Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Fluid Economies: Portraying Shakespeare's Hysterics

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Fluid Economies: Portraying Shakespeare's Hysterics

Article excerpt

Rather than adopting the psychoanalytic construct of "hysteria," this essay examines how hysterical pathology is defined according to early modern medical and cultural contexts and how it is represented in Shakespeare's plays. Looking at nineteenth-century paintings as metaphors, the essay renders visible the Shakespearean hysteric lost to history.

Long explained and interpreted by historians of medicine, medical practitioners, and psychoanalytic theorists, hysteria has only recently been recognized as a subject fit for cultural studies. We can trace the exploration of hysteria's cultural tradition to feminist responses to Freud's seminal case history of Dora, and we can see it culminating in such recent (1990s) publications as Hysteria beyond Freud (Gilman et al.). While the latter volume collects essays from a variety of periods, beginning with Helen King's discussion of the Hippocratic corpus, its primary focus is nineteenth- and twentieth-century medical and cultural history. Although the work contains two important essays considering the medical history of hysterical illness before Freud, its essential project is to consider the legacy of Freud's mark upon hysteria and hysteria's influence upon largely nineteenth- and twentieth-century culture beyond Freud. In this way, the volume is largely representative of the critical impulse behind contemporar y hysteria studies as a whole.

Comprehensive diachronic medical histories of hysteria do exist, with Ilza Veith's influential Hysteria: The History of a Disease still standing as critics' most relevant reference work, even though its accuracy has frequently been questioned (see Micale; King). Veith, however, is a medical historian unconcerned with the implications of the culturally inscribed theories of hysteria that she relates. Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: Introduction leads us to the powerfully influential statement for literary historicists that "a hysterization of women's bodies" was one of the "four great strategic unities which, beginning in the eighteenth century, formed specific mechanisms of knowledge and power centering on sex" (103-04). In keeping with the significant influence that Foucault's inaccurate pronouncement has had as a limiting force, hysterical pathology is rarely investigated as a socio-medical and literary construct before the eighteenth century.

As G.S. Rousseau points out, "While a study of the medicalization of the imagination in the Renaissance and Enlightenment is badly needed, a study of the transformations of the image of 'the mother,' construed literally and metaphorically, visually and iconograpically also remains a desideratum" (197 n. 99). The multifaceted "desideratum" that Rousseau identifies in Renaissance studies is the scope of my essay. English early modern medical and creative literature persistently features female characters identified as hysterical, and it is this habit of characterization to which I bring attention. While the hysterical female character in Renaissance literature frequently may share a similar set of physically represented behaviours of the body--tics, convulsions, syncopes, and traits--with the later patients of Charcot and Freud, the early modern representation of hysterical illness in its multiple forms is not limited to the performance of the symptoms of hysteria. Nor, as King cautions us, may we even underst and "hysterical" and "hysteria," with their different etiologies, as one and the same malady along a historical continuum. Thus, it is important to distinguish early modern medical theory's understanding of the causes of the disease from the neurological and psychosomatic models of hysteria inaugurated in the late seventeenth century (see Veith; Gilman, Hysteria). Indeed, today the term hysteria is associated with Charcot's and then Freud's theories of repressed female sexuality as Freud presented them first in the case history of Dora. Freud's "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" sets out his complex definition of hysteria as a psychosomatic disease manifested by literal, physical symptoms caused by repressed sexual emotions, a theory that he refined in subsequent publications. …

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