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Body-conscious Shakespeare: sensory disturbances in troubled characters
  1. Kenneth W Heaton1,2
  1. 1Department of Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  2. 2Department of English, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Kenneth W Heaton, Claverham House, Streamcross, Claverham, N Somerset, BS49 4QD, UK; kwh{at}theheatons.org.uk

Abstract

It is widely accepted that Shakespeare was unique in the range of his insights into the human mind, but the way his characters reveal their mental states through bodily sensations has not been systematically explored. The author has searched for these phenomena in the 42 major works of Shakespeare and in 46 genre-matched works by his contemporaries, and in this paper the author focuses on sensory changes other than those involving vision, taste, the heart and the alimentary tract (all considered in other papers). Vertigo is experienced by five distressed Shakespearean characters, all men, but not at all by the other writers' characters. Breathlessness, probably representing hyperventilation, occurs eleven times in Shakespeare's works but only twice in the other writers' works. Fatigue, expressing grief, is articulated by several Shakespearean characters including Hamlet. It features less often in the others' works. Deafness at a time of high emotion is mentioned by Shakespeare several times but usually by a character ‘turning a deaf ear’, consciously or unconsciously. To the other writers, ears show emotion only by burning or itching. Blunting of touch and pain and their opposites of hypersensitivity to touch and pain are all to be found in Shakespeare's works when a character is distressed or excited, but not so with his contemporaries' works. Faint feelings and cold feelings are also more common in the works of Shakespeare. Overall, therefore, Shakespeare was exceptional in his use of sensory disturbances to express emotional upset. This may be a conscious literary device or a sign of exceptional awareness of bodily sensations.

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Footnotes

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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