The Touch of God or Divine Punishment
Differing views of the mentally ill in the 16th century
Deborah A. Hudspeth
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By looking at the primary evidence that survives from the 16th century we can gain an understanding of the variety of attitudes toward mental illness that existed at the time. There is a stark contrast between the portrayals of mental illness in Shakespeare’s plays and in the historical records of the rule of Tsar Ivan IV in Russia. Shakespeare was writing in England in the later half of the 16th and the early 17th centuries; Ivan “the Terrible” ruled from 1530 to 1584.

During Ivan IV’s rule it was considered sacrilegious to harm “holy fools” because they were believed to be touched by God; they possessed the divine gift of prophecy. These holy fools were referred to as “Yurodivees” and were usually destitute wanderers who could be found roaming the country barefoot in all kinds of weather.

Designation as a Yurodivee carried the protection of the Tsar. In one story Tsar Ivan IV abstained from punishing a man who had said offensive things to him because only a madman would have had the temerity to speak to the king in such a manner. Political dissenters often used this policy; by masquerading as madmen they were able to safely spread their political views.

Literature often provides a window into the thinking of a society; Shakespeare’s plays explore the issues that were important at his time. Mental illness figures largely in many of his plays; he represents it as divine punishment for crimes committed on earth- the legacy of a tortured psyche. Othello commits suicide after he kills his wife in a fit of jealousy. Lady Macbeth has hallucinations of blood on her hands after she murders the king. King Lear goes mad when he realizes that he has spurned the only daughter who really loves him. Though these and other Shakespearean characters are mentally complex and offer an interesting view of the human psyche they do not give an accurate portrait of mental illness as we know it today.

It is obvious that at any given time in history varying ideas of mental illness were in play. Today there is still confusion and stigma surrounding the idea of being mentally ill; only by exploring our history and educating those around us can we move into an age of understanding and acceptance.
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