The Psychology of Shakespeare/Preface

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The shoemaker, who criticised the work of the great painter of antiquity, was listened to with respect, so long as he confined his observations within the limits of his own practical knowledge. If in the following Essays the author has ventured to submit the works of another great master of art to the test of comparison with the special knowledge of a workman, he trusts that his opinions may receive that consideration to which a long and extensive experience of the irregular phenomena of mind may appear fairly to entitle them. As the shoemaker doubtless found it a more easy and agreeable occupation to criticise painted sandals than to make leather ones, so the author of these Essays has found the study of his own science, as it is represented in the works of the immortal dramatist, a delightful recreation from the labours of his practice. If he could by any charm transfer to his readers but a small portion of the pleasure which he has enjoyed in writing the following pages, he would need to make no apology for their publication, nor entertain any fear of their favourable reception. To have the mind diverted from the routine of professional work, or of study, is both wholesome and enjoyable, not for the reason that Lord Bacon gives for physicians so frequently becoming antiquaries, poets, humourists, &c., namely, because "They find that mediocrity and excellence in their own art maketh no difference in profit or reputation;" but because change in the habitual subject and mode of thought is a source of mental recreation and delight. These pages have, indeed, been written in the leisure hours of a busy life, and although the constant care of six hundred insane persons has afforded ample opportunities of comparing the delineations of the psychological artist, with the hard realities of existence, it has also denied that leisure, which would have enabled the writer to have expressed his opinions in a form and manner more satisfactory to his judgment, and more worthy of the subject. Under these circumstances they have necessarily been written in some haste, and have been sent to the printer with the ink yet wet: they have also been written in the country, so that neither their matter or manner could be submitted to friendly advice. The author tenders these explanations in excuse for imperfections of literary execution, which, he trusts, may in some measure be atoned for by other qualities in the work, which comes fresh from the field of observation. He claims, indeed, that indulgence which would readily be accorded to a writer whom the active business of life had led into some region of classic interest, and who, taking his ease at his inn, should each evening compare the descriptions of an ancient historian with the scenes he had just beheld during the burden and heat of the day; the fresh and immediate nature of his knowledge would justify him in assuming a certain kind of authority, without at each step establishing the grounds of his judgment. The author, however, has endeavoured to bear in mind, that he was writing, not upon the subject of his own knowledge, but upon that of Shakespeare's; and although it would have been easy to have supported and illustrated his opinions by the details of observation, and the statement of cases, he has abstained from doing so, preferring sometimes to be dogmatic rather than tedious.

Although for many years the dramas of Shakespeare have been familiar to the author, the extent and exactness of the psychological knowledge displayed in them, which a more diligent examination has made known, have surprised and astonished him. He can only account for it on one supposition, namely, that abnormal conditions of mind had attracted Shakespeare's diligent observation, and had been his favourite study. There is no reason to suppose, that when Shakespeare wrote, any other asylum for the insane existed in this country, than the then poor and small establishment of Bethlem Hospital, the property of which had been taken from the monks by Henry the Eighth, and presented to the city of London for conversion into an asylum, only seventeen years before the poet's birth. In his time the insane members of society were not secluded from the world as they are now. If their symptoms were prominent and dangerous, they were, indeed, thrust out of sight very harshly and effectually; but if their liberty was in any degree tolerable, it was tolerated, and they were permitted to live in the family circle, or to wander the country. Thus every one must have been brought into immediate contact with examples of every variety of mental derangement; and any one who sought the knowledge of their peculiarities would find it at every turn. Opportunities of crude observation would, therefore, be ample, it only required the alembic of a great mind to convert them into psychological science.

Shakespeare's peculiar capacity for effecting such conversion would consist in his intimate knowledge of the normal state of the mental functions in every variety of character, with which he would be able to compare and estimate every direction and degree of aberration. His knowledge of the mental physiology of human life would be brought to bear upon all the obscurities and intricacies of its pathology. To this power would be added that indefinable possession of genius, call it spiritual tact or insight, or whatever other term may suggest itself, by which the great lords of mind estimate all phases of mind with little aid from reflected light. The peculiarities of a certain character being observed, the great mind which contains all possibilities within itself, imagines the act of mental transmigration, and combining the knowledge of others with the knowledge of self, every variety of character possible in nature would become possible in conception and delineation.

That abnormal states of mind were a favourite study of Shakespeare would be evident from the mere number of characters to which he has attributed them, and the extent alone to which he has written on the subject. On no other subject, except love and ambition, the blood and chyle of dramatic poetry, has he written so much. On no other has he written with such mighty power.

Some explanation seems due of the title chosen for this work. Since psychology strictly implies all that relates to the soul or mind of man in contradistinction to his material nature, the character of Othello might have been placed under this title with as much propriety as that of Lear. The derivation and original use of a term, however, not unfrequently differ from its acquired and permanent use, and the term psychology has, of late years, been used to denote all that relates to the department of science which takes cognizance of irregularities and aberrations and diseases of the mind. It serves not to object that the derivation of the word is opposed to such employment, for the same may be said of half the words in the language. Mental pathology would be a far more exact, but also a more cumbrous term; and no further apology need be made term, than that no other with equal convenience. their usefulness and not for the modern use of the shorter suits the purpose to which it is applied, One chooses words, like servants, for for their pedigree.

The author had intended to append to the following pages a chapter on Shakespeare's knowledge of medicine. When, however, it was partly written, he found that the freedom of expression, which the great dramatist had permitted himself on medical subjects, was such as would either have prevented the admission and consideration of important passages, or have forbidden the present work to many readers, whom it is hoped may otherwise honour it with a perusal. The inconvenience therefore of a separate publication has been preferred.

It only remains to add that, three of the following essays have already appeared in the pages of the "Quarterly Journal of Mental Science," a publication edited by the author.

Exminster, May 12th, 1859.