Greeks and Egyptians we have reflected on human behaviour and yet psychology was considered a branch of philosophy until the 1870s, from when it developed as an independent scientific discipline in Germany and the United States. Much has been written in the last couple of centuries on the psychology of Shakespeare and his dramatic works.

Shakespeare understood our inner demons and knew how to express them on the written page. For example Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”, pinpoints man’s flaws, that so well, feeds the fuel for his dramas:

But man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he’s most assur'd; 

His glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven, As make the angels weep.

Whether it is man’s inflated views of himself or the range of emotions from love to anger, Shakespeare seemed always to have something to say. In Henry VIII, Act 1, Scene 1, he advises on  anger management:

“Be advised, heat not a furnace for your foe so hot, that it do singe yourself”.

The British Library has a rich and varied collection in psychology, counselling and psychoanalysis, both historical and current, as well as electronic journals and databases such as PsychInfo and PsychExtra.  Both the humanities and science reading rooms include works on the open shelves and we hold a wealth of psychology texts in our storage areas. Some of these are in our lending collection and can be requested through college and public libraries using their inter-library lending services.

An example of such reflective literature is the book entitled “The Vale of Soulmaking: the post-Kleinian model of the mind” by Meg Harris Williams, H.Karnac (Books) Ltd. 2005, shelf mark YC.2006.a.12437, which includes Chapter 7, “Cleopatra’s monument”. This chapter outlines the post Kleinian psychological perspective on some of Shakespeare’s works. 

The post Kleinian model of the mind is an aesthetic one, developed by W.R. Bion and Donald Meltzer and takes Melanie Klein’s ideas of our infant Self’s relationship to evolving “internalised objects”, often parental and the resolution of emotional turmoil through symbol formation, dreaming, envisioning, and counter-transference.

Procession of characters from Shakespeares Plays by an unknown artist
Procession of Characters from Shakespeare's Plays by an unknown 19th-century artist

Shakespeare’s literary power resides in him being one of the great literary symbol makers and metaphor developers, along with Milton, Keats, Homer and Sophocles, able to articulate and give form to man’s deepest desires and dilemmas. Shakespeare’s role in feeding food to psychology and the 19th and 20th century psychoanalysis tradition through his plays and dramas is a testament to his insights into human nature.

Freud, Jung, Klein, and the post Kleinians provide psychological meaning making frameworks, varied lenses through which contemporary thinkers can appreciate and understand Shakespeare’s works.

William Shakespeares First Folio
William Shakespeare's First Folio (Image: WIkipedia)

 

Some of our out of copyright books have been digitised and are available through Google books and the British Library Explore catalogue remotely e.g. The Psychology of Macbeth, a lecture, etc. by George Sexton, (active 1857-1887).

What is clear is that Shakespeare has an uncanny ability to create characters that are archetypal and sets up in his plays, the conflicts, challenges, resolutions and pitfalls found in our daily lives. He gave us the psychodramas on the stage through which we can project our internal worlds and learn from the characters he invented.    

Paul Allchin, Science Reference Specialist.


The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016.

To find out more about Shakespeare collections at the British Library join our reference team for a special tour where you can find out how to access and research Shakespeare related collections not on display in the exhibition. Tickets are available here.

Find out more about Shakespeare and psychology here

After Oedipus : Shakespeare in psychoanalysis, Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard. Ithaca/Cornell University Press, 1993. Shelfmark: 93/12357 DSC 

Elizabethan psychology and Shakespeare’s plays by Ruth Leila Anderson. Shelfmark: W42/6604 DSC  

The mad folk of Shakespeare, John Charles Bucknill, (1817-1897), Second edition, revised, 1867, Shelfmark 2300.c.3. 

The mind according to Shakespeare : psychoanalysis in the bard's writing, Marvin Bennett Krims. Shelfmark YC.2007.a.1806 and m06/.37542 DSC   

Psyche & symbol in Shakespeare, Alex Aronson. Bloomington. Shelfmark: 72/10648 DSC 

Psychoanalysis and ShakespeareNorman N. Holland. New York : Octagon Books, 1976, c1966. Shelfmark: 77/30526 DSC

The psychology of Shakespeare, by Bucknill, John Charles, 1970, Shelf mark X11/1303 DSC 

Shakespeare and psychoanalytic theory, Carolyn E. Brown, Shelfmark  YC.2015.a.10365

Shakespeare on the couch : on behalf of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy  by Michael Jacobs. Shelfmark YC.2009.a.9109 

The Vale of Soulmaking: the post-Kleinian model of the mind, by Meg Harris Williams, shelf mark YC.2006.a.12437 and  m05/.26094 DSC