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Bedlam at the Globe Theatre

The Archives & Museum was recently visited by the cast of the forthcoming production at Shakespeare’s Globe, Bedlam. Playwright, Nell Leyshon, covered her own visit in an article in The Evening Standard: interestingly her conclusions bore remarkable similarity to those of the Illustrated London News correspondent who visited Bethlem in 1860. Remarking on what he saw as evident progress in the Hospital since the eighteenth century, this could do little to fill “the vast abyss of human mental misery.”

We should remember that the progress remarked on in 1860 reflected much wider changes – in medical treatment (with the declining popularity of bleeding and purging as a standard response to both physical and mental disease), and the growth of the county asylum system, and an increasingly bureaucratic and professionalised mental health field. For some, however, seemingly outdated treatments continued popular: in 1860, one 38 year old housewife at Bethlem demanded to be cupped and bled “as the only means to relieve the distress of her head.” The medical officers did not comply with her requests.

Yet, it seems fitting that Leyshon’s play reflects the use of the word ‘Bedlam’ in the Globe’s heyday. In the 1600s, the term entered popular parlance as a general term for insanity, chaos or riotousness, as well as referring specifically to the Hospital and its former inmates. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar disguises himself as a “Tom o’ Bedlam,” a common term to refer to former inmates who might subsequently become wandering vagrants, while the Hospital itself appeared in the early Jacobean satire, Northward Ho, written by Thomas Dekker and John Webster. Such plays tend to provide romanticised or exaggerated views of asylums and the mad, for dramatic effect, humour, social commentary or political allegory. They provide better insights into the fears and obsessions at large in the world outside the hospital, than they do about conditions that actually obtained inside it. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.