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Welcome to Episode 183 of That Shakespeare Life the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best. 

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI part II, Lord Clifford exclaims, “To Bedlam with him! Is the man grown mad?” That’s from Act V Scene 1. This use of the word Bedlam both as a place associated with madness, is because there was a real Bedlam Hospital within steps of The Curtain and Globe theaters where this play was performed in the 16th century and that hospital specialized in the care for the insane. Bedlam Hospital was a psychiatric hospital in early modern London. It was founded in the mid-13th century in service to the Church of Bethlehem, as a house for the poor. By the time Henry VIII gave administrative control of Bedlam to the city of Bethlem in 1547, it had become a hospital for the nation’s mentally ill and specifically those who were considered violent or dangerous. Initially, the term “Bedlam” was an informal namebut by the time Shakespeare was writing about Bedlam in Henry VI Part II, the word “bedlam” was part of everyday speech, defined as madness or chaos. In addition to Shakespeare’s 8 uses of “bedlam” across his works, Bedlam Hospital itself was staged in many early modern plays including The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, and Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson, among many others during the early 1600s. One potential reason for the popularity of using Bedlam in early modern plays can be attributed to the display of insane people that began in London in 1576 as a way to raise money for the hospital. Bedlam Hospital continues in operation today as a psychiatric hospital, with one of their specialist services including the National Psychosis Unit. 

Here today to help us understand the history of Bedlam Hospital and what it is important to know when we see Shakespeare referencing this hospital in his plays is our guest, Duncan Salkeld.

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Duncan Salkeld about: 

  • In terms of physical location, how far away from theaters like The Globe or The Curtain in London was Bedlam Hospital?
  • In 1598, an oversight committee inspected Bedlam Hospital and found 21 inmates, with only two having been admitted that previous year. London was considerably smaller in the 16-17th century than it is today, but proportionately, it was still a large city and this number of patients seems incredibly small. Why weren’t there more patients? 
  • In 1610, Lord Percy, English aristocrat, is recorded paying 10 shillings to walk through Bedlam Hospital to observe the insane. His visit is within striking distance of Dekker and Middleton’s The Honest Whore, which was published in 1604 and uses Bedlam as a setting for that play. Was visiting the hospital to watch the insane patients in their rooms considered a form of entertainment in Shakespeare’s lifetime and was there a connection between this public display and the theater? 

….and more!

Duncan Salkeld is Professor Emeritus of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at the University of Chichester, and Visiting Professor at The University of Roehampton. He is author of three monographs: Madness and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Manchester University Press, 1993), Shakespeare Among the Courtesans: Prostitution, Literature and Drama 1500-1650 (Ashgate, 2012), and Shakespeare and London (Oxford UP, 2018). He is also the author of numerous articles and book chapters. He runs specialist online courses in early modern palaeography. Contact Duncan directly for information on those classes. 

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • 17th century depiction, thought to be either the Curtain Theatre or The Theatre
  • Part of William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress,1735, portraying a scene at Bethlem Hospital in the 18th century
  • Title page of Helkiah Crooke’s Microcosmographia, 1615: Featuring the work of Crooke, appointed keeper-physician to Bethlem Hospital in 1619.
  • The new Bethlem Hospital, designed by Robert Hooke in 1676 as a fundraising piece
  • Late seventeenth-century map showing the placement of the new Bethlem Hospital in Moorfields, North London
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Resources Duncan Salkeld Recommends:

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