Perchance to Speak

Today is world mental health day. A day which affects all of us and a day which indicates both how far we have travelled and how far we still have to go. Raising awareness of the devastation mental illness can cause is of course crucial, and it is only in recent years that it has become less (less being the operative word here) of a taboo to even talk about mental illness. It’s still tricky. It’s still to a great extent seen as a kind of step-brother to physical illness. On the fringes and, worryingly, can be seen by some still as physical illness’s imaginary friend. But clearly both of these figurations are problematic. Problematic for us as a society.

Thinking you can put a band aid on mental illness and kiss it better, or telling someone suffering with mental illness to jump back up, smile and get over it, is as ludicrous as Trump thinking his apologising for discussing women in that way would make everything better. Both are like rubbing sand in the wound. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there and doesn’t hurt. We can’t see viruses attacking the body, but we know about it when we’re knocked down with the flu.

Attackers inside are real and they hurt and damage. Remember the fairies of Peter and Wendy, well they’re the opposite of that. When someone says they don’t believe in them they grow stronger and multiply. No wonder then that sufferers of mental illness are terrified of admitting it. It is scary. It isn’t easy. Particularly seeking help in, what can be a hostile environment. And it is something which we should all be deeply concerned about. Mental illness will affect one in three of us in our lifetimes. I know this not just as a statistic but from personal experience. My friends suffering from mental illness are not just a statistic. They’re real people with real pain. Mental illness touches us all.

Mental illness, like its sufferers, comes in all shapes and sizes and the very idea of calling people ‘sufferers’ is of course a tricky one, because it means we are distancing ourselves and solidifying the perception that one way of life is normal and mental health patients are decidedly abnormal. This is clearly a false dichotomy and one we need to actively challenge. Admitting you are suffering from any kind of mental illness is an act of courage. And I want to particularly talk a bit about depression today.

Depression, although it can affect anyone, is particularly associated today – thanks to statistics – with women. People argue over why women suffer from depression more than men, or indeed whether they do at all – some even suggest that women are just more willing to seek help. But this of course is in direct contrast to the enormous step seeking help is that I’ve just been suggesting. In fact this argument rather than emphasising the strength it takes to seek help, seems to dismiss women as weak and therefore more willing to need others to help. Clearly this is not true. The very act of seeking help is certainly strong and courageous and if women are doing this more than men well then that shows the strength of women against the odds. But I want to discuss a case of depression of a woman in the early modern period. A woman who couldn’t seek help and who didn’t have a voice because. As we will see, there are alarming parallels to be drawn with sufferers of depression today, and particularly with women suffering from depression today.

The woman, or more accurately, young woman I want to talk about is the Jailer’s Daughter of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Two Noble Kinsmen. Probably known best as a lower-class Ophelia. The Jailer’s Daughter falls in love with a man called Palamon but he’s way out of her class league so she fears it may never be possible, nonetheless she hopes in her heart that love may find a way. She rescues him from jail but he runs off without even so much as a kiss of thanks, much to her dismay. She drifts in the wood falling deeper and deeper into the pit of despair and lamenting her loss. Eventually after an attempted drowning, and a troubling scene with madmen, she is brought before a doctor who makes clear this is an illness of the mind. The cure suggested is one we flinch at: another man must pretend to be Palamon and take her to bed and then to wed.

Doctor: If she entreat again, do anything;

Lie with her if she ask you.

Jailer:  Ho there, doctor!
Doctor: Yes, in the way of cure. (V.ii.16-18)


She is given no say in the matter. As a woman suffering from mental anguish she is forced to submit. Her fate is left as a question mark at the end of the play.

For the Jailer’s Daughter seeking help and speaking out was not possible. The pain may have been too great and besides she was a lower class woman. The odds were firmly not in her favour. Women and their association with emotional excess, is something we haven’t lost. Real mental health problems can be all too easily dismissed with men who behave in that way being told to man up, while women’s pain is dismissed as PMSing or other derogatory terms. When the Jailer’s Daughter does speak after her escape to the forest it is in heavily sexualised language.

O for a prick now, like a nightingale,
To put my breast against; I shall sleep like a top else. (III.iv.25-6)


Although this might be fine for a man, for a woman it is deemed entirely inappropriate and indicative of madness. Imagine if a tape had been released of Hillary Clinton’s locker-room talk.. There is a clear sex imbalance here, and the Jailer’s Daughter shows us how this impacts mental health too. Similar symptoms displayed in men in the early modern period were diagnosed as marvellous melancholia, while women were forced to submit to sexual cures. You can guess what sex the physicians who thought up those cures were..

So then, for the Jailer’s Daughter, she speaks a lot but her voice is not heeded. She complains of pain but it is dismissed and rejected by society. Speaking out about mental illness as a woman in the early modern period was dangerous and rarely met with sympathetic response. Women were seen to be weak and needing the help of men to make them “normal” again. The Jailer’s Daughter’s final silence then is troubling not because she hasn’t tried but because she couldn’t. Now the early modern society and 2016 clearly are very different in many ways, but the way sufferers of mental illness are seen is perhaps not all that different. If anything mental illness, or at least melancholia, was seen to be far more common and normal, than mental illness is today. We know mental health is an important concern, and yet it is all too readily brushed under the carpet leaving mentally ill people to suffer in silence and not to seek help that they deserve.

We need to acknowledge not that ‘it’s ok not to be ok’, but to get away from these contrasts of being ok, or being normal and, their damaging opposites of being not ok or abnormal. Between sufferers and well those who call them sufferers. Offering support, giving chances to talk, and acknowledging that we all suffer in all kinds of ways need to become the norm. Forcing our own opinion or cure on anyone, as the Jailer’s Daughter’s case teaches us is violent, arrogant, and results finally in violence not reaching out. Better rather that we are silent and allow others to speak, to voice their pain. Showing compassion and love is worth a thousand hodgepodge pieces or advice or attempted cures. It is not for us to say what is real or painful, what is normal or ok, but simply for us to open our arms and hearts in quiet solidarity and support, for mental illness touches us all.


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
This entry was posted in Shakespeare in the News and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Perchance to Speak

  1. Pingback: Perchance to Speak | The Shakespeare Standard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s