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Home > Public Resources > Trauma Blog > 2015 - October > Trauma and World Literature: Grief, Not Madness: Insights from Shakespeare

Trauma and World Literature: Grief, Not Madness: Insights from Shakespeare

October 27, 2015

From Shakespeare’s King John Act III Scene 4

In this scene Constance, learning that her son has been captured and will surely be murdered, speaks:

France: Patience, good lady! Comfort, gentle Constance!

Constance: No I defy all counsel, all redress
But that which ends all counsel, true redress,
Death, death, O amiable lovely death!
Thou odoriferous stench! Sound rottenness!
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones,
And put my eyeball in thy vaulty brows
And ring these fingers with thy household worms,
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust,
And be carrion monster like thyself.
Come grin on me, and I will think thou smil’st
And buss thee as thy wife. Misery’s love
O, come to me!

France: Lady, you utter madness and not sorrow.

Constance: Thou art not holy to belie me so.
I am not mad. This hair I tear is mine;
My name is Constance; I was Geffrey’s wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost.
I am not mad. I would to heaven I were!
For then ‘tis like I should forget myself.
O, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canoniz’d, Cardinal;
For, being not mad, but sensible in grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver’d of these woes
And teaches me to kill or hang myself.
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he.
I am not mad. Too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.

A little later she says

…There was not such a gracious creature born….
Must I never hold my pretty Arthur more!
     
Pand: You hold too heinous a respect of grief.
     
Constance: He talks to me that never had a son.
     
France: You are as fond of your grief as of your child.
     
Constance: Grief fills the room up of my absent child:
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me.
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts.
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
There have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well. Had you a loss such as I,
I would give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head  

{Tears her hair]

When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! My boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!

Exit.

Perhaps Shakespeare’s “therapists”, the King of France and the Cardinal are right; perhaps Catherine’s intense emotional reaction is attributable to madness, and if not that, then it must be her perverse affection for her grief. On the other hand, perhaps she is speaking the thoughts that people in her situation are rarely able to articulate or unwilling to share with those who might not be able to hear their pain. If the latter is true, what would keep others from being able to listen? Could it be that they themselves find confrontation with such powerful emotion destabilizing or that they might then believe they have an obligation to act in a way that would be risky for them? These are basic questions that Shakespeare’s work can bring forth; especially to those of us who work with the extremes of human emotional pain.

Thank you to Lynn Lipke, BSN for her thoughts on this contribution.