Shakespeare and The Madness of Sin

‘Oh that way madness lies; let me shun that’ – King Lear

William Shakespeare was undoubtedly a literary genius. His plays are full of beauty, profundity, and charm. He can also be described as a genius in psychology. He understood people and he had great insights into the workings of the human mind.  His plays have lasted the test of time not just due to the eloquence and beauty of his writing, but mainly due to how they describe the realities of life, especially the sorrows, tragedies, and moral dilemmas inherent in it.  They shine a spotlight on the inner workings of the human mind, with Shakespeare skilfully showing his central characters grappling with their conscience in many of his plays.  Modern audiences today are still fascinated and entertained by the fantastic artistry and sheer depth of Shakespeare’s plays. However, it appears that the lessons that Shakespeare tries to teach us through his plays are often missed by modern men. This is particularly true when it comes to the intimate relationship between madness and sin.

                     Take, for example, one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, ‘MacBeth’, and particularly act five, scene three.  Here, Shakespeare provides a vivid image of the relationship between madness and sin. Previous to this scene, MacBeth and Lady MacBeth have been installed as King and Queen of Scotland after they have plotted and committed the murder of the previous king, Duncan. They have also murdered a nobleman of Scotland who suspected their crime and the wife and child of another nobleman they suspect of disloyalty. Lady MacBeth has been observed by a doctor sleepwalking. While sleepwalking she has been trying to wash her hands of blood that she imagines is on them.  The doctor is giving MacBeth his assessment of his wife:

DOCTOR

Not so sick, my lord,

As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies

That keep her from her rest.

MACBETH

Cure her of that.

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?

DOCTOR

Therein the patient

Must minister to himself.

                      MacBeth goes on to ask the doctor to try to cure his country of the disease that has come upon it, which has culminated in the English, led by Duncan’s son, Malcolm, invading Scotland:

MACBETH

Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it…

If thou couldst, doctor, cast

The water of my land, find her disease,

And purge it to a sound and pristine health,

I would applaud thee to the very echo,

That should applaud again…

What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug,

Would scour these English hence? Hear’st thou of them?

                      Like MacBeth we are often desperately searching for a solution to the madness and disorder that besets our minds or that of family members or that of our country. The doctor makes MacBeth aware that there is no medical cure for Lady MacBeth’s madness as he suspects that it is caused by a guilty conscience. Like those today who want an easy fix and a ‘pill for every ill’ MacBeth is annoyed by the doctor’s response when he provides no medical solution (‘Throw physic, i.e. medicine, to the dogs’). In an earlier scene the doctor acknowledges that Lady MacBeth’s condition needs to be treated by a priest, i.e. ‘a divine’, not a doctor.  ‘Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles. Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets. More needs she the divine than the physician.’ This is exactly what we do not want to hear today. Yet, there is a deep sense within us that the cleansing of one’s conscience through divine means is the only cure. For example, it does not shock the audience that Lady MacBeth is experiencing distress as we know she has encouraged and collaborated in murders. This reaction resonates with and makes sense to us. We also see it as madness and vicious folly on MacBeth’s part not to acknowledge and take responsibility for bringing the English invasion to Scotland. We know that actions have consequences. Shakespeare masterfully outlines the madness of trying to run from one’s conscience and justice. Amidst the entertainment of Shakespeare’s plays, these lessons are there for all to see.

                       In another of Shakespeare’s plays, ‘King Lear’, we find another example of this relationship between sin and madness. It is found in Edgar, who fleeing for his life, has disguised himself as a homeless mad man.  This is his answer to King Lear’s question to Edgar, ‘what hast thou been?’:

EDGAR:

A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair,

wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress’ heart

and did the act of darkness with her,

swore as many oaths as I spake words

and broke them in the sweet face of heaven

—one that slept in the contriving of lust

and waked to do it. Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly,

and in woman outparamoured the Turk.

False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand

—hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness,

dog in madness, lion in prey. Let not the creaking of shoes

nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman.

Keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets,

thy pen from lenders’ books, and defy the foul fiend.

Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind, says, “Suum, mun, nonny.”

Dauphin my boy, my boy, cessez. Let him trot by.’

                            Edgar says that he used to be an honourable man (‘a servingman, proud in heart and mind’) but he went mad after committing all sorts of sins. For example, he was slothful (‘hog in sloth’), sneaky (‘fox in stealth’), lecherous (‘in woman outparamoured the Turk’), and was hooked on wine and gambling (‘wine loved I deeply, dice dearly’).  Eventually he says that he went mad and he now ends up pretending to talk to an imaginary horse! – ‘Suum, mun, nonny.’  King Lear and others believe Edgar’s story as it is logical. King Lear is aware that rash and foolish behaviour has bad effects, which he tragically learns more deeply as the play progresses. The audience, whether in Shakespeare’s time or our own, also know that actions must have consequences, e.g. if the passions are let loose madness ensues, one cannot run from a guilty conscience, etc. Shakespeare’s plays are masterpieces displaying one of the fundamental rules of life, i.e. actions have consequences. It is the skilful, rich and brilliant imagery and stories built around this simple and fundamental truth that makes Shakespeare so satisfying and ageless.   

                              Shakespeare clearly understood the consequences of leading a life of sin or committing grievously sinful acts.  This intimate relationship between madness and sin was also clear to his audience. This understanding still resonates with us today. Anyone with a half sensitive conscience understands why the doctor cannot treat Lady MacBeth and how letting one’s passions get the upper hand on you, like Edgar’s story, can lead to madness and lunacy.  It only appears just to us that guilty blood cannot be washed so easily from one’s hands and that a life of lust and treachery leads to one’s demise.  Yet, it appears that, for the vast majority of us, these vivid and powerful representations are mere light entertainment.  We do not think on them deeply or apply them to our own lives. While the words may resonate with us for a few brief moments the lesson Shakespeare is trying to portray passes quickly from our mind.  This is clear when one looks at the current treatments we reach out for when we experience distress. 

‘Some sweet oblivious antidote…’

                               Take a look at the poor souls who go to medical doctors to ‘pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart’.  Some of these people are trying to run from a restless conscience while others genuinely believe that their problems are caused by a supposed chemical imbalance. Unlike the wise doctor in Shakespeare’s play who clearly recognises the limitations of medicine and understands that problems of conscience are not within his field of expertise, many doctors today, particularly psychiatrists, believe that their drugs can treat almost all problems of the mind.

                                 It is also clear that most psychological professionals today do not heed Edgar’s advice to ‘defy the foul fiend’, i.e. resist the devil, but rather encourage their clients to embrace the devil and his evil temptations, e.g. homosexuality, abortion, as I have written about elsewhere (see here and here). Many even mistake the cure, i.e. the Truth/Catholic Faith, as the disease and would try to purge it from Ireland’s shores so as to bring it back to what they imagine would be ‘clean and pristine health’.  Like MacBeth who ignores his own guilty conscience in searching for a disease and the cure for it outside of himself, the vast majority of psychological professionals today ignore the root cause of all disease, i.e. Original Sin and their own actual sins, and precede to launch war on the cure itself.  What mad and tragic folly these ‘professionals’ persist in!

‘The patient must minister to himself’

                                Thankfully, to cure ourselves of madness or to avoid madness in the first place, much of the work is down to ourselves. Many professionals claim to be able to fix your problems, but they are often the ones diseased themselves. They have failed to remove the beams from their own eyes before trying to fix the eyesight of others. As the doctor says in Lady MacBeth’s case, ‘the patient must minister to himself’. This involves looking in the mirror so that we see ourselves clearly. In addition to this, it involves finding the right physician. In the vast majority of cases of psychological disease these physicians are physicians of the soul, i.e. ‘divines’/priests, who can administer the necessary remedy, i.e. absolution after a contrite Confession (See footnote). Good and holy priests can also give the guidance needed and they can encourage us to maintain a strong sacramental and prayer life to help us ‘defy the foul fiend’. These remedies are also what our lands need if we are ‘to purge [them] to a sound and pristine health’.

                                 So, let us learn from that genius who was William Shakespeare. Let us not look for medical solutions when it is obviously not a medical issue but a matter of one’s conscience. Let us not search for answers from those who are more blind than ourselves and would advise us to befriend the devil. Let us not look for solutions to our country’s ills that ignore or attack the truth. Instead, let us humbly pray to God to cure us and our lands of the madness of sin and direct us toward the wise experts and curative remedies we need.

God bless

Footnote: It is important to find a priest who knows the faith, loves virtue, detests sin, and understands the dangers of psychiatry and modern psychology.  These are hard to find today as the vast majority of priests have gotten with the world or ‘with the times’ and many have lost the Faith or, at the very least, have lost confidence in the importance of their vocation and do not understand its significance. Reliable priests are generally found amongst those who only offer the Traditional Latin Mass. I have touched on this previously, see here.

Not Recognising Ourselves in the Mirror

Wickedness is fearful, it beareth witness of its condemnation: for a troubled conscience always forecasteth grievous things.’ – Wisdom 17:10

There comes a time in everyone’s life where we catch glimpses of the true state of our life and our soul. It is reflected in the angst of modern popular music where singers describe not being able to recognise themselves in the mirror. For example, the popular Irish singer-songwriter Mick Flannery in his song, ‘Keepin’ Score’ sings, ‘I pass the mirror, and I look into my eyes, And I see a man there that I do not recognize’ and the popular English band ‘You Me at Six’ sing, ‘Just got the mirror on the way out, Don’t recognize myself anymore now’. (‘Fast Forward’). This experience is also reflected across mental health forums and groups where many people who are having psychological issues report this ‘not recognising oneself’ phenomenon. (A quick internet search using the term ‘I do not recognise myself’ reveals the extent of this angst in our current times). These moments can be full of agony and turmoil. Yet, these glimpses can give us insight into the path we are on. They are often wake up calls about the reality of our lives. They can be a manifestation of our conscience and often show us things that we would rather not see. Sometimes, they are not just glimpses, but clear illuminations of the state of our souls. They sometimes give us an insight into the state of our souls almost as clearly as the changing portrait of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s novel (See footnote 1).

So, what do we do when we catch these glimpses of truth in our reflections? The immediate option might be to run from the image we have seen of ourselves or we may wish to hide away from it or cover it up. But eventually as Dorian Gray realises, this running and hiding from his true reflection only leads to his own demise. So, what can one do when one catches a glimpse of an unrecognisable figure in the mirror?

Yet, before we answer this question, we must acknowledge a simple and clear reality:

The Reality of Conscience:

In our world, multiple erroneous, pseudointellectual, and irrational theories have arisen to explain consciousness and conscience. To these questions about consciousness and conscience, one either receives illogical and irrational answers or theorists ignore these questions altogether and build their false theories about human beings on a foundation of sand. G K Chesterton points out, in his biography on ‘St Thomas Aquinas’, how a science about man that does not answer fundamental questions about man cannot be considered a science: ‘It is necessary to know whether [man] is responsible or irresponsible, perfect or imperfect, perfectible or unperfectible, mortal or immortal, doomed or free: not in order to understand God, but in order to understand man. Nothing that leaves these things under a cloud of religious doubt can possibly pretend to be a Science of Man…Has a man free will; or is his sense of choice an illusion? Has he a conscience, or has his conscience any authority; or is it only the prejudice of the tribal past? Is there any real hope of settling these things by human reason; and has that any authority?…Now it is all nonsense to say that these are unknowable in any remote sense, like the distinction between the Cherubim and the Seraphim, or the Procession of the Holy Ghost.  The Schoolmen [i.e. Scholastic Philosophers] may have shot too far beyond our limits in pursuing the Cherubim and Seraphim. But in asking whether a man can choose or whether a man will die, they were asking ordinary questions in natural history; like whether a cat can scratch or whether a dog can smell. Nothing calling itself a complete Science of Man can shirk them.’ (my emphasis). For hundreds of years, we have been immersed in sciences that have shirked these ordinary and vital questions about man or have explained conscience away as ‘prejudice of the tribal past’. Yet, a little investigation reveals that these questions have been decidedly answered already, especially by the ‘Schoolmen’, i.e. scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages, e.g. St Thomas Aquinas, thus establishing a complete ‘Science of Man’. (See footnote 2)

The Importance of Conscience

If conscience is certain, leaves no doubt, and shows clearly what should be done, it must be followed. What it commands must be done; what it forbids must be omitted; what it allows may be done or omitted.’ – Professor Charles A. Dubray, ‘Introductory Philosophy’

Our conscience is an essential guide in our path towards true happiness and peace of soul. While it is not infallible and it is not always clear it is often a warning light that alerts us to the dangerous path we are on. Mostly one’s conscience produces occasional sharp glimpses of this lethal path we are on. For example, we are given brief moments when we catch ourselves in the mirror but we do not recognise the person we have become. At other times, it may be more powerful than this. The extent of one’s misery can become as clear as day and, when its commands are followed, rapid change can occur, as happened to Blessed Villana de Botti, whose early life was full of vice and vanity:  ‘One night Villana was preparing for an entertainment of unwonted splendour.  She was dressed with all the sumptuous extravagance of the times; jewels sparkled in her hair, on her arms, on her very shoes.  Before leaving her room, she went to cast one parting glance the mirror. But, instead of the dazzling image of her own beauty, a horrible spectacle met her eyes. God had permitted that the deformity of the soul within should become visible on the outward person. Her hair, bound with gold and jewelled chains, she beheld transformed into a mass of coiled and venomous serpents; her fair face was darkened into that of a hideous negro; her eyes were red and fiery, and, instead of her beautiful mouth and ivory teeth, there grinned the open jaws of a monster of hell.  Then Villana’s heart opened to know where and whence she had fallen. She tore the jewels from her hair and left her palace, not for the gay entertainment that awaited her, but for the neighbouring church of the Dominicans, where, flinging herself at the feet of a holy Friar, she made, amidst tears of contrition, the confession of her life.’ (‘Short Lives of the Dominican Saints’, ed. Fr John Proctor). At other times, one’s conscience is pricked by those who hold up mirrors to ourselves. For example, in the life of St John Bosco, it is related how a person tried to rob him. St. John Bosco humbly asked the thief why he would resort to such a thing knowing it was against his conscience. The thief, seeing the reality of the words that this great saint spoke, ceased his efforts and, instead of trying to rob St John Bosco, he asked him for confession. (‘St John Bosco: Seeker of Souls’ by F. A. Forbes). Our conscience is a useful guide and simply acknowledging its counsels and following them can be the best advice that can be given to a person. This is reflected in the words of advice of St. Bernard to his wayward nephew, Robert, ‘Listen to your conscience, examine your intentions, consider the facts.’ (‘St Bernard of Clairvaux: As Seen Through His Selected Letters’, translated by Rev. Bruno Scott James).  But we must humbly ‘consider the facts’ so that there is no doubt in our conscience and it becomes clear what should be done. So, let us look at the facts explaining what a good conscience is so that we can safely listen to and follow it. First, we will look at the potential obstacles to the formation of a good conscience.

The Fallibility And Persistence of One’s Conscience:

Our conscience can err. What we occasionally catch glimpses of in the mirror may not be as hideous nor as beautiful as we believe it to be. We may see ourselves as more deplorable, helpless, and hopeless than we actually are or we may see ourselves as more beautiful, righteous, and noble than we actually are.  Many of us who seek the truth also desire to know the truth about ourselves. We want answers to the glimpses we see of ourselves. There is a sense that we have caught a glimpse of something within ourselves that may be true, but it has frightened, perplexed, or frozen us. Even hedonistic distractions and keeping ourselves constantly busy cannot shake the memory of what we saw. Like Dorian Gray we may try to hide these images away, but we cannot do so without them coming back to haunt us.

‘Escapism never succeeds. In every sinner whose frustrations and neuroses are due to a burdened conscience, there is a latent contradiction. He is pulled in two directions. He is not so much at ease with sin as to be able to make it his definite vocation, nor, on the other hand, is he so much in love with God, as to disavow his faults.’ – Bishop Fulton Sheen, ‘Peace of Soul’

We can try out all sorts of medications to correct a supposed ‘chemical imbalance’ when it may very well be the voice of our conscience speaking to us. We can bounce from one type of therapy or treatment to another, yet that restlessness remains. We can try to justify our vices, but a part of us knows our justifications are mere excuses. Instead of pursuing the higher path and the virtuous life we often try to cover up our failings and pursue lower, more base pleasures. If one who is called to the religious life engages in this sort of behaviour it has all sorts of hideous consequences as Fr Eugene Boylan points out, ‘If [the religious] try to find peace in the pursuit of some lower pleasure, he soon finds that he must go to extremes to try to drown the prickings of his conscience and the pangs of that deep-seated hunger of his higher self that can find no food in such folly, and so his days are full of ever-growing misery.’ (‘Difficulties in Mental Prayer’) (This goes some way to explain why once priests fall into vice they can fall into such scandalous perversion). Now, all of us can engage in all sorts of depravity to sedate the conscience so much so that we can resemble the voice of lost souls who no longer even glimpse happiness, ‘Where is happiness?’ and his warped conscience answers, ‘There is no happiness.’ (Dom Anscar Vonier, ‘The Human Soul and its Relations with Other Spirits’). Yet, in this life, the voice of conscience remains, however dimly felt it might have become. There is still the sense that ‘I am not all that I should be’. The teachings of the Catholic Faith and the lives of the saints provide the external guides to what we should be. The voice of, a still sensitive, conscience provides some further internal guidance as to what we should and should not be. Yet, it is fallible so how do we know when to assent to the reality it hints at?

In order that conscience may be a safe rule and criterion, its judgements must be a reflex of the divine judgements. It must show us to ourselves such as we really are, and appear to the eyes of God Himself. It must be like a balance which corresponds to the recognised standard of weight; like a clock which marks faithfully the passing moments of time, like a thermometer which indicates accurately the degrees of heat and cold.’ – R. J. Meyer, S. J., ‘The Science of the Saints’

As I have related in other articles, if we need help in calibrating our conscience, we should seek counsel from wise authorities rather than just any authority. We must go to those who have expert knowledge on matters of conscience just as we would seek medical advice from those who have medical expertise. As Professor Dubray explains, ‘In the same way that, if I do not see, I may rely on, and be guided by, those who do, and that my eyes be treated by the oculist, and my errors corrected by others or by my own deeper study and reflection, so my moral judgement may be based on another man’s authority, changed, improved, and corrected.’ (‘Introductory Philosophy’). We must seek guidance from people who understand the truth about what man is and what man should be. We should avoid those who flatter or placate us with ‘sweet, little lies.’ We should make efforts to avoid deceiving our conscience by listening to vain babblings or sophisticated pseudo-intellectual arguments which justify our vices and sinful ways. Rather, with the help of God, we should look at ourselves in the mirror and tackle what we see there. We must ask God to give us the fortitude to see ourselves clearly. With Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, author of the classic book, ‘Divine Intimacy’, we can pray to God that He ‘take away from my conscience the mask of vain, pitiful excuses which prevents me from seeing myself as You see me and know me, as I really am in Your eyes.’ We, like Blessed Villana, must count it as a grace to see the truth about ourselves and, like her, we can respond to this grace in a humble and contrite manner (See footnote 3).

‘I endeavour to have always a conscience without offence towards God, and towards men.’ – St. Paul (Acts 24: 16)

When we seek counsel, we must be wary of who we trust with this difficult but essential task. As St Bernard advised his wayward nephew, ‘If sinners shall entice you, consent not to them. Believe not every spirit. Be at peace with many, but let one in a thousand be your counsellor. Gird yourself, cast off your seducers, shut your eyes to flatterers.’ Yet, there are those who can help us on our way to ‘a conscience without offence towards God, and towards men.’ There are those who will direct us towards the real solutions when we are faced with a confused, perplexed, or rattled conscience, i.e. when we do not recognise ourselves in the mirror. This can often take the form of a wise and loving friend or a pious and knowledgeable family member or a prudent and holy priest or you may find some assistance in the service that I offer here. Whoever it may be, may they help you on the straight and narrow path.

Finally, may you receive the grace to see yourself clearly in the mirror. May you succeed in your efforts to inform, understand, and follow your conscience and may charity, peace of soul and liberty of spirit be the fruits of these efforts.

God bless

Footnote 1: This piece (see here: https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/art/the-long-conversion-of-oscar-wilde.html) by Andrew McCracken provides more information on Oscar Wilde’s novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, which he describes as a ‘portrayal of a sensitive man numbing himself to all feeling for others, of an ego turning monstrous, of a soul choosing evil.’  He shows the close relations between this novel and Wilde’s own life, which appears to have ended in a much happier way than the main character in his novel.

Footnote 2: For further insight into the scholastic understandings about conscience and for a more detailed analysis of conscience, see: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04268a.htm

Footnote 3: Like Blessed Villana, and despite of the difficult times we find ourselves in, may we follow this grace that reveals the truth about the state of our soul and seek out the Sacrament of Confession/Penance. ‘Penance, as a virtue and as a Sacrament, has for is object and effect the blotting out of our faults, the eradication of sin, and the purifying of the conscience, so that grace may reign and bring forth fruit in the soul from the pure motive of pleasing God.’ (Fr Genelli, ‘The Life of St Ignatius of Loyola’) (My emphasis)