Separate Theaters: Bethlem ("Bedlam") Hospital and the Shakespearean Stage

Separate Theaters: Bethlem ("Bedlam") Hospital and the Shakespearean Stage

Separate Theaters: Bethlem ("Bedlam") Hospital and the Shakespearean Stage

Separate Theaters: Bethlem ("Bedlam") Hospital and the Shakespearean Stage

Synopsis

This book seeks to update the still standard reference on the topic of London's notorious psychiatric hospital, Bethlem, and the Shakespearean stage - Robert Reed's Bedlam on the Jacobean Stage (1953) - by challenging its assumption that Bethlem was a house of horrors that showed its patients to visitors for entertainment, a practice supposedly then depicted on the stage to please primitive tastes. As the recent History of Bethlem has suggested, the hospital was first and foremost a charity, one that showed its patients to elicit alms for the mad poor. Seeing the mad poor living in squalor moved people to give; that some spectators also laughed at this show may complicate, but does not contradict, Bethlem's charitable function. In contrast to our popular understanding of charity, which generally involves the efforts of the givers to at least mask any feelings of contempt for recipients, early modern charitable impulses coexisted easily with a clear disgust for and a- willingness to laugh at the recipients of charity.

Excerpt

In act four of Ben Jonson's Epicoene (1609), lady haughty EXplains that in order to be accepted into the “College” of fine ladies, Epicoene must go with the current members to “Bedlam, to the Chinahouses, and to the Exchange”(4.3.23). Jonson is a crucial figure for this study, but I open with his language simply because it frequently has been used to construct the most common understanding of the relationship between London’s notorious psychiatric hospital, Bethlem (“Bedlam”), and the stage: the hospital was some sort of theater, a place of perverse and sometimes fashionable entertainment for Londoners, and the practice of visiting and viewing the mad for amusement was depicted or alluded to in a number of plays between 1598 and 1630 such as Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s The Honest Whore, Part One (1605), William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1601), Hamlet (1601), and King Lear (1606), Dekker and John Webster’s Northward Ho (1607), Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1612/14), Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling (1622), John Fletcher’s The Pilgrim (1622), and John Ford’s The Lover’s Melancholy (1628).

Based largely on the fact that Jonson and a few other playwrights referred to visitation as recreation, many early modern scholars have assumed nothing more was involved in this cultural practice in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. For example, the quietly influential work my book seeks to update and deepen—Robert Reed’s Bedlam on the Jacobean Stage (1952)—treats Bethlem as perverse entertainment throughout. More recently, historian Michael MacDonald, in his widely read Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England (1981) calls Bethlem “the longest running show in London.” in discussing the tendency to call Bethlem a theater, Steven Mullaney, in the popular The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (1988), writes “the theatrical metaphor is hardly inappropriate . . .

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