Early modern drama offers a theatricalization of medical discourses which mirrors the impetus of a whole set of different practices and approaches towards medicine in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Contemporary scientific texts, together with translations of classical writings, while improving medical knowledge also provided a rich source of stageable material for playwrights both at court and in public theatres. Theories about “passions”, “perturbations” and “afflictions” of the mind, in fact, were disseminated in numerous medical texts – such as those by Philip Barrough, Robert Burton Levinus Lemnius, B. A., and Thomas Wright – which attempted to investigate the nature of these pathologies by providing both their classification and aetiology. By taking into account the discourse of mental illness and its multifaceted aspects, this essay aims at examining how such contentious theme has been explored and shaped in some Renaissance plays by Shakespeare, Webster and Middleton, with reference to the language they employed. The focus will be set upon verbal insane utterances alongside metaphors of insanity. Both the literal and figurative levels through which madness is signified onstage will be investigated in a few plays where they are foregrounded. Special attention will be devoted to the construction of a ‘language of distraction’ according to 1) the use of syntactically and semantically disjointed speeches as symptomatic of a real or feigned mental deviance, and 2) the imagery of mental disease as a means to indicate social and political corruption as well as sexual perversion.
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