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.

Staying Sane as Society Goes Insane


The organization of society is intended to aid man, considered formally as a person destined for God, to attain union with Him.’ – ‘The Mystical Body of Christ and the Reorganisation of Society’ – Fr Fahey

To help people on the road to true happiness, society needs to guide and direct people along this path.  First, one must know and identify the destination, i.e. Heaven, and have a good and accurate understanding of what a human being is, i.e. a soul and a body, so we can be guided there safely.  One must identify what helps and what hinders us on this path. 

It is the function of society – or the union of men working together to achieve happiness – to provide the conditions of life in which men can work successfully to attain true happiness…We might say briefly that society provides the peace and the harmony which enable men to work together to attain the common good of all men.’ ‘My Way of Life’ – Frs Farrell & Healy.

The ‘common good’, in the above quote, does not refer to what the majority of people believe to be good but rather what is good objectively.  The ultimate common good remains the same even if all the citizens in a particular nation happen to be unaware or ignorant of it.  Direction towards the common good, which involves the promotion of the virtuous life, is essential for the mind.  The mind is nourished on the truth.  Those who live a life perfectly in accordance with the truth and direct their soul on a straight path towards Heaven live a perfectly happy life (As happy as can be achieved in this valley of tears on earth at any rate).  The lives of the saints who lived lives completely dedicated to knowing, honouring and loving God are the examples of how a life should be lived.  Carol Robinson in her excellent book, ‘My Life with Thomas Aquinas’ describes how ‘the normal man is the hierarchical man, of whom the exemplar is the saint…The saint is the most sane of men, because the concept of sanctity includes perfect sanity.  That is why peace is the fruit of holiness, because peace is defined as the tranquillity of order, which tranquillity consists in all the appetitive movements in one man being set at rest together.’  A society with true happiness/Heaven as the objective for its citizens, i.e. the common good of all, would be ordered in such a way as to promote and encourage sanctity and, therefore, sanity as well.   It would realise that there are many temptations that can pull people away from the straight and narrow path and it would structure itself so the snares of the devil, the corruption of the world and the passions of the flesh would have less chance of gaining an upper hand on people and leading them to their eternal demise.  As Pope St Pius X advised the French Hierarchy, in his Letter on the Sillon, at the start of the twentieth century, ‘The social machinery ought to be so organised as by its natural action to paralyse the efforts of the wicked.’ Social efforts, in this regard, not only protect the soul but they protect the mind as well.

Ireland 2019:

These modern times in Ireland are particularly crazy as the social machinery works against the common good and encourages people to lose both their mind and soul.  The legalization of homosexual ‘marriage’ and ‘abortion’/the killing of innocent babies, have been the two most obvious recent examples of this.  The promotion of vice through TV, internet, advertising, smartphones, and the lack of systematic attempts to stop this, are just more signs of the social machinery working towards the corruption of souls.  This promotion of disorder contributes to people’s passions getting a hold of their reason and minds becoming detached from reality.  Vice and sin have become so much part of the air we breathe that what was once considered evil is, now, considered ‘normal’ or acceptable.  As Fr Ripperger points out, ‘Culturally, in the past, fornication was looked down upon as a great moral and societal evil because of all the evil effects to the individual and society, one of which is the general erosion of morality within a society.  As fornication and sexual licence became more pervasive, the society began finding it difficult to judge fornication as morally evil and today it has virtually no evil connotation at all.  What started out as particular individual difficulties with respect to passions has affected, over the long haul, the universal judgement of society about the evil of fornication in general.’ (‘Introduction to the Science of Mental Health’).  Our society is becoming sicker and sicker and its contagion is spreading.  There are some people pushing back courageously against this contagion at a personal or familial level as they find strategies and ways of keeping themselves and their loved ones safe. For example, parents taking their children out of school and homeschooling them to protect them from corruption.  At a societal level, the battle is being lost and the ‘progressives’ and ‘liberals’ are marching on, while leaving a trail of destruction in their path.  God have mercy on them!

There are some noble efforts to push back against the disorder in society, which usually come from conservative nationalist movements, but these groups must remember the wise words of Pope Leo XIII from his 1888 encyclical on ‘The Right Ordering of Christian Life’, Exeunte Iam Anno, ‘They who strive by the enforcement of law to extinguish the ever-growing flame of popular passions, strive indeed for what is right and just; but they will labour with little or no result so long as they obstinately reject the power of the Gospel and refuse the assistance of the Church.  These evils can be cured only by a change of principles, and by returning in public and private conduct to Jesus Christ and to a Christian rule of life.’  For those who challenge the idea that the Catholic Faith is not the solution to societal ills, Pope Leo XIII replies with these words from St Augustine, ‘Let those who say that the teaching of Christ is hurtful to the State, produce such armies as the maxims of Jesus have enjoined soldiers to bring into being; such governors of provinces; such husbands and wives; such parents and children; such masters and servants; such kings; such judges, and such payers and collectors of tribute, as the Christian teaching instructs them to become, and then let them dare to say that such teaching is hurtful to the State. Nay, rather will they hesitate to own that this discipline, if duly acted up to, is the very mainstay of the commonwealth.’  Unfortunately, Pope Leo XIII’s words fell on many deaf ears during his time. Today, the rot has gotten so bad that one sees the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, attempting to push Catholicism out of health and social policies altogether, tweeting that ‘Religion will not play a role in our health and social policy anymore’. The damage that this is doing and would do will be catastrophic. May he realise the error of his ways before it is too late!

In the midst of the social chaos around us, one could become disheartened and potentially fall into despair.  This service, Truth and Freedom Therapy, acknowledges that there are some natural ways of fortifying yourself against the craziness of the world, e.g. basic healthy nutrition and exercise, getting away from the city and its toxicity, talking to a good Catholic friend or therapist, but it also acknowledges its limitations and knows what it cannot provide.  To keep one’s sanity in the current climate one needs as much grace and supernatural assistance as possible as Don Felix Sarda Y Salvany points out in his brilliant book, ‘Liberalism Is A Sin’, ‘Unless supernaturally fortified and enlightened, human nature under this moral oppression soon gives way to “human respect”’.  The danger of giving into human respect is a huge temptation today with the faithful vastly outnumbered and ridiculed for sticking to the truth.  We need every drop of grace that Our Lord blesses us with.  We need to nourish ourselves on the Faith, reject the world and its madness and give the world what it needs, i.e. the Truth, rather than expecting anything from it.  People who are determined to hold onto the Faith, their reason, and their sanity, face a tricky battle today, but, as Henry Sire points out in his powerful book, ‘Phoenix from the Ashes: The Making, Unmaking and Restoration of Catholic Tradition’, ‘The great missionary successes of the Church have been won by men who had no illusions about the world that they faced, and who knew that their task was to give it the things that it lacked.  Gregory the Great did not patronise armed hordes to show how he could immerse himself in the chaos of his time; he fostered monasticism, a withdrawal from the world that ended by conquering the world.  St. Augustine did not go to England with an obsequious wish to flatter the cult of Thor and Woden; he went to offer it the light of Rome, and by doing so he conquered a nation for Christ.  To know that one faces an unpropitious world does not imply an inability to evangelise it, or despair at doing so.  The Church has never faced such a mortally hostile world as the one that crucified its Saviour, yet the lesson of the crucifixation is that the world is saved in its very hostility.’ 

So, while the social machinery encourages and promotes the efforts of the wicked today, let us not marvel or wonder at the hatred the world has for the truth and those that live it (1 John 3:13). Instead let us acknowledge the reality of the challenge before us and let us ‘be wise as serpents and simple as doves’ (Matthew 10:16) and use these times to sanctify ourselves. 

God bless you in your endeavours. May you respond to and be nourished on the abundant graces He generously offers.